There are few Biblical words of more theological significance than the word foreknowledge. That the meaning of the word is “knowledge beforehand without predetermination” is the basis of the Arminian view of election. As Boettner says: “Some [Arminians] acknowledge that God foreknows all things. Others say that he foreknows all events that are knowable, but that the acts of free agents by their very nature are uncertain.”  However, Calvinists hold that the Biblical meaning of foreknowledge in some sense approaches that of foreordination. Actually Arminianism has not solved the problem for if God’s foreknowledge of all things is acknowledged, the acts of men then become as certain as if foreordained. Nonetheless, the meaning of this word determines one’s view of God, for election is rightly an aspect of God’s decree. It seems that our view of man and our view of God are on opposite ends of a seesaw. When one view is elevated, the other must be lowered.

Of significance also is that the view one holds in this area determines his message, methods, and motives of proclaiming the gospel of Christ. Will he try to persuade or make clear? Will he be speaking from God’s viewpoint or his own? The question is not a matter of results but rather of veracity for if the end does not justify the means elsewhere, why should it here? The purpose of this article, therefore, is to determine the biblical meaning of foreknowledge (πρόγνωσις and προγινώσκω) in its New Testament contexts.

The Meaning of Terms

Before considering the passages involved, one may well ask: “What is the meaning of foreordination and foreknowledge?” There does not seem to be much disagreement among lexicographers on the meaning of προορίζω (proorizō, foreordination or predestination). Ardnt and Gingrich give the meaning as “decide upon beforehand, predestine.” It is used in Acts 4:28; Romans 8:29-30; 1 Corinthians 2:7; and Ephesians 1:5, 11. A related word is ὁρίζω (horizō) and means to “determine, appoint, fix, set.” It is use in Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23; 10:42; 11:29; 17:26, 31; Romans 1:4; and Hebrews 4:7.

However, the real problem is not with προορίζω (proorizō) and its cognates but rather with πρόγνωσις (prognōsis) and προγινώσκω (proginōskō), which the King James Version renders as “foreknowledge,” “foreordination, and “to know” or “to know before.” The word “foreknowledge” in English means “knowledge of something before it happens or exists; presence.” All are agreed that this word does have such a theological meaning and as such is related to the omniscience of God. God’s omniscience is His knowledge of all things both actual and possible, while foreknowledge in this sense is His knowledge of those things that are actual. However, such a theological meaning is not the biblical meaning of the word, and the biblical meaning must be determined from its context and usage.

An illustration of this same problem is the word “atonement,” an Old Testament word with the biblical meaning of “to cover.” However, theologically it has come to mean all that has been accomplished in the death of Christ on the cross. When one reads into the biblical meaning the theological meaning, difficulties can result. Likewise, this is true with πρόγνωσις (prognōsis), and thus one must determine its biblical meaning from the passages employed.

A Consideration of the Passages

πρόγνωσις (prognōsis) and προγινώσκω (proginōskō) are used seven times in the New Testament, the noun πρόγνωσις (prognōsis) being employed in Acts 2:23 and 1 Peter 1:2 and the verb προγινώσκω (proginōskō) in Romans 8:29; 11:2; 1 Peter 1:20; Acts 26:5; and 2 Peter 3:17. The last two passages are not related to this study since they concern person-to-person relationships and not divine activity. The most important passages are Acts 2:23; Romans 8:29; and 1 Peter 1:2 since in these three passages πρόγνωσις (prognōsis) or προγινώσκω (proginōskō) is used with ὁρίζω (horizō), προορίζω (proorizō), or ἐκλεκτος (eklektos).

Acts 2:23

In Acts 2:23 the Apostle Peter employed the noun πρόγνωσις (prognōsis) in his great Pentecostal address. Speaking of Jesus, he described Him as τῇ ὡρισμένῃ βουλῇ καi προγνώσει τοῦ Θεοῦ ἔκδοτον “delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.” It is evident that προγνώσει (prognōsei) here is in the instrumental case. The question is, Was it possible for Christ to be delivered over to His enemies “by the foreknowledge of God?” Certainly in foreknowledge one knows, but he does not perform an act like the delivering of Jesus to His enemies. Are not those who contend otherwise reading something more than the English meaning of foreknowledge into this passage? However, if one translates the verse that Christ was delivered over by the determinate counsel and forethought of God, that is, by His decision reached in eternity, then the thought is both intelligible and satisfying. Thus it is that “determinate counsel and forethought are synonymous expressions, both describing one and the same act, one stressing the element of will and the other that of knowledge.”

1 Peter 1:2

In this verse Peter used πρόγνωσις (prognōsis) of the “strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). He told them they were elect or chosen κατά πρόγνωσις θεός Πατρός, “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” Certainly here πρόγνωσις (prognōsis) has the same meaning as in Acts 2:23. If the word here is taken in the sense of prescience, the whole phrase is rather meaningless. Certainly they were elect strangers according to the foreknowledge of God because God knows everything from eternity. No one who believes in the existence of an omniscient God could dispute that fact. So it is difficult to see why there would have been any special point for Peter to refer here to the omniscience of God. Another reason for this consideration is that many biblical scholars support such a rendering in this verse. Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich translate this, “according to the predestination of God the Father.” Thayer renders it as “forethought, pre-arrangement.” Moffatt translate, “Peter an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the exiles of the Dispersion … whom God the Father has predestined and chosen.” Certainly the opinions of exegetes are not decisive but nevertheless these translations of the word as “predestination,” “forethought,” “prearrangement” strengthen the position.

1 Peter 1:20

Here Peter spoke of Christ as the lamb προεγνωσμένου (proegnōsmenou) by God before foundation of the world. Certainly foreknowledge cannot act, and since the act of redemption is in view (1 Peter 1:18), it is evidently “God’s foreordination of Jesus as Savior which Peter has in mind.” Even the King James Version translate it “foreordain.”

Romans 11:2

This verse employs the verb προγινώσκω (proginōskō). Speaking of the Jews, Paul said, “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” It is impossible to make this mean that God had a mere prescience or prevision of some quality in Israel that determined His choice of them. Such a view would be in direct opposition to what the apostle taught in Romans 9. There he pointed out that God’s selection of Israel was not according to natural generation (Romans 9:7-9) or human merit (Romans 9:10-13) but rather according to His mercy (Romans 9:14-18) and power (Romans 9:19-24). Having therefore discussed God’s sovereign election of Israel, the apostle then turned to its future (chap. 11). God has made certain unconditional promises to this nation (Genesis 12; 15; 17; Deuteronomy 28-30; 2 Samuel 7:12-16; Jeremish 31:31-34), and as yet these had not been fulfilled. However, Israel had failed: the people had disobeyed, apostatized, and had been unfaithful. Would God therefore discontinue His promises to them? Romans 11:2 gives the reason God has not cast them away. It is because He προέγνω (proegnō) them. Certainly if this means only a mere prevision here, then in view of their unfaithfulness this would be reason for God to discontinue His promises – not to continue them. Thus the meaning here must be the same as in Acts 2:23 and 1 Peter 1:2, 20.

Romans 8:29

The context of this verse has to do with God’s predestination of the objects of salvation. Certainly if προγινώσκω (proginōskō) has the meaning of forethought, prearrangement, or predetermination in Romans 11:2, it is imperative that it have the same meaning here unless cogent reasons should forbid it, and such reasons are lacking. In Romans 8:28 the apostle offered his readers encouragement for their troubles, including their own inward weakness. He told them that all things work together for good to those who love God, and those who love God are defined as those whom God has called in accord with His purpose. Thus they have not come within the sphere of God’s love by their own choice, but rather have been called into this relationship in accord with God’s eternal purpose.


From an examination of the passages where πρόγνωσις (prognōsis) and προγινώσκω (proginōskō) are used of divine activity, the biblical meaning must be forethought, prearrangement, or predetermination. Thus the biblical meaning of foreknowledge is equivalent to foreordination, both describing the same act, one stressing the element of knowledge and the other that of will. To say that God made a decision based on His prevision would mean that there was a time of indecision. This, of course, would be contrary to the nature of God and to the biblical fact that God’s decree is eternal. Thus His decree is from eternity past and is the product of His knowledge and will.

Edgar C. James, Vital Theological Issues: Examining Enduring Issues of Theology, Chapter 2, 2006, pp. 21-25


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