Tue 17 Jul 2012
It’s been a while since I posted. This post is a result of my desire to expand a recent conversation on IRC beyond what the medium allows.
In more than one instance in the recent past I’ve been challenged on my view of Romans 9 as referring to individuals – being Reformed and attending a Calvary Chapel like I had for years will tend to lead to these conversations periodically (ya think?). In general I try to be honest with opposing viewpoints by attempting to understand the arguments made by people that I disagree with, and so I’ve attempted to read Romans 9 the way they might (or, more properly, the people they rely on might).
First, some background on me so people will understand where I’m coming from. I’ve been Reformed since ’93 when I first read …. Romans 9 , and found myself arguing with Paul. At that point a light went on. Verses I had just passed over or assumed I knew took on a new, fresh meaning and I could barely read a page of the old or new testament and not see God’s sovereignty all over it. As far as churches, I’ve been a member of: Calvary Chapel (which is where I was when I became Reformed), 2 OPC congregations, and most recently I’ve been attending a PCA (as well as visiting my old Calvary Chapel).
In the around 2005 I really began to understand Covenant Theology and started to interpret Scripture according to what (I hope) is an accurate use of the Historical Grammatical method. I wanted to understand what the authors’ intention was and how their audience would understand what they had written. With an understanding that the audience for New Testament texts where people that were largely steeped in the Old Testament. So, for good or bad, I tend to see allusions to the Old Testament passages as importing the entire context of those passages. They wouldn’t have required explanation. For example, in Luke 12
22And He said to His disciples, “For this reason I say to you, [j]do not worry about your [k]life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds!”
The reference to ravens is an allusion to Job 38 and 39; poetry on God’s sovereignty over even small things like the food raven’s eat. Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with that text and would have imported the entire content as the referent of verse 24 and the answer to the reasoning behind why not to worry.
When you look at Romans 9, it is possible to make a case (though perhaps a somewhat weak one) that Paul has communities in view. Again, I do not take it that way; this is an exercise in trying to understand when various interlocutors are coming from. Also, there are prominent Calvinists that read Romans 9 in this way, so I don’t think a “community” interpretation of Romans 9 is damaging to Calvinism in general.
Rom 9:1-5, Paul is grieved over Israel, his brethren according to the flesh, since even though they are God’s covenant community, inheritor of the promises of God in redemption, from whom is Christ Himself, as a community they reject Christ.
Rom 9, “6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”
So not all Israel is true Israel. There is a subset of the covenant community that inherits the promises (that are the children of the promise) that are the true offspring. Even though Abraham had Ishmael, the promises pass through Issac where Abraham’s “offspring shall be named.”
Note, it is not absurd to see that we have a community in view here. Those (many) that inherit the promises through Isaac.
Rom 9: 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
So before Esau (the federal head of Edom) gave up the birthright for a bowl of soup, before Jacob stole the blessings, in order that God’s purpose would stand he was told “the older will serve the younger.” The audience for this would have understood the full quote: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”
Rom 9:14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!
If communities are in view, why would this question be raised? Remember, Paul is grieving for the Old Covenant community in vs 1-6. and he just explained that God has the right to determine which community inherits the promise. Wouldn’t any Jew that thought about their community the way Paul does accuse God of unfairness with the nation?
So Paul explains:
Rom 9:15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
The audience would have had their attention called to Exodus 33.
18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
This reference is literally to the name of the LORD, the “I Am” who will be “gracious to whom [He] will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom [He] will show mercy.”
In short then, if the objection is to the fact that God is being unfair to the Old Covenant community, then the answer is a reference to who God is and that He does as He pleases with respect to which community inherits the promises.
Rom 9:16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy
This is a natural follow-on to the interpretation presented above. Even if communities are in view.
17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
To be honest, I think the “community” view breaks down here. The standard answer is to talk about how God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is in discipline for Pharaoh hardening his own heart. That may or may not be true, but if Paul is referring to that aspect here then I don’t see how it fits as an explanation for what’s at issue in the context. That is, how is it either an answer to how God can be fair, or more immediately, how does it serve as an example of God’s freedom to elect “communities” independent of man’s effort or will.
In order to make the “community” interpretation work, I can only read Paul here as using this as an example to explain what came immediately before it. In other words, it is only an example of how anything can “depend not on human will or exertion, but on God.” Then again, I’m not sure this does a non-Calvinist any good. From my perspective, it may allow a Calvinist to maintain a “community” view of Romans 9 – as some do.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
Why does he still find fault with Israel (as a community) if the promises passed to a different community (that he later points out is made up of only some of the Jews as well as Gentiles) by His will?
20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—
Again, an Old Testament reference:
Jeremiah 18:5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
The audience, having Jer. brought to mind, would recall the vessels in God’s hands as Israel, and in this context, since we’re talking about how God could pass the promises on from the Old Covenant community, would recognize this as an argument from the Old Testament on God’s sovereignty over Israel.
24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” 26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
Here we begin to define the New Covenant community. That community that is the “vessels of mercy.” That community that inherits the promises and are the children.
27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.”
And as God has predicted, only a remnant would pass from the Old Covenant community to the New Covenant community.
Now personally I believe that the context simply flows more fluidly when we see that individuals, as a subset of the covenant community, are what’s in view. However, being American born in the 20th century and therefore permeated with modernist and individualistic culture, I can’t be sure that the natural reading for the intended audience wouldn’t be closer to what’s in view above.
Note: My memory of past events occationally alludes me. In this case I originally mischaracterized the exchange with Perry. Below is a more accurate accounting.
This reminds me of something that happened on Perry Robinsons blog a while back. He discussed Romans 9 and Origen’s Influence on Protestant views of Predestination. His articles, at least in part, claimed that Calvinist views of predestination are a result of Origenistic Platonism inherited through Augustine. Then, I actually READ Origen on Romans 9. It turns out there were troublesome individuals in his congregation who took it … well … the way I do (i.e. applying to individuals) – and Origen found this abhorrent. Not only does this show this view has a history, Origen’s “refutation” was TOTAL PLATONISM. He didn’t exegete the text. He refuted it using Platonic philosophy.
When I made this apprent to Perry, he deleted my comments. Of course, I wasn’t really nice about it – which, knowing Perry (who never shrinks from a good argument) I’m sure is the real reason it was deleted.