Thursday, 21 January 2016

Vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath

The Calvinist interpretation in Romans 9 states that questioner is silenced by God because God can do what he wills, electing some individuals for salvation (vessels for honourable use) and some individuals for damnation (vessels for dishonourable use). The questioner is told by God: who are you to question me and my ways? God saves and God damns for his own good reasons.

Now there is much to ask about this passage: Who is the questioner? Is God talking about individuals or groups? If groups, are the two groups saved Jews and unsaved Jews or Jews and Gentiles? But what I wish to concentrate on here is Paul's response to the questioner. Romans 9:18-24 says,
So then [God] has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 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? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
Consider the first part of the response,
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?
Paul is expanding the potter motif which we see in Isaiah and Jeremiah. The Old Testament passages Paul is alluding to are Isaiah 29:16; 45:9; 64:8; Jeremiah 18:6. I will consider each of these.

Isaiah 29:16 occurs in an oracle about the seize of Jerusalem.
And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”

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”? (Isaiah 29:11-16)
God says that people receiving the vision are like a man who has a document but cannot read it because he is not permitted to remove the seal, or a man who cannot read. This is probably a judgment against the people because God is saying that he will give the people a scroll but not give them the means to understand the scroll. This is in many ways similar to the passage in Romans: God hardens those who he wishes to harden. Yet Isaiah tells us why this is the case. It is not arbitrary. It is not hidden from men because they are not God and God does what he will. Rather God does this because the hearts of the people are not towards God. The people talk as if they are committed to God but they deny God in their hearts. They have an attitude of hypocrisy. They are taught to fear God but they do not fear him truly.

In the next stanza we see this kind of man now speaking back to God: a sinful man who does deeds in the dark; who claims that no one knows about his activity. God's rebuke is that such a man has things upside down, or back to front. The potter is not like the clay. God is not like men. Further the created thing cannot say that his creator did not make him. What kind of men are these people? Men who honour God with their lips and not their hearts. Men who do evil deeds. Men who say that God doesn't see. Men who say that God did not make them. Isaiah's words here concern wicked men.

Isaiah 45:9 occurs within the passage where God announces he will raise up a man named Cyrus to do his will. God will go before Cyrus performing his mighty acts and God will do this for the sake of his people Israel. Within this prophecy God warns those who would oppose God.
“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
    a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
    or ‘Your work has no handles’?
Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
    or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’” (Isaiah 45:9-10)
God says to those who strive against him: Does the clay oppose the potter? Does the son speak to the father or the mother about what they parent? Here the vessel is shifting blame to the creator of the vessel, or the child is shifting blame to the parent. But the person is accountable for his own striving against God. He cannot blame God for making him that way. He cannot blame his father for begetting a rebellious son. He cannot blame his mother for giving birth to a wicked child. He is responsible for his own actions and cannot wash his hands of his sin by blaming God or parents for making him that way. The whole point here is not that God can make a rebellious person and the person is still culpable; it is that a culpable person doesn't evade his sin by saying he was born that way. This is not a determinism that says you are still guilty, it is rebuke against a sinner denying guilt by appealing to determinism.

Isaiah 64:8 occurs within in a passage about God's vengeance and mercy. Here the appeal is by men who acknowledge that God is the creator and they are the creature.
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.
Be not so terribly angry, O Lord,
    and remember not iniquity forever.
    Behold, please look, we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:8-9)
They appeal to God by placing themselves in right relationship to him. Their appeal is based on his power and not their own deserving nature. They remind God of his promises (we are all your people).

The three Isaiah passages use the potter motif to emphasise that God is the creator and as such he has authority over men. Yet the first two specifically address evil men. Evil men who deny that God is the potter, or evil men who deny they are culpable for their sinful choices. The third is the right response which acknowledges God's power and appeals to his mercy. Interestingly, common atheist claims are that God doesn't exist and that the world is deterministic therefore men cannot help their actions.

So what does Paul meaning in his letter to the Romans? Contra the deterministic interpretation of Calvinists, the allusions to Isaiah imply the exact opposite. Men cannot hide from God. Men make their choices and they are responsible for those choices. Moreover, appeals to determinism are the appeals of wicked men trying to evade judgment. God didn't make them evil for his glory and yet they are responsible anyway, they are evil because they have chosen sin. It is these men God hardens, it is these men God blinds, it is these to whom a powerful delusion is sent.

This is apparent in the Jeremiah passage.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “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. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. (Jeremiah 18:1-10)
The potter makes what he will. The question is why does the potter make what he does? The potter is making a vessel yet during the process that vessel is marred so the potter changes his plan and makes something else. He starts making one type of vessel but finishes making another type of vessel. God is the potter and he tells us why he makes what he does. If God warns and we repent then God changes what he is making. If God blesses and we sin the God changes what he is making.
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? (Romans 9:21)
Yes he does. God can make what he wills. But God has told us what he will build and why he builds what he does. God makes honourable vessels but if they sin then God will make them dishonourable. And if God makes dishonourable vessels from a sinful people and they repent, then God will make them into honourable vessels. God does make vessels for destruction but God has told us why he does this and what his criteria are. God makes the faithless into vessels of destruction. God also makes vessels of mercy; that is what God does with the faithful. But be warned, if the faithful become faithless then the potter can just as easily turn the clay into a vessel of wrath.

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