Friday, March 23, 2012

Does Romans 9 condemn Unconditional Election as heresy?

Pope St Peter warns believers that St Paul's Epistles contain things "hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort" (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Undoubtedly, the 9th chapter of Romans would have to be one such text St Peter had in mind, for it has been twisted and distorted for a long time, particularly at the time of the Reformation when the Pretend Reformers were pushing for Double Predestination (the teaching that God decides to save and damn apart from any good or evil on the part of the individual). For centuries, Protestants (especially Calvinists) continue to be unaware that they are guilty of not heeding St Peter's warning, twisting Paul's lesson on God's sovereignty to teach almost the opposite of what he intended to teach.

Those who have engaged in such discussions with Protestants are aware that their chief (and favorite) text is Romans 9:16-21, focusing particularly on the phrase "God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden." The Protestants contend that this is crystal clear proof that God saves and damns according to his pleasure, apart from considering the lifestyle of the individual. To suggest otherwise, they say, is to twist Paul's message and argue in favor of the Judaizers, who taught man could save himself by his own works. Sadly, this kind of argumentation is not only wholly false, it has scandalized many Christians and continues to deceive many Protestants.

As we proceed to analyze the context it will be shown that not only does the Protestant interpretation become weak, it actually is causing Paul to say the opposite of what he's really saying!
When considering the context of Romans 9, it is clear that it is to be read along with chapters 10 and 11, as one continuous thought. Romans 9 begins with Paul lamenting the fact his brethren according to the flesh, the Jews, have been granted so many blessings in God's plan of Salvation History but they have not appreciated the blessings, particularly in their rejection of Jesus. Romans 10 continues the thesis, lamenting Israel's loss by being zealous for the wrong things. Finally, Romans 11 concludes the thesis by showing God didn't reject His people, but all along intended Jews and Gentiles to be part of the same family. If one does not keep this 'three-chapter' context in mind when reading Romans 9, they will undoubtedly go astray and not be able to make sense of Paul's comments.

The next key to keep in mind when reading Romans is that the Jewish 'entitlement' heresy was the theme of the Book - and that this heresy was not about "working one's way into Heaven through their own efforts," popularly (but incorrectly) termed Pelagianism. Rather, the 'entitlement' heresy was a Jew-versus-Gentile problem, with the Jews seeing themselves as superior by birth to the 'ignoble' Gentile savages. Consider: Romans 2:17-24, culminating in Romans 2:27, deals with Jews snubbing their noses at the Gentiles for lacking the Mosaic Law and Circumcision yet being hypocrites in their rush to condemn. This continues up through Romans 3:27-30, where the "works of the Law" are not what save, leading Paul to ask the rhetorial question, "or is God the God of the Jews only?" indicating the problem at hand was the Jews claiming a monopoly on God's love and favor. Paul reiterates his "apart from works of the Law" thesis in Romans 4, by pointing out Abraham was justified prior to him being circumcised, and that this was to show the uncircumcised (i.e. Gentiles) also could be acceptable in God's sight (Rom. 4:9-13). In Romans 5:12-14 we see the Mosaic Law came in after the bigger issue, sin and death, had been introduced, indicating the problem and solution was to restore what was prior to the existence of the Mosaic Covenant. Romans 6-8 is spent discussing the Christian's new life in Christ, now that the Law's purpose has reached fulfillment and now set aside (Rom. 7:6).

But with all this 'negative' talk about the Law, why did God make all those promises to the Jews throughout the Old Testament, particularly giving them His glorious Torah (the Mosaic Law), only to now apparently disregard that gift? The whole point of the Torah was so that those living within it's rules would identify who "God's People" were - Leviticus 26:3-13 - so what happened? Did God go back on his promise? This is what Romans 9 to 11 is set to answer, and the answer is simply this: the Jews had a history of taking advantage of God's mercy to the point they attained a false sense of security, and when Christ arrived they were so unprepared that they collectively cursed Him rather than embraced Him. At the Advent of Christ, St John the Baptist chastised the Pharisees for living hypocritical lives, warning them: "do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham" (Mat 3:7-10). Notice that these Jews thought that God's promises to Abraham were unconditional and thus regardless of how they behaved God would not go back on his promises to bless Abraham's offspring. In other words, the Jews saw themselves as unconditionally elected by God to be born Jews rather than be born Gentiles, and in virtue of this birth were entitled to God's blessings and protection. This sentiment was not fully gone when certain Jews converted to Christianity (a.k.a the Judaizer heresy).

The final point to keep in mind is the Old Testament context of the quotations Paul is presenting - for within those Old Testament contexts the brief quote Paul produces is given it's true and fullest meaning. Paul was not ripping random verses out of the Old Testament and scattering them throughout his lesson as an afterthought, but rather focusing on concepts which were encompassed in a given passage. When a well-trained Jewish ear heard a brief quote, his mind would immediately jump back and know the very context of that verse. It is worth noting that Romans 9, 10, and 11 have more OT quotes than anywhere else in the New Testament, and this is significant because to misunderstand these OT quotes is to botch Paul's lesson.

Now we can proceed to analyze Paul's lesson in each step of his argument (with all OT quotes in Green):
1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
Paul opens by saying he is speaking about the Jews (not the Christians) and all the blessings and promises they were given by God. So the question is, why did the Jews as a whole fail to accept Jesus? Such is a serious question that we Gentiles today cannot imagine. We tend to forget the preciousness of the Jews in God's sight, since through them would come the Savior of the World. Some of them would argue that God didn't keep His promises to the Jews, so Paul responds:
6But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." 8This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9For this is what the promise said: "About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son." 10And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12she was told, "The older will serve the younger." 13As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."
Many people gloss over this section without giving it second thought or even understanding what Paul is saying, but this is at the heart of his lesson. Paul's argument is that not everyone born from Abraham's biological lineage is entitled to the promises God gave Abraham.

Consider the first OT quote Paul appeals to, "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named" recalls the event of Genesis 21:8-14 where Abraham's first biological son Ishmael and his mother Hagar are told by God that it is through Abraham's second born biological son Isaac is to be the linage from which would reap the great promises (such as the Messiah). Now ancient custom taught that the first-born was entitled to the greater portion of the inheritance of the father, but this command by God reverses that. (Note that despite Ishmael being sent away and becoming "second class," God said to Abraham in Gen 21:13: "I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring".) Our modern day ears cannot appreciate the significance of this argument. And note how this in itself had nothing to do with predestining to Heaven or Hell, simply the temporal (earthly) blessings God freely gives.

To buttress this point, Paul quotes another passage,"About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son" taken from Genesis 18:10-14 where God appears to Abraham and confirms Sarah will have a son despite being barren and way beyond childbearing age. So what's the big deal? In prior chapters of Genesis, God promised Abraham that his lineage would be greatly blessed, but Abraham and his wife Sarah couldn't have children! For God to make such a promise and yet not provide a means is akin to Jesus promising to never abandon us but yet not send the Holy Spirit after He Ascended! After time Abraham and his wife became frustrated and decided it was up to them to get a lineage going, so they decided Abraham should sleep with the slave-maid Hagar, who produced Ishmael (Genesis 16). But God had other plans and in the next chapter affirms Sarah will one day have a son, Isaac. Now that's a miracle baby (pun intended).

But that's not all, Paul then proceeds to bring up another example, this time it's Abraham's son Isaac and his wife Rebekah, who became pregnant with twins. So now the situation is more 'complicated' than the first, with the two sons of the same womb (originally barren, needing another miracle), born within seconds of each other. Despite Esau being born first, with Jacob (lit: "he who grabs the heel") coming out right after, God declares "The older will serve the younger" in Genesis 25:21-23, which says:
"Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger."
This is why Paul immediately adds, "As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'," quoting not Genesis, but rather Malachi 1,
2 "I have loved you [Jacob]," says the LORD. But you [Jacob] say, "How have you loved us?" "Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?" declares the LORD. "Yet I have loved Jacob 3but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert." 4 If Edom says, "We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins," the LORD of hosts says, "They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called 'the wicked country,' and 'the people with whom the LORD is angry forever.'" 5 Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!”
As with Ishmael and Isaac earlier, so also the context here isn't really focused upon individuals, but rather nations. (The name "Edom" is the nation of Esau's lineage.) Thus, there is yet another distinction among Abraham's lineage, first Isaac over Ismael, and now Jacob (renamed "Israel") being chosen over Esau. Of the nations that would emerge, one would be blessed, while the other would be cursed (by living in sin and not having any promises granted to that lineage). But even here Paul isn't speaking about predestination to hell or even salvation, rather remaining on the realm of temporal blessings.

With that in mind, verse 11 - though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls - is to be taken to mean God freely chooses which means He will bring about His promises, in this case choosing the weaker son, Jacob. This totally refutes the idea God's plans or favor is tied to biology or any superior biological qualities (e.g. good looks, strength, brains). Note that merits nor demerits (i.e. good works or sins) are the condition here, when such things certainly are the condition on whether one is saved or not. But the natural objection is raised:
14What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." 18So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
As was mentioned earlier, this is the chief proof-text the Protestant appeals to, seemingly iron-clad in it's argument: God decides to have mercy or harden - save or damn - based on His sole pleasure, for His sole glory. But if one has been following Paul up till now and understands these two OT texts, they will see that is not what Paul is getting at. As noted throughout, Paul is ultimately framing this in terms of one nation versus another, essentially Jews versus Gentiles. In this case the nation of Israel versus the nation of Egypt, with Moses and Pharaoh signifying the headship of each.

First consider what God says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion," which comes from one of the most intimate passages in the Bible, when God reveals his Glory to Moses (Ex. 33:12-23). But the alert reader will recognize this comes at the conclusion of one of Israel's most infamous sins, the golden calf (Ex. 32)! In this passage God says Moses has found favor in His sight precisely because Moses stepped in and interceded for the Israelite nation who sinned with the calf and were going to be wiped out and rejected by God. So contrary to a surface level reading, God shows mercy on folks at the intercession of others, who find favor in God's sight, and is thus not "unconditionally" saving or damning. (This of course prefigures Jesus.)

Next consider what God says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth," during the 7th Plague on Egypt (of 10 total) in Exodus 9:13-17. On the surface, this sounds as if God desires to see Pharaoh die and keeps Pharaoh from choosing any different. But again this is a serious misunderstanding. Again, consider that this quote is taken from the 7th Plague, meaning Pharaoh has disobeyed repeatedly leading up to this:
When Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. 35So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses. (Ex 9:34-35)
Here the text explicitly states Pharaoh hardened his own heart, sinning "yet again," just as the Lord foretold. With this it is clear that when it is said God is the one hardening the heart, this in no way indicates God is predestining sin, since Pharaoh sinned by hardening, but rather God 'solidifies' that sinner's decision. While Exodus does mention God "hardening" Pharaoh at times (e.g. Ex 7:3; 9:12; 10:1), there is also mention of Pharaoh doing the "hardening" of his heart, specifically after he repents and lets the Israeltes go but then takes back his promise (Ex 8:15; 8:32; 9:34). Interestingly enough, the Hebrew terms for "harden" are different, depending on if God is doing it or if Pharaoh is doing it. Jewish commentary states the Hebrew term used when God "hardens" Pharaoh is more accurately translated "to strengthen," meaning God strengthened Pharaoh's heart from succumbing to the 'fear of God' in the Plagues. So to read this just on the surface and come away with "unconditional damnation" and such is to grossly misunderstand the OT contexts. Instead, God did this "that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth," meaning God is making the mighty nation of Egypt an object lesson when messing with "God's People". It was the ultimate showdown between the mighty "firstborn" from natural means (i.e. Egypt) and God's enslaved "firstborn" of supernatural selection (Exodus 4:22-23)!

But if this is so, some will object by bringing up the next few verses:
19You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" 20But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 
As with the prior passage, a surface level reading of this, not grounded in context, will (ironically) end up saying the exact opposite of what Paul really means! Many think Paul is raising the objection, "but how can God damn me for sinning if there was no way for me to avoid the sin in the first place?". That's not at all what Paul is saying! Paul is recalling what he said earlier in Romans, notably the start of Romans 3,
1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” 5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? ( I speak in a human way.) 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world? 7 But if through my lie God's truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
Most people have never even thought twice about this, because they don't realize what is being said. Paul has been teaching the "righteousness" of God is revealed through the Gospel, particularly through the Jewish rejection and crucifixion of Jesus! This claim should horrify anyone reading this: God's righteousness came through the repeated sins of the Jews, most especially in their crucifying of their Messiah? God forbid! But yes, it's true! God worked through Israel's unfaithfulness, their sins, to actually accomplish His will the whole time! Satan and the world kept trying to foil God's plans (e.g. thinking if Israel became unfaithful then this would prevent the Messiah from coming), but God was smarter and used these very sins to accomplish Salvation! So the Jew is thinking, "our sins bring about God's righteousness, thus if we sin we should actually be getting blessed!" Remember what was said at the start of this article: the Jews actually were taking advantage of God's mercy, and had fallen into the abominable mindset that St John the Baptist confronted:
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3)
The Jews thought that they simply being "unconditionally" born as children of Abraham that they were "unconditionally" entitled special protection and salvation and blessings from God! But John says, "No!" As does Paul. The Jews thought they could go around not being faithful and not suffer the consequences, but that's downright dangerous thinking! Thus, what Paul is really saying in "why does God find fault?" is that just because God uses your sin to advance His plan does not mean you wont suffer consequences for your sins!

This is why Paul brings up the "Potter" and "Clay" analogy, not to show God is out to prove He's sovereign by "unconditionally" damning one clay pot over another. Paul is yet again drawing directly from the OT! Paul is alluding to at least three OT references to God being the Potter, with Israel specifically (not just anybody!) being the clay in his hands, which would be a huge wake-up call to any Jew listening:
Isaiah 29 13 And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips,  while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, 14 therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people... 15 Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” 16 You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?

Isaiah 45 9“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?

Jeremiah 18 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’
Now we see a lot more clearly what Paul was getting at this whole time. This has nothing to do with the Potter building a pot just to destroy it, but rather Israel acting ungratefully and mocking God, as if God was creature and Israel was the Creator! In other words, we're dealing with "God's People" here, not some rubbish, who none the less are going to have to be taught a lesson the hard way.

But that's not all, when Paul speaks of using one vessel for "honorable use" and other vessels for "dishonorable" use, this does not mean God makes one person on a one-way trip for Heaven and another person on a one-way trip set for Hell - as too many folks unfortunately adulterate Paul's teaching. Consider the fact Paul uses identical languages of "vessels for honor and dishonor" in his letter to Timothy:
20 Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. 22 So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2)
The lesson here is pretty straightforward: God uses people - we'd call those people the great Saints of Catholicism - to carry out special tasks in Salvation History. Those people who cleans themselves rise from the status of non-honorable (i.e. daily use) to that of honorable (i.e. banquet use). The Jews are clearly undergoing God's judgment because they were selected to be honorable and turned out to be not worthy due to sin. So what now? Paul has the answer:
22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25As indeed he says in Hosea, "Those who were not my people I will call 'my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call 'beloved.'" 26 "And in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' there they will be called 'sons of the living God.'"
27And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: "Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved...
Here we see the Jew vs Gentile dichotomy made clear again, though this was to be understood the whole time. Notice how Paul culminates all that he said prior with "as indeed God says in Hosea," meaning the answer to this was hidden in the OT until now! What has God been "enduring with much patience"? Paul mentions this earlier in Romans 2,
3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.
Paul is speaking to those Jews who were utter hypocrites, condemning the Gentiles as second class citizens, worthless by nature. Yet Paul says God has endured with much "patience" with this Jewish nation of hypocrites, giving them time to repent, and yet they prefer to remain in sin.

Simple question: who are God's people? Obviously, the Jews. So who are "not God's people"? Obviously, the Gentiles. But notice the 'horrifying' prophecy of Hosea: those who formerly were "not my people" are now going to be called "my people"! Those who don't know the OT cannot understand the force of this prophecy. The chosen people, the Jews, had lost their "first born" status (Exodus 4:22-23). Which leads right to Romans 9:27, where as the Gentiles became God's new chosen People, Isaiah predicted "concerning Israel" only a remnant, the first Christians, would be saved. This is why Paul says that Israel as a nation, though still special to God, was (temporarily) "hardened" (Rom 11:25) and made effectively second class behind the Gentiles.
This leads Paul to transition to the crux (pun not intended) of the whole sad situation:
30What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33as it is written, "Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."
Again, the context is that of Jews versus Gentiles. The Jews (for the most part) failed to recognize the "Stone" of Zion, Jesus, and when they took Jesus on head to head, they tripped and fell. On the other hand, the 'godless' pagan Gentiles, in ever increasing numbers, continued to recognized Jesus as Savior and believed in him, until they became the super majority in the Church.

Though we have reached the end of Romans 9, Paul is not finished driving home his point in chapters 10 and 11. To ignore these would be folly, but for the sake of space I will only quote very briefly from each:
Romans 10 1Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them [the Jews] is that they may be saved. ... 19 [But] Moses says [to Israel], “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” ... 21 But of Israel [God] says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
Paul's thesis becomes more and more explicit in Chapter 10. The Jews have lost their status and are rightly upset, but God's patience had worn out. But all hope is not lost, for Paul shows God's ultimate plan in the next chapter:
Romans 11 13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? ...
28 As regards the gospel, they [Israel] are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
So in a masterful, yet still deeply mysterious plan, God will one day bring the Jews out of their hardened state to join with their Gentile brothers, that all may be one in Christ, as Paul says it best elsewhere:
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3)
While I didn't intend for this article to be this long (about 9 pages in Word), I trust you have learned an important lesson. For too long Romans 9 has been abused and butchered, especially by Calvinists in their blind zeal (Romans 10:2), and unnecessarily harmed the welfare of Catholics and other non-Calvinists Protestants.


Russ Rentler, M.D. said...

excellent post. Context is indeed everything. Once u see the context of Jew vs gentile, truly the protestant interpretation can't hold water. Great work.

Nick said...

Exactly, Russ. Once you see the larger context, any other reading becomes distorted and twisted and selective citing.

Christopher Ference said...


I see some Scott Hahn in there, no? I was wondering if you could quickly comment on how the usage of Jews and Israel is important, how it goes well with what you've drawn out here.

Miguel will surely want to challenge you on this...

Be well

Nick said...

Hello Christopher,

I've gotten Hahn's insight here indirectly, from others, but don't know where he's actually addressed it.

The way I see it, the usage of "Jews" and "Israel" is important because it connects the Church to the OT prophecies of Israel (i.e. where the Prophets used the term "Israel" in reference to the Church). Because of this, Paul had to show that there is a distinction between biological Israel and the Israel from heaven (Gal 4:21-31).

Miguel surely will want to challenge me on this...but he's going to have to face the fact I've done an exegesis of the whole chapter, and so context is on my side.

De Maria said...

"God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden."

Many people read that verse as though God arbitrarily selects whom He will have mercy upon. It isn't as though God didn't reveal His Will early on:

Exodus 20:6
King James Version (KJV)
6And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

He had mercy upon Moses, because Moses kept His Commandments and loved God.
He hardened Pharao because he did not keep God's Commandments and therefore proved that he did not love God.


De Maria

Steven Reyes said...

Hey Nick,
This is a really good post. I'm currently writing up one of the earliest extensive commentary on Romans 9:10-29 by St. Augustine, at the eve of his taking the episcopacy in Hippo (whether he was a bishop yet or still a priest is not entirely clear [~394- ~396 AD]). The commentary is in his "Miscellany of Questions in Response to St. Simplicianus", and it seems to follow more closely the Protestant paradigm though it is not as allergic to merit and works as the Protestant paradigm is. I will let you know when I have the outline and commentary done, probably another week though.

God bless,

Steven Reyes said...

Hi Nick,
Long overdue, but if you want to take a look at St. Augustine's interpretation of Romans 9, of Grace, the Law, and Predestination, you can have a look at an early work of his "the Miscellany of Questions in Response to St. Simplicianus" (394-396 AD, around the time of St. Augustine becoming a bishop and writing the Confessions).

I think it's similar to the Thomist manner of thinking of salvation, and perhaps close to the Reformed view in some ways. But he does seem adamant that the Molinist view makes no sense with respect to Scripture.

Here's the link; prepare to do a lot of reading if you want to get to the bottom of the entire thing. I tried to go line by line of writing down what he meant, since this is the first document that uses his famous original sin arguments.

Steven Reyes said...

I'm sorry to pester you about this post, but I really do think St. Augustine's commentary that I posted is in some part compelling especially his usage of Sirach 33 and appeal to the rest of the Pauline corpus. I can't help but feel that Romans 9 really is speaking about unconditional election (which is Catholic in the Thomist, Augustinian, etc. strains) if not directly than at least in a more anagogical/moral way. Though there is much merit to it being more about the Jews and Gentiles.

Nick said...

You are not pestering me, I have a significant interest in this topic so I enjoy going over this.

St Augustine's argument would be a lot more compelling to me and easier to grasp if he grounded them upon the OT texts being cited. The reason why is because if the OT texts did't have their own meaning, then that means Paul was randomly lifting out any string of words to make his point. So for example, when Augustine points out how the text says "before Esau had done anything good OR BAD" an election took place, if this election/reprobation is to heaven/hell, then that nullifies any need for a Final Judgment. If the election/reprobation is on the temporal level, such as choosing a representative nation, then it is still purely gratuitous and yet does no violation to justice.

What really got me thinking in this direction was as I became more aware that folks like Aquinas were not really 'predestination heavy' in the first place, and instead later Thomists Students began to form that image. I've began to distinguish between Catholic views of Predestination with the Reformed views and seeing them more dissimilar than similar.

That in short is why I've come to read Romans 9 as predestination 'lite' rather than 'heavy'.

Steven Reyes said...

Thanks Nick,
St. Augustine isn't saying though that reprobation is before Esau does something bad, only that election is not before Esau does anything good, because election (granting mercy) is not dependent on any merit on the part of the person. Reprobation however is God's justice paid to a sinner's debt in his sins. God's with-holding of grace to some person isn't a cause of sin in that person, but the person simply isn't capable of becoming more righteous, not necessarily forced to get worse. I think that's as far as St. Augustine really works on that problem though.

Predestination is a tough topic.

Miguel Sastre said...

Hello Nick,

As Christopher Ferrence rightly guessed, I'm certainly going to challenge you on this post. Perhaps someday we might arrange a formal e-debate on this, simply because the topic is so important.

I've been ridiculously busy these days with grad school classes, painting my house, and preparing for the upcoming school year, but I have been sketching a reply to this post that I will eventually put up on my blogger. I've also been reading and re-reading several books and commentaries that are germane to the topic.

That said, let me give you a mini reply:

1. First, I'm a bit surprised that you nowhere mentioned the fact that unconditional election is a permissible view even within Romanism and that such illustrious thinkers as Augustine and Aquinas championed it. I'm likewise surprised that you failed to acknowledge that these same thinkers interpreted Romans 9 (and the Augustinian/Thomistic tradition as a whole) as arguing for the unconditional election of individuals and not only nations.

2. Your argument seems to be a variation of the "elect nations" view on Romans 9. While I consider this view to have some exegetical merit, overall, I think it boils down to a false dichotomy: Paul endeavored to speak of both nations and individuals, as even Roman Catholic exegetes acknowledge. (See, for example, Reginald Garigou-Lagrange, O.P.'s fine work on Predestination).

3. While I agree with you that the broad context is important (Romans 9-11), I'd go even further and say you have to take into account the entire letter, including Romans 8, which clearly affirms unconditional election of individuals to salvation.

4. You make a basic hermeneutical error in letting the Old Testament determine Paul's meaning, when it is Paul's argument that discloses how he is reading the Old Testament. (The New interprets the Old, not the other way around, as Dei Verbum clearly affirms). For example, while it is true that Malachi is speaking of nations (Jacob I loved, Esau I hated), Paul nevertheless applies this passage to individuals (as I shall demonstrate). In fact, much of the NT interprets "national" passages in terms of individuals, especially Jesus. We call this "corporate personality" or "corporate representation," which applies to both nations and individuals--both/and, not either/or.

5. There also seems to be a bit of homage paid to the "New Perspective" reading of Paul, especially insofar as you incorporate aspects of the "Jewish entitlement heresy" into your overall argument.

6. You consistently fail to follow the logical flow of Paul's argument and often use exegetical "bait and switch" tactics. For example, while Paul clearly uses the Potter/clay analogy to argue for God's freedom and sovereignty in salvation in Romans 9, you redirect our attention to other contexts (2 Timothy 2) in which "vessels" can make themselves honorable or dishonorable. But this overlooks the fact that scripture can make multiple metaphors of the same images and requires us to import other "possible" uses of terms rather than deal with the terms as they're used within the immediate context of Paul's argument.

7. There are other issues of concern as well, which I won't go into here. But suffice it to say that your argument is scarcely distinguishable from Protestant Arminianism/Roman Molinism, that it's been thoroughly refuted many times over by both Calvinistic and Thomistic thinkers and that it really it falsely frames the debate as a Protestant vs. Roman Catholic argument, when in fact it is an intramural debate within both camps: Calvinists vs. Arminians, on the one hand, Thomists vs. Molinists, on the other.

Blessings to you!

Nick said...


I would love to have a debate on this issue! The proper exegesis of Romans 9.

The issue to me isn't so much about whether God graciously and thus in a real sense unconditionally saves, but rather whether the notion of God unconditionally saving AND unconditionally damning is really Paul's point in Romans 9 at all.

Miguel Sastre said...


I think the debate idea is good. So long as you'd be okay with a "flexible" schedule. I would not be able to commit to any firm deadlines until I'm better settled into the new school year (as I'm a teacher and the start of a new year is always chaotic). Since you've done this sort of thing before, perhaps you could link me to a Google doc with a proposed format, proposition, timeline etc.


Miguel Sastre said...


Here's where I'm coming from:

You said: "The issue to me isn't so much about whether God graciously and thus in a real sense unconditionally saves, but rather whether the notion of God unconditionally saving AND unconditionally damning is really Paul's point in Romans 9 at all."

This is often called "Double Predestination" by those who take your view. But that's kind of a weasel word. The question isn't whether or not predestination is "double" (it is), but in precisely what sense it is double.

God does reprobate. Thomists and Calvinists and Augustinians in general are in agreement on this point. They also agree that He does so because, in some sense, he wills it.

The problem with the use of terms such as "unconditional" and "conditional" is that we can easily confuse ourselves as to precisely when and where they apply in the overall schema of election. For example, Calvinists and Augustinians in general are accused of believing in a God who creates in order to damn.

But this is hardly the case. There is a real sense in which God does desire the salvation of all and does not want the destruction of anyone. And there is another real sense in which he wills to punish evil-doers and withhold saving grace from them. This is not a schizophrenic God; rather it is the mystery of the relationship between God's mercy and his justice, God's predilection and God's omnibenevolence.

Looked at one way, we might say that the basis for God's election is his mercy and the basis for reprobation is his justice. These are not symmetrical. God has to give mercy in order to save. But he only needs to withhold it in order to damn. Thus the reprobate go to hell because God gave them the justice they deserved rather than the mercy that they did not deserve. And God, of course, is perfectly justified in doing so, since no one can require him to be merciful to anyone.

In that sense, you might say election is "unconditional" (as there is nothing in us that causes God to be merciful to us) and reprobation is "conditional" (as there is something in us that causes God to display his justice--namely our sin).

But what you can't say is that God decreed from all eternity to save some, while at the same time trying to argue against the idea that in choosing some, he thereby rejected the rest whom he did not choose. Any schoolboy knows what it's like not to get picked for a team at recess. Not being picked is the same as being rejected. When there are only two ultimate destinations (Heaven or Hell), then not to be chosen for Heaven is tantamount to being chosen for hell. Calvin--to his credit--had the courage to call this spade a spade, but paid a hefty price for doing so, since so many have drawn the (absurd) inference that God is thereby a monster.

The kind of "double predestination" I believe in is identical to kind that Thomas Aquinas articulated in in the Summa (1, Q. 23. Art. 3). It's also what Paul argues for in Romans 9.

The reason why I think caution is in order when we try to parse out God's motivations for electing and reprobating is that we simply aren't privy to the Trinity's rationale. We can only go by what He has revealed. God simply hasn't deigned to tell us why he elects one and not another. This is why everyone from Augustine to Calvin has warned us against trying to dig to deeply into what moves God's will one way or another. "If thou wouldst not err, seek not to judge why God draws one man and not another" (St. Augustine).

We can only be sure of this: The judge of the earth will do what is right. This means God's reasons are both good and rational, even if it doesn't always look that way from our perspective. Hence Paul's rebuff: "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?"


Nick said...


Email me, I don't have your address.

Here is how I propose my debates. The format is along these lines, but am open for suggestions:

Topic: Is unconditional election to Heaven & Hell the teaching of Romans 9?
Affirming: Miguel; Denying: Nick

Week1: Both sides present an Opening Essay.
Week2: Both sides present a Rebuttal Essay.
Week3* (Tuesday): Both sides submit 5 Questions to the other person.
Week3* (Saturday): Both sides submit Answers to the questions.
Week4: Both sides submit a Concluding Essay.

Essays would be due midnight Saturday, with a 1 week grace period each in case things get too busy. I would also suggest Essays being limited to 2k words (just under 3 pages in Word) so as to avoid making things get too long.

Miguel Sastre said...


I have two email addresses--one for work and one private. I don't want to give out either, nor start a third for blogging purposes (though that's a possibility).

So for now, I'll accept the format you proposed. Looks good. But I'm not sure about the topic. While I like the focus (Romans 9--and surrounding context I presume), it seems to me that--given your article--"Does Romans 9 condemn Unconditional Election as heresy?"--that you should take the affirmative.

I take it that the tile of your article is a rhetorical question expecting the answer "yes." If so, then that "yes" would more naturally suit the affirmative side rather than the negative.

So perhaps the debate proposition could be something like: "Does Romans 9 condemn double predestination as heresy?" You'd say "yes," and I'd say "no."

But perhaps that wouldn't work best for you. After all, it seems that much of your argument is a denial that Paul has the eternal destinies of individual in mind anyway. So how could Romans 9 condemn such a proposition if it isn't in view in the first place?


Nick said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. The topic is a bit hard to summarize in a single sentence.

You're right that the issue for me isn't so much whether Double Predestination (as opposed to Single) is heresy in this chapter, since I'm arguing the theme isn't "eternal destinies" in the first place.

I would like to take the Affirmative, so perhaps it could be modified to say: Is unconditional election to Heaven & Hell a heresy according to Romans 9?

I would be affirming, and it would be the right focus (eternal destinies).

Miguel Sastre said...


I think we're getting closer on this.

You said: I would like to take the Affirmative, so perhaps it could be modified to say: Is unconditional election to Heaven & Hell a heresy according to Romans 9?

I'm still not sure that's quite the issue. Like you said, your focus is more on defending the "elect nations" interpretation of Romans 9--which, if true, would be a backhanded denial of unconditional election of individuals to salvation and unconditional reprobation to hell.

I'd be okay with you affirming the elect nations view and then drawing the theological implications against this sort of "double predestination" if you wish.

But here's the problem. You're not going to get an argument from me in defense of unconditional reprobation--as I don't hold that view--at least not if by "unconditional reprobation" we mean that God's election is on the same basis as his reprobation.

Still--I think just sticking to the issue of whether or not Paul is talking about the election of individuals at all may be a good enough focus. If you establish that he has nations in mind and not individuals, you could then argue that since the predestination of individuals is not in view in Romans 9 (through 11), that it cannot be used in support of any kind of single or double predestination of individuals.

But that would not thereby prove that Paul never has individual predestination in mind in other passages, even within in Romans itself. (As I said earlier, I think individual predestination is in view in Romans 8, even if you are able to show that it's not in view in 9-11).

My gut feel, however, is that you really have two issues in mind here. Ultimately it seems to me that you want to argue against at least double predestination and quite possibly unconditional single predestination too, thereby taking the Molinist position of conditional election and reprobation, which is an acceptable view within Roman orthodoxy.

Accordingly, your focus on the "elect nations" interpretation of Romans 9 seems to be nothing more than a means to that end.

So my question is this: Are you sure you want to debate Romans 9? Or do you really want to debate competing views of predestination?

I'm good either way. If you'd rather stick to Romans 9 (which might be wise, as we can stay more focused), then we go with the new version of the proposition per your suggestion, with you taking the affirmative.


Nick said...

I think you make a good point, the Thesis should be: Is corporate (as opposed to individual) election the true focus of Romans 9?

From there, as you said, our essays can tangentially touch upon whether Ch9-Ch11 can/should even be used to support Single/Double Predestination.

I think it's more important to address Romans 9 before addressing competing views of Predestination precisely because one's view of Romans 9 will have a big role in one's view of Predestination. The chief proof-text of Double Predestination schemes is Pharaoh, with Romans 9 traditionally being a Reformed favorite chapter and a non-Reformed feared and avoided chapter.

Miguel Sastre said...

Hello Nick,

You said: "the Thesis should be: Is corporate (as opposed to individual) election the true focus of Romans 9?"

Okay, I'm fine with that. How do we go from here?

Nick said...

Set a start date. Any upcoming Sunday is Week 1, with Essays due by Saturday at midnight, as noted a few posts earlier.

I know you said school is starting soon, so whatever the first week that you think is easiest. The Essays should not be too hard though, since they're only about 3 pages max.

I will post the debate announcement on my blog when a date is picked.

Miguel Sastre said...


As for a start date, I'd say two weeks from today, or Sunday, September 9, with first round essays being due the following Saturday, september 15.

But I'd like you to consider at least doubling the word-count. Here is why: When I put your article into Word, adjusted it to 12-point Arial, it came out to 5521 words, or 10 pages!

I also think the very nature of the topic may demand more space than others.

If the goal is to see who can make their point with the most precision and economy of words, that would seem to change the purpose of the debate. I'd rather allow more latitude (within reason), so that each side can say his peace, even at the risk of alienating our attention-deficit readers.

Would you be agreeable to 4K instead of 2K?


Nick said...

Starting on 9/9 seems fitting for this subject.

My post here was not intended to be this long nor is it in the form of a debate essay. In my experience, debates are just as much for others as they are about us, and wearing people out with long essays defeats the purpose. While having longer than 2K essays can work, I want to avoid what happened in my first debate, which ended up having all essays total about 80 pages. Even I got exhausted trying to get through it.

If 4k is needed for the Opening Essay, I would at least prefer if the word count dropped off for the Rebuttals (3k), Cross Examination (2k), and the Conclusion (2k). This would help keep things focused without the pages piling up and getting bogged down on tangents. I know your schedule can get busy, as can mine, so to keep the weekly deadlines (ideally) it's important to have managable essay sizes. The one thing harder to deal with than long essays is when debates drag on for too long, since everyone just gets burnt out. That's why I've found the +/- month range works best.

I hope this works.

Miguel Sastre said...


I defer to your wisdom on this as you have much more experience with this sort of format. I agree to your suggested limitations.

My only other question is this: I presume that you'll post your stuff on your blog and I will post my mine on my blog and that we can copy-and-paste one another's essays and rebuttals to our respective blogs. Right?

Nick said...

Yes, each will post their response publicly, and the other will copy and paste the opposing essay and post it.

Miguel Sastre said...

Hey Nick,

If you're ready to go on this debate, we could move it up a week. Would you be ready to post your opening essay this Saturday instead of next (the 15th)?

If so, let me know. I'm good either way.

Nick said...

I would like to move it back a week and have our first essays due this week...however, I'm not sure if I can make that deadline at the moment. I really wont know until probably Thursday.

I will work on what I can tonight and if I can make enough progress I will go with moving it back a week.

Nick said...

I will be ready to post my first essay this Saturday, September 8

Miguel Sastre said...

Sounds good, Nick.

Look for my essay sometime before Midnight on September 8.


Anonymous said...

This comment is from Kenneth Winsmann.....


You should edit this post so as to explain that election before consideration of merits or demerits is also a permissible Roman Catholic position. It is not only a permissible position, but was also held by many of our most notable doctors and theologians. The interpretation of Romans 9 that you have labeled as "protestant" was also held to by Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, Suarez, Bellarmine, and many others. Also, the Council of Valence authentically teaches that Romans 9 is about individual predestination and election! After citing both Romans 9:21 (about the potter’s power over the clay) and Romans 9:22 (about the vessels of mercy and wrath), the council offers its interpretation of those verses:

“Faithfully we confess the predestination of the elect to life, and the predestination of the impious to death; in the election, moreover, of those who are to be saved, the mercy of God precedes merited good. In the condemnation, however, of those who are to be lost, the evil which they have deserved precedes the just judgment of God.”

The Council of Valence (a local council) clearly held to Romans 9 as teaching individual election.

Michael Taylor said...

Told you, Nick.

Thomists routinely read Romans 9 as teaching individual predestination to glory. To call this a "Protestant" reading is to betray half of your tradition, and the better half at that.

In point of yet another fact, your reading of Romans 9 as elect nations predestined to historical tasks has its origins in Protestant, not Roman Catholic, exegesis.

Whose side are you on anyway?

Anonymous said...

It also seems troublesome that your application of 1 peter seems to suggest that all these saints and doctors were unstable men twisting scripture to their own destruction. There is a need for clarification.

Nick said...

If you read carefully, the point of this article was to show there is indeed a heretical understanding of "election"...I never intended to say there isn't a genuine/orthodox sense.

Paul's Jewish opponents did indeed consider themselves "elect" and thought simply being Jewish guaranteed salvation.

Nick said...

I would further add that in order to really appreciate what Paul is saying here, you have to understand what his opponents are saying/believing.

The common thesis that Paul is opposing "works based salvation" with the Jews being synonymous with Pelagians trying to 'work their way into heaven' is a faulty thesis.

Anonymous said...


I'm not knocking your exegesis. I think it's an interesting point of view. I was speaking in particular about the beginning of your post where you wrote:

" when the Pretend Reformers were pushing for Double Predestination (the teaching that God decides to save and damn apart from any good or evil on the part of the individual)"

The heresy of double predestination, commonly referred to as predestinarianism, is not the same as the doctrine of election before consideration of merits or demerits. The former is condemned while the latter is acceptable Roman Catholic theology. The post is great but is in need of some clarification.