The Potter's Freedom: Engaging White on Romans 9

Chapter nine of James White's The Potter's Freedom (Calvary Press Publishing, 2000) is titled "Responding to CBF [Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free] on Romans 9," in which White naïvely claims, "This tremendous passage of Scripture is so clear, so strong, that it truly does speak for itself." (205) How anyone can claim, in such an artless and simplistic fashion, that Romans 9 -- or any passage of Scripture -- so very clearly "speaks for itself" serves only to expose one's prejudice and ignorance. No one who encounters any piece of literature, be it the Hebrew and Christian scriptures or Plato, should read the words on the page in a cavalier manner, claiming that the text merely speaks for itself, and that he or she has achieved and maintains the objective interpretation

Yet this is exactly how Calvinists like James White approach the Bible. Instead of humbly admitting that Romans 9 is interpreted by him and his Calvinist brothers and sisters in a particular manner, using this or that method for interpretation, White naïvely and quite unacademically believes that Romans 9 "speaks for itself." Well, Romans 9 does not "speak for itself"; it does not speak the language of Calvinism; and neither does any other text. Grant Osborne writes:
The Bible was not revealed via "the tongues of angels." Though inspired of God, it was written in human language and within human cultures. By the very nature of language the Bible's unequivocal truths are couched in analogical language, that is, the absolute truths of Scripture were encased in the human languages and cultures of the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, and we must understand those cultures in order to interpret the biblical texts properly. Therefore Scripture does not automatically cross cultural barriers to impart its meaning.1
Though Calvinists like James White believe that they are reading and interpreting the text of Scripture objectively, as the text "speaks so very clearly and strongly for itself," they are, in fact, interpreting every single text -- every single word -- by their own prefixed presuppositions; so are Arminians, and Lutherans, and Roman Catholics and anyone else who takes up the Bible for him- or herself and reads the words on the pages.2

White has the correct context of Romans 9: "Surely Paul had heard this many times in his public ministry: 'If this gospel message you proclaim, Paul, is so wonderful, why is it that only a small number of Jews embrace it, while the majority of the covenant people reject it?'" (205) White's and the Calvinist's answer will be: "God has decreed to unconditionally elect some of the Jewish people unto salvation, while leaving the rest in their sins, and to spend eternity separated from God in hell, for the glory of His name." 

As the Calvinist thinks that Jesus taught Calvinism, even if anachronistically taken, so the Calvinist thinks that the apostle Paul taught Calvinism; or, rather, that both taught what would later come to be called Calvinism. Thus Jesus' and Paul's message to the Jewish people (and Gentiles, mind you) were the same: "Here is the Gospel, the Good News of God in Christ: God the Father has unconditionally elected to save some of you! Those whom He monergistically regenerates will be given faith to believe in Christ and, hence, you will be saved. This is why not all people believe: God did not unconditionally elect the rest of you. Go and spread this so-called Good News."

The rest of the non-Calvinistically-inclined people throughout Christianity do not spread this Gospel, because we do not believe this to be Gospel, meaning Good News. Let me repeat that: Calvinism is not Good News. The Message that Calvinists believe that Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the authors of Scripture spread is not Good News. This conclusion, then, would render Calvinism not merely un-Gospel but anti-Gospel and not evangelical. 

White admits that Paul's heart's desire was for the good of the Jewish people (Rom. 9:1). (205-06) Odd that Paul's heart demonstrates more compassion for those people than does the God of Calvinism, since He saw fit not to save the people whom He decreed to fall from a right-standing with Himself. Unless, of course, not saving someone in need of saving is now termed as gracious, or good, or compassionate, or just. White states: "Strong emotion fills his words as he swears that he has sorrow and unceasing grief in his heart over the hard-heartedness of the Jewish people." (206) This reference to the "hard-heartedness of the Jewish people" must, according to consistent Calvinism, refer to that sad state that God Himself decreed. If the Jewish people were decreed of God to have a hard heart, then the Jewish people were going to have a hard heart.

Now, if St Paul taught a Calvinistic view of election, salvation, and sovereignty, then how genuine is his desire for the good of the Jewish people, since he himself knows that God decrees every minutiae of our lives, that God Himself has unconditionally elected only some of those Jews unto salvation, and nothing he desired more would actually come to fruition salvifically?

White continues (emphasis original): "He even goes so far as to say that he would be willing to be cut off from Christ if this would only bring his brethren to salvation. It should be noted that this immediately raises an important point: Paul is speaking of individual salvation. It makes no sense to say 'I could wish myself were accursed for the sake of the nation of Israel so that it might be returned to a position of receiving national privileges and favor.'" (206) We might just as well insist, too, that it makes no sense for Paul to say, "I could wish myself were accursed for the sake of those whom God never, from eternity past, had any inkling of unconditionally electing unto salvation"! White can attempt to wiggle his way out of St Paul's genuine concern for the Jewish people all he wishes; but Paul's own words lead us to believe that he very much longed for the salvation of the Jewish people -- all the Jewish people.


How is God's word or promise to save not rendered void by the Jewish rejection of Christ (Rom. 9:6; cf. Rom. 3:3, 4)? Because people are being saved from among Jews and Gentiles by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Salvation was never an automatic given among the Jewish people, as demonstrated by Abraham at Romans 4:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 13, 14,1 5, 16, 17. In other words, being of Jewish descent does not guarantee salvation (Rom. 9:6, 7, 8). White believes that God unconditionally chooses who is to be among the children of the promise and who shall remain a child of the flesh. (207-08) In essence, then, God decrees that this person shall have faith and not another; this person shall love Him and His Son and not another; this person shall obey Him and not another. Never mind that Scripture nowhere teaches this concept. This is Calvinism. 

White believes his theory of unconditional election is proven from Romans 9:10-13. By use of Jacob and Esau as yet another example of who are proper children of God and true descendants of Abraham, Esau represents "the children of the flesh," as did Ishmael, while Jacob represents "the children of the promise," as did Issac. 

The history of Jacob and Esau is recounted at Genesis 25:21-26. Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, but they were unable to bear children. So he prayed to the LORD and He granted their wish: "The children struggled within her; and she [being distraught] said [in frustration], 'If it is to be this way, why do I live?' So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, 'Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, and the elder shall serve the younger.'" (Gen. 25:22, 23) No individual was ever or ever will be justified from God's perspective by works, by trying to be good enough, or by physical lineage with Abraham. This much is obvious from the apostle's theology elsewhere (cf. Rom. 3:20, 24, 26, 28, 30; 4:2, 5, 25; 5:1, 9, 16, 18, 21; 8:33; 10:10; Gal. 2:16, 21; 3:8, 11, 24; 5:4; Titus 3:7). 

Regarding God's choice (election) of Jacob to be the rightful heir of Isaac, and in the line of the Messiah, this choice was announced before either of the boys had "done anything good or bad." (9:11, 12) Do not miss the significance of this statement. Had God not announced beforehand that He chose Jacob and not Esau for the right of the firstborn, people would have thought that God's blessings are reserved for those who are good enough (or who do good works), since Esau's true nature was later revealed and ultimately considered wicked and godless (Heb. 12:16). God does not grant His covenantal and eternal promises regarding salvation to the one who appears righteous, but to the one who by grace has been counted righteous through faith in and union with Jesus Christ. 

Thus God's "purpose of election" maintains its basis not upon our good works, our alleged goodness, or our ethnicity with Abraham but upon His grace through faith in His Son Jesus. Though Esau was deemed godless (Heb. 12:16), we would do well to remember that Jacob was far from perfect (Gen. 27:19, 36), though he was to be the heir and recipient of the right of the firstborn of his father Isaac.

But let us be clear about this passage: the apostle is not teaching here that God has unconditionally elected to save one person, and not another, as Calvinists propose. God's choice or election of Jacob is not to infer that God unconditionally chooses or elects some and not others to personal salvation. That is a conclusion presupposed by a faulty Calvinistic hermeneutic. From Romans 9:1-13 Paul has mentioned not one word of unconditional election unto personal, individual salvation -- not even one. He has expounded upon who are the children of God, and who are the true descendants of Abraham, not whom God has or has not unconditionally elected for personal salvation.

White makes much of John Piper's work on Romans 9, who rightly insisted that "God's decision to treat Esau and Jacob differently is not merely prior to their good or evil deeds but is also completely independently of them." (208) We cannot argue with Calvinists here since we agree. What point we believe Calvinists have wrong here, however, is the notion that God unconditionally elected Jacob and not Esau unto personal salvation.

Make no mistake regarding the Calvinistic position: the reason why some love God and some hate God is because that is how God decreed it: "Because the only difference between the vessels of wrath and the vessels of mercy is the sovereign grace of God that changes the heart of the rebel sinner and turns him from being a God-hater into a God-lover." (214) (emphasis original) But also remember that, in Calvinism, the reason why there are God-haters in the first place is because God decreed that there be God-haters! God thought to Himself: I want and decree for there to be people who hate me, so that I can be merciful to some of them, and demonstrate my sovereign wrath against the majority of them. To think that there are Christians who believe this nonsense (as I once did) is, at times, astonishing.

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1 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpretation, revised and expanded (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 23-24.

2 For further study on Romans 9, see Daniel D. Whedon, Commentary on the New Testament: Acts-Romans, volume three (London: Hodder & Staughton, 1875); Joseph Benson, Romans-Revelation, volume five (Ulan Press E-book, 2011); Ben Witherington III, Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004); Brian J. Abasciano, Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:1-9: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis (New York: T&T Clark International, 2005); and Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:10-18: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis (New York: T&T Clark International, 2011); Grant R. Osborne, Romans (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010); F. Leroy Forlines, Romans (Nashville: Randall House, 1987); Robert E. Picirilli, Romans (Nashville: Randall House, 1975); Jack Cottrell, Romans (Joplin: College Press Publishing Company, 2005); Frédéric Louis Godet, Commentary on Romans (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Publishing, 1883); Craig S. Keener, Romans: A New Covenant Commentary (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009).

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.