If you wish to read this entire series of posts, the first post is here and at the end of each post there is a link to the next post in the series.
I did a series of thoughts on Reformed Theology a while back at a website I used to assist with on moderation and am still active with after stepping down after 6 years and feeling it was time for others to take over while I took a sabbatical of sort. The original thread is here.
I may revise them a little for readability here as I go along but if they seem a little odd in terms of the voice and casual approach, that is why.
I will only put my posts here as I haven’t asked for permission to include others with their comments.
As I continue with this series too, I want to give credit for a great deal of the framework of the thought to the influence of Roger Olson’s book, Against Calvinism. The words are my own, but I read that book and it definitely influences me and there are elements of it that are mirrored in my statements throughout these posts and those that follow.
Continuing on the examination of Romans 9 from the previous post:
3. If not Election to Salvation then Election to what? (cont.)
Romans 9 again is addressing things very different than how determinists read it. In addition to what is included above from the Old Testament reasserting God’s Plan to bless the whole world through Israel role in bringing Christ it’s evident from within Romans 9 and the following 2 chapters that this theme is at the heart of what Paul is saying as well. This can be seen directly in these 3 chapters in these portions. (Rom 9:25-26, Rom 9:33; Rom 10:10-21; Rom 11:11-12). Paul insisted that God was still going to obtain His goal despite Israel’s blindness in rejecting their Messiah only now He was going to use their blindness itself to accomplish His goal. This is the vast majority of Rom 11:11-32.
Paul isn’t speaking in Romans 9 of any individual being damned. Neither Ishmael nor Esau. He uses these particular individuals in his reasoning because his Jewish audience identified whole people groups with particular key ancestors. This is true of “Israel.” We forget that Israel, before it was used of the Nation was the name given to Jacob by God associated with his promise. Esau’s descendents were Edom and they were not elected by God, not to salvation but rather to the role and vocation of bringing the Messiah to all Nations. This has nothing to do with the idea that all Edomites or all Ishmaelites are damned by God in terms of their salvation.
So what does this do to the oft quoted passage of Rom 9:13 by those Calvinists who stand on this to show us how God “loves” his elect and “hates” his reprobate? It completely blows that concept out of the water. He isn’t speaking of individual eternal destinies. He’s speaking of the nations contained within them who came and that God chose Israel instead of them for His purposes and plans. Romans 9:13 is a quote from the Old Testament of Malachi 1:2-3. The use of the words “Love” and “Hate” in the Hebrew language and culture carried nuances that are not completely captured in English. These two words and concepts in Hebrew are often used in a form called “Hyperbole.” The expression is not stating that God “hates” that thing so much as he prefers the one over the other in such a way that his preference for the one makes the other appear like hate.
It would be one thing to point this out in these two passages if that’s the only place it’s present in the New Testament. It’s the same thing that is at work for example in some of the direct sayings of Christ, such as “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). Now, is Jesus contradicting the many scriptures in the Old Testament that command that fathers and mothers are to be respected and honored? Not at all. Jesus is saying that our love for Christ should be such that in comparison even our love for family seems like hate by comparison. It’s not saying declaratively that we’re to hate our families. Even most Neo, Hyper or High Calvinists recognize this and provide this very well accepted explanation. But for some reason it’s forgotten in Romans 9 where there it’s cited as evidence that God “hates” people He created and imbued with His image.
If you were to take the viewpoint that so many Calvinists quote Romans 9 you’d have to ignore this basic hermeneutic in order to come to that conclusion too. Then you’d have to go back to all the other passages that contradict it and come up with some sort of explanation as to why those passages in the Old Testament don’t mean what they plainly say. Isn’t it wonderful that the explanation is there in that one passage and the context provides the meaning so clearly? This is just one example of many (and not just for the Calvinist use of many verses) as to the danger in jumping all over Scripture using a Systematic Approach such as Calvinism does which again in my opinion uses the methodologies of Scholasticism. Verses that are quoted in this manner without carefully looking at the broader passages of Scripture can lead to all sorts of misunderstanding and poor teaching. It can even lead to people being asked to believe that God hates people based on a whim and on that whim damns them to hell when that has absolutely nothing to do with that passage when read in its immediate context. Does that sound harsh? What’s more harsh? Pointing out this error and the slander that it throws at the character of God or promoting that slander in the first place? Call me harsh. I’ll accept it gladly given the impact and importance of what is being said here even if I believe those teaching this view of the nature and character of God are sincere in their belief. They’re sincerely wrong.
4. There’s a Summary and it mentions Free Will
Paul was an excellent writer and those qualities did not disappear because he was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul had a habit in his writing that helps us in many places. After he presented a major theme or argument he would briefly restate what he had already said as a summary before moving on to his next point. Wouldn’t it be great if he did that in Romans 9 so that we had some confirmation of what he was trying to say?
Great news then; that’s exactly what Paul did.
Let’s look closer at Romans 9:30-32. There’s a lot of complexity and difficulty present in this passage (at least for us reading it 2000 years later with cultural issues at work and translation … I think it was much easier and clearer in Paul’s mind and the minds of those reading this back then.) So if all of this material in Romans 9 before it was about individual salvation and these verses are that summary that Paul so commonly gives we should expect it to say something like “God is Sovereign and has decided who the elect are and who are not, and who are we to question it?”
Does it say that?
Here’s what it says.
Romans 9:30 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.
Is it speaking of individuals? No? It’s speaking of the division between Jews and Gentiles (a primary theme of Paul in all his writings but especially in Romans and this was what Paul was building in Chapters 1 – 8. To believe that Paul was addressing individual Salvation and election and reprobation and determinism you’d have to believe that Paul almost on a whim changed gears and with little connection just launched into this discourse. But, it’s clear from his summary here, that he didn’t do that. As an “added bonus” (at least as I see it) Paul also makes it clear that he’s speaking of the blessing that has come to the Gentiles and how the Jews (again collectively, there’s obviously individual Jews of whom this is not true) have missed the blessing because of what they pursued, namely works instead of faith. That sounds remarkably like a choice to me and not an irrevocable decree by God.
This is extremely significant. Paul explains everything he’s been talking about throughout Romans 9 by appealing to the morally responsible choices of the Israelites and Gentiles because of their unbelief. The one thing God has always looked for in people is faith. The Jews did not “strive” by faith, though they should have (Rom 10:3). They rather chose to trust in their own works. The Gentiles, however, simply believed that God would justify them by faith. This theme recurs throughout chapters 9 through 11. As a nation, Paul says, the Jews “were broken off because of their unbelief…” (Rom 11:20). This is why they have been hardened (Rom. 11:7, 25) while the Gentiles, who sought God by faith, have been “grafted in” (Rom 11:23). This isn’t speaking of apostasy or losing one’s salvation at the individual level either. This is speaking at the higher level of corporate identification in terms of Jews and Gentiles.
We see that God’s process of hardening some and having mercy on others is not arbitrary: God expresses “severity toward those who have fallen [the nation of Israel] but kindness toward you [Gentile believers collectively] provided you continue in his kindness” (Rom 11:22). God has mercy on people and hardens people in response to their belief or unbelief. And he is willing to change his mind about both the hardening and the mercy, if people change. If Gentiles become arrogant and cease walking by faith alone, they will once again be “cut off.” And if the Jews who are now hardened will not “persist in their unbelief,” God will “graft them in again” (Rom. 11:22-23).
If you read the preceding verses in Romans 9 before this summary (and there is most definitely a shift when chapter 10 continues) as determinism suggests then this summary makes absolutely no sense and Paul might as well be writing a different letter. Hopefully this is clear. Even apart from the other issues here, this by itself is convincing to me.
5. He is the Potter, We are the Clay
Looking at Romans 9:19-21 is a metaphor that is used powerfully when determinism is assumed and read into the passage. It seems like a clincher to many. Again however, the context dictates the understanding and it must be kept in the context of the rest of the chapter that hopefully by now we’re seeing has to do with Jews and Gentiles collectively and not saints and sinners individually,
Rom 9:19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
I wonder if there’s something here that Paul is thinking of or referring to in the Old Testament that would help to make this clear in addition to the immediate context?
I think there is:
Jer 18: 1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4 But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
5 Then the word of the LORD came to me. 6 He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. 7 If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. 9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
This again is saying exactly the opposite of what determinism appeals to in this similar analogy in Romans 9. This is showing a picture of God’s dealing with the Nation of Israel (not individuals) and how God as a potter works with the clay of Israel. It’s not saying that God declares what the pot is and then that’s what it is. It’s saying in fact that God is flexible and can adjust His plan contingent upon what the clay presents. If God declares that judgement is coming and then Israel repents then God “changes His mind” if you will or adjusts. If Gentiles who have come by faith collectively down the road depart from their faith and pursue the works like Israel is doing then Gentiles just like Israel can be cast aside.
God will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy is speaking not of God just flipping a coin or appealing to whatever secret quality we want to attribute to Him that somehow was not revealed in Christ. God will have mercy on those who are in faith and he will reject those who are not in faith. The Jews in general have moved from faith to works so collectively His plan now has adjusted concerning them. The Gentiles in general are coming in faith and being accepted and God has changed His plan to accept them and bring them in where before they were outside of His plan.
God is Sovereign and He can decide to operate in this manner and the same question can be asked of hard-core Calvinists, Who are you to question God in this regard? Is your appeal to determinism and Strong Sovereignty such that you should declare that God plans evil and sends people to hell based on nothing other than His power, because He can do it? Who are you to say God cannot choose to limit His power in a form of weak sovereignty.
6. Raw Power or God’s Wisdom displayed through Christ?
When Paul responds to the charge of injustice by asking, “who… are you, a human being, to argue with God?” (Rom 9:20), he is not appealing to the sheer power of the potter over the clay. He is appealing to the sovereign wisdom of the potter in refashioning clay in a manner that fits the kind of clay he has to work with. When “clay” yields to his influence and has faith, he fashions a vessel of honor. When “clay” becomes “spoiled” (Jere 18:4) and resists his will, he fashions a “vessel of ordinary use” that is being prepared for destruction.
Again, this fashioning looks arbitrary to Jews who believed that they were the “vessel of honor” by virtue of their national identity or good works – Jews who did not “strive for [God’s righteousness] on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works” (Rom 9:32). It is to these people, expressing this sentiment, that Paul sarcastically asks, “Who are you…?” In truth, God’s fashioning is not arbitrary at all. It is based on whether or not one is willing “to seek” after the righteousness of God that comes by faith, not works (Rom 9:30–32; Rom 10:3–5, 12–13; Rom 11:22–23).
That’s all I have to say on this, but I felt this passage more than any other needed this type of attention because it’s the bedrock of what Calvinistic Determinism appeals to more than any other passage I’ve observed. I’ll address in shorter fashion a few other passages and then conclude.
So you know too, in an effort to be helpful, I’ll end with a positive look at what I think is good with Calvinism and how to examine this issue more if you want to understand or wrestle with it more.
The next post in this series can be found here.