Monday, January 11, 2021

Were "those whom God foreknew" the OT saints? (Rom 8:29)

While writing my article on Romans 11:6 (here), something jumped out at me in Romans 11:2, where Paul says: "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew." This statement sounds very similar to a few chapters prior, in Romans 8:29, where Paul famously says: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son". While I've already discussed Romans 8:29-30 in an older post (here), I haven't looked at it through this "foreknow" lens, so I'll do that today.

In the context of Rom 11:2, the "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew" is clearly referring to the Israelites, at least those who were faithful, as the prior verse 11:1 asks "has God therefore rejected his people?" as he then lists off marks of Israelite identity. Using the principle of "Scripture interprets Scripture," would suggest that the Israelites of Rom 11:2, "his [chosen/elect] people," at least the faithful ones, are who Paul has principally in mind in Rom 8:29 when he says "those whom He foreknew". In other words, Rom 8:29-30 is actually focused on the Old Testament saints. Others have suggested this is what 8:29 means, but now that I've come across this link to Rom 11:2, I now think the claim has better merit.

If the OT Saints are in view in 8:29, this would better explain why Paul speaks of "those" instead of "us/we" whom God foreknew. It would also better explain why God puts the "called, predestined, justified," and "glorified" all in the past tense, since it would mean the OT Saints already experienced these things. We could even say Paul's repeated use of "also" is to suggest the OT saints "also" experience these blessings along with the NT saints, thus Paul isn't so much speaking of a chain of events, but rather simply saying every blessing the Gentiles experience in Christ, the OT saints "also" experience them. Given the context of Romans 8:29 being about enduring suffering, calling upon the example of the OT saints is an excellent lesson for Paul to draw upon, since we have historical proof of OT saints having to endure trials, and see how God helped them get through it. And, finally, since Paul is concerned about Jew-Gentile tensions, it helps to show the OT saints are blessed, so that the NT saints don't feel superior to them.

As was noted in my older Romans 8:29-30 article, many people skip over the second half of 8:29, but the consensus among the Church Fathers was to see that as the main focus. God predestines people to be conformed to the image of Jesus, "in order that" Jesus might "become the firstborn of many" children of God. In other words, Paul says the express purpose of predestining is so that people might become like Jesus, namely a child of God. While Jesus was God's Son by nature, we are gloriously made God's sons by grace. Hence the consensus among the Church Fathers is that "glorified" refers to Adoption, as the crown of conversion. While "glorified" could mean "made it to heaven," and this would fit the OT Saints, I think Adoption fits "glorified" best. In fact, of the few times the term "predestined" is used in the New Testament, we see Adoption is the explicit focus: "In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ" (Eph 1:4-5). Again, using the principle of Scripture interprets Scripture, we would take what is clearly shown in Eph 1:5, that is predestined to adoption, and see that as the focus of predestining in Romans 8:29-30. It is interesting to note the difference in the "us" in Eph 1:5 passage versus the "those" in Romans 8:29, suggesting two groups of people, NT Saints and OT Saints, respectively.

The Greek term “foreknow” appears 7 times in the NT (Acts 2:23; Acts 26:5; Rom 8:29; Rom 11:2; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 Pet 1:20; 2 Pet 3:17) and 5 times in the OT LXX, only in the ‘apocryphal books’ [see here] (Judith 9:5-6; Judith 11:19; Wis 6:13-14; Wis 8:8; Wis 18:6). The Greek term means 'prior-knowledge'. For example, Paul speaks to the Jewish teachers who "foreknew" him from his youth (Acts 26:4-5), which can only mean they've known him from long ago, rather than meaning they knew his future or caused how he would turn out someday. In this sense of Acts 26:4-5, we could easily read Romans 8:29 and 11:6 as referring to those whom God knew long ago, i.e., the OT saints.

This is not to suggest "foreknow" cannot refer to knowledge of the future, because it is used in reference to God knowing the future (Judith 9:5-6; Acts 2:23), and to humans being given knowledge of the future through revelation (Judith 11:19; Wisdom 8:5-6; 2 Pet 3:17). With this understanding, many have read "those whom God foreknew" refers to God knowing who would respond to God's grace, as St Ambrose teaches in his Exposition of the Christian Faith: "Wherefore also the Apostle says: 'Whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate.' He did not predestinate them before He knew them, but He did predestinate the reward of those whose merits He foreknew." In this view, the OT saints could still be in mind, with God seeing their merits, so this isn't necessarily opposed to the main thesis of this article.

Lastly, I think St Augustine might have been the first to suggest that "foreknow" is best understood as "foreloved" in places like Rom 8:29, such that it would mean God's 'love' for a person resulted in God predestining them. This interpretation is possible, given that above I quoted Eph 1:5 talking of "in love, God predestined us to adoption". In the case of Rom 8:29, we could take this as God's love of the OT saints, so the main thesis of this article still fits. The main 'weakness' of the foreloved reading is that none of the times the term foreknow is used does it clearly suggest 'foreloved'.

To conclude, I think the first definition has me the most convinced, that foreknow simply means those whom God knew from the past, as it fits best with 11:2 and Paul's use of "those" and past-tense experiences. Given the minimal details and context of Romans 8:29-30, this passage has been subject to much speculation and controversy. As such, I think it's kind of irresponsible to place so much weight on texts like Romans 8:29-30 for a substantial basis of our theology (if 2 Peter 3:16 doesn't apply to Rom 8-9, I don't know what else Peter could have in mind). The main dilemma Christians find themselves in surrounding this passage is whether God is saving or damning for reasons aside from our behavior. While affirming there is an unfairness from the human perspective about it, those such as Augustinians and Calvinists (they are not the same thing!) who hold that the foreknowing/predestining are purely aside from our behavior, the Calvinists quite reasonably conclude this passage strongly suggests salvation cannot be lost. The weakness of this reading is that this one verse seems to overturn the multiple passages of Scripture talking about potential loss of salvation and God's impartiality and Judgement based on our behavior. With this latter view in mind, I have tried to impartially judge the evidence for myself, and come across what I believe are exegetical reasons for reading Romans 8-9 with more objectivity that most. In this way, we can see the Augustinian/Calvinist reading is more begging the question than what I think is fair and impartial. In my articles, I try to always be fair to the evidence when forming my conclusions, knowing that it does me no good to merely fist-pound my preferred beliefs. 

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