Romans 9: A Free-Will Reading

Romans 9 has always been one of the most contested battlegrounds in Reformed-Arminian disputes, so much so that R. C. Sproul has proclaimed that Arminian theology is demolished by a single verse from the chapter: “So then it does not depend on human will or effort, but on God who shows mercy.”  How can anyone read that verse and then claim that salvation does depend on human will or effort?  Arminians, for their part, do not help themselves by making outrageous statements like, “Oh, I don’t believe in predestination,” and by more or less ignoring the book of Romans in their preaching and theology.

This is especially unfortunate given the potential that Romans has for both Arminian and open theist readings, provided we keep in mind the unity of the letter as a whole and the covenantal issues that Paul is dealing with.  So without attempting to be entirely comprehensive or persuasive, I do want to give a reading of Romans 9 that free-will theists can offer as a more plausible interpretation than the Reformed version.

The basic Reformed reading of Romans sees the declarations that God has mercy on whomever he will, that human beings are clay in his hands and that God accepted Jacob but rejected Esau prior to anything they did as straightforwardly teaching that God chooses some individuals for salvation and others for damnation based on nothing but his own sovereign decision.  Needless to say, I think that is a deeply misguided reading, for a number of reasons.

Most primarily, Paul is not dealing with the salvation of individuals here.  He dealt with that in cc. 3-6.  What Paul is dealing with here is God’s covenant-faithfulness.  Paul establishes his anguish over the fact that, by and large, Israelites are rejecting Jesus while non-Jews are entering into the promises God made to Israel.  The center of the debate is located in verse 6, as James White (of all people) correctly notes.  The promises God made to Israel seem to be unfairly being given to another group of people.  “Has the word of God failed?”

But Paul says that it has not failed, because not all who are biological descendants of Jacob are truly Israel.  Nobody deserves to be counted as ‘Israel’ because they were born Jewish, or because they keep the works of the law.  To illustrate why this is the case, Paul points out that God chose to continue Israel’s line through Jacob instead of Esau, for no reason that can be found in either of them.  But there is a serious problem if we take this to mean that Esau was damned, because Paul is clearly referring to being chosen to carry on the line of Israel.

This is even more clear if we follow the reference that Paul is making in verse 13, “As it is written: Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated,” which is from the first few verses of Malachi.  In it (a sort of prophetic play), God tells Israel how he has loved them, and Israel responds, “How have you loved us?”  God replies, “Look at Esau.  Even though he was the older brother, I loved Jacob and hated Esau.  Look at how Esau’s mountains are a wasteland, and how his inheritance is being consumed by jackals of the desert.”  It is the same situation as the Genesis account and the same situation that Paul is addressing: God has chosen one group of people as his representatives on earth, and overlooked another.  It has nothing at all to do with individuals being chosen for salvation or damnation.

Still, Paul senses a possible objection, which is that God is unfair to decide who his covenant people are.  Paul’s answer to this objection is simply that God is free to choose.  What is significant for a free-will reading of the passage is to recognize that while God is free to harden whomever he wants, his decisions are not arbitrary.  Later in chapter 9, Paul summarizes his thoughts, observing that

Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness—namely the righteousness that comes from faith. But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness,  has not achieved the law. Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were by works. 

So if God has hardened Israel, it is not because of his prior decision to do so, but “because they did not pursue [righteousness] by faith.”  In chapter eleven (cc. 9-11 form one literary unit, all dealing with the question posed in 9:6), Paul, utilizing the metaphor of pruning a vineyard, observes that “[Israel’s branch was] broken off by unbelief” (11:20), but “even they, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in, because God has the power to graft them in again” (11:23).  Paul does not believe that God has decided irrevocably in advance that Israel will not be saved, but rather portrays God responding to Israel’s faith or lack of faith as it arises.  In fact, Paul seems to portray a partly open future, although he ultimately believes that “all Israel will be saved,” though it is difficult to say what exactly he means by this, given his statement that not “all who are descended of Israel are Israel.”

Paul’s vision of a partly open future also comes across in his choice to quote Jeremiah 18, which far from presenting God as statically exercising his will as determined in ages past, presents God flexibly responded to his creatures as situations change.

Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.

Here in particular Calvin’s analysis of the biblical text looks clumsy, as he describes passages like this as examples of God “lisping” to us, speaking baby-talk, the way a nursemaid babbles nonsense to an infant.

A case study for Paul’s understanding of hardening is presented in Pharaoh’s role in the Exodus, where the text first tells us several times that Pharaoh hardens his own heart and only then tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  Paul is certainly right that God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and hardens whom he wants to harden.  But why would we take from Romans 9 that he has no basis for determining who he wants to have mercy on or harden?  He hardens Pharaoh because Pharaoh wanted to play hard ball.  God hardened Israel “because of their unbelief.”  God shows kindness to you “provided that you continue in his kindness.”  Across the board, Romans 9 shows God responding to the morally responsible choices of his people.

So when my Reformed brothers and sisters point to Romans 9 as the linchpin of their theology, I’m just not convinced.  Paul simply isn’t talking about individuals being appointed to salvation, and his thinking all seems to assume that God acts based on the response he gets from people.  I think the burden is definitely on Reformed readers to demonstrate that Romans 9 has anything to do with their doctrines.

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