Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Five Important Points about Romans 9-11

1. They're not totally about individuals.
Indeed, Romans 9-11 are far more about Israel and the Gentiles than about individuals. More than anything else, the question Paul is asking is why the vast majority of Israel has not accepted Christ as the Messiah. His discussion is not an abstract philosophical discourse on the fate of individuals in the sovereign will of God. The question is why the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world have not accepted the good news.

To answer this question, he invokes remnant language (e.g., 9:27). There is a chosen remnant who will be saved, true Israel. "Not all Israel is truly Israel" (e.g., 9:6).

If we dot our philosophical i's and cross our logical t's, these statements would indeed imply that God had selected individual Israelites from Israel to be saved. Augustine and later five point Calvinists would thus rebut that individual predestination is implied even if it is not Paul's primary point. Logically this is of course true.

But good original meaning interpretation is not about fitting the words of the Bible into some abstract philosophical or theological system. That is modernist glue. Good original meaning interpretation asks what Paul's logic was, tries to get into his head rather than to put him into ours.

What is Paul really doing with these words? Is he making an abstract argument for individual predestination? He is not. His focus is why a group has rejected Jesus, not why specific individuals have accepted him.

2. The dots of election and condition are not connected.
It is perfectly logical to suggest that if God determines who will be saved on the basis of His will (e.g., Rom. 9:16), then election is unconditional in terms of human will. But is this Paul's logic? That is the question for the person who actually listens to Paul rather than shoving his or her own abstract logic down his throat.

Certainly Paul does not practice this theology of election. He says in Romans 10:13, "Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." And he conducts his mission with the hope that anyone might accept the lordship of Christ. Again, we cannot fault the logic of soft determinists who argue that we must act in this world as if we have free will even though we know we can only accept God if He has already chosen us of His own will.

Very logical. But is it Paul's logic? We at least run into problems with this logic in certain other books of the New Testament. 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God wants everyone to be saved. But if God truly elects unconditionally, then we must conclude for universalism--that all humans will indeed be saved in the end. But since this is clearly not Paul's position, we begin to wonder whether Paul connected the philosophical dots that are the pride of certain Christian thinkers.

Indeed, we run into linguistic problems in 2 Peter 1:11, which encourages its audience to make its calling and election "steadfast." If election is unconditional, then how can human action play a role in election? Similarly, Romans 8:29 says that it is those whom God foreknew, that He predestined for resurrection.

If we really value the text, then we will let it say what it says. How does it reflect a "higher" view of Scripture to make it fit with our logic when good listening says it doesn't. That's a higher view of logic, not a higher view of the actual text of Scripture.

Paul and the early Christians used the word election, but they did not connect it in practice to conditions on salvation nor did they connect it to other parts of their theology.

Here we think of the Oedipus saga. In this story, everyone seems to act freely. Oepidus seems freely to leave Corinth so he will not kill his father. Laius seems freely to surrender his child to be killed. But at the end of all these free actions, the result is exactly what was fated and foretold. Perhaps this is instructive. Fate seems to have worked paradoxically in the ancient world. Within the limits of their circumstances, people felt free in their actions and their wills did not feel compelled. But they saw the end results as something determined by Fate.

3. Salvation is not limited by the theology of election.
This one is a no brainer, and we remember that there are four point Calvinists who reject the idea of limited atonement. It would be plausible to suggest that because God has chosen those who will be saved, Christ died only for those. But four point Calvinists rightly reject this point of hard core five pointism.

While not all come to Christ, the operating principles of Paul and other early Christians were that "whoever" could come. Even if one is to adopt a rigid view of predestination, far more noble is that Calvinist view that holds out the theoretical possibility that anyone might come--only that in reality only those helped specifically by grace will.

But again, these are not the arguments or logic of Paul. They are the arguments we get into when we begin to try to connect exegetical dots. We're certainly not in Romans anymore.

4. God can do whatever He wants.
I believe that one of the main points of Romans 9 is that God can do whatever He wants. And this is of course true. If God wants to command, say, Abraham to go sacrifice His son Isaac, God can do it. He's God.

But it is equally important to point out that, in the end, He doesn't have Abraham go through with it. In other words, Romans 9 is more a reminder of God's right to put His plan into force than it is a statement on how much God is looking forward to frying Israel.

And we must ultimately see Romans 9 in terms of God's plan. In God's mysterious will, Israel is currently experiencing a hardening of heart (Rom. 11:7, 25). And God can harden Pharoah's heart if He wants to (9:16-18).

These statements seem to be making a theological point that, once again, Paul does not integrate into the rest of His theology or into His practice. The pottery has no right to question what its potter God is doing. If God wants to bring the Gentiles in, if He wants the bulk of Israel to reject Christ, then that's His prerogative.

5. Even those He has hardened will persevere.
But Paul doesn't connect the dots, as we mentioned above in point two. He is describing what has happened and attributing it to God's mysterious will. But he does not thereby give up on those whom he has just called hardened.

Have they stumbled so much as to fall (11:11)? No. Has God rejected them, even though He has hardened them (11:1)? No. Indeed, because God's election of Israel is irrevocable (11:29), all Israel will be saved (11:26). Those who are currently the enemies of God will turn to God when God is done with His work on the Gentiles.

These are quite remarkable statements, for they imply that even the "hardened" can be saved. This is no standard predestination fare, especially when we consider that Paul likely thought these things would happen far sooner than later. In other words, he was not thinking that the salvation of Israel would take place 2000 years later. Given comments he makes in passages like 1 Corinthians 7:29 and 1 Thessalonians 4:17, he seems to have expected these things within a few years. We thus must see the same individuals potentially involved in both the hardening and salvation.

In short, Paul affirms salvation as a matter of God's election and hardening (at least in relation to the Israel of that day) as a matter of God's will as well. But Paul operates both in the rest of his theology and certainly in practice as if everyone can freely chose God. Election language is thus "after the fact" language in the way Paul uses it, not "pre" language. Despite the fact that he uses it in reference to predetermined things, his actual use reflects that we only know election because of human choices, not before.


Aaron said...

Great points. One quick question. Can God really do whatever he wants. Can God do something against his own nature? Or can he stop being triune? If God would have gone through and had Isaac sacrificed we would have a very different view of God than the one he has revealed to us.

Ken Schenck said...

Aye, there's the rub. We've been here before! I suspect if we had Paul to interrogate, He would do something like he does here--say yes but deny that he would lie, etc...

Aaron said...

So Paul would say that whatever God does is good, purely because he is God. The act itself is sanctified by the fact that God is the one doing it? Is this true also for the trinity? Dr. Bounds seems to say that the Tradition of the church falls on the side that God does not transcend his nature morally nor .... personhoodwise.(couldnt' think of a better term for the what the trinity does)

Ken Schenck said...

What I was trying to say is I think Paul would want it both ways and probably wouldn't try or think to reconcile the two. This is not a well thought out interpretation of Paul on my part, I should add.

Aaron said...

ok Last one I promise.... Do you think we should try to reconcile these??

Sorry I know I took this down a path that was pretty Inconsequential to the overall theme.