The Foreknowledge of God


     One expression involved in a serious study of the foreknowledge of God is, "from" or "before the foundation of the world." Regarding the great and final judgment scene we read: "Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25: 34). I believe the average, unbiased reader of the verse would understand "from the foundation of the world" (etoimasmenen umin basileian apo kataboles kosmou) to mean that Jesus is saying that the spiritual kingdom was prepared at the time of the physical creation of the world or earth. Jesus was loved of the Father "before the foundation of the world" (Jn. 17: 24). To contend that "before the foundation of the world" simply means before the age of the gospel is to strip the language of its significant meaning. However, some believe the expression not only does not mean from the creation of the physical earth, but that "foundation of the world" cannot mean such. To them this would not only mean that God possessed such knowledge from the time He formed the world, in the case of Matthew 25: 34, but that he, therefore, had to arbitrarily arrange some things to happen, thus, depriving man of free moral agency (there are still others, such as Calvinists, who insist that "from the foundation of the world" does necessarily prove the foreknowledge of God and, in addition, arbitrary predestination). Regarding the first, consider the reasoning of commentator Guy N. Woods pertaining to the expression "before the foundation of the world" as used by Peter in I Peter 1: 20 (the original in Matthew 25: 34 and I Peter 1: 20 is essentially the same):

     "The word 'world' is from the Greek kosmos, an orderly system, hence age, or dispensation. Thus, Christ, as a lamb, was foreknown as such from before the beginning of the age or dispensation. What age? Creation, so some expositors affirm, thus projecting the time when Christ was ordained as a sacrifice into the period before creation of the universe. Though such a view is widely held, and many eminent commentators may be cited in support, the difficulties associated with it are, to this writer, insuperable. It is impossible to distinguish between the foreknowledge of God with reference to such a plan of redemption and the will that originated it. The two are in the nature of the case inseparable. To project a plan of redemption into the period prior to the fall of man raises immediately and inevitably the question of the free agency of Adam and Eve.

     If God had already devised a plan for the redemption of man from a sin which was certain to be committed, how could Adam and Eve avoided its commission? If Christ was a lamb for expiation of sin from before creation, how could the transgression have been other than inevitable since not only it, but the consequences therefore had been provided for in the councils of eternity. Since, in such a view of the case, our first parents were but passive actors in a drama written and stereotyped before they had existence, ought they not to be commended for obedience in dutifully furthering a plan ordained for them in eternity and which they could not possibly have altered without falsifying God's foreknowledge? Should they not, we repeat, be commended for obedience, rather than condemned for disobedience? Such must, in consequence, follow, if the popular view be true. The difficulties it entails are insurmountable" (A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, Vol. 7, pg. 47, 48).

     Guy N. Woods, in general a very respected scholar and commentator, does as so many, when he had a bias, he prejudicially defines words and applies their meanings. "The word 'world' is from the Greek kosmos, an orderly system, hence age, or dispensation," asserted Woods. I believe a little more complete treatment of "world" (kosmos) is required. Kosmos is used 187 times in the Greek New Testament. Kosmos can mean evil domain. Hence, John wrote, "Love not the world" (kosmos, I Jn. 2: 15). The Greek kosmos can mean people. "God so loved the world," said Jesus (kosmos, Jn. 3: 16). W. E. Vine comments thus on kosmos: "Primarily order, arrangement…is used to denote (a) the earth, e.g., Matt. 13: 35; John 21: 25; Acts 17: 24; Rom. 1: 20 (probably here the universe: it had this meaning among the Greeks, owing to the order observable in it)" (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, pg. 233). We are told that God "made the world (kosmos, dm) and all things therein" (Acts 17: 24). The Greek aion is more the word that can suggest age or dispensation. Hence, we read of "the age of this world" (ton aiona tou kosmou, Eph. 2: 2, see Addendum).

     Commentator Woods sees insurmountable difficulties in understanding "from" or "before the foundation of the world" in I Peter 1: 20 to mean that God made arrangements for Jesus to be the sacrificial lamb from the time that the world or universe was created. Those who think and reason as Woods must insist that "from the foundation of the world" simply be understood to mean, before the age or dispensation, claiming that to understand otherwise declares that the "first parents were but passive actors in a drama written and stereotyped before they had existence, ought they not to be commended for obedience in dutifully furthering a plan ordained for them in eternity and which they could not possibly have altered without falsifying God's foreknowledge."

     Could it be that Commentator Woods has imagined and exaggerated the consequences and has allowed Calvinists to cause him to embrace the opposite extreme, denying the foreknowledge of God? I submit that God can and does possess foreknowledge and that this foreknowledge does not preclude or negate the freedom of choice on the part of man. In the first place, God's foreknowledge is plainly set forth in the scriptures. God's knowing before distinguishes him from dumb idols. Consider the teachings of Isaiah:

     "5: To whom will ye liken me, and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like? 6: They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god: they fall down, yea, they worship. 7: They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him, and set him in his place, and he standeth; from his place shall he not remove: yea, one shall cry unto him, yet can he not answer, nor save him out of his trouble. 8: Remember this, and shew yourselves men: bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors. 9: Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, 10: Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure" (Isa. 46: 5-10).

     In order for man to be able to "declare the end from the beginning," man must be able to manipulate the circumstances and players. This is how Calvinists view God. Hence, to them foreknowledge necessarily involves programming and making man essentially a robot to execute the will of God. However, we must remember that God is not man and is not limited as man is (cp. Isa. 55: 8, 9). God, I submit, is able to know before and yet not deprive the players of their freedom of choice. He simply knows what they will do, before they do it. He was able, therefore, to plan the redemption of man before man ever sinned (I Pet. 1: 20; Matt. 25: 34). Consider some additional instances in which the expression, "from" or "before the foundation of the world" is used.

     Truths kept secret from the foundation of the world. There is a period in Jesus' teaching known as the parabolic stage. It was during this time that Jesus sought to conceal the truths he taught from certain ones and yet reveal them to others. In this context Jesus explained, "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 13: 35, "of the world" is missing in some manuscripts; however, it is implied). God's kingdom, its nature and those comprising it, was not fully disclosed of old (the seven parables of Matthew 13 are kingdom parables). These truths that would not be disclosed for centuries were already formed by God and would come to pass as planned. This harmonizes with Paul's teaching to the Ephesians.

     "Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ. Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel" (Eph. 3: 4-6).

     All of these truths that were formed from or before the foundation of the world anticipated many particulars. They looked to the perfect timing involving governments, peoples, and world conditions, not only singularly viewed, but how they would also simultaneously affect one another (Gal. 4: 4). It is certain that God foreknew these circumstances in which his truths would be revealed from the time of the forming of the world.

     The Ephesians were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world. Did God know before or at the time of Genesis one that many aeons later there would be people who would live in Asia in a principle city named Ephesus, some of whom would be saved? Yes, according to Ephesians 1: 4. Consider the teaching:

     "According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love."

     This election or choosing took place "before the foundation of the world." Some, when pressed, admit this to be the case, but they explain this is "class predestination." The admission, notwithstanding, acknowledges the foreknowledge of God. When Paul was in Corinth and discouraged, Jesus appeared to him and said, "For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee; for I have much people in this city" (Acts 18: 10). God knew, but how? This is the figure known as prolepsis, a matter is so certain that it is spoken of as already in existence. There were not "much people" of God in Corinth at the time. However, God knew the future and he knew that there would be. Eve was so named "because she was the mother of all living" and it was said of Jericho, "I have given into thine hand Jericho…" (Gen. 3: 20; Josh. 6: 2). Eve was not at the time the "mother of all living" and Joshua and his army had not taken Jericho (Gen. 4: ff; Josh. 6: 2ff.). God knew, though, that these matters would happen based on his foreknowledge (cp. Ps. 139: 16; Gal. 1: 15).

    The matter of Bible prophecy presupposes God's foreknowledge. The fact that God knew "Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done" does not necessarily mean that God forced things to happen to the point of stripping men, the players, of freedom of choice. God's ability to look in the future and see what will be allowed him to make certain prophecies and then these prophecies be fulfilled with great exactitude. Calvinism de-emphasizes the wonder of prophecy because if God is a manipulator and controller, what is so wonderful about being able to tell the end from the beginning? On the other hand, if God does not possess foreknowledge but only makes an intelligent guess as to what will be, what is so special about this? The amazing thing is God's prophecies were often so unlikely to have come to pass that there could not have been intelligent guessing, only foreknowledge.

     There is a constant struggle in avoiding foreknowledge as presented by Augustinian Calvinism. There is an equal challenge in avoiding the over-reaction to Calvinism as seen in the example of Guy N. Woods. Foreknowledge does not equate to Calvinism, but foreknowledge is a biblical teaching. "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren" (Rom. 8: 29).   (For additional related reading, click on, "What is Calvinism?" and "Bible Predestination.")

     Addendum: There are three Greek words translated "world" in our English translations. They are: kosmos; aion; and oikoumene. These words admittedly have different nuances, which must be determined with usage. However, to say in general that kosmos means "age" and does not mean "world" or "earth," is to simplistically speak.