Friday, January 07, 2005

Knowledge and foreknowledge

A line of Paul that has long puzzled me is:
"Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?" (Gal 4:9)

Previously, we can infer, God didn't know us? Isn't God supposed to be all-knowing. There is clearly something strange happening here and it wasn't clear to me what Paul is meaning. Why should he add "or rather to be known by God" as if it is a correction to the previous phrase? It's like saying "Yes, what you think has happened is that you have come to know God, and that's true, but the more important truth is that God has come to know you." But what sense does it make to speak of a God who's all-knowing, gaining knowledge?

But if we think back to Adam, we remember that "Adam knew his wife Eve" (Gen 4:1), where "knew" is used as a euphemism for sex. This reminds us that "know" has uses other than factual knowledge. In english, "knowing" people has to do with the fact that I have a relationship with them, eg I know my friends, I know my family. If I "get to know" a friend, it follows that at the same time they'll "get to know" me.

Now back to Gal 4:9... Paul's emphasis that the "know" relationship between God and man is reciprocal (if man comes to know God, then God comes to know man) shows that he's talking about the relational kind of "knowing" rather than the intellectual kind. Paul's meaning wouldn't be altered if we translated it "you have come to have a relationship with God, or rather God has come to have a relationship with you". Person-person relationships are two ended, hence why Paul can spin it around like this.

Foreknowledge and Predestination

Romans 8:29-30 (those whom God foreknew he also predestined, called, justified, and glorified) has long troubled me, mainly because none of the interpretations I have seen of it have I found particularly convincing. One obvious thing about it is that it's in the past tense. Since all intrepreters think it's talking about a future event, they are forced to say that the past tense is used to indicate the great certainty of the future event. I've read plenty of excuses in my time as an apologist and have a well developed bolax-meter and it goes "ding" everytime I read that explanation. So I was particularly intrigued last night when Reuben suggested to me that the passage is talking about the Old Testament saints, ie its an observation (based on Old Testament scriptures) of what God did in the past with the implication that a similar thing will happen to us. That seems to fit in nicely with Romans 8:28, as the observation there (that we know that through all things God works for good with those who love him whom he calls) seems to be a similar observation from scripture regarding what God has done in the past. But further to this, Reuben had an interesting idea about "foreknew" and so we sat down and pulled out the Greek dictionaries and search tools and it seems to work.

In Acts 26:4-6 Paul speaks to Agrippa:
"All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. 5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now I stand here on trial..."

Guess what the word for "known" is in vs 5.
It's progignwskw, "foreknow" (same word as in Rom 8:29), made from "pro" = earlier, before, in front of; and "gignwskw" = know (this is the same "know" word used above in Galatians 4:9 and Gen 4:1)
Is Paul saying all the Jews had foreknowledge of him?!? I doubt it.

The conclusion Reuben and I have come to regarding what "foreknow" ususally means is this:
The "pro" prefix means "earlier" and refers to an earlier time at which something was known so in a flash-back to time X the "foreknow" refers to any knowledge held at time X. Paul speaks in Acts 26:4-5 of his youth and those who knew him at the time. Since his youth is in the past, they "foreknew" him: At that time in the past they had knowledge of him. In English we would add our word "did" for this purpose and get "did know". Hence Paul is saying "They did know me at the time of my youth".

Look at Rom 11:1-2. Paul says
"I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? "

It makes much better sense to understand the "foreknew" here as relational knowledge at a past time rather than intellectual knowledge of the future.
ie. Paul's saying "God hasn't rejected his people whom he once was in a relationship with" rather than "God hasn't rejected his people whom he could foresee would be his people due to his knowledge of the future". It makes sense to ask the question of whether God has rejected Israel whom He once loved. It doesn't make sense to ask the question of whether God's foreknowledge has gone awry.

A similar train of thought applies to "predestine" = pro-wprisdw = earlier + set apart. (It should be noted that the classical Greek philosophers were big on predestination. Most of them thought all of human life was subject to fate, that everthing was predetermined etc. This word that the Bible uses isn't their word for predestination)

So turning back to Romans 8:29-30
"For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified."

Let's assume this is talking about the OT saints (Abraham, Moses, David etc). It thus says that those in the past that God did know (in a relational sense of "know") during their lives, he did set apart, and called, and justified, and glorified. The implication then would be that now God has come to "know" us (Gal 4:9), we can be assured that what happened to the OT saints will happen to us. Indeed Paul follows with:
"31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?" (Romans 8:31-32)

That explanation seems to me to do a lot more justice to the text (especially the fact that 8:29-30 are in the past tense) than do any other explanations I've seen.

This is not to deny that "foreknow" can't be used in the traditional sense, as it clearly is in 2 Peter 3:17 - there's a flash-forward going on rather than a flash-back, the "earlier knowledge" they have is knowledge in the now which happens to be of the future (I think that is coincidental, as any knowledge they had in the now would be "earlier knowledge" due to it being held in the now as opposed to the future. The fact that the content of the knowledge itself is about the future probably has nothing to do with why it's called "foreknowledge" in the passage).

Edited to remove typo


Blogger incognito said...

Yes, nice. Well explained. I like your concluding sentence also - because most people assume the 'pro' somehow modifies the TYPE of knowledge, rather than the TENSE of the knowledge. If you look at other uses of the prefix 'pro', you'll find is tends to refer to the tense, rather than modifying the meaning of the noun it proceeds.

It does indeed make far more sense to me in this interpretation, and it certainly makes it all require far less dogdy assumptions and explainations - which has to be a good indication.

As I understand, concepts of 'fate' and predestination were around in heathen circles long before Christ. Perhaps these heathen ideas of 'predestination' advocated (for example, by plato, perhaps - I'm guessing here) influenced the later Christian writers as there ideas permiated society. Perhaps this is why why so many theologians around the 4th-6th centuries were so keen to interpret these verses as Calvinistic.

Perhaps, also, the language may have changed - much as English changes even in 150 years, and the connotations of 'progignwskw' could have been lost.

Anyway, good post.

Blogger incognito said...

The scholars who made the CGTS translation wrote
this article
on the aorist. They say it implies a 'fact'... which again makes sense to our argument here.

Blogger Dennis Day said...

In the last several years I have done an extensive study of all the Bible Characters. One of the major points to the study was to find out about Tribes of Israel . This study included researching the contemporaries of the time in secular history, the Hebrew meanings of the the individuals name and trying to find out what was going on in secular history at the time of each Biblical character. You may find this information useful in your own study. You can check this out at .


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