Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Non-Calvinist's Take On Romans 9

Having passed through Romans 9 in my class on the Book of Romans, I thought I'd briefly share the bones of what was taught by a non-Calvinist in the form of Dr Arden Autry.

Overall, as uncomfortable as chapter 9 of Romans would appear to be for someone not of the Calvinist persuasion, Dr Autry dealt with it rather well, which I guess is hardly surprising given that he has basically lost count of the amount of times he has taught the book in his lifetime (somewhere close to 30 I think).

For me, a previously unstressed key to reading Romans 9 is the fact that it's part of this almost separate train of thought in Paul's writing. Taken in context, chapter 9 fits in with Paul's examination of the question of Israel and the Jews. He begins the chapter by lamenting the lack of faith in his people, and continues to focus on them throughout the next 3 chapters. Does this mean that everything he has to say is irrelevant to us today? No, but it does mean we have to be careful about how we interpret things that Paul meant to be very specific. In the Calvinist propaganda that I've read, not once has anyone mentioned the context in which this discussion on predestination is presented. That's not to say they're all wrong, but I would say that there's a very good chance of misinterpreting a text when we approach it with preconceived ideas that must be true. Calvinists and non-Calvinists are both guilty of this, which is why I would hesitate to fully identify myself with either (although by saying that I'm in the worrying position of taking a Brian McLaren-style approach to theology which might claim something like "I am not a Calvinist, but I am also not a non-Calvinist", or "I'll get back to you on Calvinism in 5 years").

Dr Autry's take on the references to Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau did not involve him denying their divine appointment by God. However, are we told where Ishmael and Esau's final destination was? The passage doesn't say that Isaac was predestined for heaven but Ishmael for hell. The passage is concerned with Isaac's role in salvation history which was established and actively brought about by God.

The same can be said for Pharaoh, who in my view actually poses one of the biggest problem to Calvinists. If we're to treat the case of Pharaoh as Calvinists do the other cases mentioned, then we must conclude that God hardens the hearts of everyone who is not "elected". However, to my knowledge, Calvinists do not concede that God actively works in people to make them refuse Him. This "hardening" is seen as God just taking the restraints off Pharaoh's heart and allowing him to be utterly evil. However, the Bible seems to make it clear that God was actively at work in Pharaoh's heart to bring about redemption and to make known His name throughout the world. To the best of my knowledge, Calvinists tend to water this down and make it "passive" interference on behalf of God in order to suit their standpoint that Paul is talking about all individuals in the history of the world in these passages, and not just the ones chosen to be a part of redemptive history. In my opinion this results in slightly skewed hermeneutics of Romans 9. We lose the plain meaning of the text to the original readers in a sea of theological abstractions, and we start reading into the text possibly beyond what it meant for the church in Rome and what it means for us today.

Does this mean that I think Calvinists have it wrong? Not necessarily. Romans 9 is by no means the only place where election is talked of, so it would be both foolish and wrong to dismiss this doctrine, because it's in the Bible unequivocally. However, by using Romans 9 as a pivotal passage for supporting their viewpoint, I think Calvinists lose the intention of the writer, who says at the beginning of the chapter, "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." This is not the opening statement of someone who is about to embark on a cold discussion of the final destination of every living soul, but the lament of someone who is desperate for his people to come to faith in Christ.

There are of course other arguments to be had based on Romans 9, and I'm not suggesting that any one person has it right, but these are thoughts worth chewing on if you find yourself totally dismissive of anything resembling non-Calvinism.

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