Roger Olson on Romans 9

I’m currently working through Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism which is a companion book to Michael Horton’s For Calvinism. The book seeks to provide an apologetic against the doctrines of grace or Calvinism as it is properly named. The recent publication of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” from a host of non-Calvinist Southern Baptist professors, pastors, and others has brought the issues of Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention back to the forefront of controversy. My reading of the two books seems to me to be very timely- some would even say preordained or planned. Regardless, I was excited to read Olson’s book to see just how he deals with certain passages that Calvinists typically appeal to within the discussion. So far, I have been drastically let down. I’ve come to realize that I should not go to Roger Olson expecting a deep, exegetical argument. His work on Church history and theology are great. He has a way of summarizing and articulating what others believe in a superb manner. But, that’s about as far of a compliment I am willing to write concerning the book and the type of arguments employed throughout it. I found myself frustrated reading the book because it would seem that certain ideas or philosophic presuppositions have more bearing in the discussion over the words of Scripture themselves. Various Reformed theologians’ work and conclusions (Helm, Sproul, Boettner, and Piper) are summarized but the multitude of verses that lead to those conclusions is ignored. It is easy to reject conclusions. It is very difficult to reject the laborious amount of verses that have led the Reformed theologians to their conclusions.

Roger Olson vicariously handles Romans 9 by appealing to certain other peoples’ interpretations concerning the chapter (John Wesley, William Klein, James Daane, and G.C. Berkouwer). The gist of the argument is that Calvinists typically go to Romans 9 for their ideas of double predestination but we do not have to interpret those verses like that. Romans 9 is not about individual election to salvation but a discussion about election to purposes or national blessings within salvation history. It is an election for historical purposes, not eternal destinies. Ben Witherington, a noted Arminian scholar who teaches at Asbury, argues that:

The discussion of election in chs. 9-11 is a discussion of corporate election, in the midst of which there are individual rejection by some and selection for historical purposes of others…when Paul is referring to the hardening of some, he is not talking about eternal damnation. Therefore, Paul speaks in 9:22-23 not of those saved or damned from the foundation of the world, but rather vessels that are currently positively related to God and vessels that currently are not…In vv. 7-10 Paul provides some scriptural backing for what he has just asserted. The examples are meant to show that not all Israel turn out to be children of the promises, even though they are all children of Abraham. The most telling example of course is Esau, who before he had done anything was given a certain lot in life. He and his brother Jacob were the product of one act of intercourse. The elder would serve the younger, not because the younger deserved better or had done better deeds, but because God in his unmerited favor decided to do it that way, showing mercy on Jacob more than Esau. But Esau’s historical role, however determined by God, does not mean that God cursed Esau and damned him for eternity. As the OT context of the saying “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated” (Mal. 1:2-3) shows, the subject there is two nations, not two individuals, and, as we have said, even when individuals are in the picture, it is not their eternal destiny that is spoken of. The quoted verse, then, may speak of God’s elective purposes, but the concern is with roles they are to play in history, not their personal eternal destiny.

Paul Achtemeier further adds to the discussion on Romans 9 saying:

The difficulty lies in the fact that those who have understood these verses to be statement of eternal truth about how God deals with each individual, rather than a statement of how God has dealt with Israel in pursing his plan for the redemption of a rebellious creation, have also tended to understand these verses in terms of a rigid and symmetrical predeterminism. God has determined before each individual was born whether or not that person would be saved or damned. Nothing that individual could do would alter that fact Those who were damned got what they deserved as rebellious creatures. Those who were saved were only saved by grace…That is simply not what Paul is saying within this passage. He is not writing about the fate of each individual. He is making a statement about how God dealt with Israel, and continues to deal with it, even when it rejects his Son; namely, he deals with it in mercy, even when it deserves wrath. That is why one so badly distorts Paul’s point if one assumes these verses tell me about my fate, or anyone else’s before God: damned or saved. Rather, what these verse tell me is that the same gracious purpose at work in the election of Israel is now at work in a new chosen people to whom I can now belong, by that same gracious purpose of God. The passage is therefore about the enlargement of God’s mercy to include Gentiles, not about the narrow and predetermined fate of each individual.

So is Romans 9 about unconditional election to salvation (Calvinism) or election for historical purposes (Arminianism)? I think the Calvinist interpretation holds the most exegetical weight. The purpose of this blog is to give reasons why I think such a thing. Onward we go.

Why even write Romans 9-11?

Chapter 8 and all of Romans 1:16-8:39 necessitate Paul’s discussion of election in chapter 9. Thomas Schreiner has pointed out that one of the striking themes of chapter 8 is salvific blessings promised to Israel have been given to the Church: the Holy Spirit was promised for joyful Torah obedience but now this promise has come to fruition in the church (Rom. 8:4), Israel had the pledge of future resurrection and yet Paul speaks of the resurrection of believers (Rom. 8:10-11), Israel was God’s son (Exod. 4:22) and now the members of the Church are God’s sons and daughters (Rom. 8:14-17), the future inheritance was promised to Israel (Isa. 60) and now it is given to the Church (Rom. 8:17), Israel was God’s chosen people foreknown among the nations (Amos 3:2) and now the Church is said to be foreknown and chosen by God (Rom. 8:28-30), and God promised to never forsake Israel (Deut. 31:6) and now this promise is extended to the Church (Rom. 8:31-39). Discussing the question has God abandoned his salvific promises to Israel, Paul responds with salvation was never promised to ethnic Israel. There has always been a winnowing process: Isaac was chosen, not Ishmael; Jacob was chosen instead of Esau. And, this was for the purposes of God’s election. God’s election is unconditional. So, Romans 9-11 is less about Israel’s role in redemptive history (though this is vitally important) and more about giving an apologetic against the ideas that God failed his people and forsook his covenantal promises.

 Reasons why the historical purposes or temporal blessings interpretation does not work

The number one reason why the national destiny viewpoint doesn’t work is the context of Romans 9:1-5. Paul says “I am speaking the truth in Christ–I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in  the Holy  Spirit– that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For 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. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” Paul is concerned with his own ethnic brothers and sisters’ salvation-not national destiny. This is not an argument for theologians to have. This is an affection for Christians to feel (Do we, like Paul, long for the salvation of our fellow Americans?). Douglas Moo rightly points out that salvation is in view because of the language Paul uses.He says:

Paul now gives the reason for his sorrow: the condemnation under which so many of his fellow Jews stand by reason of their refusal to embrace the gospel. To be sure, he does not state this as his cause for concern in so many words. But that no less than eternal condemnation is the issue is plain from his expressed wish to be “accursed” and “cut off from Christ” for the sake of his fellow Jews. “Accursed” translates the gk. Anathema which applies to the underlying spiritual reality of which the church’s excommunication is but the response: eternal damnation. Paul’s willingness to suffer such a fate himself makes sense only if those on behalf of whom he offers himself stand under the curse themselves.

This is why Paul laments-his brothers and sister of Israel are rejecting Jesus Christ. John Murray rightly notes that “Paul’s main goal in Rom. 9:6b-13 was not to prove that God freely elected the nation of Israel, but rather to establish a principle by which he could explain how individual Israelites were accursed and yet the Word of God had not fallen.” Paul is concerned about individuals in his lament and goes on to give an apologetic to the claim that God’s promises have not failed concerning Israel’s salvation. They have not failed because God never promised to save anyone by virtue of their ethnicity. This is not national election or election for temporal blessings. This is about salvation.

The second reason why the historical-purposes interpretation should be rejected is that it ignores the individualism in vs. 9:6b. Paul says that “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel…” There would be no such thing as true Israel if the promises were made to ethnic or national Israel. Moo again notes:

The standard view among Paul’s Jewish contemporaries was that this Israel was made up of all those physically descended from Jacob, the heir of Abraham and Isaac, who was himself named “Israel.” Only those who had refused their inheritance by outright apostasy would be excluded from this Israel to whom the promises belonged. Paul does not deny that ethnic Israel remains God’s people, in some sense (9:4-5; 11:1-2, 28). But he denies that this corporate election of Israel means the salvation of all Israelites; and he insists that salvation has never been based on ethnic descent (2:1-29; 4:1-16). Therefore the people if Israel cannot look to their birthright as a guarantee of salvation. This is the point that Paul makes by asserting that “all those who belong to Israel (in a physical sense) do not belong to Israel (in a spiritual sense).”

This makes sense only if the context is election unto salvation.

The third reason why the election for historical purposes interpretation should be rejected is that it ignores the use of individuals as illustrations. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Pharaoh are individuals and not nations. It would seem unlikely and obtuse for Paul to open his argument concerning why Israelite individuals are not saved and then appeal to individuals to prove some sense of national election.

The fourth reason why the election for historical purposes interpretation should be rejected is because it ignores the intelligibility of the examples Paul uses within his argument. If the argument within Romans 9 concerns itself with temporal, national blessings upon Israel, Paul’s argument would be severely weakened because he used Ishmael, Esau, and Pharaoh who were all nationally blessed. His illustrations become unintelligible and almost moot. The force and weight of the comparisons made within his argument would almost disappear!

The fifth reason why the election for historical purposes interpretation should be rejected is because it disregards the closely analogous texts elsewhere in Paul where the same words or phrases are used which contain salvific connotations and implications. The “children of the promise are reckoned as seed” mentioned in 9:8b is the spiritual Israel mentioned in 9:6 (“from Israel belong to Israel”). The children/seed language is used elsewhere to denote “sons of God” who are saved through faith in the Messiah (Gal. 3:26-29; 4:21-31; Rom. 2:25-29). The words children of God show that Paul is thinking of salvation (see Rom. 8:16) and hence he is not thinking merely of physical blessings given to Israel.

The sixth reason why the election for historical purposes interpretations should be rejected is because it fails to adequately account for vv. 14-23 within Paul’s argument. After giving an apologetic for why God’s promises to Israel have not failed because not all who are descended from Israel are of Israel and illustrating it with the OT individuals, Paul moves to answer the diatribe-like interlocutor’s objections of injustice from God. Since God chose Jacob instead of Esau before they were born, without regard to how good or bad either of them would be, the question naturally arises: Is God just in choosing one over the other? God is just because no one deserves to be saved (Rom. 3:23), and the salvation of anyone at all is due to God’s mercy alone, as the citation of Exo. 33:19 affirms. Salvation is not based upon human will but God’s complete sovereignty. This leads to another question/objection, “If salvation ultimately depends upon God, and he has mercy and hardens whomever he pleases, then how can he find anyone guilty? How can he charge anyone with guilt since his will is irresistible?” Some of Paul’s readers might expect him to appeal to human free will to resolve the problem posed in vs. 19. Instead, he insists that finite human beings may not rebelliously question God’s ways, that God as a potter  has the right to do what he wishes with his creation. God’s love and sovereignty are defined by his freedom. The honorable and dishonorable vessels in this context represent those who are saved and unsaved. Paul affirms that humans are guilty for their sin, and he offers no philosophical resolution as to how this fits with divine sovereignty. He does insist that God ordains all that happens (Eph. 1:11), even though God himself does not sin and is not morally responsible for sin. God created a world in which both his wrath and his mercy would be displayed. Indeed, his mercy shines against the backdrop of his just wrath, showing thereby that the salvation of any person is due to the marvelous grace and love of God. If this is difficult to understand, it is because people mistakenly think God owes them salvation!

John Piper in his magisterial study on Romans 9 in The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 states that “The interpretation which tries to restrict this predestination or unconditional election to nations rather than individuals or to historical tasks rather than eternal destinies must ignore or distort the problem posed in Romans 9:1-5, the individualism of 9:6b, the vocabulary and logical structure of 9:6b-8, the closely analogous texts elsewhere in Paul, and the implications of 9:14-23.” I cannot ignore such things. If you’re looking for a thoughtful discussion of Scripture in Roger Olson’s book, you’ll be disappointed. It’s not meant to be the type of book that deals with the arguments, grammar, and thoughts of Paul. It is a polemic. In my opinion, a bad one at that.

For works consulted/used, see the following:

  • Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
  • Morris, Leon. The Epistle to the Romans.Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.
  • Murray, John. The Epistle to the Romans; the English Text with Introduction, Exposition, And Notes.. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965.
  • Olson, Roger E.. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
  • Piper, John. The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1983. Print.
  • Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed.  Moisés Silva, vol. 6. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.
  • Witherington, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical      Commentary.Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.Olson, Roger E.. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
  • ESV Study Bible

5 responses to “Roger Olson on Romans 9

  1. Pingback: Malachi 1 as a Threat to Unconditional Election? « Austin's Blog·

  2. Pingback: What is Paul Doing in Romans 9? « Austin's Blog·

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