Romans 9

Romans 9 October 18, 2011

Several Calvinists who have posted comments here have suggested or outrightly claimed that Arminians have no exegesis of Romans 9.  In fact, SOME Calvinists make a habit of going around claiming that Arminians are weak on exegesis–period.

I think some of this here was brought on my my comment–quoting John Wesley–that whatever Romans 9 means it can’t mean “that” (i.e., double predestination).  Actually, and I should have said this earlier, that was not Wesley’s only comment on Romans 9.  Scattered throughout his writings one finds many exegetical comments on Romans 9.

The exact quote from Wesley is found on page 128 of my book Against Calvinism: “Whatever that Scripture [viz., Romans 9] proves, it can never prove this.  Whatever its true meaning be, this cannot be its true meaning. … No Scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works.  That is, whatever it prove beside, no Scripture can prove [unconditional, double] predestination.”  (This from his sermon “On Free Grace.”)

I deal with Romans 9, including Wesley’s exegesis of it, in Chapter 5 of Against Calvinism (“Yes to election, no to double predestination”).  There I set forth in brief (it’s a brief book!) several examples of classical Arminian exegesis of Romans 9 AND some examples of Reformed theologians who reject the traditional Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 (e.g., Berkouwer and Daane).

The best Arminian exegesis of Romans 9 is found in William Klein’s (professor at Denver Seminary) The New Chosen People (Wipf & Stock, 2001).  My point here is not to spell it out (I do that in brief in Against Calvinism, pp. 129-130) but simply to say to those few Calvinists who have come here (or elsewhere) to claim there is no Arminian exegesis of Romans 9–“you’re wrong; read more!”

Other Arminian exegetical treatments of Romans 9 are given by Jack Cottrell and Dale Moody (among many others).  Moody’s can be found in Volume 10 of The Broadman Bible Commentary series.  (Moody was an Arminian who taught theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for many years and was fired [or relieved of his teaching duties which I consider the same] for his Arminian views.  He was a prolific theologian with whom I had the privilege of eating lunch not long before he died.  He was extremely bitter about what he considered his mistreatment by the administration of his seminary.)

But, as I said earlier, it is not only Arminians who offer exegesis of Romans 9 that conflicts with traditional Calvinist interpretations.  Lesslie Newbigin, for example (hardly an Arminian!), also explained Romans 9 in the Arminian manner (which is also how it was interpreted by ALL the church fathers before Augustine!)–as dealing with nations and service rather than individuals and their salvation.

Finally, Arminius himself offered a very cogent exegesis of Romans 9.

My point in quoting Wesley was NOT (as some disingenuously imply) to say that Arminians have no alternative explanation of Romans 9 based on exegesis.  It as simply to say that ANY interpretation of Romans 9 or of ANY OTHER scripture that makes God arbitrary and unloving, in brief, a monster, is impossible BECAUSE there is no reason to believe Scripture if God, its author, is evil and not good.  The (perhaps unintended) view of God as actually WANTING many people to suffer eternally in the flames of hell for his glory (as Theodore Beza asserted) undermines the validity of Scripture itself.  It makes it untrustworthy because it is only trustworthy if God is trustworthy and an evil God is not trustworthy.


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  • Kyle Carney

    Slam dunk, Dr. O. I know there will probably be many critics who follow that do no think so, but so many people need to know this.

    Also, do you know if a study Bible exists with an Arminian perspective overall? A simple google search does not render much. Thank you for the list of commentaries that you posted.

    • rogereolson

      Go to http://www.evangelicalarminians.org. There you should be able to find any and all Arminian resources available. There’s a discussion list you can join to ask this question and others.

    • Brian Small

      Cokesbury now is selling an NRSV Wesley Bible.

    • Hey, what about the “Life in the Spirit” NIV (or was it the [N]RSV) Bible?

  • John C. Gardner

    The Arminian exegete who comes to my mind immediately is Ben Witherington at Asbury seminary who has written a commentary on Romans. All of us need as Arminians to be irenic and yet stand firm for Christ.
    John Gardner

  • JohnD

    Calvinists are not only wrong about Romans 9, they are obviously and demonstrably wrong. Their view is Augustinian thought squeezed through Bezian gauze to produce a pair of lenses that cannot see the actual (and more glorious) truth therein. I actually feel sorry for them for the dark tunnel vision that holds them back.

  • Joe

    I consider myself reformed. And I have studies my share of exegesis. And Olson is right here. Romans 9 is not about “individuals chosen by God for salvation”, it Paulus rationale for God’s saving work among the gentiles while most of the jews did not accept the gospel. God’s work is not thwarthed by the jews unbelief, it is alla included in God’s plan.

    Actually, the strongest case for individual election for salvation (an unbiblical term by the way, election is always collective in the Scriptures) is not to be found in texts like Ephesians 3 or Romans 9, but in text that show that the human response to the gospel is itself a gracious work of God through the Spirit. In the end we are left there. Some receive the gospel (their eyes are open, repentance and faith becomes a reality in their lives) and som don’t. The do not resist God’s call, they simply don’t experience it.

    /Joe, from Sweden

  • You are forgetting Brian Abasciano. He wrote his dissertation on Romans 9 wherein he interacts with the likes of Piper er al. Pretty comprehensive stuff.

    • rogereolson

      Right, but how can someone read it? Is it available at the evangelical Arminians web site or somewhere else?

      • Here’s a link to a bunch of Arminian resources on Romans 9. Abasciano’s dissertation is available there also.

        http://evangelicalarminians.org/internet-resources-on-romans-9

      • Jeremy
      • Brian Small

        Yes, it appears to be on the Evangelical Arminian website. Also he has produced two books on Romans 9:1-9 and 9:10-18 with Continuum. Unfortunately, they are pricey, so I suggest checking them out of a library.

        • Brian Abasciano

          After I finish my academic books on Romans 9, my hope is to condense them into a 1 volume paperback edition fit for lay readers comparable to John Piper’s book on Romans 9. The problem is that it may be some time before that is ready. I still need to write the next volume of my project, and I am not sure if I will be able to complete the chapter with it or have to do 2 more volumes instead of 1. So it looks like a number of years before I will be able to come out with the affordable, 1 volume edition (assuming everything else lines up, such as the publisher’s approval, etc.) I would appreciate prayer for this whole project, and even for efficiency and speed in doing the work, especially with everything else I am doing (leading a family, pastoring, teaching seminary, presiding over the Society of Evangelical Arminians).

          I should also mention that the doctoral thesis at the Society of Evangelical Arminians website is a fuller version of the expensive book by the same name. It has a lot more information in it, and the book is simply a shortened form with very little change apart from the deletion of material.

  • Roberto

    Roger,
    Thank you for the respectful manner in which you engage others in dialogue. I see the debate between Arminian/Reformed factions often as a case of false alternatives. As for the current post, I am strongly inclined to see Romans 9 in corporate terms as well.
    BTW – where was the pic taken that is at the head of your blog? It reminds me of a country road that I used to drive to get off the beaten’ track.

    • rogereolson

      The blog administrator at patheos.com chose it from somewhere. I don’t know where.

  • I was privileged to hear Dale Moody as guest lecturer for a series at Samford U. when I was a college student. He was quite an enthusiastic speaker as well as a great intellect. It was obvious that he loved every bit of what he was doing as a seminary professor. Unfortunately, he as well as several other professors who were noted for their integrity, scholarship, and devotion were relieved of their teaching duties by the incoming neofundamentalists.

    • rogereolson

      Actually, I think Moody was relieved of his teaching duties before that happened. He told me it was caused by financial pressures on the seminary by the Arkansas Baptist Convention over his denials of the doctrine of eternal security. This was way back in about 1982 (when I had lunch with him). But it’s possible the administration then saw the handwriting on the wall (because of the infamous Houston 1979 SBC annual meeting) and relieved him of his duties to try to stave off the impending fundamentalist takeover.

  • jeff martin

    ARMINIUS’ BASIC ARGUMENT OF ROMANS 9
    Two things are to be presupposed in Paul’s argument. One, that Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, are to be considered, not in themselves, but as types in those passages, which Paul presents. And secondly, following on the first, is that they are types of the children of the flesh and of the promise.

    The apostle proves neither, but assumes both and correctly. For it is most certain, from an inspection of the passages themselves, that this is so, for the apostle says with regards to Ishmael and Isaac in Galatians 4:24, “which things are an allegory,”

    In reference to Romans 9, in those words, “the older shall serve the younger,” addressed to Rebecca, “the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil,” was designed to indicate nothing else than that He had formed, in His own mind, from eternity, a purpose to communicate righteousness and salvation, not one which should embrace all the posterity of Abraham universally, but which should be according to election, by which He would distinguish between these and those, not considered simply in their own nature, as pure or corrupt, but in respect to the condition, by which righteousness and salvation were to be applied. For the children of the flesh and those of the promise are, such, by their own peculiarity, defined by the apostle, in this passage, since the former are “of works,” the latter of faith, by which obedience is rendered unto God, who “calls.”

    It cannot be proved from this passage that they, who are types, are exactly analogous to the antitypes: and if it may, perhaps, be true that Ishmael and Esau belong to the children of the flesh, as thus described, yet that they are such, of any divine purpose, is not taught in this place

    Some state it thus: — “If God, without any respect of works, regards Ishmael and Esau with hatred and excludes them from the number of His children, but loves Isaac and Jacob, and considers them as His children, is He not unjust? It seems to be a kind of injustice not to bestow the same things on those of the same character.”

    It is true that, if the apostle was considering them in themselves, and not as types of certain characters — as has been remarked — there would be an occasion for such an objection

    First it is necessary that a man should exist, and be a vessel. Secondly, it is necessary that before he can be a vessel of wrath or of mercy, he should be a vessel of sin, that is, a sinner. Thirdly, that he should be a vessel of wrath or of mercy.

    Briefly, God makes man a vessel; Man makes himself an evil vessel, or a sinner; God determines to make man, according to conditions, satisfactory to himself, a vessel of wrath or of mercy, and this He in fact does, when the condition is either fulfilled, or perseveringly neglected.

    The question “Can God be angry with the hardened” is a foolish one. It should be inquired “Can God harden those with whom He is angry” In the second place, the apostle replies to the relation between “hardening and irresistible will,” in these words “endured with much long suffering the vessels of wrath;” in which He signifies that the mode of hardening is “patience and mildness” not the omnipotent action of the will which cannot be resisted

    To Arminius’ argument I would add that the point of using Pharaoh on Romans 9 was not referring to salvation at all, but to simply show that God will do what he wants. Pharaoh’s heart being hardened has nothing to do with salvation but everything to do with God’s desires to get Israel out of Egypt. So we see here also a type that is not supposed to be exactly like the antitype, if there is one.
    I also do not think that corporate vs. individual argument is the way to go or what Paul was emphasizing. He is simply talking about God’s plan, not about showing he is concerned about keeping things corporate. The way Paul argues, works well regardless if you are talking about an individual or more than that.

  • Steve

    Roger
    Thanks once again for a site that opens up some great discussion. For myself I have no question that the Calvinist hypothesis of Romans 9 and other relevant scriptures are at least sub Biblical if not outright nonsense. In any case I like Robert L. Hamilton’s Arminian hypothesis concerning Romans 9. It is so much more credible and to me is sound Biblical exegesis. You can find it at http://evangelicalarminians.org/files/Hamilton.%20Election%20in%20Romans%20Chapter%20Nine.pdf Thanks also for the names provided above. Do you know Hamilton and if so where can I get to contact him? Does he have a page or anything? Healso has other stuff from John which is very interesting as well.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know him.

    • Steve,

      Please contact us at the Society of Evangelical Arminians about your question.

  • Craig Wright

    I have come to a realization that Romans 9 sets up the situation in Romans 10-11 that God has partially hardened Israel, as he did for Pharaoh, in order to graft on the gentiles. The question that gentile Roman Christians had was, “Why don’t more Jews accept Jesus as Messiah?” The answer is that God is orchestrating a change, or paradigm shift.

    • Steve

      No no…Israel hardened themselves just as Pharaoh did. Its contingent. Stubborn unrepentance leads to something. Namely hardness. Its everywhere. Romans 1, Hebrews etc. If Pharoah was hardened it was by Gods graceousness to him not by an arbitrary despotic act that had no realtion to anything at all. Thats Calvinism and thats one of their huge misunderstandings or disobediences call it what you will. If God acts unilaterally then their is no possible way to judge humans morally and the universe is madness.

  • I have read enough Arminian exegetes of Romans 9 to get the sense that their approach to the text is that the more obvious meaning of the text simply cannot be true. They might be right, but the guy in the pew gets left behind in the gymnastics. While the Reformed exegetes have their own version of gymnastics, their willingness to live with hard texts matches the “tell it like it is” courage of the pew people. I don’t disagree with your concerns. But the Arminian community simply does not match the tougher and more street smart exegesis of the Reformed variety. I think where Arminianism truly comes into its own is its handling of the “deeper life” texts of the New Testament. The Reformed have yet to give sanctification its true magic. It has no version of the Keswick movement which I grew up in and continue to hold in high regard even if I am now more aware of its dangers.

    • Steve

      toughness and streetsmart means nothing. Calvinists paint themselves into theological corners and then manufacture absurdities in order to make it stick. I couldn’t care less about the Arminian v Calvinist debate I am only interested in the motivation that twists scripture to places it just won’t go. There are people I know who go along with Calivinism becaue they are essentially lazy and are influenced by active Calvinists and then simply buy in. It isn’t that difficult to get what they are on about. Nor is a problem to finally refute it. Laziness in the pews is no excuse really.

    • John Inglis

      Re Bryant, “their approach to the text is that the more obvious meaning of the text simply cannot be true. ”

      I don’t get that sense at all. Rather, that is the sense I get from Calvinist interpreters. Moreover, I get the sense that many Calvinists are proud that they can not only interpret the texts in a hard manner, but also that they can live with the hardness and even find glory in it.

      It is more likely that our own past histories have shaped us to find one subjective “sense” or the other, than that our “senses” have some objective truth value.

      John

  • Actually the Puritans were Keswick types to a degree. They did not seem able to keep their introversion in check, which led, I believe, to the collapse into Unitarianism. The more Arminianian Keswick movement has not done this, it seems to me.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Greg Boyd, an open theist also has an essay on his explanation of Romans 9:

    http://www.gregboyd.org/essays/essays-predestination-free-will/how-do-you-respond-to-romans-9/

  • Eric Miller

    Dr. Cottrell deals with this text this nicely in his Romans commentary. Some Calvinists ( Dr. James White) act as though if you disagree with their particular rendering of Romans 9 than you must not have read the text thoroughly enough.

  • Timothy

    Although I am in total agreement that proper exegesis of Rom 9 does not yield the interpretation of Calvinists, I do think that when Calvinists are not required to exegete passages so tied to their pet doctrines they do a very good job. I have heard many a very good sermon from Calvinists where the focus has been on bible exposition. This is a generalisation but I rather think that they are better than most others.

  • Holdon

    I think that essay reflects pretty well what I think.

    The entire argument of Paul is that God wants to see faith. Israel, although God’s people despite all the selection activities of God: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses’ intercession, did not attain righteousness, but stumbled.

    God is not a bad Potter. He doesn’t make bad pottery. If you read the passage in Rm 9 carefully and compare it with the msg. in Jer. 18 and 19, you will see indeed that the Potter (re)forms (calvinists must love this process!) the clay as long as it is moldable. If the clay hardens itself however, then it will be broken (chapter 19). This picture of the impending judgment in Jeremiah’s time (latter part of ch 18 and 19) on Israel to be repeated similarly in the first century AD is of the utmost concern to Paul the apostle.
    It is in that context which the apostle cites, that vessels (nations, see 18:8)are made (and remade if they repent). Therefore, Paul argues then those repenting nations will also be as that other vessel (18:4)and then see how that thought develops in Rom 9:24 and further. The “answering against the Potter” refers therefore to the objectionable pride of the elect people against the Sovereign Potter who chooses to bring the gentiles under grace. There still will be a remnant though: “election according to grace” in that day of which Paul himself was an example.

    Election unto salvation is not found in the Bible. (the term used in 2 Thess 2:13 is a different and means something else.) There were people saved outside Israel in the OT. Election (or selection) is to purpose and because of certain qualities. You cannot elect 10 balls from 100 equal balls in size and color, etc.. You can grab 10, but not elect 10. Because election presupposes qualities in the opinion of the Chooser: compare it’s use in “choice-this” or “choice-that”, like a “choice race” in 1 Pet 2. Unconditional election is therefore a contradiction.

  • Matt S

    Dr. Olson,
    I’ve noticed that, in several places, i.e. this article and “Against Calvinism,” you assert that unconditional election necessarily implies arbitrariness. Do you take “arbitrary” to mean something like “based soley on one’s whim,” or something more along the lines of “without apparent reason or purpose?” I’ve always taken it to mean the latter, but after some dictionary-checking I found some variances, some of which are closer to the first definition (or attempt at one) I listed. It seems that the latter, the one I’ve always assumed, is used more strictly in the realm of philosophy.

    • rogereolson

      I mean it has to be arbitrary as in “eenie, meenie, minie, mo” (or however that’s spelled). There are only two possibilities when thinking about why some items are selected from a group and others are not. Either the person doing the selecting saw something about the ones he or she selected that caused him or her to select them or the selection was arbitrary, based on nothing. I don’t see any other possible explanation. When Calvinists say that God’s selection of whom to save has nothing to do with anything he sees in those he elects, the only alternative is that he selects them for no particular reason.