Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What about Romans 9?

Someone asked me for some comments on how I understand Romans 9. Of course, the ninth chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans is the go-to passage for all discussions involving predestination, Calvinism, and other unseemly topics such as these. It is taken by many as straightforwardly teaching that God has predestined some to salvation, others to damnation, and even gives the classic answer to those who question the goodness of this: But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? (v. 20).

I agree with the predestinarian exegesis of this chapter on the following basic ideas: God has exercised the right of election at various points in the history of the Israelite people, and this is his right as God to make what he wishes of his creation. However, I deny that this is the whole story, because Paul clearly goes on to say much more about the persons involved in his discussion in context.

Reading Romans 9, the Calvinist would have you understand that the Jews who do not believe in Jesus (these are, after all, the persons he opens up the discussion about in vv. 1-5) have been predestined by God unto damnation. This is why they do not believe: God has chosen not to soften their hearts to the truth, and this was his prerogative, so as to make the depth of his mercy all the deeper known to his elect. But the fate of these very same persons is later brought up in ch. 11, and there Paul's answer is far more optimistic and open.

He asks: have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, to as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if they defeat means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! (11:11-12).  Here has suddenly raised the possibility of the full inclusion of the same Israelites who have stumbled, whose hearts are hardened. He makes it clear that this hardening which has come upon the Israelites has indeed been imposed by God, but with a salutary providential end in mind: to make them jealous of the Gentiles.

Now the implication of the Calvinist exegesis of Romans 9 is not only that the Jews who do not believe are reprobate, but also that the Gentile readers are elect -- and if you are a Calvinist, your election is from eternity and irreversible; an elect person can fail to be saved. But he explicitly denies this in the next verses of ch. 11:

But if some of the branches [of Israel] were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. ... They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you (vv. 17-21).

The status of the Gentile believers is no longer as certain as they might have thought. There is a peril and a danger affecting them: if they do not stand firm in faith but instead get proud, they will be cut off too. And the other Jews, apparently reprobate from the beginning of eternity, were cut off (i.e., removed from God's community while previously being part of it) because of their unbelief. God's removal is not ante praevisa merita, prior to foreseen merits, but as a result of it. Because they did not believe, therefore they were cut off, not prior to this. On the other hand, notice what else Paul says:

Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again (vv. 22-23).

At this point Paul understands there to be some sort of mobility with respect to the people of God, and the explicitly named cause of entry or forced exit is the will of the human person herself: God cuts off those who fall through unbelief, but is continually kind to those who persist in his kindness, that is, who maintain faithfulness to that which God has revealed and to which he has called us. And neither is the cutting off permanent, contrary to the predestinarian story the Calvinist tries to find in Romans 9: those who are cut off, these same persons who were supposedly rejected by God from all eternity, may nevertheless be welcomed back in, provided that they did not insist on their unbelief. This phrasing implies that it depends on them! Paul doesn't say that God has the power to bring them back in simpliciter, but the power to bring them back in provided that they renounce their unbelief, just as he cut them off because of their unbelief, not through it.

In brief, then, my argument against the Calvinist who points to Romans 9 as proof positive of his predestinarian story is this: the very conclusions the Calvinist wants to draw, given his interpretation of that chapter, are later negated and reversed by Paul in ch. 11. Those who do not believe were hardened by God, yes, but this state need not be permanent, and it depends on them whether it remains so or not, which is exactly the opposite of the belief of the Calvinist who holds that they have been reprobated from all eternity.

Will this convince Calvinists? No, probably not. But on the other hand, I don't really care about that. Epictetus once exclaimed, God save me from people who've studied a little philosophy! No one is harder to win over. In the same way, God save me from people who've studied a little theology -- and that only Calvinist! No one is harder to win over. The view that God has decided from eternity to create certain persons for the sake of damning them deservedly for their sins is morally abhorrent, and most people immediately feel the same way upon first hearing about it. The proposal attributes malice and ill-will to God -- that's the only intelligible way to understand the claim that God determines to create some person for the sake of making him a right candidate for eternal punishment -- which, in the words of Isaac the Syrian, is unspeakably blasphemous and calumny, originating from a childish way of thinking. Strong words, yes, but so many Calvinists are so divisive and lacking in any ecumenical spirit that they probably feel the same way about other groups, anyway, so it's a taste of their own medicine. Numerous and important Church Fathers explicitly reject predestination of the Calvinist sort: e.g., John of Damascus in De Fide Orthodoxa IV, 19-21. This intuition that predestination so described is unworthy of God ought not be ignored.

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