In debates over predestination, synergism, Pelagianism, and the like Romans 9 often comes up in the conversation for the sake of proof-texting one position or the other. To address any one of the preceding topics would require us to exegete other passages and so, in this short exegesis, we will only cover the specific chapter in question in two parts.
For those interested, I have already written my own opinion about passages about Eph 1 and the alleged “difference” between the soteriologies of Augustine and Chrysostom. If you have “bigger” questions than that of simply “what does Romans 9 mean,” you may want to read these.
Many Patristic citations will be from the Ancient Christian Commentary, New Testament Volume VI. I will simply indicate the page number of the quote.
9:1 I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, 5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
There is so much here that is beautiful, such as Saint Paul’s assertion that he would prefer to be accursed so the Jews could be saved. (For those wondering, this is extremely Christlike as Christ became a curse for us, cf Gal 3:13, 2 Cor 5:21.) This, coming off the heels of Rom 8 where Paul emphatically writes that nothing will separate us from God’s love (on the individual level), now addresses how it is that the Jews seem to be “separate[d] from the love of God.” Isn’t this something that “no created thing” nor circumstance (and he gives a list) can possibly do (Rom 8:39)? This is Romans 9’s chief concern.
The answer to “how” this occurs is simply that no created thing or circumstance takes us away from God, but rather we take ourselves away through sin and faithlessness. Saint James, writing to fellow Christians (who surely counted themselves among the saved) wrote:
[E]ach one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. (James 1:14-15)
The fathers recognized this in their interpretation of Rom 8:39. Saint John Chrysostom wrote that:
[W]e are not drawn away from the things of this life either by Christ or by the things of Christ. Like snakes or like swine we keep dragging the things of this world along with us in the mire. (ACC, p. 243)
Many people interpret Saint Augustine’s thought (who’s emphasis is on predestination and the perseverance of the saints) to mean that every Christian perseveres in the faith. However, he did not teach this. It is beyond our scope here to get into a lot of detail, but Augustine believed perseverance to be an additional spiritual gift to that of justification. Many were justified, according to Augustine, by their faith and baptism–only later to fall away because they lacked the spiritual gift of perseverance. Augustine writes quite plainly that there are those in the Church who “readily fall away from the faith.” (On Catechizing the Uninstructed, Par 26) Augustine explains this in some detail in the second book of On Predestination of the Saints:
[O]f two pious men, why to the one should be given perseverance unto the end, and to the other it should not be given, God’s judgments are even more unsearchable. Yet to believers it ought to be a most certain fact that the former is of the predestinated, the latter is not…Lastly, had not both been called, and followed Him that called them? And had not both become, from wicked men, justified men, and both been renewed by the laver of regeneration? But if he were to hear this who beyond all doubt knew what he was saying, he might answer and say: These things are true. In respect of all these things, they were of us [cf 1 John 2:19]. Nevertheless, in respect of a certain other distinction, they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they certainly would have continued with us. What then is this distinction? God’s books lie open, let us not turn away our view; the divine Scripture cries aloud, let us give it a hearing. They were not of them, because they had not been
called according to the purpose; they had not been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world; they had not gained a lot in Him; they had not been predestinated according to His purpose who works all things. For if they had been this, they would have been of them, and without doubt they would have continued with them. (Chap 21)
This now sets the stage for us to understand Rom 9. How did the Jews, God’s chosen people, make a “shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim 1:19) and forfeit salvation–and those who were lost, the Gentiles, become God’s chosen? This is the question the Patristics believe Saint Paul is answering.
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel;
How did the Jews fall away then? Did God not fulfill His promises?
[N]evertheless should they still prove gainsayers, and refuse to receive salvation, the promises made to the fathers would still remain true. How then? For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel. (Theodoret of Cyrus*, Commentary on Romans, 9:6)
God remains faithful. The Scriptures make it clear that it was not those who were Israelites according to the flesh but those by their godliness showed that they are worthy to be Israelites who are children of Abraham. (Diodore of Tarsus*, ACC, p. 247)
*Neither writer is an Orthodox saint.
In short, the Old Testament promises to Israel did not fail, because Israel rightly defined are those who have faith (i.e. faithful to God, making the confession in Rom 10:9). Israel is not determined by genetics, but by God’s choice of a faithful people.
7 nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” 8 That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. 9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”
The term “call” appears to be loaded language. It tends to have the meaning of “foreknowledge” in the Patristics, but not exclusively so. Augustine appears to use the term both for those who were justified (but later fell away) and those who persevere, who he says were “called according to His purpose” (cf Rom 8:28). Saint Theophylact takes a more spiritual reading, linking “call” to the speaking of words–specifically that of prophecy about Isaac and the words spoken at baptism:
[T]he children of God, in the font of water, as if in the womb, the words of God are spoken, which form us; because we, being baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, are born. And just as God promised the birth of Isaac and then fulfilled it: so he promised our birth through the prophets and then brought it to fulfillment. (Comments on Rom 9:9)
The way this links to baptism is explained by Theophylact’s great inspiration, Chrysostom:
Whoever has been born in the way of Isaac was born is a son of God and a seed of Abraham…For Isaac was born not according to the law of nature nor according to the power of the flesh but according to the power of a promise. (ACC, p. 249)
As we can see, the promise that we are baptized in the name of God has power, just like prophesying the promise that Isaac (and not the actual firstborn son, Ishmael) has power. So “calling,” according to making a promise to a person/class of people, has power. This is probably the best synthesis of Patristic thought on the topic I can come up with, but it is not immediately what any of us in the 21st century think of when we read the term.
The question is whether “calling” is some sort of magic wand God that makes someone get saved, if it is “mere” foreknowledge (sort of like news anchor knowing the future and calling an election before votes are tallied), or if foreknowledge pertains to something more.
In short, Patristically, whether the saint is Augustine, John Cassian, or Chrysostom, the answer is that God calls whom He foreknows and in so doing gives them grace which, working together with the person, enables the perseverance of that person presuming upon the individuals cooperation with that grace.
This leads to all sort of questions such as, “Then, why does God give some grace to people who end up making a shipwreck of their faith anyway?” The Patristics do not ask and also do not answer this question. Nor do the Scriptures. So, in response to this I will quote the following proverbial statement:
Neither seek what is too difficult for you,
nor investigate what is beyond your power.
Reflect upon what you have been commanded,
for what is hidden is not your concern.
Do not meddle in matters that are beyond you,
for more than you can understand has been shown you.
For their conceit has led many astray,
and wrong opinion has impaired their judgment. (Sir 3:21-24)
Now, let’s continue with our exegesis:
10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac 11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls) 12 not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “I have loved Jacob but Esau I hated.”
Ambrosiaster (a writer who’s real identity is lost, though he may plausibly be Saint Hilary of Poitiers according to Augustine and manuscripts from Ireland) believes the thrust of the preceding passage is that it pertains to an allegory:
One person represents the entire race [Jews and Gentiles], not because he is their physical ancestor but because he shares their relationship with God. There are children of Esau [i.e. Gnetiles] who are children of Jacob [i.e. “true” children of Abraham], and vice versa. It is not because Jacob is praised that all those descended from him are worthy to be called his children. Nor is it because Esau was rejected that all those descended from him are condemned, for we see that Jacob the deceiver had unbelieving children, and Esau had children who were faithful to God. There is no doubt that there are many unbeliving children of Jacob, for all the Jews, whether they are believers or unbelievers, have their origin in him. And that there are good and faithful children of Esau is proved by the example of Job. (ACC, p. 249)
As we can see, the idea is not that God does chooses before time whom He loves, and that saves them, or who He hates, and then deliberately damns the person. Jacob is loved because Jacob represents the faithful, to whom the promises of God are made to. Esau is hated because he represents the unbelievers. Genetic heritage means nothing.
God in His foreknowledge predestines those whom He sees will love Him and believe. Ambrosiaster continues:
Paul proclaims God’s foreknowledge…knowing what each of them would become, God said, ‘The younger will be worth and the elder unworthy.’…[A]lthough God knew what would happen, He is not a respecter of persons and condemns nobody before He sins, nor does He reward anyone until He conquers. (ACC, p. 250)
Thus He said to Moses: ‘If someone sins against me I shall delete him from my book.’ [Ex 32:33] The person who sins is deleted according to the justice of the Judge, but according to His foreknowledge his name was never in the book of life…[Quotes 1 John 2:19 “They went out from us but they were never of us”]…There is no respect of persons in God’s foreknowledge. (ACC, p. 252)
Because He does not wait, as man does, to see from the issue of their acts the good and him who is not so, but even before these He knows which is the wicked and which not such. And this took place in the Israelites’ case also, in a still more wonderful way. Why, he says, do I speak of Esau and of Jacob, of whom one was wicked and the other good? For in the Israelites’ case, the sin belonged to all, since they all worshipped the calf. Yet notwithstanding some had mercy shown them, and others had not. (Homily 16 on Romans)
As does Theophylact:
[E]verything is the work of God and His election and prediction. (Comments on Rom 9:11-13)
Even Augustine concurs in his own unfinished commentary on Romans:
God did this by foreknowledge, by which He knows what even the unborn will be like in the future. But let no one say that God chose the works of the man whom He loved, although these works did not yet exist, because God knew in advanced what they would be. If God elected works [i.e. He is a puppet master that makes people do good or evil], why does the apostle say that election is not according to works? Thus we should understand that we do good works through love and we have love by the gift of the Holy Spirit…But since the Holy Spirit is given only to believers, God does not choose works (which He himself bestows) for He gives the Holy Spirit so that through love we might do good works. Rather, He chooses faith. For unless each one believes in Him and perseveres in His willingness to receive, He does receive the gift of God, through Whom, by an outpouring of love, he is enabled to do good works. Therefore, God did not choose anyone’s works (which He himself will give) by foreknowledge, but by foreknowledge He chose faith. He chose the one whom He knew in advance would believe in Him and to him He has given the Holy Spirit so that by good works he may obtain everlasting life. Belief is our work but good works belong to Him who gives the Holy Spirit to believers…[G]race is such that the call comes to the sinner when he has no merit and prevents him from going straight to his damnation. But if he follows God’s call of his own free will, he will also merit the Holy Spirit, through Whom he can do good works. And remaining in the Spirit (also by free will), he will merit eternal life. (ACC, p. 251)
Some may argue that Augustine’s unfinished commentary on Romans represents his “pre-Pelagian thought.” Augustine himself speaks of writing the commentary at about the same time he wrote his commentary on Galatians (which is dated shortly before On Christian Doctrine—approx 397 AD). However, in one of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian treatises he repeats the exact same idea:
Now no man is assisted unless he also himself does something…We run, therefore, whenever we make advance; and our wholeness runs with us in our advance (just as sore is said to run when the wound is in process of a sound and careful treatment), in order that we may be in every respect perfect, without any infirmity of sin whatever — a result which God not only wishes, but even causes and helps us to accomplish. And this God’s grace does, in co-operation with ourselves, through Jesus Christ our Lord, as well by commandments, sacraments, and examples, as by His Holy Spirit also. (On Man’s Perfection in Righteousness, Chap 20)
It is worth pointing out that in his Retractations, Augustine never admits to changing his mind and too much is made of his comment in Chap 7 on Predestination of the Saints–but enough of this aside for now.
Augustine elsewhere acknowledges that the episode with Jacob and Esau pertains to how God predestines one class of people (believers) and not another, within the Church itself:
Esau: one of them is chosen, the other is reprobated; one succeeds to the inheritance, the other is disinherited. God does not make His people of Esau, but makes it of Jacob. The seed is one, those conceived are dissimilar: the womb is one, those born of it are diverse. Was not the free woman that bare Jacob, the same free woman that bare Esau? They strove in the mother’s womb; and when they strove there, it was said to Rebecca,
Two peoples are in your womb. Two men, two peoples; a good people, and a bad people: but yet they strive in one womb. How many evil men there are in the Church! (Tractate 11 on the Gospel of John, Par 10)
In conclusion, the episode with Jacob and Esau is not understood by the Patristics to be about how God chooses one person or the other. Rather, it is about “classes” of people, those who God foreknows will respond to the Gospel freely, according to their own free will, and those who will not.
This does not preclude the idea that there is an application for individuals. Chrysostom teaches that grace is given to an unbeliever which by his cooperation enables him to believe: “[W]e need God to open the heart: but God opens the hearts that are willing.” (Comments on Acts 16:14) This is precisely the position of Augustine, which speaks of those who receive God’s call, but answer of their “own free will.”
With the preceding foundation, in my next article we will complete the Patristic exegesis of Rom 9.
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