This post concludes a series on Romans 9, and how the New Perspective on Paul might lead to another point of view regarding how this passage bears on the subject of divine election. The former posts in this series include:
The New Perspective and Romans 9: Introduction
Isaac and Jacob
The Potter and the Clay.
So, to sum up, according to the traditional interpretation, which assumes faith in Christ for salvation and arises in opposition to Pelagianism and later the medieval Catholic church, Paul begins by agonizing over the failure of Israel to come to salvation through faith in Christ (9:1-5). Paul’s solution is that not all of Israel is Israel; i.e., not all of Israel is elect (v. 6). Paul demonstrates God’s prerogative to elect whomever he wills by having elected Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau (vv. 7-13). God has mercy only on those whom he chooses to have mercy, and hardens the rest, as exemplified by Pharaoh (vv. 14-18). At this point, Paul hypothesizes a questioner who articulates the Arminian contention: if God has chosen to harden someone like Pharaoh, how can God then judge him for what he was predestined to do (v. 19)? Paul rebukes the questioner for impiety, and uses the potter-clay illustration to reiterate that God has the right to elect some and reprobate some as he deems fit (vv. 20-21). Paul then adds, as a supporting argument, the fact that when God chooses to reprobate someone like Pharaoh, he has to bear patiently their sin and arrogance, but does so, in order to demonstrate his glory to his elect, which turn out to be among the Gentiles as well as among the Jews (vv. 22-24). He thus brings the discussion back to the issue of Jewish unbelief in Christ, from which his discussion of election has been an excursus. From that point, the rest of the chapter is interpreted with regard to the Jew-Gentile question and salvation by faith, as opposed to works, without explicit reference to election (vv. 25-33).
The present interpretation recognizes the significant paradigm shift that takes place in the first century with regard to the identity of the people of God. It contrasts with the traditional one chiefly in terms of keeping the dominant issues of the Jews and of salvation by faith in mind throughout. It begins, as before, with Paul agonizing over the failure of Israel to come to faith in Christ (vv. 1-5). He has to confront the Jewish objection that, if his gospel were correct, it would mean that God’s promises to the Jews had failed. His response is that God’s promises have not failed, but others are inheriting the promises, because not all of Israel is Israel: i.e., not all of Israel has followed Abraham in faith (v. 6). Ethnic descent from Abraham is not enough to be considered “Abraham’s children,” as the examples of Ishmael and Esau demonstrate; Israel has already been granted unmerited blessings as compared with other descendants of Abraham (vv. 7-13). Therefore God is not unjust if he now excludes those descendants of Jacob who do not come to faith, because anyone he blesses, even Moses, is a recipient of his mercy (vv. 14-16). God may choose to spare for a time even someone like Pharaoh, whom God has chosen to harden—knowing that he will harden himself in response to God’s challenge—in order for God to glorify himself through that person, who can be viewed as both an example of God’s mercy and hardening (vv. 17-18). The implication is therefore that the Jews have been given mercy in the past but are not guaranteed mercy in the future if they do not come to faith in Christ. The hypothetical questioner asks why God still blames the Jews, if He has hardened them (v. 19), refusing to recognize that the Jews are hardened just as Pharaoh was hardened, by their own stubborn refusal to repent. Paul therefore rebukes them, and uses the potter-clay illustration to point out that God has always dealt with Israel on the basis of its repentance, and it is only those who refuse to repent who argue back to God that he made them as they are (vv. 20-21).
Paul then points out that God has to bear patiently the “objects of his wrath”—the unbelieving—in order to make his glory known to the “objects of his mercy”—those who come to faith, which he specifically identifies as having come not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles (vv. 22-24). The supporting quotations from Hosea and Isaiah make clear the point: that many of those whom the Jews had considered excluded from the covenant (the Gentiles) would in the end be included, while many whom the Jews had considered included in the covenant (themselves) would be excluded (vv. 25-29). The basis upon which Gentiles have been included and Jews excluded is made explicit in vv. 30-33: it is that the Gentiles are obtaining righteousness through faith, while the Jews have pursued it by works.
Pros and Cons
It may be argued against this interpretation that the traditional one reads more simply from the text in Romans, and that it does not interject issues of ethnic Judaism or justification by faith, neither of which are clearly referenced in the central passage (vv. 14-23). To this may be responded that the traditional interpretation may read more simply by virtue of one’s familiarity with it, and because it assumes certain interpretations of the OT quotations which are simple but are demonstrably false, once the contexts are understood. The issue of ethnic Judaism dominates chs. 9-11, and thus can safely be assumed in a short passage that doesn’t reference it explicitly; while justification by faith is the dominant theme of the book of Romans as a whole, and it is the Israelite rejection of justification by faith that provokes the present discussion. On the other hand, the traditional interpretation reads into the text the assumption of unconditional individual election, which is a debatable doctrine, certainly not a major theme of Romans 1-8, and not followed up as a theme in Romans 9:25ff.
In essence, Paul is telling ethnic Israel something very close to what Reformed interpreters see. He is telling them that God has the right to choose whomever he wills to be among his covenant people. But he is not telling them this because God has chosen not to elect most of them. He’s telling them this because the paradigm for inclusion in the covenant people has shifted, from national Israel following the Law to anyone who comes to faith in Christ. Israel feels betrayed by this paradigm shift, so Paul explains that God has no obligation to the physical descendents of Abraham; rather, Paul demonstrates from the Old Testament that his relationship to Israel has always depended upon repentance.
I'm going to take a break from the larger series regarding the New Perspective for a while. When I get back to it, I'll be taking a look at the passages in the Gospel of John that deal with divine election. Stay tuned.....