There are very view things or ideas that truly irk me. I know many friends who would go so far as to call me “chill” or a host of other words from the young adult vernacular. (By many friends I mean about three friends since I am definitely a nerd at heart despite my attempts to appear otherwise.) I can even count the number of things that annoy me on one hand: personal attacks, people who stop in the middle of sidewalks, fake and over-enthusiastic people who are not really that excited on the inside, loud chewers, and stupidity. Oh yea, and Calvinism. It appears I need my second hand now. See, I had to tie this slightly less than fantastic intro into the main idea of my post somehow, and I succeeded.
Anyways, Calvinism is one of those few things that annoy me for several reasons. First off, I used to believe that Calvinism was, to throw out the most abused word in Christianese, Biblical. I remember one day reading John Piper’s exegesis of Romans 9, reading Romans 9 for myself later that day, and converting to the sovereign God of Calvinism in my car. Unfortunately for John Calvin and thegospelcoalition.org, I began to question the system due to the tension I observed between the system and the words and actions of the various New Testament and Old Testament writers. After further learning and questioning, I could no longer continue to wear my tulip-colored glasses.
Second, many of the Calvinists I know have never taken the time to explore the logical conclusions of the five-point doctrine. (If you have, then I applaud you for your willingness to be honest with yourself.) The way I, and many others, see it, the logical end of Calvinism is God orchestrating the Fall, and by consequence every resulting sin, just so He can then save the elect who were arbitrarily chosen before the beginning of creation. This seems to blatantly contradict how God best revealed Himself and His will in and through Jesus. Third, I simply cannot see how the God of Calvinism can be reconciled with the character of God fully revealed in Jesus Christ (Heb 1:3, Col 1:15), the same Jesus who weeps over Jerusalem’s rejection of him (Matt 23:37-39, Luke 13:34–35; 19:41-44). Fourth, I cannot see how a God who chooses who will be saved before he even creates the universe can “…spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, Who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts…” (Isaiah 65:2) despite the fact that their rebellion is ultimately due to His own choice, not take pleasure in the death of the wicked despite the fact that the death of the wicked is ultimately due to His own decision to pass over them (Ezekiel 18:23, Ezek 33:11), or call Israel to repentance under the threat of national judgment despite the fact that He already chose who would repent, have faith, and ultimately inherit salvation. Fifth, I do not think that Calvinism is the result of sound exegesis. It is this last reason that I wish to expound upon. Anyone who is familiar with the idea of individual unconditional election, sometimes referred to as predestination, will know that Romans 9 is at the very heart of the debate. I want to pour out my own perspective on this infamous chapter to illuminate how understanding this section of Romans correctly does not lead to what is typically meant by “God’s sovereignty in salvation” or whatever euphemism one wishes to use to describe God’s choosing of who should enjoy the New Earth with Him and who should meet their end in the fires of Hell.
The idea behind nearly all Arminian and New Perspective understandings of Romans 9 is this: Romans 9 is not about Calvinism. (Well…duh!) Of course, in Paul’s thinking, salvation is inseparable with one’s position of being a part of the covenant people of God in Christ; however, Paul’s main focus of chapter 9 is the fate of ethnic Israel/those who have rejected the message of Christ. The background problem that Paul addresses is the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant, the main issue with this being that God is declaring them to be justified by faith and not by the works of the Torah. The Israel of God is now those who share the faith of Abraham, not those who belong to ethnic Israel and follow every law of the Torah. Also, it needs to be said that chapters 9-11 are a connected block of text meant to be read as a whole. (For those unfamiliar with the concept of covenant, God has always dealt with man within the context of a covenant. The closest modern day equivalent of the word is a legal contract. We are currently in the new covenant.)
Now, there are a couple presuppositions one should have before going to the text. First, Paul’s view of election in Judaism would have been a corporate understanding of election. That is, Israel was chosen as a nation, narrowed through individuals, and individuals derived their election from being a part of Israel and remaining in the covenant. Second, if unconditional individual election is true, then Paul radically reinvented the doctrine of election from his Judaic background. This does not automatically rule out that Paul taught unconditional individual election, but it should cause us to hesitate when our theological ideas are radically different from both the OT texts and 2nd Temple Judaism. To the credit of neo-reformed teachers, Paul does undergo a radical transformation. The problem is, a transformation from a corporate mindset of God choosing the covenant through individuals to an individual mindset of God choosing individuals to be in the covenant is a change I do not think the corporate phrase “in Christ” allows for.
The Section of This Post Where I Go Off Topic
Before I begin, I want to make both a concession and a crucial point: Even if Paul is teaching that God has chosen certain people to enjoy salvation, Romans 11:2-6 illustrates how this choosing works:
“God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” 4 But what [b]is the divine response to him? “I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s[c]gracious choice. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer [d]on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.”
The idea is of God choosing a remnant—in this case those who have come to faith in Christ—in light of the probable judgment of Israel. That is at least how it worked in the past when God chose a remnant, and the defining factor of His gracious choice then was based on the individual response of whether they had placed faith in Him (i.e. did not worship Baal). Whereas the unrepentant/hardened Israel is destined for destruction, the chosen remnant has been prepared beforehand for glory. (By the way, placing faith in God is not defined as a work in the Bible. It amazes me how many times I have read someone claiming faith is some kind of work that takes away from the grace of God in salvation.) But, to make the jump and say this choosing is universal for all peoples of all times (especially in light of Paul’s introduction of the topic of discussion as whether the word of God has failed Israel, and his later discussion of those who are saved being a remnant similar to the remnant in Isaiah’s day) is quite a jump which unfortunately comes from reading Romans 9 and by extension the entire Bible as though it were written to oneself. I can see the appeal with these approaches. There is something comforting, deeply religious, and spiritual that comes from holding to the idea that the Bible, to paraphrase what someone once told me, is our “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Or, my personal favorite, the Bible is God’s love letter to us. Eww, gross. I must pause here to say it is a far better alternative to view the Bible as written to you than to ignore its instructions and teachings completely! However, we must avoid the temptation to make the Bible into something it is not, or perhaps into something we would like it to be. To avoid simply tearing something down without building up, the only consistent definition of the Bible I have heard is that it is God’s revelation of Himself to humanity. To advance a slightly liberal notion, part of God’s revelation of Himself includes differing perspectives of what people thought about the one true God. After all, the story of God revealing Himself is simultaneously the story of man trying to understand this God, an unchangeable God amidst changeable backgrounds. Forgive me for devolving into a tangent. Sometimes a little rant can accomplish a lot of good.
Others’ thoughts on the topic: (I strongly recommend reading the asterisked links!)
Romans 9 An Arminian New Perspective Reading – Society of Evangelical Arminians**
How Do You Respond to Romans 9? – Greg Boyd*
Pauls Argument About Election in Romans 9 – Andrew Perriman
Romans 9 in the Wider Context of Pauline Thought – Society of Evangelical Arminians
The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart – WesleyArminian
Who Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart? – Apologetics Press*
Isaac, Jacob, and Esau
In verses 1-5, Paul introduces the topic he has in mind for 9-11—ethnic Israel. They possess all the advantages from God, and yet, as we learn later in chapter 9, most of Israel has not come to faith in Christ. This is the issue Paul addresses in chapter 9. The chosen/covenant people of God—those who are heirs of Abraham—are those who have been justified by faith, creating a spiritual Israel of sorts apart from the physical kingdom itself. To Israel, it would appear as if the word of God had failed. Paul’s answer to this is the word of God has not failed, “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s [d]descendants, but: “[e]through Isaac your [f]descendants will be named.” In other words, Israel’s argument that their physical descent from Abraham makes them members of the covenant by default is a poor argument, since not even all those descended from Abraham are a part of Israel. Instead, God chose in the past to narrow the covenant through Isaac. I do not think it is a coincidence that Isaac also had a supernatural birth like Jesus. In verse 8, Paul explains “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as [g]descendants.” He then furthers this argument in 10-13:
“And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would [h]stand, not [i]because of works but [j]because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.””
Just in case the Isaac example was not enough for the doubters, Paul then proceeds to advance an indisputable argument. Despite the fact Jacob and Esau were twins yet to be born, God chose to narrow the covenant line even further through Jacob. God made this choice freely irrespective of any action taken by the two men. In verse 13, Paul quotes Malachi 1:2-3 to the effect of closing his argument with an OT text. Within the context of Malachi, God loving Jacob and hating Esau is a reference to their respective nations, not of his choosing of them individually for salvation. And, lest the reader think God hated Esau in the sense that we think of the word hate, we learn from Deut 2:4-6, Joshua 24:4, and Gen 36:8 that God not only gave Mount Seir to Esau as a possession but also required the Israelites to purchase water and food from the nation while passing through peacefully. The common objection to this understanding is Paul could use Scripture in ways apart from its original context. The problem is the context does not allow for such a usage of Malachi. Paul has already shown how the covenant line was narrowed, and this provides further evidence for his argument. The words “And not only this, but there was Rebekah also…” show the argument is connected, not moving off into a different direction. Paul is still expanding on his argument started with the example of Isaac, that “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as [g]descendants.” The implication of verses 6-13 is that God, having chosen in the past to narrow the covenant people of God through Isaac and Jacob, is free to narrow the covenant even further to those who are in Christ, the new covenant people and spiritual remnant apart from ethnic Israel.