In James White’s book, The Potter’s Freedom1, he argues for unconditional election based on Romans 8:28-30. Here’s the passage:
Romans 8:28-30: And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
One of the key questions is the meaning of the word foreknow (proginosko). James White says that foreknowledge means “chooses to enter into a relationship with”. He supports this view by arguing that to determine the meaning of the Greek term proginosko, we should primarily use passages where God is the subject and the object is personal (such as Romans 11:2, 1 Peter 1:20). He argues “Obviously, passages that have humans as the subject would differ, substantially, in their meaning, for God’s knowledge is vastly different than man’s” and “God foreknows people, not things”. Further, he argues that in Jeremiah 1:5, Exodus 33:17, Amos 3:2 (in which God is the subject and the object is personal), yada means ‘consecrated’, ‘appointed’ or ‘choose’. (PF 197-201)
Fundamentally, James White is telling us to exclude from our analysis of proginosko the information which does not support his view. Yes, the two cases of proginosko where God is the subject probably mean ‘choose’ (Romans 11:2, 1 Peter 1:20). However, the word ginosko (without the prefix pro) is often used of God’s knowing things rather than His choosing things (Matthew 12:15, 16:3, Mark 8:17, 15:10, Luke 8:46, John 4:1, John 5:6, John 6:15, 16:19, 1 John 3:20). So while we can agree with Dr. White that God’s knowledge is different than ours; ginosko is still a fine word to express God’s knowledge and God being the Knower does not require us to think of ginosko as ‘choose’ rather than ‘know’. Also, when ginosko has God as its subject and people as its object, ginosko may mean ‘know’ rather than ‘choose’, as it does in Luke 16:15 and John 1:48, 2:24-25, 5:42. So having God as the subject and us as the object does not support Dr. White’s claim that ginosko means ‘choose’ rather than ‘know’.
In case anyone should say the ‘fore’ is essential, so we should not look at usage of ‘know’, please recall that Dr. White himself argues based on know without the ‘fore’ in the OT cases of Jeremiah 1:5, Exodus 33:17 and Amos 3:2. Further, proginosko can mean ‘foreknow’ rather than ‘choose’ as it does in Acts 26:5, 2 Peter 3:17, and Wisdom 6:13, 8:8, 18:6, so we have evidence that the prefix pro does not restrict the ginosko from pro–ginosko from its standard meaning: ‘know’.
Perhaps Dr. White sees the combination of 1) God as the subject, 2) people as the object, and 3) the prefix pro, when mixed together, as providing the magic formula needed to show proginosko means ‘fore-choose’ – given none of the individual elements establish his point. But the more standard process is to lay out all the different usages of a word to determine the semantic range, and then use the context to select the best alternative. The text itself presents an obstacle to understanding proginosko as ‘fore-choose’ or ‘fore-ordain’: the word ‘also’. A reading of “for whom He predestined, He also predestined” contains an unnecessary duplication, whereas the apostle presents successive steps or links in a chain in our salvation: foreknew; predestined; called; justified; glorified. Each builds on the last to make progress to the goal.
So the better translation into English is ‘foreknowledge’ and that’s what most translations go with. Please note the English word ‘foreknowledge’ does not mean “chooses to enter into a relationship with”, rather it means to know beforehand. (link)
We come to the heart of James White’s mistake on this passage. “It is the burden of the Arminian to break this “golden chain of redemption,” prove to us that God’s foreknowing is a mere passive gathering of infallible knowledge of the future actions of free creatures, and establish that this passage is not telling us that all of salvation, from initiation to accomplishment, is the work of God for His own glory.” (PF 200)
We have observed some serious problems with Dr. White’s analysis, but let’s assume for the sake of argument James White is right that proginosko means “choose to enter into a relationship with”. Why assume such a choice is unconditional? Most choices that we make are conditional and the ones that are unconditional are random. Calvinists deny God’s choice was random but they also deny His choice was conditional. What’s left? Even if there is such a thing as a non-random, unconditional choice, how do we know Paul has that in mind and not something more like our everyday choices? And even if the passage does mean an unconditional choice, what if the rising number of scholars who think the passage speaks of corporate election rather than individual election are correct? Dr. White has a considerable way further to go in proving Calvinism from this text so he shifts the burden of proof.
The passage either proves Calvinism, proves Traditionalism or proves neither. Even if we cannot prove the passage teaches Traditionalism, that does not mean Calvinism has been established. So Dr. White’s laying the burden of proof on Traditionalists is unjustified.
What if Paul has a different topic in mind and does not bring this up to address if election is conditional or unconditional? I think he does and would argue that Paul does not decide the issue of Calvinism/Traditionalism in this passage. Paul is explaining why those who loved God and were called according to His purpose can know all things work together for their good. Paul lays out stages in the process of salvation, so we can know how we got here and where we are headed and thus gain confidence that God will work all things for our good. God loves us and has loved us since before we were born. He has a plan for us and will take care of us and bring us into His kingdom. That is an encouraging thought, for the Calvinist as well as the Traditionalist.
1James White. The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and the Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free. (2nd edition) Calvary Chapel Press. 2007.