Friday, October 29, 2021

Romans 9-11 and Calvinism


I started a Romans Bible Study, via email teachings, last May. Fifty people have joined me. Slowly, I've been studying (again!) the biblical book of Romans. Now I am in chapters 9-11. Megatons of theological ink have been spilled over these verses. 

Personally, I've taught many Bible studies on Romans. I am also familiar with Calvinist interpretations of chapters 9-11. In my doctoral work I studied Calvin's Institutes with a Calvin scholar. This does not make me a Calvin scholar. But I'm also not totally ignorant of Calvinism. 

While Calvin writes many things that have benefitted me, not only in the Institutes but also in his sermons (I have a book containing many of his sermons), and there are many great Calvinist theologians, I have never been a Calvinist. I don't buy into a Calvinist interpretation of election and salvation found in Romans 9-11. 

Where am I coming from? Here are some examples of how I see chapters 9-11. I present these not to argue, but to illustrate scholars I am more in line with.

First, read this essay by Bethel Seminary's Thomas Schreiner. Here are his opening thoughts.

JETS 36/1 (March 1993) 25-40 (Journal of Evangelical Theology)


Calvinists typically appeal to Romans 9 to support their theology of divine election. In particular, they assert that Romans 9 teaches that God unconditionally elects individuals to be saved. By "unconditionally" they mean that God, in eternity past, freely chooses specific individuals whom he will save (Eph 1:4) and that his choice is not based on their foreseen faith or effort (Rom 9:16). God does not simply foresee, say Calvinists, that certain people will put their faith in him, for apart from his work of grace to overcome their resistance to him no one would or could desire to come. Rather, he foreordains and determines that those who have been chosen will exercise faith. The Calvinist exegesis of Romans 9, however, is increasingly questioned today. Many scholars believe that the doctrine of individual election unto salvation is read into the text by Calvinists and cannot be defended by an examination of the entire context of Romans 9-11. 

What I want to do in this article is to explain two of the objections to the Calvinist reading of Romans 9, and then to examine whether the objections are compelling and persuasive. The two most common objections to the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 are as follows: (1) Romans 9 is wrongly explained if one understands it to refer to salvation. Paul is not referring to salvation in this text. Instead, the historical destiny of different nations (especially Israel) is being narrated. (2) Even if Romans 9 does relate to salvation in some sense, it does not refer to the salvation of individuals. The section relates to the salvation of groups, of corporate entities, and not to individuals. Each of the two objections will be explained and examined more closely. * 

Thomas Schreiner is associate professor of New Testament at Bethel Theological Seminary, 3949 Bethel Drive, St. Paul, MN 55112. 

Is Paul concerned with individual salvation? Of course he is! But in chapters 9-11, coming off the entire discussion in chapters 1-8, the issue is about the Jews and the Gentiles, as people groups. Paul is responding to the question "Has God been untrue to His promises to Israel?" Read Schreiner's entire essay to get into this.

Check out these short videos from two great New Testament scholars.

Ben Witherington on election and salvation.


N. T. Wright on election and salvation


Here is Grant Osborne, from his commentary on Romans. Note the word "typological."

Result: Loved Jacob, hated Esau (9:13)

This is a summary of the issues and the climax of verses 7–12. Paul quotes Malachi, a postexilic prophet, as saying “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Mal 1:2–3). Malachi is explaining why God is blessing the nation of Israel (Jacob is given the name “Israel” in Gen 32:28) and punishing the nation of Edom (Esau is called “Edom” in Gen 25:30; 36:1). In Malachi the quotation is corporate, referring to the two nations, but here Paul uses it to explain the process of predestination. God on the basis of his elect will is choosing one group descending from the patriarchs and rejecting another group, so there is both a corporate and an individual aspect here.

Still, this quotation seems overly harsh. If Paul meant the language literally, it would be. However, this language is almost certainly a Near Eastern figure of speech of acceptance (“I love”) and rejection rejection (“I hate”). God has chosen Israel over Edom in Old Testament history, from the patriarchs (Genesis) to the postexilic period (Malachi). Paul intends his readers to see in this a typological significance: God has chosen believing Jews (Isaac) over the unbelievers in Israel (Esau). God has the right to make his sovereign choice, and as we will see in verses 19–21, we have no right to question his decision.

Osborne, Grant R.. Romans Verse by Verse (Osborne New Testament Commentaries) (pp. 184-185). Lexham Press. Kindle Edition.

 A final note. I have debated these chapters so many times, usually with good, intelligent, Jesus-loving people. And, like probably they are not swayed by me, I remain unconvinced by Calvinist explanations of these chapters.

If you want to go deeper, I recommend these two companion volumes, written by excellent evangelical scholars.

 Against Calvinism: Rescuing God's Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology, by Roger Olson

For Calvinism, by Michael Horton