It would appear that lately I have gotten into this pattern of taking passages that most church folk think they have a pretty good grasp on and then pointing out why the common interpretation isn’t actually the best interpretation. I don’t know why this has become a thing for me over the past couple of posts. Perhaps it is because I have a deep-seated desire to help people come to a new and exciting understanding of the Bible and faith, which all too often is little more than a mundane repetition of religious rituals in the life of Christians. Perhaps it is because when I look at Scripture I find so much more depth and beauty in it than the clichéd and trite Sunday school lessons that I have been fed most of my life would incline one to think was there, and I feel a white hot fire burning deep down inside of me calling me to share the wonder and captivating truths of Scripture with anyone who will listen.
… or, perhaps it is because I am hella busy lately, and it’s just easier to tackle one passage rather than try to formulate a multi-faceted theological argument.
I’ll let you be the judge.
In the meantime, why stop a good thing? So, this time around I want to take a look at a passage that has become, in my opinion, far too closely tied to Calvinist/Reformed theology. In case you aren’t familiar with Calvinism, in a nutshell it is the belief held by a number of Christians that humans are so screwed up that we couldn’t do anything good even if we wanted to, so God has to do everything for us. In fact, this view has such a strong view of God’s sovereignty that it typically asserts that everything that ever happens always happens because God wills it to happen. It isn’t just that God allows it to happen, but that He actually predetermines it all to happen. That being the case, before the creation of the world, God decided who would go to heaven and who would go to hell. And how do Calvinists support this notion? Well, one way is by appealing to Romans 9.
This chapter, more than any other, seems to be the home base of Reformed theology. I’ve yet to have an in-depth discussion with someone over God’s sovereignty that didn’t eventually lead back to this chapter. Every Calvinist I’ve ever met draws from this chapter the idea that from the beginning of time God predetermines the fate of every individual. However, I think if we look closer at this passage in its proper context, we find that this home base isn’t as well defended as some might think. I’d like us to consider three questions about the Reformed interpretation of Romans 9
Does the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 address the same issue that the apostle Paul is trying to address in writing this passage?
Does the Calvinist interpretation make the same use of the Old Testament passages in Romans 9 that Paul does?
Is the Calvinist interpretation of Paul’s argument in Romans 9 consistent with Paul’s own conclusion?
- The issue that most Calvinists are trying to address when they bring up this passage is, “Does God predetermine the eternal fate of individuals?” However, the issue that Paul is concerned with in this passage is, “Did the word of God fail Israel?” (9:1-6). You see, the Israelites had assumed that they were God’s chosen people simply by virtue of the fact that they were Israelites. God had elected them as His special people, and so when all of these Gentiles started being counted as part of God’s people under Christ it naturally raised the question of whether or not God had let the Israelites down. After all, if anyone can be part of God’s chosen people, then does it even mean anything for God to have said, “you are my chosen people”? Notice that Paul is more concerned with the fate of people groups in general than individuals specifically. In Romans 9, Paul isn’t trying to answer the question of whether or not God unilaterally elects some individuals and not others. Rather, he is answering the question of whether or not God lied to the people of Israel.
- Now, Paul brings up a number of Old Testament passages to demonstrate his point that God did not lie to Israel. He begins by bringing up Jacob and Esau, and Pharaoh, to show that he understands where the Jews are coming from with their argument. He validates their belief that God can do what He wants with whom He wants (v 18). But then in verse 19, he begins to correct the mistaken assumption that because of this people cannot resist God’s will and therefore are not to blame for their fates. “On the contrary…” (v 20) he says, people cannot blame God for their fate. He then uses an illustration that the Jews would have been very familiar with – that of a potter and the clay. This is an illustration that the OT prophets used often (Isa 29:16; 45:9; 64:8; Jer 18:6). Jeremiah makes the most use of this imagery in 18:1-11, where he watches a potter working with a lump of clay. The clay doesn’t do what the potter wants it to do, so the potter reworks it to make something else. God then speaks through Jeremiah, saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does? … At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it” (vv 6-10). See, the point isn’t that God decides the fate of a people from the beginning of time, but rather that He is willing to respond to the obedience or disobedience of people by changing His plans. Hence, Isaiah writes, “You turn things around!” (Isa 29:16) After using this illustration in Romans 9, Paul then goes on to show how (in Hosea and Isaiah) the Old Testament anticipates the inclusion of Gentiles into God’s kingdom. So, while Calvinists will often point to the first half of Paul’s argument (Jacob, Esau, Pharaoh) to support the idea that God firmly decides people’s fates from the beginning of time, the rest of Paul’s argument actually argues against this(!) by claiming that God’s plans are not unalterable, and that God does respond to people’s choices.
- Finally, lest we miss what Paul is trying to say here, he wraps up his argument with a final conclusion in 9:30-33. Here he explains that the reason that the Gentiles were included in God’s kingdom is because they came to righteousness by faith, whereas the Israelites were trying to come to righteousness by obeying the Law. It was the choices that Gentiles and Jews made to have faith or not which elicited how God responded to each of them. So, although Calvinists often point to Romans 9 to proclaim God’s absolute control and immutability, Paul is actually arguing in favor of God’s mutability and willingness to let us have some control over our fates. Maybe this is why it took so long before any Christian scholars interpreted this chapter as supporting theistic predetermination.
Well, there you have it. Not only does Romans 9 not offer good support for Calvinism, but it actually presupposes a God who can genuinely change His mind (a lá, Open Theism). So, let this be a good reminder that the Bible does not present us with a God who unilaterally determines who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. And, as I’ve said before, when interpreting Scripture – context, context, CONTEXT!!!