Romans 9-11 as a proof-text for the Calvinist doctrine of election. Discuss.
Calvinist soteriology is perhaps most widely known for the doctrine of unconditional election, a divine choice concerning mankind’s eternal destiny, where both “election and reprobation are individual, personal, specific, and particular” (Enns, 2008, p. 510). In the words of John Calvin himself:
God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction. (Calvin, 2017, p. 407)
Chapters nine through eleven of the Epistle to the Romans are foundational to Calvinism. Palmer (2010) calls chapter nine the “finest statement of all” about election (p. 39); Boice & Ryken (2002) deem it “the most important passage” (p. 92); Moo (1996) says it “gives strong exegetical support to Calvinistic interpretation” (p. 587). However, the debate throughout history has been fierce at times (de Villiers, 1981), and many still think “the apostle says nothing about eternal life and death” (Sanday & Headlam, 1908, p. 258).
We shall begin with a more detailed analysis of Romans 9, to then overview chapters 10-11 briefly, and conclude with the purpose of these three chapters; since modern Calvinist interpretations are virtually the same as John Calvin’s, we shall refer primarily to his commentary on Romans. Finally, we shall attempt to account for the origin of both the Calvinist doctrine of election and the usage of Romans 9-11 as its prooftext.
1-5. Whether Paul’s concern is the eternal destiny of his brethren in the flesh (Schreiner, 1993; Palmer, 2010) or God’s possible annulment of His covenants with Israel (Myers, 2017), it seems already evident that what follows must be understood in the context of the Jewish people, and not of all humanity (Bruce, 2014). Ladd (1994) agrees, and so does Getty (1988), despite at times assimilating Gentiles into Israel.
6-9. Calvin (1849) claims that God’s call to Abraham was onto “salvation” (p. 344), i.e. eternal life. Evans (2019), however, rightly reminds us that God’s purpose in calling Abraham was to bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). In Genesis 21, where Paul is quoting from, Abraham was concerned because Sarah had sent Hagar away and did not want Ishmael to be heir with Isaac. God had previously (Genesis 17) promised Abraham that, although He would make his convenant with Isaac, Ishmael would still give rise to a great nation. In Genesis 21, God comes to comfort Abraham once more, reiterating that same promise. Thus, the focus is corporate vocational election: God would make great nations out of both sons, but only Isaac’s offspring would be God’s peculiar people. Ladd (1994) concurs.
Furthermore, Paul’s concern becomes clearer in this section: has God’s calling on Israel failed? The apostle does not think so, for some Israelites are still fulfilling God’s purpose (Evans, 2019). However, Paul stresses that these are “children of the promise”, thus exposing the flawed reasoning of unbelieving Jews, who relied on their lineage rather than God’s grace (Hankins, 2018). Paul’s argument is clear: if it were purely by lineage, Ishmaelites should be included in the covenants, too, as they are Abraham’s descendants.
10-13. As we enter this section, Calvin sees double predestination: Jacob is an elect, Esau is a reprobate. We are unconvinced, and believe the problems with this reading are no small matter. Calvin fails to gain insight from the passages Paul is quoting to further establish his argument. In Genesis (25:23), the two brothers are spoken of as national federal heads, with God stating that Esau’s nation will serve Jacob’s, confirming once more the vocational nature of biblical election (Wilkin, 2012). In Malachi (1:2-3) the prophet speaks of Esau’s inheritance, and God’s actions are not arbitrary, but a judicial reaction to Edom’s evilness (Myers, 2017). Thus, God’s purpose according to election—the same for which He had called Abraham—stands: He chose Jacob’s posterity over Esau’s before they could do anything to either earn or be undeserving of being the carriers of the covenantal promises.
Nevertheless, some objections against the exclusive corporate nature of Paul’s discussion of election seem valid (Myers, 2017; Piper, 2013; Schreiner, 1993), yet unproblematic: we believe biblical evidence supports election to service, not to eternal life (Lazar, 2017; Wilkin, 2012). Similarly, Most (1996) sees God allocating people in the “external order” of this world rather than in the “internal order” of eternal destinies. Additionally, Parkinson (1999) and Hankins (2018) rightly point out that Paul is very likely treating Jacob and Esau also as types for the believing Jew who receives a blessing by grace, and the unbelieving Jew who expects a blessing by right of lineage, respectively.
14-18. Calvin interprets this section as further proof of double predestination. However, the original context seems to elude the reformer once more. Paul, in fact, quotes from Exodus 33:19 regarding Moses. Exodus 32-33 record God’s mercy towards unfaithful Israel, so that—once again—His purpose in electing them might stand. And God does this in response to Moses’ plea, showing also how grace must be appropriated by faith (Flowers, 2017). Paul then cites Exodus 9:16 with regards to Pharaoh; election here can be seen as both individual and national, but the purpose is not their reprobation, rather for God to use their wickedness to display His glory on earth. God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is judicial, not arbitrary (Hodges, 2013); and it is prolongued because the plagues were designed to culminate in the tenth (Exodus 4:22-23). Paul’s allegories are also repeated: Pharaoh represents the unbelieving Jew whose hope is in their lineage or in the Law, thus under similar judicial hardening (Hankins, 2018); Moses represents he whose hope is in the Lord. Finally, if the hardening is supposed to mean reprobation (thus immutable), one is left wondering why Paul speaks of it as temporary (Romans 11:25).
19-33. The pattern here is the same, and so is the motif in Calvin’s commentary. In actuality, Paul draws the imagery of the vessels from Jeremiah 18:1-12, where God shows he has the right to change a nation’s destiny based on its response to Him; likewise, Paul shows God has the right to change the fate of Jews and Gentiles based on their response to Him (Hankins, 2018). Thus, in order that His purpose might stand, God calls to service both Jews and Gentiles based on their response to the Gospel: belief.
Noteworthy is also how God himself prepares “vessels of mercy” for glory (9:23), whilst He endures and judges “vessels of wrath” prepared for destruction, though not by Him (9:22); this supports the idea that judicial hardening is for those who harden themselves in unbelief, whereas blessings are for believers.
Calvin (1849) cannot find any evidence for unconditional election in this chapter, so it is no surprise he does not use it at all in the Institutes (Calvin, 2017). Nonetheless, so preponderant is such doctrine in the reformer’s worldview, that he comments on verse sixteen (where Paul quotes Isaiah 53:1a) as being evidence that the Gospel only has effect on the elect (Calvin, 1849, p. 401). How does he conclude this? By doing the one thing he never did for the ninth chapter: going back to the original context, and using 53:1b as prooftext, clearly misusing a passage that is simply restating the preceding point. With regards to verse seventeen, he states that Paul is teaching that faith is proof of election (p. 401), in order to resolve a contradiction introduced by his own reading of verse sixteen.
In reality, Romans 10 is a substantial issue for unconditional election. The apostle reiterates the reason why his fellow nationals are hardened: with zeal without knowledge, they seek their own righteousness by the Law rather than God’s rightesouness available to all who believe in Christ (Romans 10:4,8-15). Therefore, most Jews do not believe the Gospel (10:16), not because God ordained them to do so, but because they are obstinate (10:21).
Romans 11:4 is relied upon first, yet the original context (1 Kings 19) makes clear that God is preserving a group of faithful. The same He does in the present (11:5). Then 11:6 is cited, because it contrasts grace and works; yet nowhere the text implies that grace is not to be received through faith, as Paul clearly teaches in the preceding chapter. Verse seven could be mistaken as double predestination, but “the elect” here is the believing remnant of Israel chosen to service (Hodges, 2013). Moreover, the hardened ones cannot be reprobates, since Paul says their stumbling is not permanent (11:11-12).
In essence, this chapter concludes Paul’s explanation of the present relationship between Israel and God. Verse twenty-eight is particularly significant, as it clearly states that the election Paul has been discussing is the election of Israel according to the covenantal promises made to Abraham. And whilst it is true that God shows mercy to whomever he wills, Paul reminds us that God’s will has always been to show mercy to all (11:32).
Why Romans 9-11?
The common Calvinist bridge between the eighth and ninth chapter uses the supposed “golden chain of salvation” in Romans 8:29-30 (Palmer, 2010, p. 38). Others go as far as considering Romans 9-11 almost as an out-of-place unit that forcibly introduces the doctrine of justification in the midst of a salvation history context (Käsemann & Bromiley, 1980, p. 253, 264). Neither view is suitable in light of our assessment so far.
The perspectives of the non-Calvinists depend on how they view the first eight chapters. According to Flowers (2017) and Evans (2019), these chapters culminate in the presentation of an unfailingly faithful God. Myers says they show us a God who has justified and sanctified a people for Himself, that they may live according to His purpose. For Hodges (2013), they speak of the inadequacy of the Mosaic Law to both justify mankind before God and be an effective means to Christian living; only the Gospel can do the former, and the Law of the Spirit the latter.
These views are not mutually exclusive and lead to questions that can be generalised as follows: if everything Paul says in the first eight chapters is true, how do we explain the seemingly present rejection of Israel by God? In the next three chapters the apostle tells us to be neither troubled nor deceived, for Israel is not abandoned; both the believing remnant and the hardened nation are still serving God’s purpose: that all the families of the earth may be blessed (Hankins, 2018). Even more so when Israel’s hardening will fade (Romans 11:12).
Calvin was raised a Roman Catholic (Shearer, 1996), but perhaps his major influence was Augustine of Hippo (McMahon, 2012). In Calvin’s own words:
Augustine is so wholly within me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings. (Calvin, 1987, p. 38)
Augustine employed an inconsistent hermeneutics (Walvoord, 1975), embraced Stoicism before and after becoming a Christian (Wilson, 2012, p. 289), was influenced by Neoplatonism (p. 11), and spent ten years in a Manichaean sect (Chawdick, 1986). Herein, three ideas became foundational: an enslaved will that cannot choose good, man’s total incapacity of faith and love, and the divine choice of an elect group unilaterally predestined to reconciliation with God through Christ (Wilson, 2012). Wilson shows how, before Augustine, the deterministic reading of Romans was consistently opposed, only to become predominant after Augustine returned to a Manichaean understanding of the human will in 412 AD. Taylor (2013) concurs. Wilson and Sanday & Headlam (1908) also confirm that Manichaeans (and Gnostics in general) would use portion of Romans (e.g. the hardening of Pharaoh) to support their views, which prompted Origen’s rebuttal to defend free will (Wilson, 2012, p. 16)against the view of divine unilateral predetermination of the eternal destinies.
In assessing this matter, the first thing we did was to bear in mind that reprobation lies at the core of unconditional election (Hankins, 2018), as Calvin’s own words (as per our introduction) as well as compatibilists confirm (Grudem, 1994); and this is no small problem (Boettner, 2017). According to Calvinism, Romans 9-11 teaches double predestination; in fact, it is the only portion of Scripture where they see it taught (Käsemann & Bromiley, 1980). Thus, if one can prove (as we believe to have done) that reprobation is not actually taught in these chapters, then they likewise cannot be teaching election to eternal life, since the two are inextricable. Nevertheless, a direct assessment of election in Romans 9-11 has shown Paul consistently referring to the vocational election of Israel throughout history, according to the covenantal promises made to Abraham.
Lastly, we have concluded that the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9-11 is the product of presuppositions inherited from Augustine through Calvin. Presuppositions are inescapable (McCartney & Clayton, 2012), and must be kept in check (Thomas, 2004). It would be unwise to assume that a reformer like Calvin was immune to the problem, and likewise imprudent to overly trust traditions.
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Wilson, K. M. (2012). Augustine’s conversion from traditional free choice to “non-free free will”: a comprehensive methodology. (PhD thesis), University of Oxford, Oxford.
 Such is echoed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (3:6,8).
 Käsemann was a Lutheran, to be precise.