Vessels of Wrath, Predestination Pt.2

In the first post I was a lot more bold than I will be here. In the previous post, I was standing on some big shoulders, including those of Fitzmyer and W. D. Davies. Corporate predestination is far from my idea. The conclusion of this discussion about vessels of wrath in Romans 9:22 and surrounding verses comes from me. It may have been concluded elsewhere but I did not read about it anywhere, I formed the conclusion myself from my limited training.

The passage in question centers around Rom. 9:9-24. If I knew how to embed a link to it I would. But I don’t. Eventually I’ll learn. For now I’ll summarize and you’ll all have to follow along in a separate window or Bible. Sorry for the inconvenience.

The verses in question have a wider context (of course) and this is key to my argument. The problem is that most people don’t consider the wider context and get caught up in these fairly bewildering verses. At a glance, the verses appear to relate to individuals (Jacob and Esau, Moses and Pharaoh, vessels/pots of honor and dishonor, and vessels/pots of wrath and mercy). But do they? The knee jerk reaction is to say yes, how could they relate to anything else? The truth (whether I have it right or not) is only going to be found in the wider context.

Paul’s discussion starts out, as many people read it, in verse 9 where Sara is promised that she will have a son. The discussion doesn’t dwell here but moves quickly to Rebecca and Isaac who are given an unusual promise that the younger son of the twins she bears will rule over the elder. This is interrupted by an interjection (vs. 11) that states that what Paul is about to discuss is done according to the calling (or predestination and election) of God because the kids were not yet born and thus it could not have been based on works. In other words, human actions, words and thoughts have nothing to do with God’s election and predestination and Paul is about to use this in his argument.

In verse 14 we see a bit of classical rhetoric in the form of a diatribe question. Paul asks if God is acting unrighteously because he loved Jacob more than Esau even though neither had been born and thus earned God’s wrath or love. This is problematic. God favored Jacob over Esau before either of them were born? An LDS knee jerk reaction might be to say that God knew both individuals from the pre-mortal existence and that their personalities carried over from there to here. It’s a possibility but we’ll see how it stacks up in the rest of the pericope.

Next Paul cites where the Lord tells Moses that he will have mercy on whomever he will have mercy and compassion on whomever he will have compassion. This is critical. Verse 16 erases any question about whether man has any bearing on God’s feelings, God alone is entirely responsible. The word predestination is never used in this chapter but scholars agree that this is clearly the issue at stake. It appears that God makes up his mind about people, individuals, even before they are ever born, before they ever have a chance to do anything. This is the basis for many Protestants belief that God predestinates individuals to salvation or damnation as we will see.

I feel I might be giving the story away a bit before I really tell it. Or maybe that I’m not giving a good feeling about how troublesome this all is. The problem starts with the discussion about individuals being predestinated. It gets bigger when Paul openly states that God acts entirely outside of human action to bless/curse and save/damn people. It culminates with the image of God as a potter creating pots for destruction and salvation. Let’s look at each of these as potential problems.

To start, if we trade in the pre-determinative sense of predestination for an LDS view of fore-ordination then we might be able to side step this problem. But we can’t. It doesn’t hold up. God can, and did, foreordain individuals for specific tasks but that doesn’t work in a discussion about salvation. With our understanding of agency we believe that we determine by our actions and words and thoughts whether we are worthy of salvation or not. Paul explicitly says that he’s not talking about this. So we either change the way we think about it and say that God doespredetermine whether we are saved or not before we are born (and join the born-agains) or look for another solution.

Point two: In some way we may think that God must act independent of man, for how trustworthy is a God who is movable, variable, able to be swayed by man whose knowledge is severely limited and whose motives are at best never pure? God has to act in some (or every depending on who you ask) degree independently of man in order to be considered truly trustworthy. We believe this, right? God’s path is one eternal round, never varying to the left or right in the slightest. It is God’s dependability that we have faith in, that makes him trustworthy. But as with the first problem, if God determines this outside of our actions, words, and thoughts then what is agency if not a farce? God becomes capricious and partial. He plays favorites and there is nothing we can do about it because all of his decisions about these things are made independently of us and prior to our lives.

The problem of the potter really cements this as a huge conundrum. That’s because here, God not only decides our fate before we get to be born but he makes the decisions prior to our creation and then goes and forms us according to that decision so that we are fatally flawed or irrevocably saved before we ever take a breath. This is the power of the potter, “of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour.” If we take these verses as referring to individuals this is the logical outcome. It’s why so many fellow Christians have chosen to believe this. Houston, we have a problem.

And let me tell you now that we may not pull a Mormon fast one by citing Article of Faith 8 and heading for the hills chanting that it wasn’t “translated” correctly. There are no substantial changes in the JST, the text is not in question in our manuscripts (that I can find but I suck at this and could be wrong), and the argument of the potter concludes a long series of examples of people God has predestined and so it is both intentionally crafted and carefully worded. Paul meant what he said. Now we need to make sure that we are correctly understanding what he said.

Now you all should know that this is a post about applying the understanding of corporate predestination to these verses. The obvious problem is that nothing about them looks corporate. They look very individualistic. Here’s where we need to step back and consider the overall context.

The start of the chapter begins with Paul lamenting about the state of the Jews. He even wishes that he could be accursed from Christ so his fellow Jews who haven’t accepted Jesus would accept him. This is going to under gird the rest of the chapter.

Paul continues his lament in verse 4 and 5 where he reviews the traditional descriptions of his people but something seems to be missing. In verse 6 he quickly makes sure that his audience doesn’t misunderstand him in thinking that God’s word (understand: his promises to the Jews) is suddenly null. Where did this come from? Did Paul somehow say or insinuate that God’s promises to the Jews are of no effect any more? In fact, some people may have been thinking this. Not necessarily because Paul specifically said it but one of the things the earliest Christians did (and we still do today) was apply the old promises to Israel to themselves. Some people apparently thought that they must no longer apply to the Jews because the rejected Jesus.

We get a hint that this is what he might have in mind in verse 6 where he says that “for they are not all Israel, which are of Israel.” In other words, the promises to Israel are still in effect because now the Gentiles are becoming Israelites through the new covenant. This idea continues in verse 7 and 8 where he says that Abraham’s seed by lineage are not the children of God but the children of the promise or those who have entered into the new covenant. Two things are apparent here: the promises made to Israel are now considered as being toward the Christians and that the lineal descendants of Abraham (the Jews) are not entitled to those promises because of their blood, they have to become Christians too.

It is important to note now that we are dealing with two groups of people: the Christians and the Jews. We are going to come back to these two groups over and over. It is also important to note now because the text at this point turns to individuals.

Paul starts by referring to Sarah being promised a son to whom the promises will go to but doesn’t dwell here. He quickly mentions Isaac and Rebecca and their kids Jacob and Esau. So here we have quickly established the sacred heritage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the focus is on the promises made to them (Abrahamic covenant). They have been chosen by God, elected if you will, and there is a sort of culmination in Jacob. He is a special case because he was born second and yet preferred first, even before he was born!

The connection here is to the Christians, though, and not to the Jews. The promises have moved to the Christians and the Jews must become part of spiritual Israel by accepting Christ. It’s an amazing switch from the norm and there is more than a little irony involved: Jacob, the father of Israel (the nation I mean) no longer is the type for the Jews. Esau, the antithesis of Israel and his clan, who has always represented the enemies of Yahweh’s people (even if they are family) now represents the Jews. The tables have seriously turned!

Just to give the conclusion away early, this is the point that resolves the whole issue, though we will go through each example just to make sure it works. Jacob and his lineage (before and after, the ones that the promises apply to) represent the Christians who are now the true heirs to those promises. The Jews are represented by the other half of this duo, at least as long as they reject Jesus as the Messiah. So while we are talking about individuals here, we aren’t really. They are symbols of the two groups: Christians and Jews. It’s an adoption or adaptation of the classical Israel and Gentiles dualism that these characters have always stood for in the past.

Next we get Moses and Pharaoh. Again, Moses is the representative of Israel in this equation in the past, with Pharaoh obviously representing the Gentiles. To Pharaoh the Lord says that he has raised him up in order to show forth his power to the whole world. In a twisted sort of a way Pharaoh is a great symbol of the Jews because God showed him him power and miracles repeatedly to which Pharaoh thought about doing the right thing before thumbing his nose at him. This sounds a lot like the relationship between Israel and Yahweh, minus the covenants. It gets even better though when you consider that via Pharaoh, the Lord made his name famous in the whole world. This also happened with the Jews. They were the vehicle by which the Lord took his name to the whole world of the Gentiles.

Maybe it is best if we try not to push the symbolism too far. After all, Paul has a history of using symbols or comparisons that work well on the surface but break down quickly if you push them too far (this includes applying all of the information given; see Ephesians 5, a post for another day). The progression between pairs is obvious and intentional. Jacob stands in relation to Esau and God in a similar or same way as Moses does to Pharaoh and God. And from the lead in we know that Paul considers the Christians to be the children of the promise and so they are the ones to be identified with the good guys while the hard-hearted Jews should be associated with the bad.

Things potentially get trickier with the potter and his pots (vessels in the KJV, but I like post better for some reason). God fits individual pots for specific purposes: honor and dishonor, mercy and wrath. This sounds awfully individualistic, especially with the “man” claiming that it’s not fair that God has decided independently and without consideration of actions, words, or thoughts who he will have mercy on and who he will harden.

But we must consider a couple of things here. First, the dualistic pairs are clearly following the pattern set by Jacob/Esau and Moses/Pharaoh. You don’t break with the pattern unless there is a clear indication that Paul is breaking with the pattern. And he doesn’t so we don’t. Pots of honour and mercy represent Christians, pots of dishonour and wrath represent the Jews.

The second thing is the question is another diatribe-esque rhetorical device. Paul doesn’t directly answer the question, he artfully dodges. The questions are fair but Paul is using them to advance his argument, not tackle another issue. In fact, the issue at question is the fairness of God creating a person fit for destruction and damnation and never giving him a chance at salvation. We’d say it isn’t fair. Actually, we say that God would never do such a thing. If this is what Paul has in mind, why doesn’t he just say so? If it is what he has in mind, why would he argue the opposite? If we take this from an individualistic point of view, Paul must really be saying that we don’t get to complain that God has pre-decided that we are doomed to damnation, he’s the potter and he can form us however he wants to. Again, you can see how some people get misled into thinking that Paul actually means this.

But Paul doesn’t mean this. It goes against everything we’ve ever been taught in church and it’s too important an issue for Paul to have an incorrect view of, so there must be a different answer. These pots are representative of the corporate groups of those who accept God and do all the stuff they should do (the Christians and no one else) and those who don’t (everyone else, with whom the Jews now find themselves in company with).

Let’s reword this to help clarify things. It’s a repeat of stuff we covered in the last post but it seems appropriate to review right now. God pre-decides before the foundation of the world that anyone who does X, Y, and Z (has faith in Christ, receives covenants, remains faithful in them, etc) should be considered a part of his kingdom, part of the Church of Christ, and will receive salvation. These are pots of honor and mercy. They are formed, collectively, outside of anyone’s individual actions, words, or thoughts. Nothing we do, say, or think will ever change that anyone who does X, Y, and Z will receive salvation. It is set in stone and is thus something that we can depend on God in. He is trustworthy in this thing.

The reverse is also true. God pre-decided (predestined, foreordained, prohoridzo) that whoever did not do all of X, Y, and Z would not receive salvation (let’s say a fullness or exaltation). Likewise, nothing that anyone does, says, or thinks can ever change this. God has “formed” these two pots according to his will and it is how it is going to be. Our rhetorical question ceases to be “it’s not fair that God predestines me to damnation and there is nothing I can do about it” and becomes “it’s not fair that if I don’t do all of X, Y, and Z then I can’t be saved” to which I would reply “tough, God planned it that way.” Mormons in general might add that in actuality we all agreed to this before we ever came so we have no basis for complaining about it anyway.

Verse 22 now fits into our cozy world view of the destruction of the wicked at the second coming (or the smaller examples throughout time that have occurred when necessary) in which the righteous get glorified and the wicked burned. Verse 23 demonstrates that Paul realizes that the children of God who belong to the Church are made up of Gentiles and Jews. That the majority of Jews have not and will not at his time accept Christ is demonstrated previously in verse 1 through 5 where he sorrows for them and then again in verses 25 and 26. Here he states again and in different words that the people who are now God’s people are not those that used to his people, and that those people who were not his people (the Gentiles of course) are now his children. (see your footnotes for the cross references to the OT scriptures here)

Verse 27 also plays an important role is showing us that Paul really does know what is going on with all these people and stuff. Here he cites Isaiah who prophesied that while many Israelites would fall away/be destroyed, a remnant will be saved. This probably originally had reference to the captivities of the two kingdoms but is applied appropriately by Paul to the gathering in the last days.

Verses 30 through 33 nearly complete our discussion. It’s Paul’s favorite line just described in a new light by the preceding series of examples: the Gentiles are saved and made righteous by faith, the Jews are not because they try to attain it by the Law of Moses and not by faith (and we all know that no one but Jesus is good enough to fulfill the Law perfectly). Verse 1 in the next chapter sums up well: Paul really hopes that the Jews will be saved eventually. That is really what all of this difficult stuff has been about.

To review, Paul’s heart is breaking for the Jews who reject Jesus as the Messiah. They have fallen from their previous status of God’s chosen people of promise by rejecting the Messiah and have joined those who have always been on the outside. Many of the Gentiles have received Jesus and are now the heirs of Abraham’s covenants. All of the traditional dualistic pairings that have separated the Jews from the rest of the world as God’s people ironically depict them on the outside. But there is nothing to do for it, God has decreed that unless they ultimately receive Christ in faith, receive his covenants, and live faithfully in them they cannot receive salvation. And nothing that anyone can do, say, or think can change that. It has been the plan since before the world existed. All of this was prophesied beforehand by several prophets. The one glimmering hope for the Jewish nation is that Isaiah prophesied that a remnant would remain and that God would not totally reject the lineage of Jacob.

I am a firm believer in corporate predestination as I have explained in the past two posts. The sense that it has made of this incredibly difficult passage is only part of the proof for this pudding. My hope in God and Christ rests on the truth that no matter what anyone says or does, if I will only have faith in Christ, enter into all of God’s covenants, and maintain them for the rest of my life, I will have salvation and exaltation with my God for eternity.

Now, having concluded with my little devotional there, I am not trying to forgo or prevent or make difficult and awkward any response or rebuttal to this. I may some day find a better explanation and I am always open to such. Now please, fire away. I’ve worked pretty hard on this and I hope that you all will be my honest sounding board.

13 Replies to “Vessels of Wrath, Predestination Pt.2”

  1. Nice work. I particularly like this line:

    And let me tell you now that we may not pull a Mormon fast one by citing Article of Faith 8 and heading for the hills chanting that it wasn’t “translated” correctly.

    I also agree that individual predestination is not Paul’s point. His interest is in explaining why the Jews have not accepted Christ and what the implications are.

    Have you had a look at what James Dunn has to say about this? I confess myself not really up on this, so I’m wondering. IIRC, his Theology of Paul mostly passes it by, but the WBC commentary must address it. If it’s not part of the BYU collection, maybe David J. can give us a sumamary…?

    At the moment, I’m writing a paper/chapter on the sovereignty of the saints in Revelation. (Hint: you don’t really want to be called a king in Revelation!) I will read the paper on Wednesday and after that I’ll take a break and look at it in more detail. But I kinda like it now.

  2. I don’t see how you screwed it up. However, were I you, I would try to condense your message a bit. People tend not to read these long posts, worthy as they are.

    I was thinking, though, sort of on-topic, that if we are pre-ordained to a certain thing and do not do that particular thing, but remain righteous and faithful otherwise, are we screwed? I don’t think so.

  3. LuthorLXX, you are a brave man for delving into the deep waters of Romans 9. I have evangelical commentaries that completely skip Romans 9-11.

    And what you have touched on here is a firestorm in American evangelicalism. Consider the book, Debating Calvinism (I think published in 2003, I don’t have the book with me at the moment)that tracks the fierce debate between Dave Hunt in Oregon and James White in Arizona.

    Though many literary LDS would consider these two men severe anti-LDS, it would profit you to obtain the book to see the controversy that currently wages in evangelicalism. James White was going to debate one of the profs at Liberty University (Falwell’s school) this past fall on the very topic of Calvinism but plans fell through.

    In the book, Hunt basically proposes similar ideas to you. Corporate predestination (and that this encompasses spiritual blessings rather than salvation). I reject his interpretation of removing individual predestination to salvation from the book of Romans.

    Arminian theology does a number in cutting the very teeth out of the Romans 9 text (when the teeth are left in the text, people should logically think God is unfair, hence Paul’s questions), whereas hyper-Calvinist theology dismantles the beauty of the Romans 10 text. Systematized theologies must not cut the knot to either text.

    Keep studying the scripture, LuthorLXX, and I will do the same.

    And by the way, going back to the OT stories, where do you think Esau and Pharoah ended up in the afterlife and why?

  4. Thanks guys, I was wondering if length was a problem. I thought about dividing it up into two more posts instead of just one but it didn’t divide well.

    Anne: I would have said that I fully agree with you about five minutes ago but now I only half agree. It depends what we can and are foreordained to do. Maybe if we are foreordainted to serve a mission and we don’t or if we were supposed to serve in a bishopric or something then it’s not so big a deal that our salvation is in jeopardy. But if the things that we are foreordained to do are things like receiving the Melchezidek priesthood or opening a dispensation then we might be in dire trouble. I’m not sure we know everything that a person can be foreordained to. Hey! a great next post!

    Matt: Sorry man. Hope you get time eventually.

    Todd: Don’t even know where you messed it up. Not that screwing up my lame handle is a serious offence at the best of times.

  5. I finally got time to read your post (I read everything here at FPR, although I haven’t commented since leaving Iraq back in June). It was an excellent post. During my mission I read through the NT in Spanish (which has been translated into an incredibly easier to understand book than the KJV in English), and Romans was still one of the hardest books to understand. Especially what you just went over. Now I feel like maybe I’m beginning to understand.


    BTW, I really liked the line: My hope in God and Christ rests on the truth that no matter what anyone says or does, if I will only have faith in Christ, enter into all of God’s covenants, and maintain them for the rest of my life, I will have salvation and exaltation with my God for eternity.

  6. Jason: Thank you very much. I think I went way overboard with the post. It should have been at least two and maybe three more posts just to help people digest it better. Alas, I don’t have talent yet in quite the same way as Mogget does. Maybe in the future. I’m glad you like that line. It’s not a very Mormon sounding testimony but it is one of the most sincere witnesses I could ever bear.

  7. LXXLuther, very nice. Your post inspired me to read Dunn’s WBC commentary (I can probably email an eletronic version to you without breaking too many copyright laws if you can’t make it to the HBLL…). I think you will be very pleasantly surprised (or perhaps this will be unpleast to hear if you thought yours was an original reading) to see how similar your view is to his.

    Also, Craig Evans’ dissertation touches on this topic in relation to Isa 6:9-10 and he takes a similar view though he deals mainly with textual issues, not theological implications. He ties this theme of election and non-election (“obduracy” in his writings) to other Pauline passages such as 1 Cor 2:6-16 and 2 Cor 3:14-16 as well as OT passages such as Deut 29:3; Isa 6:9-10; 28:16; 29:10, as well as the other OT passages cited in Romans 9-11, and several Gsopel passages, esp. Mark 4:11-12 which he addresses carefully in his WBC volume on Mark. What is interesting in Mark 4:11-12 is that Christ is also talking about an elected group–his disciples–and how those who aren’t thus elected are kept in the dark. I think your corporate predestination view might work as well there, though I’d like to hear you address this.

  8. (#10 correction: I meant to say I do not think your corporate predestination view will work as well explaining some theological difficulties in Mark 4:11-12, though maybe you can convince me otherwise….)

  9. Robert: Darn! And I thought I was being original. At least this way I can say that my conclusions aren’t properly derived from my methodologies. Don’t worry about sending it to me, the HBLL has it for sure and I can go look it up, though replying may take a bit of time. And thanks for taking the time to read the darn thing.

  10. LXX, I listed to an very interesting discussion of Karl Barth’s take on Romans 9-11 here. It’s a 60 minute talk + 20 minute Q&A (roughly). The talk reminded me of this post. I put a very brief (and surely not very accurate…) summary of the talk here.

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