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.
14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” 16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” 18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
As we concluded last time, there is no unrighteousness with God because He predestines those who make right use of His grace to both believe and persevere in the faith. This universal exegesis of the fathers, including Saint Augustine, seems to take the force out of Saint Paul’s response to verse 13: “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” Who would accuse God of unrighteousness if the determining factor was our own unrighteousness?
We find the Patristics do not give a satisfying answer to what seems to be the plain meaning of the text, which is why it has become such a flash point since the Protestant Reformation. Nevertheless, let’s endevor upon allowing the fathers to give us their own teaching.
Saint John Chrysostom, implying earlier that God did not destroy some of the Israelites who worshipped the golden calf because He foreknew the repentance of some, exegetes the above passage in the same vein:
[T]he virtue or the vice, might be the decisive thing. But here there was one sin on which all the Jews joined, that of the molten calf, and still some were punished, and some were not punished…For it is not yours to know, O Moses, he means, which are deserving of My love toward man, but leave this to Me. But if Moses had no right to know, much less have we. And this is why he did not barely quote the passage, but also called to our minds to whom it was said. For it is Moses, he means, that he is speaking to. (Homily 16 on Romans)
The emphasis on making Saint Paul’s answer here be a theoretical answer to a question posed by Moses seems to mitigate against the larger ramifications of the passage. But, this may be instructive. If the answer given to Moses is true, then the same answer applies to us.
Some fathers do try to grapple with the passage’s larger ramifications by directing our attention elsewhere. Perhaps, Paul’s concern may be upon normatively how people are saved. For the Jews, it was simply following the Law since birth (including circumcision and purification rites). For Christians, this would be in the ancient Church through baptism and partaking in the sacramental life. And so, Augustine addresses the “difficulty” of why God shows mercy to some and not others when discussing why some infants are saved through baptism and some are not. He concludes we do not have a firm answer from God:
What is to be said of infants who receive the sacrament of Christian grace, as is usual at that age, and thus undoubtedly have a claim to eternallife and the kingdom of heaven if they die at once, whereas if they are allowed to grow up some even become apostates?…Why some are included and others are not can be for a hidden reason but not for an unjust one. (ACC, p. 254)
Other early writers likewise invoke God’s “inscrutable judgements.” Saint Ceasarius of Arles expands upon the preceding notion and acknowledges it can pertain to adult believers:
Why does God not scourge all men mercifully in such a way so as not to allow anyone to be hardened against Him? Either this is to be ascribed to the wickedness of those who have deserved to become hardened or it is to be referred to the inscrutable judgements of God, which are often hidden but are never unjust. (Ibid.)
Saint Paul would have not been unaware of contemporary Jewish thought on the same question. For example, Antiochus Epiphanes similar to Judas, “made a vow to the Lord [to repent], who would no longer have mercy on him” (2 Macc 9:13) and “when his sufferings did not in any way abate, for the judgment of God had justly come upon him, he gave up all hope for himself ” (2 Macc 9:18). What follows in 2 Macc is a letter of significant contrition, similar to Judas’ forfeiting of his blood money, but apparently on some level disingenous or motivated by despondency–similar to Judas’ “repentance” and subsequent suicide.
This aside may seem irrelevant to the question at hand, but it is not if we accept the idea that Saint Paul was similar to his contemporaries in allowing for a tension to exist in his theology without resolution. God brings some, like Nebuchadnezzar, to a shocking repentance. Others seem willing but due to their great evils, God does not permit their “repentance” to bear fruit–perhaps due to His foreknowledge of their actions. After all, God may want to prevent some people from repenting who would subsequently succumb to some greater evil. One must simply allow that God is just and makes His judgements rightly.
Ambrosiaster (who we speculated last time might be Saint Hilary of Poitiers) appears to take the preceding view:
God will have mercy upon who He knows will be converted and remain with Him…It is God’s to give or not to give. He calls the ones whom He knows will obey and does not call those whom He knows will not obey. (ACC, p. 255)
In order to not belabor the point by quoting additional fathers, it suffices to say that all of the fathers acknowledge the difficulty, but simply reiterate Paul’s citing of God’s response to Moses as a literal response to the question. The only thing we can know about why God hardens some and not others, is that God judicially refuses to allow some to repent, because (perhaps) He knew they would not–and contrariwise.
How do the fathers understand “it is not him who runs…but of God who shows mercy?” They are similarly dismissive of the plain meaning of Paul’s words–seemingly by admission. Saint Theophylact succinctly states:
Here the apostle seemingly destroys free will; but actually no….we say about God that everything is His work, although God also needs our work. (Comments on Rom 9:16)
Hence, the Patristic exegesis that God shows mercy through a synergistic process. He enables and encourages individuals to have faith in Christ and live in accordance with the faith. Saint Jerome confidently asserts:
It is clear from this passage that the willing and running are ours, but the fulfillment of our willing and running belongs to the mercy of God. So it is that free will is preserved. (ACC, p. 256)
Augustine, in a pre-Pelagian commentary on Romans, concurs:
It is therefore clear that is not by willing nor by striving but by the mercy of God that we do good works, even though our will (which by itself can do nothing) is also present. (Ibid.)
Augustine, in the same work, writes elsewhere:
[H]e grants to the faith of the ones the ability to do good works and hardens the unbelief of others by deserting them, so they do evil. (ACC, p. 259)
It is interesting that what seemed counter-intuitive to Theophylact was “clear” to two earlier saints.
How about the end of the passage concerning Pharoah and the statement God hardens whom He wills? The fathers take a similar tact.
Saint Irenaeus, essentially giving us our earliest exegesis of the topic, states:
If, therefore, in the present time also, God, knowing the number of those who will not believe, since He foreknows all things, has given them over to unbelief, and turned away His face from men of this stamp, leaving them in the darkness which they have themselves chosen for themselves, what is there wonderful if He did also at that time give over to their unbelief, Pharaoh, who never would have believed, along with those who were with him? (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chap 29, Par 2)
Ambrosiaster repeats the same exact idea:
This Pharaoh…was guilty of many crimes and unfit to live. He would never repent or in any way earn the right to live with God. (ACC, p. 257)
How does God harden hearts? This is a topic I have covered in some detail elsewhere, noting that the mainstream Calvinist position is the same as the Patristic one, vis a vis John Piper’s hyper-Calvinist view. In commentaries on Rom 9, the saints speak of God permitting Pharaoh to harden his own heart:
[I]t is said of God that He made the filthy heart of Pharaoh cruel, just as the sun makes the filth hard. How is it? Longsuffering; for He made him cruel by showing longsuffering to him. Here something similar happened to what happens when someone who has a vicious servant treats him kindly. The more humane he treats him, the worse he makes him, not because he himself teaches him vice, but because the servant uses his long-suffering to increase his viciousness, because he neglects that long-suffering. (Comments on Rom 9:18)
He enables the one on whom He has mercy to do good and He leaves the one whome He hardens to do evil. (ACC, p. 258)
Let’s continue our exegesis:
19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” 20 But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?
22 What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
Verse 19 seems to beg for a different exegesis than the fathers have so far given. After all, who would accuse God of finding fault unfairly if the Patrsitic exegesis was obvious? This exegesis is, to summarize:
- God simply permits wrong-doers to reap the fruits of their evils.
- The saints are saved by cooperating with the grace of God and the damned essentially do not.
- God’s will for hardening the damned is not an exercise in mind control, but that of permission.
In addressing verse 19, the same fathers simply warn readers not to push their questioning too hard:
[H]e [Paul] does not say, it is impossible to answer questions of this kind, but that it is presumptuous to raise them…See how he scares them, how he terrifies them, how he makes them tremble rather than be questioning and curious. This is what an excellent teacher does; he does not follow his disciples’ fancy everywhere. (Chrysostom, Homily 16 on Romans)
[H]e [Paul] collects many difficulties and does not offer solutions, so that, putting the listener in a difficult situation, convince him that the orders and judgments of God are incomprehensible to man and exceed his mind…To say that it should be done this way, and that it should be done otherwise, is to argue with God and to act contrary to Him. (Theophylact, Comments on Rom 9:18-19)
The same sort of dismissiveness continues in exegeting verses 20 and 21.
It is a great indignity and presumption for man to answer back to God. (Ambrosiaster, ACC, p. 26)
Do not dare to condemn God…it was according to His foreknowledge that He gave each His due. Nor is He guilty because He knew in advance what would happen, but rather each of those who was foreknown in this way is responsible for his actions. (Diodore of Tarsus, ACC, p. 261)
Here it is not to do away with free-will that he says this, but to show, up to what point we ought to obey God. For in respect of calling God to account, we ought to be as little disposed to it as the clay is. (Chrysostom, Homily 16 on Romans)
This example was used by Paul not in order to destroy our free will and to present us as inactive and immobile, but in order to teach us how to submit to God and to show Him deep and silent obedience…in vessels it does not depend on clay, that something else goes to an honorable, and another to a low use (for the clay is one and the same), but it depends on the use of those using the product, so in people it does not depend on nature that some are worthy of punishment, while others are rewards (for nature is the same), but from will. (Theophylact, Comments on Rom 9:20-21)
It is interesting how the Patristic exegesis knowingly reframes Paul’s words, but nevertheless accords even with modern Calvinist thought on the point that God blesses some and hardens others without violating man’s free will. I make this point, because Calvinists themselves will employ an exegesis of Rom 9 whose emphasis is so different than their mainstream soteriology. It turns Rom 9 into a flashpoint and opens up Calvinists to the accusation of hyper-calvinism.
Concerning why God has been patient with the reprobates (“the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”), the fathers speak of this being judicial and in some way helpful to others:
He has waited a long time so they should be without excuse, for God knew all along they would not believe. (Ambrosiaster, ACC, p. 264)
Paul has sufficiently demonstrated that the hardness of heart which came to Pharaoh came as the just deserts of earlier unbelief. Yet God paitently endured his unbelief…in order to correct those whom he had decided to set free from error. (Augustine, Ibid.)
[H]e would punish him [Pharaoh] and show his own power, so that from this others would become better. As by punishing him, who had become a vessel of wrath by his own will, God showed His power, so, having pardoned many pagans who had sinned, but became worthy of mercy, He showed “the riches of His glory.” (Theophylact, Comments on Rom 9:22-24)
The implication of Theophylact’s statement is that God shows His power by being judicial, but also shows his love by pardoning others. We have already addressed beforehand the Patristic answer as to why some are given the grace to repent and not others. God foreknows those who will make right use of his grace. With the preceding in mind, Chrysostom offers his answer to the question:
He endured him [Pharaoh] with much long-suffering, being willing to bring him to repentance. For had He not willed this, then He would not have been thus long-suffering. But as he would not use the long-suffering in order to repentance, but fully fitted himself for wrath, He used him for the correction of others, through the punishment inflicted upon him making them better, and in this way setting forth His power. (Homily 16 on Romans)
Now, let us continue onto Paul’s Biblical prooftexts for his teaching:
25 As He says also in Hosea:
“I will call them My people, who were not My people,
And her beloved, who was not beloved.”
26 “And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them,
‘You are not My people,’
There they shall be called sons of the living God.”
27 Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel:
“Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea,
The remnant will be saved.
28 For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness,
Because the Lord will make a short work upon the earth.”
29 And as Isaiah said before:
“Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed,
We would have become like Sodom,
And we would have been made like Gomorrah.”
Concerning Hosea, the Patristics identify that the emphasis of the preceding Scriptures is that they address the salvation of the Gentiles in place of Israel.
It is clear that this was said about the Gentiles, who once were not God’s people, but afterward, to the chargin of Jews, received mercy and are called God’s people. (Ambrosiaster, ACC, p. 266)
Who then are the “not”-people? Plainly, the Gentiles…For if with those who after so many benefits [the Jews] were hard-hearted and estranged, and had lost their being as a people, so great a change was wrought. (Chrysostom, Homily 16 on Romans)
Concerning Isaiah, the emphasis is upon that only the faithful from “Israel” (which is the nation of faithful Jews and Gentiles) will be saved:
Paul says this because Isaiah was crying out for those who would believe in Christ. It is these that are the true Israel…Therefore, of that great number only those who God foreknew would believe have been saved. (Ambrosiaster, ACC, p. 266-267)
[N]ot all Israelites will be saved, but those who are worthy of salvation (for this means the remnant, that is, the elect) whom God left and separated, that is, as worthy. (Theophylact, Comments on Rom 9:27)
Concerning the final passage of Isaiah pertaining to His mercy, the “seed” is identified to be Christ by Origen, Ambrosiaster, and (allegedly) Cyril of Alexandria. (ACC, p. 267-268) Theophylact does not take this view and simply observes that the “seed” is the remnant of unbelievers which if God did not preserve and convert, they would “have been destroyed like the Sodomites and the Gomorites, as condemned for their sins.” (Comments on Rom 9:29)
To end the chapter:
30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. 32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. 33 As it is written:
“Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense,
And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
Ambrosiaster observes that the significance of the Gentiles being saved by faith, but not the Jews is because, “Faith is the fulfilling of the Law.” (ACC, p. 269) Hence, those who have faith in Christ are saved and those who stumble are those who reject Him. It is in this vein all the fathers understand this passage:
For thou, O Jew, he says, hast not found even the righteousness which was by the Law. For you have transgressed it, and become liable to the curse. But these that came not through the Law, but by another road, have found a greater righteousness than this, that, namely, which is of faith. And this he had also said before. Romans 4: so showing that the other righteousness was greater than this…You see again how it is from faith that the boldness comes, and the gift is universal; since it is not of the Jews only that this is said, but also of the whole human race. For every one, he would say, whether Jew, or Grecian, or Scythian, or Thracian, or whatsoever else he may be, will, if he believes, enjoy the privilege of great boldness. But the wonder in the Prophet is that he foretells not only that they should believe, but also that they should not believe. For to stumble is to disbelieve. (Chrysostom, Homily 16 on Romans)
Paul calls the Lord Christ a stumbling stone because those who did not accept the new covenant in Him stumbled over Him and by their unbelief fell from the grace of justification which was given to men through Him. (Saint Gennadius of Constantinople, ACC, p. 269)
The pagans, he says, holding on to righteousness from faith, were indeed justified, but the Israelites incessantly seeking “the law of righteousness,” that is, the law of works, did not reach righteousness; because the law, which consisted of works, could not justify. (Theophylact, Comments on Rom 9:30-31)
So the Jews, looking at the law, stumbled against Christ, that is, they did not believe…“ Whoever believes in Him, will not be ashamed” ( Isa. 28:16 ), whether he is a Gentile or a Jew, so that everything is done and justified by faith, not works. (Theophylact, Comments on Rom 9:33)
Conclusion. To sum up our two articles on Rom 9, we find that in many respects the Patristic exegesis in unremarkable and consistent. Man’s free will is defended, the hardening of hearts pertains to the permissive will of God, and foreknowledge is the determining factor in God’s choices. The presupposition that God is just must be held, as clearly things may not appear such but only omniscience allows for scrutinizing God’s grace and permissiveness. Ironically, none of the preceding actually contradicts mainstream Calvinism and, as being a former Calvinist myself, I can only lament and reflect over Saint Paul’s words:
Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. (2 Tim 2:14)
We must be careful not to create disputes or pretend there is one where there is not. Hence, we should retain the theological rationale and vocabulary of the fathers so that we can maintain concord and avoid needless disputes. We do well to “ask for the old paths” (Jer 6:16) and “not remove an ancient boundary” (Prov 22:28). In so doing, we will avoid many problems.
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