Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The corporate focus in Romans 9


My take on Romans 9 is still in development. I have an Arminian bent toward Scripture, but I understand how some get Calvinism from this chapter. I can read it deterministically, but this may in part be due what others have claimed, and possibly because the superficial reading seems at least consistent with elements of determinism. Superficial reading can be legitimate, I hold to a straightforward understanding of Scripture as part of my hermeneutic, but some passages are less straightforward than others, and Peter specifically mentioned that Paul was hard to understand at times (2Pe 3:16).

It is likely my more developed perspective of Romans 9 will slant Arminian because of my understanding of the rest of Scripture, but I agree it is important to understand what Paul was trying to teach. All I wish to cover here is some ideas about the corporate outline of the chapter.

Romans 9 needs to be taken in the context of the book and the more limited context of chapters 9–11. While Paul covers aspects of the Jew versus Greek dilemma in other chapters, such as chapter 3, the chapters 9 thru 11 seem to form the unit of discussion started in the beginning of chapter 9. With this in mind, we note that Paul in anguish about the Jewish people. From this we see that the discussion begins corporately and not individually. And the corporate focus is seen several time thru out the chapter.
  • my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, (3,4)
  • For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, (5,6)
  • even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (24)
  • And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel (27)
  • If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah. (29)
  • What shall we say, then? That Gentiles (30)
  • but that Israel (31)
I have left out generic plurals as they can be read either as a plural of individuals or as individuals comprising a group (i.e. corporate), eg.
  • Those who were not my people I will call "my people," (25)
But the corporate view is even stronger than the verses listed above because the individuals that are mentioned are specified in a corporate intent.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (Rom 9:6–8)
Isaac is representative of the people of promise, not the person Isaac. He is contrasted with Ishmael in Galatians
But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. (Gal 4:23)
Next Paul mentions Jacob and Esau, which in the context are nations. Paul says that Rebecca was told,
"The older will serve the younger." (Rom 9:12)
Which is a quote from Genesis. The Lord said to Rebecca,
"Two nations are in your womb,/
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;/
the one shall be stronger than the other,/
the older shall serve the younger." (Gen 25:23)
Confirming this is corporate in intent, note that Paul then quotes Malachi
As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." (Rom 9:13)
A passage clearly about the 2 nations and not the individuals.
"I have loved you," says the LORD. But you say, "How have you loved us?" "Is not Esau Jacob's brother?" declares the LORD. "Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert." If Edom says, "We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins," the LORD of hosts says, "They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called 'the wicked country,' and 'the people with whom the LORD is angry forever.' " (Mal 1:2–4)
These 2 examples of Isaac and Jacob show God's sovereignty in choosing nations for his purposes, and the example of Isaac also demonstrates that inclusion in God's covenant is based on God's promise, not on blood relationship.

The use of corporate terms and individuals that represent groups shows that Romans 9 is discussing God's corporate purposes. The discussion in verses 15 forward using Moses and Pharaoh as examples is bracketed by a corporate focus. Thus the use of these 2 individuals (Moses and Pharaoh) would seem to be illustrative of God's corporate purposes within the greater context. Further, the fact that both Moses and Pharaoh were the respective leaders of Israel and Egypt means they may in fact also be representative of the nations: corporate examples rather than individual examples. The hardening of Pharaoh being a hardening of Egypt, and the mercy toward Moses reflecting the mercy toward Israel; the latter seems a possible interpretation given the discussion between God and Moses before the mercy comment,
Moses said to the LORD, "See, you say to me, 'Bring up this people,' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, 'I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.' Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people." And he said, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." And he said to him, "If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?" And the LORD said to Moses, "This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." Moses said, "Please show me your glory." And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (Exo 33:12–19)
In explaining what Scripture teaches concerning the examples of Moses and Pharaoh, mercy and hardening, Paul raises a hypothetical question from the readers. The response is
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Rom 9:20–21)
Even here the example of a potter and clay may have a corporate focus. The potter allusion could be to Isaiah 29, Isaiah 64 or Jeremiah 18. It is probably a conflation of Isaiah 29 and Jeremiah 18. The first of these 3 passages could be read either way, individually or corporately, but on balance it seems a corporate perspective is preferable:
And the Lord said: "Because this people draw near with their mouth/
and honor me with their lips,/
while their hearts are far from me,/
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,/
therefore, behold, I will again/
do wonderful things with this people,/
with wonder upon wonder;/
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,/
and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden."/

Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel,/
whose deeds are in the dark,/
and who say, "Who sees us? Who knows us?"/
You turn things upside down!/
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,/
that the thing made should say of its maker,/
"He did not make me";/
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,/
"He has no understanding"? (Isa 29:13–16, emphasis added)
The other 2 passages refer to a group
But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isa 64:8)
and
"O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. (Jer 18:6)
Taking this all together, the broad perspective of Romans 9 is a discussion about how the Jews as a group and the Gentiles as a group fit into God's plans. And this corporate view fits with Paul's comments about the fate of the Jewish people in this and subsequent chapters:
  • 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. (Rom 9:3)
  • Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. (Rom 10:1)
  • I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! (Rom 11:1)
Discussions of God choosing in the context of Romans 9 are probably better seen as God choosing groups of people for his overall purposes rather than God selecting individuals for salvation.

12 comments:

  1. I think Romans 9:20-21 can be read as if to the individual. The Arminian/Calvinist debate simply is not an issue in scripture. These verses point toward the fact that no matter who you are born to you are responsible for your own choices. Complaining about your lot will get you nowhere.

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  2. As you said, consistency with all of scripture is important to interpretation of any specific passage.

    As regards the impression of Calvanism in Romans 9 I would suggest that an understanding of Romans 9 needs to take in it's foundation upon Romans 8. The entire passage following from verse 18 is relevant but particularly verses 29 and 30.

    IMO those references provide a part of the foundation for understanding the sections of Romans 9 that would lead to the appearance of Calvanism but which in reality do not. The statements made in Romans 9 are based upon God's prior understanding of the characters or groups involved rather than Calvanistic choosings on His part at any given time.

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  3. I would echo Mike's comment about Romans 8. My summary of Romans 7-9 goes like this:

    (Romans 7-8) The background: In the midst of your weakness and struggles, rest secure in the promises of God. He will rescue you. He has called you, and given you a new heart, and has predestined you to be transformed to be like Christ. Nothing can separate us from his love. His promises will not fail.

    The transition: Paul seems to anticipate an objection: “Woah, wait up. What about the Jews, most of whom rejected Christ? Hasn’t God’s promise to Israel failed? How can we rest secure, if they fell?”

    (Romans 9) The basic answer: My heart breaks for the Jews, who own so many blessings--but no, the promise hasn’t failed. Because a remnant of Israel did obtain it. The promises were never meant for all ethnic Israel. There were always physical descendants who weren’t children of the promise. Always, God has chosen some--the remnant, chosen by grace, who rest in faith. God’s children pursue him by faith, not on the basis of their works. And God has now brought the Gentiles into his family--he has called them his people, his beloved, and they trust in Christ. But today, most of the Jews are pursuing a righteousness based on their works. So they’ve stumbled
    .

    Paul answers in terms of the remnant and God's choice. (The promise was never meant for every Jew--or even 'most Jews'.) He certainly has groups in view--but those groups are composed of individuals. He's concerned because of his Jewish brothers who have rejected Christ--so many of them!

    I was puzzled when you said, "I have left out generic plurals as they can be read either as a plural of individuals or as individuals comprising a group (i.e. corporate)". Why do you think that's any less true when Paul talks about "Gentiles" and "Israel"?

    When you reach Romans 9:30-32, Paul is again talking about Jews and Gentiles as groups--and it clearly has to do with the behavior of individuals.

    "What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone,"

    Israel--generally speaking--has fallen because they pursued God by works and not by faith. The individuals in Israel did that.

    This passage raised another issue for the Calvinist interpretation, but it does seem to invalidate the "individual salvation is irrelevant, it's just about groups" argument.

    I've never actually understood what people mean when by that kind of argument. (I've also seen it from people arguing that the 2nd Amendment protects a right of 'the people', but 'collectively'--not individually. However that works.)

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  4. Another point: If you quote the hypothetical objection from v. 19 along with Paul's response, it also throws a wrench in the attempt to exclude individuals.

    "You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”"

    Who is God finding fault with? Who would be "resisting his will"? Even in the part you did quote, how can a group complain about the way God made them without it coming from individuals within the group? Where would the complaint about God's justice come from in your "corporate but not individual" view?

    I realize your view is still in development--so this is an area you should develop! I don't see how you can make sense of the corporate view, but if you manage it, I'll be interested. :)

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  5. Stripe, I realise it can be read as the individual, I can see the Calvinist perspective in vv14–23. But I think some of Paul is hard, and this passage isn't exactly straight forward, even for the Calvinist. I do think that the bulk of the chapter has a corporate focus, so an explanation of vv19–23 doesn't just need an interpretation for the what it means for the individual, it needs an explanation for the shift in focus to the individual. If there is no clear reason for the shift, maybe we are interpreting it wrong.

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  6. Mike, perhaps, the book needs to be read as a whole, and there are other aspects to Romans such as chapter 3 that influence this; not to mention other letters from Paul.

    The verses you mention I am happy to read on the individual level (though some may take it corporate). So I guess I see a shift in Romans 9. Though I agree with your interpretation of Romans 8.

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  7. Jugulum, I am reasonably happy with your summary, but I guess I see a slightly different explanation about the Jews. Paul consistently says it is about faith and has always been about faith, even before this present age. So the discussion about Isaac is to point to promise. Jews can only be in the kingdom if they are children of promise, that is have faith. And Paul here and elsewhere is consistently saying this: blood means nothing, faith means everything. Because of this Gentiles can get in (Rahab, Ruth). It is a mystery because it is unknown until now when it has been revealed.

    So the discussion about the Jews is about God's plan for them as a nation, which is not the same as God's salvation for individuals. And it seems to me that the discussion about Moses and Pharaoh follows on from that:

    As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

    God's purposes for the corporate.

    What shall we say then?

    Given what Paul has just said, what does it mean. This is a connecting statement of what has just been said with what is to come.

    Is there injustice on God’s part?

    Does that which Paul has said imply God is unjust?

    By no means!

    No. And what follows explains why. It seems that the discussion about Moses, Pharaoh and hardening is closely linked to God's election of Jacob, and before that Isaac; which I have noted are issues of corporate election, not individual.

    As to what I mean by corporate, I may have to be clearer in a further post, but some previous thoughts here.

    Your comments were helpful as they forced me back to the text which clarified some things for me.

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  8. Reading Rom 9:20-21 as to an individual does not make it Calvinistic. What you said about other parts being meant corporately is evidence enough that the Calvinist v Arminian debate can be left right out of Romans.

    The argument was not an issue at the time thus it should not be an issue now.

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  9. Reading Rom 9:20-21 as to an individual does not make it Calvinistic.

    No, but does that work both ways?

    Individual consistent with determinism and freewill.

    Corporate consistent with freewill only.

    Or your suggestion, corporate or individual has no convincing relationship with Calvinist and non-Calvinist perspectives.

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  10. We're probably talking past each other a little as I have little respect for either an Arminian or a Calvinist reading of any scripture. Mostly because the debate simply doesn't exist in scripture. I suggest that both are post-scripture inventions based on an unwillingness to investigate who God is in scripture.

    I blame the bloody Greeks. They have a fascination with dead and imaginary things. Perfect circles, unchanging gods, unemotional gods...

    PS. Was that Chinese spam I saw? Did they follow me here? :noid:

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  11. I think you're onto something here. Praying for you to make deeper progress!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks Mrs. Pilgrim. Just added some more thoughts.

    ReplyDelete

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