Every major English version of the Bible I have run across translates the Greek in Romans 8:29-30 the same way, even though it may not be the best way. The subject is God and the passage reads as follows: “because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified” (NET).
This is a crucial passage when it comes to the way we think about predestination and other terms related to salvation. The main verbs that are translated “foreknew” (προέγνω), “predestined” (προώρισεν) “called” (ἐκάλεσεν), “justified” (ἐδικαίωσεν), and “glorified” (ἐδόξασεν) are all aorist indicatives in Greek. We notice that in typical English translations such as the NET, ESV, NIV, NRSV, NASB, NKJV, etc., these verbs are all translated in the past tense.
Given this reading, we sometimes hear that not only did God foreknow and predestine individuals in the past, but God already fixed in the past who should be justified and in the future who will be glorified (that is, which individuals should be finally saved in a futuristic state of resurrected eternal glory). After all, the Greek aorists are to be translated as past tense, right? Maybe not.
Should the Aorist Always Be Translated in the Past Tense?
In studies of ancient koine Greek, some wrong-headed assumptions about the aorist tense are being laid to rest. For example, that the aorist means “once and for all” is simply not the case. More importantly for our purposes, the aorist, though often translated in the past tense, is not always to be translated this way.
A couple of biblical examples will suffice to show this:
In Mark 1:11, most translations have the divine voice from heaven saying to Jesus as he was baptized:
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (ESV).
Here “I am well-pleased” (εὐδόκησα) is in the aorist. If translated with an alleged rule that aorists refer to past tense, this word should be translated, “I was well-pleased” rather than “I am well-pleased.” The past tense meaning, of course, does not make sense in this verse.
In Matthew 23:32, the text reads as follows:
“the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat” (ESV).
Again, if past tense is always the case with the aorist, then the aorist “sit” (ἐκάθισαν) should be “sat.” And if so, the scribes and Pharisees “sat” on Moses’ seat.
Such factors such as the type of action used (Aktionart), the aspect (viewpoint), the mood (indicative, subjunctive, imperative, etc.), and context, all help determine how to translate the aorist (see for example, Constantine Campbell, Advances in the Study of Greek: New Insights for Reading the New Testament; 2015: 105).*
It would take too much time to unpack all of these things (that is what a good Greek course should do!). Even so, in a nutshell, Stanley Porter’s words are helpful: “The aorist tense-form occurs in contexts where the user of Greek wishes to depict an action as a complete and undifferentiated process.” (Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 1999:35). For Porter, there are many aorists of past action, but there are also aorists for present action, aorists for future action, aorists for “action occurring any time,” and aorists for timeless action (Idioms, 35–39).
Some more traditional names for these types of aorists include the inceptive (emphasizing the beginning of the action or state), culminative (emphasizing the cessation of an action or state), proleptic (future oriented), gnomic (timeless or universal), and others.**
Romans 8:29-30 and the Gnomic Aorist
In Romans 8:29–30, given the grand scheme of everything God does for Jews and gentiles, from foreknowledge to glorification, I suspect we are dealing with gnomic aorists in this case. In other words, the verbs are timeless (or as Porter suggests, any time action). Greek grammarian Constantine Campbell likewise claims that the context in this passage expresses “general reality” and creates here a “gnomic Aktionsart” that “expresses a universal and timeless action” regarding Romans 8:30. He translates the verse as follows:
“And those he predestines, he also calls; and those he calls, he also justifies; and those he justifies, he also glorifies.”
Notice that the verbs are not in the past tense. Campbell perceptively continues, “Since glorification is normally understood to occur in the future, interpreters tend to claim that the past-referring aorist ‘glorified’ is used because the future is so certain that it can be claimed as being done already. This highly unlikely understanding is not necessary, however, once it is recognized that this string or aorists can be explained as gnomic in function. They do not refer to past events but to a series of activities that God performs—predestining, calling, justifying, and glorifying. As a general statement of reality, the gnomic reading does not require these actions to be locked into any specific timeframe.” (“Ancient Greek Verbs: How Aspect and Aktionsart Affect Interpretation”)
Predestination: God Foreordains to What End?
I also want to add that some translations prefer to use “foreordain” or “foreappoint” (e.g., NEB, ERV, YLT, EMPH) rather than “predestine” in Rom 8:29–30. The Greek verb προορίζω (proorizô), comes from ορίζω (orizô) that has multiple meanings, for example, to appoint, establish, determine, or mark out as one’s own. In this context proorizô has to do with God ordaining beforehand. Those who love God identify those whom God foreordains in this text (cf. 8:28). These people are none other than believing Jews and gentiles; they are foreordained to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
The advantage of foreordain over predestine is that the former communicates a prior appointing for a particular calling, an appointment that does not necessarily address one’s own future beliefs and choices in the matter, and whether those beliefs and choices can thwart that appointment. Such questions are left open-ended and must be determined elsewhere in Paul and Romans. The nuance of predestining (or at least the way it is sometimes taught) seems more susceptible to a perception of being locked into a final destiny from all eternity, of which one’s own future beliefs and choices in the matter appear to be futile. This can be a disturbing reading for some. And it becomes even more disturbing when Bible versions translate the verb as past tense (“predestined”) rather than the way it should be translated: as timeless (“predestines,” or better, “foreordains”).
Another factor here is that Paul seems interested not with emphasizing the individual but the corporate people of Jews and gentiles who love God and are “in Christ” (Rom 8:1, 28). Romans 9-11 will bring out this corporate emphasis of Israel and the nations more clearly. Certain modern systematic theologians, on the other hand, seem more interested in stressing what Paul does not stress so as to read this text in a way that conforms with their dogmas. We should rather try to read the text the way Paul aimed it to be read, and the way the original audience in Rome would have heard it.
Paul has already communicated to the Romans that Jewish and gentiles beliefs and behavior pertain to salvation and future judgement; their choices do matter and are not futile. What Jews and gentiles believe and how they behave matters. Such choices have eternal consequences (Romans 1:16–17; 2:6–13; 3:21–26; 6:11–13; especially 8:13).
If read in this way, what we might hear is this—believers have been adopted as sons and daughters into the family of God by faith in Christ Jesus through his Spirit. This would be especially comforting to Roman auditors who appear to be mostly gentiles. The sufferings that they might experience point to a far greater glory that will be theirs when the full realization of their sonship and daughtership takes place. That “when” happens in the future when the redemption of their mortal bodies takes place (= resurrection: 8:14–25; cf. 8:31–39). This resurrection is what it ultimately means to be glorified and conformed to the image of God’s Son. That is the end to which God foreknows them (as Abraham’s actual and/or spiritual offspring: Rom 4), and to which God foreordains them (assuming that they remain in Christ by walking in the Spirit: Rom 8:1-13).
* The actual quote is from an article entitled, “Ancient Greek Verbs: How Aspect and Aktionsart Affect Interpretation” by Constantine Campbell
** See for example, Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, 2016:289–97; Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, 1996: 554–65.30