Romans 9 has become the cornerstone for internet debates between Calvinists and Arminians. Oftentimes, neither the Calvinist nor the Arminian will properly understand the text because they’re looking at it the wrong way. The goal is not to think “How does Romans 9 fit in my theological box” but rather “What was cultural context, textual context, and audience?” these questions stem from the historical-grammatical method and they usually provide better and more probable answers to these questions than hack wannabe apologists do on social media websites.
Contrived Cerebral Discourse
This misuse of hermeneutics was exemplified when Mr. Minton of Cerebral Faith teamed up with another Apologist named Colin to talk about this important chapter. There was no indication on who wrote what part, so I will not refer to a specific writer, Instead I will refer to them in the plural.
They start off the article by saying “Romans 9, a passage I once avoided reading as a new Christian…”
This is characteristic of many Christians of today, who have an image of God in their head distorted by emotion or empathy. Reading further, we get to the most important point, they ask “What does Paul say here?” That is the important question. We must as much as possible push away our biases towards the text and find what Paul really says. To be able to push away your biases, you must affirm that they exist. I (Tony) am a Calvinist, I’ve read commentaries, listened to sermons and have read books that involved Romans 9 in a Calvinist way. So, I acknowledge that reading Romans 9 in a Calvinist way would come naturally to me at this point. However, I do not seek to hide from the true meaning of the text, whether or not it would contradict Calvinism or cause interpretive difficulties for me on other passages. I want to know what Paul wrote in Romans 9.
They state later on
“What Paul seems to be proposing is that the scope of election is narrow and that God has, by some unknown measure, decided to shut some up in ignorance and unbelief, while allowing others to somehow believe, and “who are you, oh man, to answer back?” Has God determined that some are meant to be the proverbial fuel for the fire, this is just their eternal lot and they are the thing made and just have to suck it up? Read in this context, it seems Paul is rebuking those who seem to be asking God hard questions, which does not seem to square with a God presented in Isaiah 1:19 who invites us to come reason with Him. Why does God now silence sincere questioning of His plan to damn some, when His prior offer to reason with Him was once on the table? “
This is a remarkably shallow take on what Calvinists are saying. They paint a picture of a grotesque election that is exceedingly narrow and set it up for failure when they assume it contradicts other passages, needless to say, this wasn’t a fair representation.
I will let Jim take on the scholarly discussions on Romans 9, however, internet wannabe apologist to another, setting up your argument with words like “narrow” and “suck it up” show an emotional distaste for the belief or the persons involved, rather than a level-headed analysis.
The fact of the matter is that “narrow” is not true. Not only are there eschatological differences between Calvinists (I’m a Postmillennialist, that means I believe there will be more in heaven than hell at the end.) but classifications such as “narrow” assume Arminianism, or at the very least, unlimited atonement.
The little rant on Paul’s statement of “Who are you, O Man” might be coming from the annoyance of Calvinists over-using this phrase as a non-answer in petty internet debates. However, they do not seek to explain the statement anywhere in their post. Paul isn’t saying “don’t ask God questions” but rather “remember who you’re talking too.”
He then misrepresents Luis De Molinas intentions on Unconditional election but to avoid taking this off topic, check out this post on why Luis De Molina was not an Arminian.
In their summary, they say Calvinists have this “eeny-meeny-miny-moe approach in saving people; that is, he picks and chooses who to save and who to burn” referring to the Calvinist idea of God’s election as a kids game. However, this comparison is unwarranted, for eeny-meeny-miny-moe is a game that is supposed to represent chance decisions (Though, it is not, you can determine the results by which person you start with). God doesn’t elect by chance, but his good pleasure. What we do see in scripture is that God doesn’t choose people based on merit. Esau was better than Jacob, Aaron was better suited for the job than Moses, why did Judas betray Jesus and not the hot-head Peter?
The alternative is that God does choose on merit, whether that is foreseen faith after looking down the corridors of time depends on the Arminian. There is a shockingly low amount of argumentation in a post about what Romans 9 actually teaches. It’s more of a “we’re right and you know it.” type of post, I don’t think it would convince anyone who wasn’t already convinced of Evan and Colin’s position.
He didn’t cite John Wesley, or even his own society’s scholar Dr. Abasciano. (Society of Evangelical Arminians) It reads like an introduction to a study bible on Romans, giving as much theologically neutral information as you can and then makes a huge logical leap that would get good reviews at an NFL combine.
The structure of the article was confusing to say the least. It was 1.) What does Romans 9 teach? Mock and Misrepresent Calvinism. 2.) Give introductory notes on Romans Mock and Misrepresent Calvinism. 3.) Mention Molinism, admit Molina agreed with Calvin and Not yourself, wrongly characterize Molina’s position on the atonement, then mock and misrepresent Calvinism.
There was no discussion of the distinctions between corporate and individual election, the intention and consistent themes of Paul through Romans 9-11 or the story of Jacob and Esau that Paul references. We also don’t see any attempt to engage in the original languages or Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 2. You can read about that here.
Jim Boucher’s Contribution
I (Jim Boucher) am not prone to blog wars. But TLRJ needed my assistance, and I thought it would be an interesting exercise. We are together responding to a blogpost published by the CerebralFaith blog about Romans 9.
What Romans Is Really About? And Self-Congratulatory Language
The first point worth picking at is the triumphant and revolutionary language CerebralFaith uses, describing what “Romans is really about,” as he goes on to describe the standard way of interpreting the book of Romans. When he writes, “the issue Paul is tackling is how God’s chosen people (i.e the Jews) could fail to obtain salvation while Gentiles succeeded!” The only response that comes forth is, “Well, yes. Of course.”
There is very little reason to call this, “What Romans is Really About.” It is sort of like if I titled a paper, “What Genesis 1 Is Really About,” and I proceeded to outline a young earth creationist model.
In fact, in Essence of the New Testament by Elmer Towns and Ben Gutierrez, they provide a general overview of the New Testament. They write, “Now, Paul returns to the question of Israel in order to vindicate God’s righteousness in his dealings with the Jews. He shows that God’s present rejection of Israel for their unbelief is not inconsistent with God’s promises to them.” [i] Again, this is just a general overview. There is nothing revolutionary about this, and to say “What Romans is Really About” is just incomprehensible.
As Robert Johnson pointed out in his paper Paul’s Theology of Israel: An Exegesis of Romans 9-11, there are broadly three ways interpreters have understood Israel in Romans 9. [iii] First, Israel could refer to the church. Second, it could refer to the elect remnant of the believing Jews, and third, it could refer to the ethnic nation of Israel. As far as I can tell, while Johnson respects the scholarship of these three answers, he believes they are asking the wrong questions. Romans 1:16-17 is the thesis statement for the book of Romans, and the first eight chapters outline what it means to be justified. The ninth chapter “lays out a proper understanding of salvation by faith as it has played out through history.”
Of course, Johnson does not believe in unconditional election.[iv] But his assessment of Romans can function as a model for how to produce real scholarship. A scholar will outline different perspectives, ensuring that she knows what they are and is representing them fairly and invests themselves in the data. They do not write, “What Romans 9 Is Really About” then go on to outline the standard interpretation of Romans, found in most general overview books, while ignoring or being unaware of rival interpretations. Romans 9-11 is not debated as “Conditional Vs Unconditional.” It is debated as “How is Israel saved? How does their justification tie into the larger corpus of salvation history?” That is the larger scale question.
But the smaller scale question is, “Are there any implications for the election of individuals found in the text?” Evan seems to think that answering the larger scale question also provides an answer to the smaller scale question.
Understanding The Romans 9 Debate Conceptually
I hope it has been clarified by now that the competing interpretive frameworks for Romans 9 is not Israel Vs Unconditional Election. The initial question is, “Who is Israel? The church? A remnant within Israel? All of Israel?” The following question will be about how Israel will be saved, and finally we will begin to tread upon whether Paul speaks of unconditional election. CerebralFaith skipped these steps and seemed to frame the competing frameworks as Israel or Unconditional Election. Thomas Schreiner would even go so far as to say that corporate and individual election should not be pitted against one another.[v] (His peer-reviewed work as cited should be considered necessary to framing this discussion. If the writers at CerebralFaith feel the gumption to respond, they should review the discussion between Thomas Schreiner and Brian Abasciano.)
Schreiner argues that there is nothing strictly incompatible about corporate and individual election. He wrote, “Instead what we have in Romans 9-11 is both corporate and individual election, for we cannot have the one without the other… It follows, then, that Paul may focus on corporate election without in the least suggesting that individual election is excluded… You can’t have one without the other.” Abasciano challenged this, arguing that Schreiner was giving individual election primacy whereas corporate election ought to have it. [vi]
Schreiner made that the point that strictly speaking, Abasciano’s model without an individual element would not be an election of God. God would not be “electing” anybody. He writes, “If the individual dimension of corporate election simply means that human beings believe in order to be saved, then there is no “election” in corporate election. Or, to put it another way, there is no election by God. All the electing is done by the individual when he or she chooses to be saved.” As a concept, corporate election needs an element of individual election as proposed by the Calvinists. Schreiner went on to anticipate several objects Abasciano or other Arminian theologians might raise, but I shall not rehash them here. I expect that before anybody assesses Schreiner’s argument, they will review his work to see if their objections have been covered.
Examining The Scholarship Surrounding Key Texts
I hope that was not too much information. Evan basically mounted two arguments regarding Romans 9. 1 – Romans 9 is about Israel. 2 – Romans 9 provides a model of corporate election. So, what I have strived to do here is to show that these two arguments are neither here nor there. Both of them are granted happily. We need to discuss the few passages that Evan touched on and those that he skipped. These passages form the basis for the doctrine of unconditional election. There are a few places that the scholarship will direct us. Since it is chronologically first and it would be odd to switch back and forth between scholars, we will stick with Schreiner’s argument from Romans 8:30.[vii]
Romans 8:30 reads, “And those whom he predestined, he also called, and those whom he called, he also justified, and those whom he justified, he also glorified.” Schreiner reminds us that in Pauline theology, justification comes by faith. It does not come by ethnicity. If we call attention to justification in this pattern, it becomes evident that Paul is referring to individuals rather than corporate bodies. The next step in Schreiner’s argument is to call the reader’s attention to “called.” If all are called, then all are justified. Since all are not justified, it follows that all are not called. Only some are called. I am not inclined to give Evan a pass for skipping this verse, even if it is outside of Romans 9, for two reasons. First, he jumped outside of Romans 9 to form another argument. Second, this comes directly before Romans 9. Paul did not know that we would divide his letter into chapters. It is just a continuous stream of thought.
Paul cited the minor prophets in Romans 9-11 more than anywhere else.[viii] This reminds us that the story of salvation is part of a larger narrative. In Romans 9:13, Paul specifically cites Malachi. The text reads, “As it is written, Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” Evan boasts of this that Paul is clearly talking about nations, and he discerns from this fact that it cannot be talking about individual election. This harks us back to the conceptual issues that Evan was having. Corporate and individual election are not mutually exclusive. There could be a nationalistic element and an individualistic element. Schreiner tells us:
“Mere physical descent from Abraham or Isaac does not prove that an individual is elect, for God never promised that the whole nation of Israel corporately without exception would receive the blessing of salvation. There has always been a winnowing process. The corporate group has always been composed of individuals whom God has chosen. The flow of the argument clarifies that Paul thinks of individual election, not just corporate election. He chose Isaac as an individual instead of Ishmael. Both were descendants from Abraham, but the Lord did not choose the descendants of Abraham as a group. Instead he chose Isaac rather than Ishmael, and he chose Jacob rather than Esau. And Paul applies this principle to all of history, even to his own day.” [ix]
There are a few other points about Jacob and Esau to keep in mind. When God refers to his election, he says that it was not based on anything that they had done at all. It was simply based on him who “calls.” This usage of “calls” should hark us back to what Paul said just a few verses earlier in 8:30. All those who are called are also justified. Since that calling is individualistic, we would not be unreasonable to suppose that the calling of Jacob was literally a calling of Jacob.
I might also remind you that the only-corporate election model does not dull the sword here. It is still a verse of God’s sword. Even if an only-corporate model were possible, we would still have God excluding an entire nation from his covenant and choosing another nation. The only reason he gave for that was “his calling,” his pleasure and his good will. We would be naive to think that this did not lead to the condemnation of thousands of individuals, simply because God chose national Jacob over national Esau, unconditionaly. This truly is a verse of God’s sword.
9:15-16 is another citation of the Old Testament. It reads, “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” The first thing you might notice is the singular nouns. Paul understands Exodus 33:19 to be saying that it does not depend on the “man” who runs, but on God. If the reader subscribes to an only-corporate model, they might make sense of this by saying that Paul is simply continuing his metaphor, and the “man” is Jacob the nation. Dr. Douglas Moo does not think that is a tenable way to understand this passage because it does not comport with Pauline theology.
First, verse 16 is referring to the reception of the mercy spoken of in verse 15. Mercy does not come from national identity. It comes through faith. It is therefore more plausible to interpret this as referring to individuals. Second, Moo writes, “Receiving mercy from God does not depend on anything a person can will or do, but only on God’s own will to show mercy. Note that Paul’s inclusion of “willing” and “doing” supports our conclusion that he excludes faith as well as works as sources of election.” [x] Notice that Moo is not saying that faith is a work. Faith is an act of the will. Reception of God’s mercy does not come as a result of anything in human will. Election is not a result of anything in human will, including faith.
Who Are You, O Man?
While the CerebralFaith blog did briefly pontificate on Jacob and Esau and a couple of following verses, it did not confront what I think are key texts in understanding the debate between only-corporate election and corporate-individual election: Romans 9:19-20. The text reads, “You will say to me, then ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ On the contrary, who are you, o man, who answers back to God?”
I think it might be beneficial to take a look at the Arminian scholarship behind this verse, and then move on to what Evan and Colin had to say about it. Robert Johnson (previously cited) had a few interesting remarks. He views election in only-corporate terms. The hypothetical objector would be a Jew, complaining about the scope of corporate election. Then God turns to him and says, “Who are you, o man, who answers back to God?”
Johnson writes, “If God wants to choose the Gentiles to be saved, that is his right. Thus, the ultimate point Paul is making is that salvation comes to anyone who believes by faith. God will show mercy on anybody who believes.” [xi] But the problem is that Paul’s hypothetical objector did not ask about salvation. He asked about condemnation. I am a little confused about what would motivate Paul to ask that question. Further, why would he appeal to God’s sovereignty in answering it? Paul was a learned man; he could certainly give the objector something more satisfying. He could remind them that Abraham would be the father of many nations, that God’s covenant will last forever, that the Messiah will reign over all people. This diatribe is likely best explained within the context of unconditional election.
This brings us next to Evan and Colin’s assessment of this verse. Colin introduced the controversy in the first paragraph, but the only time it appears in Evan’s writing was in a sarcastic, sneering tone as he mocked the declarations of God’s apostle. It was almost as if he doesn’t know that Paul said it. We should really emphasize this. The very answer that Evan hates so much is exactly what Paul said, and his only explanation is to sneer and ask how anybody could say that.
This brings us to Colin’s argument in the first paragraph. He repeated a point much like what I found in Bart Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem: How The Bible Fail’s To Answer Life’s Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. Ehrman writes, “God appears at the end of the poetic exchanges and refuses to give an answer. He does not explain why Job suffers. He simply asserts that he is Almighty, and as such cannot be questioned.” This seems to pretty well summarize Evan and Colin’s argument, so I will respond to it here exactly as I have before in other contexts. Asking questions is fine. But when we say that God must answer our questions, and that we will refuse to obey him if he does not, then that borders on impiety. Another consideration is that God does literally refuse to answer questions. “Who are you, o man, who answers back to God?” is a real quote. Even if you take the only-corporate perspective, it is still part of the character of God to refuse to answer and demand obedience despite that as he sees fit. Again, we may still seek answers, but when we start to condemn God is when it becomes impiety.
This is an argument unique to Evan, as he responds to an objector that he probably met in an online chatroom, because what he describes in this section as “The Calvinist View” is alien to me. He seems to equate Calvinism with kinism or white nationalism, with an irrational hatred of the Jews. Romans 11:11-12 reads, “So, I ask, did they stumble, in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass, salvation has come to the Gentiles.” Evan comments, “If the Calvinist view were correct, the Jews would be beyond recovery… unable to repent… unable to be saved.” This is not the Calvinist view at all.
It seems sufficient to cite the Westminster Confession of Faith. “Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.”
What if a blogger refutes me?
The final point that I want to address is what is found in his section titled “What if the Calvinist interpretation were correct?” He writes, “Let’s say a Calvinist blogger writes up a solid refutation of this blog post and shows that this passage is teaching unconditional election after all…” We shouldn’t live in a world where bloggers are the intellectual heavyweights who provide ‘solid refutation.’ The debate about the relationship between free will and sovereignty has been going on for thousands of years. Scholars provide solid refutations. Bloggers do not. If anybody is interested in a ‘solid refutation,’ they should look for peer-reviewed journals or commentaries written by scholars.
Overall, age-old debates are not something we can resolve by just thinking hard in front of a computer screen. It needs to be researched, not an exercise in common sense; humble, not self-congratulatory; nuanced, not absolute. Anybody can write a blogpost pontificating about the general themes of Romans 9.
[i] Elmer Towns And Ben Gutierrez, The Essence of The New Testament: A Survey, Nashville, TN B&H Academics, 2012, page 137
[ii] Moo, Douglas, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan: 2000, page 291
[iii] Johnson, Robert, Paul’s Theology of Israel: An Exegesis of Romans 9-11, Virginia Beach, VA, Regent University: 2008, page 9
[iv] Johnson, Exegesis of Romans 9-11, Regent, page 17
[v] Schreiner, Thomas R. “CORPORATE AND INDIVIDUAL ELECTION IN ROMANS 9: A RESPONSE TO BRIAN ABASCIANO.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 2 (06, 2006): 373-86
[vi] Abasciano, Brian J. “CORPORATE ELECTION IN ROMANS 9: A REPLY TO THOMAS SCHREINER.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 2 (06, 2006): 351-71
[vii] Schreiner, Corporate And Individual Election, Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, 2006
[viii] Steyn, Gert Jacobus. 2015. “Observations on the text form of the Minor Prophets quotations in Romans 9-11.” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 38, no. 1: 49-67
[ix] Schreiner, Corporate And Individual Election, Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, 2006
[x] Moo, NIV Commentary, Zondervan, 2000, page 310
[xi] Johnson, Exegesis of Romans 9-11, Regent, page 20