Romans 9 and Calvinisms

The following is our exegesis of Romans 9 in atomistic format -- showing that it does not support the Calvinist view, and melds hand in glove with the scholarship we have been consulting for the subject.

It should be understood that Romans 9 is a piece with the rest of Romans, and of course derives more meaning from its full epistolary context.

1 I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, 2 That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. 3 For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: 4 Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; 5 Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.

As an introduction to his next argument set, Paul begins with some personal words -- rhetorical pathos as it were -- indicating his depth of sorrow for his fellow Judeans. From the beginning it must be understood that Romans is presented to a mixed audience of converted Jews and converted Gentiles (and also perhaps, non-Christian Jews, if Mark Nanos is correct; but it would make no difference to our arguments). A primary factor in Paul's presentation will be addressing two or more groups that are supposed to be unified in Christ, and addressing them as a unity, while also respecting their collective identities as separate groups.

Paul walks a tightrope in Romans 9 in which he walks between the objections of multiple groups. Although Calvinist commentators like White (TPF, 205) are correct in seeing that Paul is answering the question, "If the Jews are the covenant people, why do they reject the Gospel?" the dynamics of the situation are far more complex. Paul is also entering a situation in which he seeks "the reduction and elimination of conflict between groups through re-categorizing two (or more) groups in conflict under a new common subgroup identity" (Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, 271). The collectivist mind of the ancient world would continue to cherish its embedded identities for the present; remember that Paul and the Apostles are still trying to teach converts the lesson that there is "neither male nor female" nor any other identity that supersedes identity in Christ (as even Peter, an apostle himself, had yet to learn fully in Antioch -- see link 1 below).

In Galatians, Paul took a very stern tone with the Galatians in trying to teach them this lesson, but Rome is a church he has not visited, apparently, and the dictates of honor require that he must tread more lightly with the Romans. It will not do to offend their sensibilities with such a direct statement as "there is no Jew or Gentile." So, rather than attack such a notion directly, like a Malcolm X, he undermines it subtly, like a Martin Luther King (as he does in Romans 3:29-30: "Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and un-circumcision through faith.")

As Esler puts it: "...a precondition to a successful process of re-categorization is that no attempt be made to extinguish the two subgroups, since this might lead to countervailing efforts by their members to maintain their distinctive identities in a way that would render the establishment of a new common identity difficult, if not impossible" [ibid]. In this respect it is rightly said that the theological and social are inseparable in this letter. Calvinists neglect the latter at the expense of the former.

Paul is in fact addressing several potential objections:

  • "If the Jews are covenant people, why do the majority reject the Gospel?"

    As noted, this question is rightly identified by White and others as germane, but there is even more in this question:

  • "If the Jews are condemned for rejecting Christ, how do you explain that they remain in power in Judaea with Roman blessing even now, that their religion thrives, that they possess this beautiful Temple?"

    This critical component is neglected by Calvinist commentators like White, who look back through the lens of post-70 AD events, and fail to realize that at the time Paul writes (c. 45-50), these very serious and immediate questions were a prima facie case against Christianity. The fate of a nation was an important signal of its favor with its "home court" deity. Jews could hardly accept that God had abandoned them as long as their Judean government remained in power (even with Roman overseers) and as long as the Temple remained standing.

    Thus Paul is between two points diametrically opposed: He must walk the line between acknowledging that the Jews did have God's blessing in the past (for otherwise, he implies that God has erred in blessing Israel previously) and showing that they no longer have it, but that the body of Christ does -- in spite of what evidence exists in his world in that day to the contrary.

    Finally, Paul must also tend to the potential objection that the failure of Jews to believe was a reason to reject and condemn Israel as a body -- not on a theological level, but on a social level; Paul must also counter the tendency for Gentiles (in this day of strong ethnic prejudices) to use Israel's rejection of the Gospel as a reason for personally rejecting non-Christian Jews. He is also likely confronting the question, "If the Jews are the covenant people but they have rejected their messiah, doesn't the fact that they will perish in the coming day of the Lord, mean that God has rejected his people (cf. Jeremiah 31:37)?"

    One of the most relevant covenant promises to Israel in this regard is a command, found in Deut. 18:15-18, for Israel to be on the lookout for and listen to a prophet that God will send them. The "Prophet" like unto Moses is to be understood as Jesus, a mediator of a new covenant for all men; the command given is to hearken unto this prophet. It therefore stands to reason that disobedience of this command, to hearken unto this prophet, is a cause for punishment. Thus, if Jewish adherents to the Deuteronomic covenant fail to hearken unto Jesus, they are disobeying and breaking the covenant just as much as they would had they worshipped an idol, or murdered, or stolen. Thus, the covenant with the Jews is eternal, and even now would still be in effect; but a Jew who did not listen to Jesus would be in violation of the covenant.

    6 Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel:

    In light of the above, a key objection answered by Paul: "Israel" does not mean ethnic identity, as would be assumed by the people of his time (Morris, 352, cites from Sanh. 10:1 the statement, "All Israelites have a share in the world to come"). On this, Calvinist commentators remain true to the text; however, we have not yet entered into where we find they deviate from Paul's meaning.

    7 Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. 8 That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. 9 For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sara shall have a son.

    Paul appeals to a "probability" or an example from the past that verifies the truth of the present. Ishmael was an ethnic descendant of Abraham, fully eligible by the law of the day for the blessings of the covenant with YHWH. Thus there is precedent as well for modern ethnic descendants of Abraham to be rejected, and not merely accepted on an ethnic (group membership) basis. This sort of precedent would be a convincing form of forensic proof for an ancient reader.

    TPF agrees with this point, and thus ironically performs the very social science scholarship its author has rejected in our exchange. But then it goes rather too far in an effort to secure its preferred interpretation. "Two truths" are taken from these three verses.

  • "...God determined who was, and who was not, a child of promise."

    That is so, but the obvious intent of TPF is to glean from this some rhetorical support for the Calvinist doctrine of election. There is none; no criteria is stated for how or why God made the determination, or at what point (in the primarily causal, ideal pre-existence of Isaac and Ishmael?).

  • "...Paul is speaking of the salvation of individuals."

    This is a false step. While Paul uses this "probability" as an illustration which can by extension bear some relevance on issues of salvation, the salvation-status of Ishmael is never discussed (contrary to Piper, Pip. JG., 43). Indeed, since he was circumcised it is arguable that he entered into a covenant relationship with YHWH and could have been saved as were the other OT saints; but nothing is said of this by Paul one way or the other (Gen. 17:26) Yet Piper believes that opponents of Paul could argue that Ishmael was excluded from the covenant, and thereby creates a "loophole" that Paul needs to answer. There would be no such grounds for such an argument.

    As Morris [353] puts it, "This does not mean that Ishmael and Esau were necessarily excluded from the covenant; it was God's command that they receive circumcision, the sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:9-13; cf. vv. 23, 26). They were not excluded from the mercy of God and both received blessing." Cranfield [2/475] likewise: "So we must not read into Paul's argument any suggestion that Ishmael, because he is not chosen to play a positive part in the accomplishment of God's special purpose, is therefore excluded from the embrace of God's mercy."

    So, if this passage is about salvation of individuals as White claims, it would tend to prove some sort of universalism at worst, which we are sure White does not want to claim.

    Moo [576n] acknowledges this, even as a Calvinist, but responds with a non-answer: "But the text Paul quotes focuses, as we have seen, on the clear distinction drawn in Genesis between Isaac and Ishmael in terms of the covenant. Isaac is the heir who receives and through whom are transmitted the spiritual blessings of the covenant."

    But all Moo does here is reverse his accusation against those like Cranfield and Morris, whom he claims "minimize the spiritual implications" -- Moo in turn merely tries to maximize the spiritual implications, and in so doing, passes right by the better answer, that "salvation of individuals" isn't Paul's subject.

    Again, as yet, Paul is not concerned with "salvation" -- he is merely addressing the specific point that ethnic identity is no guarantee of fulfillment of a promise of any sort (not salvation in particular). By expansion one may say as well, nothing about a person guarantees that God will give them something -- and this meaning, from the point of view of men (more on this shortly).

    The covenant promise to Isaac was about land and blessing in this life -- the soteriological aspects of the promise (the Temple cultus) would not be presented for many years yet. Thus, at most, it would only be right to say that "Paul is talking about salvation" in the sense that it would be right to say that someone saying, "the animals of the world are glorious" is "talking about badgers" -- we have something that shows us that God is in charge of setting the rules, and presumably, He does so in all settings, not just this one. But none of this tells us what exactly the rules are for anything beyond covenant membership, and the particular negative, "ethnic identity" isn't.

    Moo [571] rightly rejects the idea that Paul "is implying nothing about the salvation of individuals" (emphasis added) but the Calvinist goes too far in thinking that Paul is saying everything and all that can be said about the salvation of individuals. Indeed, "implication" is really all that CAN be derived from Paul about this subject here, and Calvinists fill in the rest based on assumption.

    Edwards' commentary on Romans [231-2] puts it this way: "What role, if any, Ishmael, for example, played in God's broader economy we do not know, though we are told that God blessed and cared for him (Gen. 16:10-14; 17-20; 21:13-21)." And: "In the present context Paul is not discussing the eternal salvation of individuals, but God's purposeful choices in history from Abraham to Christ." [233]

    But, for the first time, the question is raised, "Why Isaac and not Ishmael?" Paul gives no reply; as a loyal Hebrew, as Wilson would put it, he would consider the question pointless, for it would be quite obvious what the answer would be: God is holy, just and good; therefore, whatever the reasons for His choice of Isaac over Ishmael, it was right. Why bother of the details?

    The answer would reside in God's nature, so we can make a reasonable assessment. God is love; his choice is motivated by love (meaning, in the sense of agape, the greater good); so Isaac was chosen over Ishmael because it served the greater good.

    And, why is that? Perhaps the answer lies in what DID happen when Ishmael founded a nation: It was obviously less suitable for God's purpose which Isaac's descendants fulfilled. The Calvinist like Palmer who merely gives up and says a "human searching mind" can find no answer, does so aware that they cannot take the same route we have without undermining their own doctrine of election.

    We cannot conclude at all from this WHY God chose one over the other; Paul only tells us why God did NOT choose one over the other -- not because of ethnic identity. And since this alone is the matter germane to the issues he is addressing, we should hardly have expected an answer to the "why" beyond this anyway. Both his subject matter and his Hebrew expression of mind mean that Paul saw no need to expound the matter further.

    Thus, how Paul addresses the issues is clear:

  • "If the Jews are covenant people, why do the majority reject the Gospel?"

    The answer: Ethnic identity has nothing to do with being God's covenant people. So the rejection of the Gospel by the Jews means nothing.

  • "If the Jews are condemned for rejecting Christ, how do you explain that they remain in power in Judaea with Roman blessing even now, that their religion thrives, that they possess this beautiful Temple?"

    How then to explain Ishmael's own extensive blessing, and the many nations he fathered?

  • "The failure of the Jews to believe is a reason to reject and condemn Israel as a body."

    Yet God blessed Ishmael and Esau, and accepted them into His covenant, so there is no reason to not evangelize Jews.

    10 And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; 11 (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) 12 It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. 13 As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.

    Bearing again in mind that Paul is NOT talking about "salvation" in the sense described, he offers yet a second example confirming his point that ethnic identity is of no relevance. On simply ethnic grounds Esau and Jacob were even; on the basis that Jews of Paul's day claimed covenant promises, there was no latitude given to Esau. Indeed, Esau is a perfect foil for the Jews of Paul's day, since he was firstborn, and Jews of Paul's day would see themselves in the prime position for covenant benefits.

    Moreover, as one who rejected the covenant and treated it with disdain, Esau would be a perfect parallel to 1st century Jews who disobeyed the covenant, notably Deut. 18. Thus also Piper's request is satisfied [Pip. JG, 40] that he has looked "in vain" and can find no non-Calvinist explanation for how 9:12-13 fits with 9:6b. Under the paradigm of group identity, 9:12-13 are meant to prove the statement of 9:6 my showing that ethnic relation by Esau to Isaac did not make him "Israel" any more than it would for Jews of Paul's day.

    Piper simply needed to understand the collectivist culture in which Paul was immersed. As such, his claim fails that 9:6-13 "must address the issue of eternal salvation" [46] simply because he could find no other viable interpretation.

    The Calvinist argues that "Rom. 9:11 rules out the possibility that election and reprobation are based on what the objects of election and reprobation would or would not have done." That is far from the only reading available from scholars that hold, as we do, that it is about "God's freedom to employ and order whatever agents to achieve his purposes in history" -- here, specifically, "the fulfillment of the covenantal promise to the heirs of Abraham."

    But Calvinists seize on that "works" are singled out as a reason for God to elect and save. Our reply is twofold.

    First, we have asked whether the mere making of a decision is a "work." The attempts we have been given to show this have failed, mainly for not showing that decision-making of the sort we have in mind (asking, "God, may I join your covenant community?" or on the trivial end, "Is it time to eat breakfast?") are "works."

    Second, Esler [283-4] notes that given that Paul elsewhere in Romans refers to the "works of the law" it is probable here that what he has in mind is not general works-righteousness, but a reference to the entire system of works-salvation associated with Judaism, such as circumcision (Rom. 3:1). Note that Paul refers to "works of the law" as simply "works" elsewhere in Romans (3:27, 4:1, 4:6; cf. 9:32). This would be germane because Jacob, being so far prior to the covenant of Sinai, would make for a poor example for Jews of Paul's day who appealed to their covenant-status as a reason to see themselves as elect. He had been elected before being born -- before even circumcision and before doing any good or evil (paralleling the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy, conceptually)!

    In fairness, it should be noted that commentators like Morris [356] disagree with Esler and believe that not merely law works, but ALL works are in view. We believe that this makes the passage less germane to Paul's purpose; but even so, Morris further states: "It is election to privilege that is in mind, not eternal salvation." Cranfield [2/479] concurs. And as noted, since Esau was himself granted entry into a covenant with YHWH that mirrored Jacob's, making this passage about salvation would lead to a problematic conclusion for Calvinists.

    One of Piper's presumptive steps here [Pip. JG, 33] is a full equation of the "purpose" of v. 11 with the "word" of v. 6. There is no basis for this arbitrary declaration, and no reason to expand the "purpose" of v. 11 beyond the issue of the election of Esau and Jacob. This does not mean that God does not have "purpose" in other areas, but by equating the two words completely, Piper locks God's "purpose" into a deterministic straitjacket. Moreover, he assumes (not for the only time) that there is only one way whereby God can enact His purposes, via Calvinistic predestination.

    Paul expands the point with verse 13 to nations as well as individuals -- quoting Malachi, which is about corporate Israel and Edom. Thus he also makes the matter relevant to the modern in-groups of Israel and the body of Christ. Commentators are divided on whether individuals or nations are in view, or both; we would suggest the latter.

    Of course, an ancient reading this text would immediately associate the root ancestor of the group with the entirety of the group, so even passages that seem to be strictly about one person have direct application for their corporate descendants as well. It is best not to even establish a dichotomy between individuals and persons at all in this context. Edwards [234] makes the further point that although "Edom as a nation was rejected, Edomites were beyond neither Israel's compassion nor God's (e.g., 'Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother,' Deut. 23:7)". Calvinism, once again, leads unwittingly to universalism here.

    Therefore, what of the "why" of election, even if it is about salvation? The matter as stated by both White and Piper ("not merely prior to their good or evil deeds, but...also completely independently of them") creates a certain dissonance with a later portion of Romans 9. Paul goes on to analogically compare men to vessels made by the Potter. Doesn't this indicate that vessels are made for certain purposes? (Of course it does.) And does this not suggest that to fulfill their purpose the vessels are made a certain way, and that there is something about them which fulfills the purpose? The point missed here is that the indication is not so much "completely independent" of what was in the twins, as what was in them that God as the Potter (and Prime Mover) created in them to enact His sovereign will.

    And it is not as though Esau could "compete" for Jacob's place, or as though Jacob could boast because God made him more in line with the purpose He had established -- and this is especially the case with the issue at hand, racial and social identity, which hardly gives anyone a leg up in the theological realm.

    So, what of the matter "not of works?" Here we offer three replies.

    The first is that once again, Paul is not talking about salvation. Rather, as Esler says, "Paul shows how a wide class of natural progeny can be steadily reduced by God intervening in favor of particular offspring in successive generations," [280] nor is he talking about general works, necessarily. But even if he is, in both cases, we have the same appeal we have had before, with 9:16:

    Jeremiah 7:22 For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices...

    By [this Skeptic's] line of thinking, Jeremiah 7:22 "stands in flagrant contradiction of what the last four books of the Pentateuch say" with their many commands of offerings and sacrifices. Presumably we are to think that Jeremiah represents some "anti-cultus" faction that denies the Mosaic heritage -- some would say, that he is speaking against a recent forgery of Deuteronomy "discovered" in the Temple.

    The simple answer to this notes that this is rather the use of hyperbole to effect a point. The purpose of this phrase is to show the relative importance of sacrifices, etc., in terms of inward attitudes...

    ...Jeremiah (as well as other Biblical writers - cf. Amos 5:21-5, Micah 6:1-8, Is. 1:10-17) here employs a type of idiom designed to grab the attention of his hearers and cause his message to be noticed and our verse (22), a rhetorical negation is used to bring attention to the fact that internal posture is more important than external ritual. By expressing the matter in terms of a negation, the hearer/reader is first shocked, then realizes from the admonitions following what the actual point is: As it is expressed in 1 Samuel 15:22:

    Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

    This sort of outrageous, rhetorical teaching technique was quite common to Semitic and ANE culture...Bright [Brig. Jer., 57] speaks for the overwhelming majority of commentators (conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike) when he writes of Jer. 7:22:

    It is unlikely, however, that it is to be taken either as a categorical rejection of the sacrificial system as such, or as a statement that there was no sacrifice in the wilderness.

    The point, he continues, is rather that "God's essential demands did not concern ritual matters, but the keeping of the Covenant stipulations." For this view, see also: Alle., Jer: 64-5; Clem., Jer: 46-7; Huey., Jer., Lam: 109; Thomp., Jer: 287-8.

    The negation idiom emerges from the Hebrew word lo, which transliterates as "not." On this matter, the principal study has been done by Whitney [Whit. Jer 7:22, 152], who describes the usage of lo in Jer. 7:22 as "a form of hyperbolic verbal irony intended to intensify the contrast between what is present in the mind of the audience and what ought to be present." Whitney shows this idiomatic usage of lo elsewhere in the OT: Gen. 45:7-8, Ex. 16:8, 1 Sam. 8:7, 1 Sam. 20:14-15, Job 2:10, Jer. 16:14-15, Ezek. 16:47 and Hos. 6:6. His conclusion agrees with that of Feinberg [Fein. Comm. Jer, 75]:

    ...The negative in Hebrew often supplies the lack of the comparative - i.e., without excluding the thing denied, the statement implies only the prior importance of the things set in contrast to it.

    Likewise, Laymon [Laym. Int. B, 380]:

    Hebrew idiom allows the denial of one thing in order to assert another, and the intention here is not wholly to deny but only to relegate to second place.

    And thus we ask: Is there any reason why the "not" in Romans 9:13 and 9:16 should not be read in the same sense as the "not" in Jer. 7:22 -- as a negation idiom, not excluding the thing denied, but rather, stressing the prior importance of God's sovereignty in contrast?

    I still await a viable answer to this that does not special plead for Paul to be different than what he is. Piper [35] declares that the force of the "not" is shown by the "similar Pauline phrase," "not from works but from faith" [35]. But Semitic anthropology undermines Piper's assertion: Works are regarded as a natural and automatic outgrowth of genuine faith; thus there is overlap and not dichotomy between them. Thus, this "Pauline phrase" (Piper does not give a citation, but may have in mind Eph. 2:8-9 -- and if so, that also may not refer to our faith at all -- see Link 2 below) does not force the "not" to be any more absolute, and if anything, lends credence to our understanding.

    And third, we reply thusly: Denying at all that characteristics is of any relevance leaves the Calvinist with nothing but pious declarations of non-answer like Palmer's. For it runs down to this:

  • God's choice was either arbitrary or with purpose. There is no third option.

    Calvinists certainly would deny that God is arbitrary, so they must choose the latter option. This leads to:

  • God having purpose, means that either A or B or C....were best suited to God's purpose.
  • To be suited means to have specific characteristics appropriate to a setting.
  • Therefore, there must be something about A, B or C that motivated God's choice.

    The Calvinist has no answer to this other than Palmer's epistemic surrender. It is far simpler to escape the conundrum by either 1) accepting that "salvation" is not Paul's subject, nor/or not general works-righteousness; or, 2) appealing to a known and recognized, non-controversial feature of the language used by Paul, found elsewhere in the Bible, and acknowledged to exist by the consensus of scholarship.

    Indeed, it is significant that Piper admits that early Latin and Greek commentators held the very view we hold, and which he decries. So now we can ask White: These men bowed the knee to Christ as much as Calvin did. Why not believe what they said? (Indeed, Piper uses Qumran texts to support his own view; so, how can he do this, if the Qumranites did not bow the knee to Christ?)

    14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. 15 For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

    This is the most critical section for our purposes, and we will remind the reader of what we have said, and make direct correlation to Paul's purpose in Romans:

  • We have said, that in an ancient context, "mercy" is better rendered as "gratitude" or "steadfast love" -- as in, "the debt of interpersonal obligations for unrepayable favors received." Mercy is not involved with feelings of compassion, as today, but the "paying of one's debt of interpersonal obligation by forgiving a trivial debt." To say, "Lord, have mercy!" (Matt. 20:31) means, "Lord, pay up your debt of interpersonal obligation to us!" Far from being a plea of the hapless, it is a request to pay back previously earned favor.

    In light of the nature of the objection -- that God would be abandoning covenant promises, if Christianity were true -- Paul's answer is to reaffirm God's OT pledge that He will be merciful -- that is, that God does not abandon covenant promises. The meaning of "mercy," as we have described it, fits perfectly within the context of Romans 9. Moreover, since the OT contains both this pledge and the examples Paul gave of Esau and Ishmael, the objector, if a Jew, is trapped in his own authority matrix.

  • We have said, that "compassion" in the Biblical world was "a value rooted primarily in kinship obligations." [30] It relates to the value that family, as a bonded group, ought to have the greatest consideration for one another.

    In light of the nature of the objection, again, Paul's answer reaffirms God's OT pledge that He will indeed fulfill his kinship obligations. Thus, what Paul quotes is a firm denial, by assertion, of the very thing that his opponents in Judaism would insinuate.

    So, to Piper's question [76] of how this answers the objection that God is not righteous, it is Paul answering, by means of an OT text his opponents must admit is authoritative, by affirming that God is one who keeps His word. It is a character-affirmation against the charge that God is unrighteous. Note as well that this comes from Ex. 33:19, which in context is (12-23):

    12 And Moses said unto the LORD, See, thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people: and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me. Yet thou hast said, I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in my sight. 13 Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, shew me now thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight: and consider that this nation is thy people. 14 And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest. 15 And he said unto him, If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence. 16 For wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? is it not in that thou goest with us? so shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth. 17 And the LORD said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name. 18 And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. 19 And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. 20 And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. 21 And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: 22 And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: 23 And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.

    Note that in context, Moses is asking God for confirmation of His covenant pledge: "consider that this nation is thy people." "Wherein shall it be known that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight?" And the reply is one in which "God's character guarantees his actions." [Edwards, 237]

    In all of this, Calvinists have one half of the equation right: God's discretion is what makes for whom He grants mercy and compassion. But the other half of the equation, they force onto the text: The specific process of how mercy and compassion are divinely delivered. And they accomplish this in part by a forced, unnatural, and decontextualized reading of this critical verse:

    16 So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.

    We have already repeated our case concerning the "not" (and by extension, the "nor") above. To read it with wooden literalism results in logical and contextual problems of the same sort reading Jer. 7:22 that way would produce. Mercy is more important; but human action and will is not entirely ruled out as a factor, merely subordinated.

    Beyond this, once again Paul's context should be reckoned with anyway: The covenant is with who He makes it with; those outside it -- violators in some way, like Ishmael, Esau, and Jews of Paul's day -- are "willers" and "runners" trying to force their way into covenant relationship, or else actually rejecting it (and yet, they too were welcomed into a covenant relationship).

    Put it this way: Without a covenant, it doesn't matter how good you are or what you do -- God has to agree to save you, to do His end of the process first.

    White sets up the red herring that it is either his reading, or else, man is in the "all-powerful position of final say in whether the entire work of the Triune God will fail." [210] Dramatics aside, this view gives the "final say" to God on all points; because it is God who made the rules, and man who must only decide whether to follow them. One may as well say that our criminal justice system "fails" because it actually succeeds in trying, arresting, and incarcerating people.

    Piper admits [Pip. JG, 132] of an interpretation grounded in a Jewish context which allows for another understanding of Rom. 9:16 and the word "runneth." Ps. 119:32 says, "I will run the way of your commands" and Piper admits that this "commends itself readily as an indication of how Paul may have understood running here," as meaning the moral resolve to keep the law. This understanding in fact fits hand in glove with the one we have been offering, for it would be a perfect reply to the Jewish opponent of Paul who puts his eggs in the social-identity basket.

    Piper also admits that this coheres with Rom. 9:30, which refers to Israel "pursuing a law of righteousness." Piper also notes rabbinic usage that mirrors this. To escape this clear parallel, Piper solemnly declares that we cannot place "unintended limitation" on Paul's words. He gives three reasons for this:

  • First, he appeals to the parallel in 9:11; but in so doing, he merely begs the question of his erroneous Calvinist reading, in order to support the same reading for 9:16, and moreover, as we noted, Esler has shown that 9:11 ought also be read in terms of the works of the law, not works in general -- both of which make perfect sense as a reply to Paul's Jewish opponents.
  • Second, Piper begs a second question with appeal to his understanding of Ex. 33:19, which as we have shown, has nothing to do with eliminating human response completely.
  • Third, Piper reaches all the way over to Phil. 2:13 for a parallel, claiming it offers a "positive counterpart" that verifies his view of Rom. 9:16. But Phil. 2:13 is, first of all, addressed to Spirit-filled Christians, not to prospective converts; moreover, Phil. 2:13 does not tell us HOW God works in His people (whether via subtle influences or abrupt manhandling) and so provides no support for a Calvinist determinism.

    In all of this, it is still agreed that it is God's decision to whom He offers covenant mercy. We also agree with Piper that it does not matter if you do work for God cheerfully or begrudgingly [134]. However, this does not in the least eliminate the human factor in accepting God's covenant provisions of one's own free will. Furthermore, even without all of this, Cranfield [2/483] calls Calvin's reading into this "a disastrous distortion" which turns this passage into "an absolute freedom to be merciful or to be unmerciful" which creates "a will of God that is different from His merciful will."

    17 For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. 18 Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.

    Pharaoh here, and corporate Egypt, serve as an example of one with whom God did NOT establish a covenant relationship, and was indeed a most poignant example for the case at hand, since Pharaoh opposed the covenant people (as Jews of Paul's day surely opposed Christians). And it serves further to suggest for Paul's readers that those opposed to God can and will be hardened (thus, why Jews would not believe).

    It should be noted that there is a dichotomy in the original story as to how the hardening was done and by whom. As Glenn Miller notes (see link 3 below), and to which we relate certain points against the Calvinist view:

  • The sequence of events is instructive: during the first 5 plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart without any help from God (Exodus 7.13,14,22; 8.15,19,32; 9.7). Then God does one (9.12), then Pharaoh and his officials do one together (9.34-35), then God does the rest. Note that contrary to the implication of White, who only points out that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, there is clear indication of Pharaoh hardening his heart of his own accord. By ignoring this aspect of Exodus, White creates a false picture. The hardening clearly occurs after freewill decisions to reject God. (Miller, though, seems to have erred in citation; Pharaoh hardens his own heart in 8:15 and 32, and 9:34; other cites he offers do not specify who gives the hardening.)
  • The miracles/signs/judgments themselves had the end-goal: * so that the Egyptians would know that Yahweh was God (and therefore come into a positive relationship with him?)-- 14.4,17; and * so that the Israelites would know that YAHWEH had delivered them from their oppression with power, and was therefore a God they could depend on for their needs (10.1), and * so that the whole world would hear about God (presumably for the same reason?)--9.16...the end goal seems to be to wake everybody up concerning the true and living God.

    In this light, it is arguable yet again that Romans 9 is hand in glove with the idea that freewill decisions are part of the process. Miller concludes:

    There is a motif that I didn't get to in those first points 1-12 on the interpretation issues, that is relevant here. God seems to deal with us (in many cases) in other words, if I choose to reject his truth in my life in favor of a lie, he will resist me for a while, but eventually will 'turn me over' to what I want -- to teach me a lesson. He is selective in this with me, since I am related to him by son ship as opposed to merely citizenship. (In biblical terms, all humans are citizens of his universal kingdom, but only those who have trusted his son are adopted into his royal family). In the citizenship model, God has a legal 'code' that would prescribe this punishment for citizens of his jurisdiction. But as any judge, he has some latitude in how exhaustive he invokes the code. So, to suit his Plans, he may exact a lesser sentence on some, whereas for others he might treat them as those who 'deliberately forget' (II Peter 3.5) and "they perish, because they REFUSED TO LOVE THE TRUTH and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie" (2 Thess. 2.10f). This last verse (and related passages) convinces me of this spiral-character of our response: if we want to believe a lie, God will send us one! And, if we want to believe the truth, God will get it to us.

    We know that God "sends hardness of heart" as a punishment from Lamentations 3:59ff:

    O Lord, Thou hast seen my oppression; Judge my case. 60 Thou hast seen all their vengeance, All their schemes against me. 61 Thou hast heard their reproach, O Lord, All their schemes against me. 62 The lips of my assailants and their whispering Are against me all day long. 63 Look on their sitting and their rising; I am their mocking song. 64 Thou wilt recompense them, O Lord, According to the work of their hands. 65 Thou wilt give them hardness of heart, Thy curse will be on them.

    What this means is that the judgments of God were not because of the later hardenings, but that the later hardenings were judgments themselves. (This motif also shows up in Joshua, where the kings who were being evicted from the land for atrocious crimes were 'hardened' so they would fight Israel (cf. Jos 11.19f).

    With this holistic view of Exodus, Calvinism's understanding of Romans 9 as merely a black-white, "either mercy or hardness" view, collapses and Calvin himself "goes beyond the text" [Cranfield, 489] in reading into this matters of "the ultimate destiny of the individual." Furthermore, there is no indication that Paul thinks that Pharaoh's hardening was permanent or irreversible. Israel's hardening certainly is not in his view (11:25-6) [By. Rom, 299] and Jewish traditions also held that Pharaoh later repented.

    Piper attempts to circumvent this problem. He refers back to Ex. 7:3-4: And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. From this Piper concludes that any time thereafter, simply because God predicts the conjunction of Himself hardening Pharaoh's heart and Pharaoh not listening, that verses like Ex. 9:34-35 (And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders were ceased, he sinned yet more, and hardened his heart, he and his servants. And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, neither would he let the children of Israel go; as the LORD had spoken by Moses.), which refer to Pharaoh hardening his OWN heart, as well as any that do not specify who did the hardening, MUST actually mean that God did the hardening, not Pharaoh.

    It did not occur to Piper that in such cases as 8:15 ("But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.") the reference is simply to the "hearkening" aspect and not the hardening aspect. In fact, the way Miller describes it fits a perfect "reversal" of prevenient grace, and the "circle dance" of grace. Piper rightly does say that Yahweh's hand was even in Pharaoh's own hardening from the beginning; but not in a way that he believes, creating open contradiction in the text in the process. God does indeed have the ultimate discretion; but as before, this merely significantly subordinates rather than eliminates the human role.

    Moo's own attempt to answer this point is not contrived (though he footnotes to Piper on the explanation for Pharaoh hardening his own heart), but does not really answer the point. It is agreed that "hardening" refers to an action of God that "renders a person insensitive to God and his word" [597] and that if not reversed, leads to eternal damnation. It is also agreed that God bestows mercy on His own initiative.

    Where the line is drawn is in the claim by Calvinists that God hardens some people such that He NEVER even offers them His mercy, or allows them a chance to accept it (though arguably, this might be done with respect to persons whom God foreknows would never accept His mercy to begin with). That cannot be drawn from Paul by any means.

    Nor, despite Moo, is it ever said that God is "constrained" to only harden those who harden themselves first; only rather that such hardening is not done with the whim or declarative arbitrariness of the Calvinist paradigm. Moo also attempts to avoid the force of 11:25 by indeed contriving a "vital distinction between the individual and corporate perspectives" [599] -- if hardening is reversed on a national scale, then obviously, it MUST be reversed to some degree upon individuals.

    Moreover, if the "corporate card" is put on the table, then even Moo agrees that "all Israel will be saved" in 11:26 does not mean every individual Israelite -- and there is still nothing in Paul that delivers the "why" of the hardenings. The retort that Paul says God "hardens whom he wishes" makes for the same Calvinist conundrum as the other question, "why choose this person and not the other".

    19 Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? 20 Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?

    As Esler notes, this is an answer "at the level of theological principle" and he rightly implies that it is not convincing -- for it is not an answer to the question posed. It is, as we have explained via Wilson, a way of telling men they have no right to object. And, as Morris [364] says: "Paul anticipates the question his reader will ask, but he does not answer them... Paul is saying that the questions we ask are illegitimate questions, and he lets it go at that" (emphasis added).

    Byrne [298] agrees: "Again, it has to be said that this hardly answers the difficulty posed, which concerned God's 'blaming' in a context where human responsibility has been suppressed. Moreover, human beings are not simply lifeless, passive clay."

    Cranfield [2/490] concurs as well: "But to assume that [Paul's] intention is to assert the absolute right of an indeterminate divine over the creature is to ignore the tenor of the arguments of chapter 9 to 11, not to mention the rest of the epistle."

    There is no "logic" here. Nor is logical response warranted: The question is like blaming one's mother for putting a cookie jar within reach so that cookies can be stolen. It is the classic "foolish question", itself internally inconsistent, for the question itself is a mild form of "resistance" against God. It is the answer to Job from the whirlwind (as Byrne even says: "The image is brought forward simply to illustrate and evoke a basic biblical dogma -- one emerging above all from the book of Job"): "What do you know, little man? What right do you have to correct me?"

    Byrne thus adds: "It is quite misguided to press out of the homely image more wide-ranging theological conclusions" such as Double Predestination. Mounce [199] agrees, in his comments on 9:10-13: "Paul was not building a case for salvation that in no way involves the consent of the individual. Nor was he teaching double predestination. Rather he was arguing that the exclusion of so many Jews from the family of God did not constitute a failure on God's part to maintain his covenant relationship with Israel." He notes further from Achtemeier a common failure to distinguish between predeterminism(every thought and act is dictated by forces beyond our control) and predestination(setting of the final outcome with no determination of the route). This is just as well as our differentiation between Calvinist determinism and primary causality.

    Piper is indeed on the right track when he sees that Paul is replying to those who object that if God hardens people to do His will, then it seems unjust that God blames them. But as noted, the Calvinist answer of determinism of any sort isn't at all found in these texts. Paul nowhere describes how human freedom and God's freedom interact. And as noted above, the model of Pharaoh actually fits better a negative model of prevenient grace. None of this will be answered by calling commentators like Morris and Cranfield "desperate sinners" somehow out to "evade" the "clear truth" of this "blindsliding" passage.

    21 Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?

    As I have noted, I perceive a certain unwarranted extreme in what some Calvinist writers offer in this context. White sums up in one of many ways by saying, "One is not a Potter who has no role in determining the shape, function, and destiny of the pots." [Whit.PF, 71] I would say, "One is not a Potter who does not have the determinative role in deciding the shape, function, and destiny of the pots," and freeing the pots to whatever extent to become, of their free choice, of a certain shape or function that suits the Potter's will and purpose, is itself a sovereign decision that, as far as I can see, robs the Potter of no glory whatsoever, especially since the pots would owe whatever freedom they do have to the Potter's free and sovereign decision to release them.

    The analogy inevitably breaks down since pots do not make decisions (and there was no metaphor available for Paul that would express the point, since there was and is no other creation-Creator relationship in which free choices can be found). The only Calvinist answer I have had to this posits such contrivances that one could "boast" of accepting a free handout, which is behaviorally unimaginable.

    It should be noted that other uses of a "potter analogy" in Scripture readily imply that it is not merely that "pots are pots" as White says, but that the pottery has been given the free will to rebel:

    Is. 29:15-17 Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the LORD, and their works are in the dark, and they say, Who seeth us? and who knoweth us? 16 Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter's clay: for shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not? or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, He had no understanding?

    White [44] comments on the "absurdity" of this act by men, and he is right; but he stretches the analogy past intent, thereby failing to heed Chrysostom's advice to not "apply all the details of such an illustration indiscriminately." [2/491] These analogies comment only on the superiority of God to man; to take it further -- to suppose that men are also like pots in the sense of being unable to make any decisions at all, even within a system where God has permitted it -- is unwarranted.

    How can White escape the force of fatalism? As Morris notes, quoting Barrett: "To stress this point, however, is to emphasize a detail in the analogy instead of the major comparison, which is between the final responsibility of the potter for what he produces, and the final responsibility of God for what he does in history." [365-6n] And Bruce [Br. Rom, 178-9] adds: "It may be granted that the analogy of a potter and his pots covers one aspect only of the Creator's relation to those whom he has created, especially to human beings, created in his own image. Pots are not made in the potter's image, and they do not in any case answer him back or find fault with his workmanship."

    Indeed, the "image" point is all the stronger if we understand that it means that God gave men stewardship over His creation. What potter does such a thing to his pots? The point is that God is not answerable to us [184] but can be "relied on to act in consistency with his character," so that we have no grounds at all to question His ways.

    Piper [184] also stretches the analogy for his purposes, arguing that one might argue for distinctive quality as a factor had Paul spoken of "different" lumps of clay and not the same lump. But this is a false analogy. Ancient people would hardly have distinguished between the qualities of clay in such a manner; one lump would be the same as another, and a potter would get all his "lumps" from the same quarry. The distinctive already rests in how the pots are molded; and thus Piper as much admits that distinctives have a role.

    22 What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction:

    Paul's comment here is an answer direct to one of the issues Esler identifies: "How can the Jews now be in disfavor, what with the Temple, their political power, etc.?" The Calvinist thus again is misdirected in saying that the point is that "sinners" are in view. They are not, except in the general sense we have noted; Paul's direct target is present-day unbelieving Jews who think their success spells blessing.

    But even if we expand the principle allowably, nothing in this verse says a word about when and how "vessels of wrath" are designated in God's economy. It is as well to say that they are designated at the primarily causal level.

    Morris [368] points out that commentators have varied on how the vessels are "fitted" -- by themselves, by God, by some combination, even by Satan (!). Morris believes that the grammar and comparison to the next verse best fits with people fitting themselves for destruction, perhaps with help from Satan.

    23 And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, 24 Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

    Paul now draws a direct (and threatening) parallel between the example of Pharaoh and the non-believing Jews of his day: "Watch out! You could be disbelieving because you're a sign to everyone else!" But now for a critical turning point, for it is at this point that our thesis of interpretation comes into most clear focus -- and ironically, TPF, the flagship for popular Calvinism, drops off at this verse -- commenting hereafter only on v. 32. But look:

    25 As he saith also in Osee, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. 26 And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.

    The appeal to Hosea 2:23 and 1:10 fits hand in glove with our premise. "Mercy" and "compassion" versus "wrath" have been all about the distinction between "my people" and "not my people."

    27 Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved: 28 For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth. 29 And as Esaias said before, Except the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we had been as Sodoma, and been made like unto Gomorrha.

    Paul now provides further probability-evidence that it was already predicted that only a small number out of a people who thought themselves covenant-protected would be saved from wrath. This answers the "numbers" argument.

    30 What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. 31 But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. 32 Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; 33 As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.

    As we have noted, the Calvinist seizes on verses 16 and 18, for the point, that God's showing of mercy to specific persons in a manner wholly independent of the person's attributes or conduct. But then what of Romans 9:32, which explains that biological Israel has not attained righteousness "because they sought it not by faith but as it were by the works of the law"?

    Faith, as we have noted elsewhere, contextually means loyalty within the client-patron relationship. Verse 32 suggests that the mercy -- the fulfilling of obligations -- was withheld by God because of Israel's attributes or conduct, that is, the wrong way of seeking righteousness. Romans 9:16 becomes a statement that God will fulfill His obligations (decided of His own sovereign accord) to those with whom He has a relationship, and verse 18 adds that God will harden those with whom He has no relationship, who are not His "clients".

    Here, Esler moreover makes a critical point, acting as a corrective to Sanders' claim that Paul misrepresents Judaism of his day as "works-righteousness" oriented [283]. Paul's intent, he reads, is to say that Israel failed to obtain righteousness because, after Christ came, "they persisted with the law route rather than moving to the faith route." And this fits precisely with my earlier point: That not recognizing Christ (per Deut. 18) put non-Christian views into the position of being in rebellion to the covenant.

    Our conclusion thus is that Calvinists are guilty of what Edwards [236] describes as "channeling the river of providence into a straight and shallow sluiceway of theory."


    Sources Specific to Romans 9

  • Pip.JG -- Piper, John. The Justification of God. Baker, 1983.


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