The Sovereignty of God / Steve Lemke, Ph.D.

March 24, 2014

by Steve W. Lemke, Ph.D.
Provost, & Professor of Philosophy & Ethics
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

God’s Omniscience and Exhaustive Foreknowledge

The first affirmation in Article 7 (of the Traditional Statement) is of “God’s eternal knowledge” – an affirmation of God being all-knowing (omniscient), and of the fact that God knows all things from eternity, and thus from a human perspective of time He foreknows of all things (cf. Ps 139:1–10; Rom 8:29–30; 11:2; 16:27). The Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) 2000 strongly affirms God’s omniscience. The affirmation of God’s omniscience is strengthened in each of the succeeding versions of the BFM. Interestingly, the word “all-knowing” does not appear at all in the BFM 1925. The descriptor of “all-wise” was added in the BFM 1963.[1] In the BFM 2000, however, multiple claims of God’s perfect knowledge are affirmed. Article 2 of the BFM 2000 twice describes God as “all powerful” and “all knowing,” and adds that “His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures.” It also repeats the description of God as “all wise” from the 1963 statement, and the affirmation that God is “infinite in holiness and all other perfections,” a phrase repeated in all three versions of the confession.[2]

Why does the BFM 2000 add the double reference to God being all-knowing, and the statement that God’s “perfect knowledge extends to all things past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures”? Baptists and other evangelicals in 2000 were dealing with the movement known as “Freewill Theism” or “Openness of God” theology. In this view, God does not have perfect foreknowledge. Although He knows all that is available to be known, it is impossible for Him to know “the future decisions of His free creatures.”

Traditional Baptists and most conservative evangelicals, however, reject the Openness of God view and hold a high view of God’s perfect knowledge and foreknowledge. God has perfect knowledge, including the “future decisions of His free creatures.”[3] However, Traditional Baptists also reject the interpretation by many Reformed thinkers that foreknowledge actually means “foreloved” – that is, that God (fore)loved (only) those whom He elected. The election of these “foreloved” people was not premised upon any response on their part. It was an Unconditional Election imposed on them by Irresistible Grace. However, “foreloved” is clearly not what Scripture means when it speaks of those whom He “foreknew” (Rom 8:29). In any standard lexicon, the Greek word for foreknew (proegno?) simply means knowing something before it happens.[4]

Let us further examine several important implications of what this statement in the BFM 2000, that God foreknows the “future decisions of His free creatures.”

(a) Human choices are “free,” not forced by deterministic decrees. If persons did only what was decreed by God from before the beginning of time, humans would not be “His free creatures,” but would be under compulsion. One who has no choices is not free. The denial in Article 7 that God’s perfect knowledge of future human choices causes “a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ” is supportive of this concept of freedom.[5]

(b) God can foreknow the future free choices of individuals. This point is denied by Openness of God theologians, but is affirmed overwhelmingly by Baptists and other conservative evangelicals. God’s knowledge is not limited to past and present events, but extends into the future (Acts 2:23; Rom 8:29; 11:2; 1 Pet 1:2). God’s perfect knowledge and omniscience is a characteristic we would expect of anyone worthy of the name “God.” A god without omniscience and foreknowledge would simply not be God.

(c) God can foreknow the future free choices of individuals without overriding their freedom. Many Reformed theologians profess that God’s foreknowledge of the future essentially overrides any meaningful human freedom. They argue that if God foreknows what a person will decide, and God’s foreknowledge is perfect, then the person cannot decide differently than God believes they will choose. This logic is flawed in at least three ways.

(1) Saying that God’s foreknowledge takes away any real human choices fundamentally misunderstands God’s relation to time. God is not bound by time; He exists in eternity. It is impossible for us time-bound humans to understand fully what it means to live in eternity. There is mystery here. However, we can be sure that God’s relationship to time is different than it is for us humans. Whereas from a human perspective the distinction between the past, present, and future have immense significance, God lives in the “eternal now” in which everything is the present.[6] So, although His foreknowledge is before the present in human time, God experiences it in something like our experience of the present. God is outside of human time, so His knowledge is not subject to the normal limitations of time.

(2) Saying that God’s foreknowledge takes away any real human choices fundamentally confuses the difference between knowledge and causation. Two plus two is not four because I know it; it is true because it is true in reality. In fact, two plus two equals four whether I believe it or not. Knowing something does not cause it to happen. Again, the misconception that God’s foreknowledge of future human choices causes “a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ” is denied in Article 7 of the TS.

(3) Saying that God’s foreknowledge takes away any real human choices fundamentally confuses necessity (what must happen) and certainty (what will happen). There is an immense difference between necessity and certainty. Since God’s knowledge does not cause future events, His (fore)knowledge does not make these events necessary. Future events are contingent on the “future decisions of His free creatures.”[7]

Human analogies break down here, because we are bound by time and imperfect knowledge, while God is not bound by these limitations. However, ponder this analogy. Imagine that John has listened to the end of a football game in which his team makes a remarkable comeback at the end of the game to win the contest. He is watching a replay of the game with his friend Bill who does not know the outcome of the game (or that John knows its outcome). As their team is behind throughout most of the game, Bill laments that their team is going to lose the game, but John keeps telling Bill that he believes they can come back and win. John encourages Bill to have faith in their team. Sure enough, as John knew they would, the football team comes back and wins a dramatic victory at the end of the game. Bill is amazed that John had such confidence that their team would come back and win the game. In truth, of course, John did not really have “faith” – he had knowledge of what would actually happen that was inaccessible to Bill. The main point is this – John’s knowledge of what would happen at the end of the game had exactly nothing to do with his team winning the game. His knowledge did not predetermine the blocking of the line, the throws of the quarterback, or the catches of the receiver. John knew the result with certainty, but not of logical necessity. He simply knew ahead of time what would actually happen without causing what happened. Likewise, God knows our future choices with certainty without making them logically necessary.

Applied to salvation, Traditional Baptists believe that God elects and predestines those whom He foreknows will respond to the proclamation of the gospel through the conviction of the Holy Spirit with repentance and faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. This pattern is stated nowhere more clearly than in Rom 8:29–30, which serves as a prologue to Romans 9–11:

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. (Rom 8:29–30, NASB)

Note that predestination, calling, and justification are conditional upon God’s foreknowledge of those who would be led by the Holy Spirit to respond to the gospel with repentance and faith. God does not first decree or predestine those who are elect and then foreknow those who would be saved based upon His decree. Rather, God’s foreknowledge of human responses comes first, with God’s election, calling, and justification flowing from His foreknowledge.

Romans 11:1–2 likewise affirms this pattern of divine foreknowledge of foreseen faith preceding election and justification:

I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew (Rom 11:1–2, NASB).

Just who are these people whom God foreknew? Scholars debate whether Paul is referring here to the election of…*

 


[1]BFM 1963, Article 2a (“God the Father”). 2BFM 2000, Article 2 (“God”) and 2a (“God the Father”).
[2]BFM 2000, Article 2 (“God”) and 2a (“God the Father”).
[3]For more about how the BFM 2000 is responding to Openness of God theology, see Douglas K. Blount, “Article II: God,” in Baptist Faith and Message 2000: Critical Issues in America’s Largest Protestant Denomination, ed. Douglas K. Blount and Joseph D. Wooddell (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), 14–17.
[4]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. s.v. “proginosko, prognosis.
[5]For more on the problem of reconciling determinism with human freedom, see Jeremy A. Evans, “Reflections on Determinism and Human Freedom,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. Allen and Lemke (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 253–74.
[6]For a fuller discussion of God existing in the “Eternal Now,” and its implications for Conditional Election and salvation, see Richard Land, “Congruent Election: Understanding Salvation from an ‘Eternal Now’ Perspective,” in Whosoever Will, 45–59.
[7]For more on the confusion of contingency and necessity, see Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 8–9, 31–38; and Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 36–63.

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*Click HERE to read the rest of this post by downloading the FREE, 2-volume NOBTS Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry.
SBCToday reprinted with permission the above excerpt.