Preliminary Outlines

Recently I have been interacting on Facebook with readings which resist a Calvinist conclusion on Romans 9. In particular my attention was drawn to this essay by Brian Abasciano which argues for a predominantly corporate understanding of election. It is however not my purpose to discuss, reply to or analyse Brian’s essay, although I might mention or refer to it a few times.

My intention in this post is to critique, in broad and general terms, the idea that the main theme or focus of Romans 9 is about God’s election of corporate bodies as opposed to individuals. As I understand it, the main thesis of the corporate bodies reading is this: Romans 9 is about God’s completely gratuitous election of a corporate body, that is, Israel, in contrast to other corporate bodies, and it is not about the gratuitous election of some individuals as opposed to others.

My argument against this reading will be made on two grounds: (1) An attempt to read corporate body referents in particular verses in the passage cannot make sense of the argumentative structure and flow of the passage which has to do with the composition of the elect body. In other words, it will be difficult to see the point of arguing about the gratuity of election of one corporate body against the other unelected bodies when the argumentative structure already assumes the elect corporate body and is discussing who makes up that body. (2) An attempt to read the passage as referring primarily to corporate body will have great difficulties in trying to account for the sustained discussion and arguments about the agency and personality of the entities involved. In other words, it would be difficult to read the personalities in Romans 9 as referring to corporate bodies when there is such a sustained discussion about their willing, doing, acting, having a heart, etc. Uncontroversially God and individuals have hearts and can will, choose and act, it isn’t however all that clear what it means when it comes to corporate bodies. One can appeal to the idea of “corporate personalities” where corporate bodies are treated like individual persons capable of personal agency. However the corporate personality thesis has not gotten much traction of late. Furthermore, even if we accept the corporate personality thesis and reading for Romans 9:9-16, I would argue that the reading is positively shipwrecked when Paul discusses Pharaoh onwards for whom it is difficult, if not virtually impossible, to give a corporate representative role.

What is St Paul Trying to Argue for? God’s Right to Determine who Compose the Elect True Israel

Brian in his essay spends a considerable amount of effort to show that throughout the Old Testament election language virtually always has as its proper object a corporate entity. God elects a whole people against other peoples as opposed to an individual against other individuals. Having, as it were by induction, established that the concept of election in the OT invariably involves the election of corporate bodies, he uses this general principle to read Romans 9.

However such an approach, as I hope will become evident, flattens the argumentative structure and logic of Romans 9 and mangles it into many disjointed points. In order to read Romans 9 properly we need to start with the text itself, and the argumentative point which it is trying to make according to its immediate context, not impose an overarching narrative or general principle upon it.

It would be best if we quoted chunks of it to get a sense of Paul’s argument. Let’s say with Romans 8:38-9:5

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

The ending of Romans 8 gives us the proper context for start of Romans 9. Paul had just ended a bracing exposition on the supreme all conquering love of Christ which nothing can stand against or separate us from, whether it is death or life or powers, etc. There is obviously a problem with this sermon. It seems that in fact the unbelieving Jews, Paul’s “kindred according to the flesh”, his people, are separated from this love of God in Christ. This is the source of Paul’s “great sorrow and unceasing anguish”. Paul wishes himself severed from Christ “for” their sake. Then he begins listing out the great gifts and privileges given to his people and kindred, even the Messiah according to the flesh himself from whom they are currently ironically cut off from by their unbelief. There is obviously a very serious problem if they to whom both the means and the gifts of salvation have been promised did not attain unto it.

However we have Paul’s answer in Verse 6-9.

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.”

This paragraph contains the key for rightly reading the rest of the arguments in Romans 9. It is here where we can find Paul’s main thesis, the conclusion he seeks to establish. The “problem” in Romans 9:1-5 finds further explication here. “It is not as though the word of God had failed”. The problem, that Paul’s kindred according to the flesh, have failed to attain unto Jesus Christ, gives the impression that God’s word has failed. An impression which Paul feels compelled to expressedly deny. How does he answer the impression that God’s word has failed? With this paradox: “not all Israelites truly belong to Israel”. Thus, the fact that Paul’s  fleshy kindred failed to attain unto Christ does not negate the word of God, because that word does not pertain, by default, to Paul’s kindred according to the flesh or Abraham’s “children of the flesh”, they are not “true Israel” by default or simply by fleshy descend. Thus if Paul’s fleshy kindred are not by default “true Israel”, then God’s word, which pertains to the true Israel, has not failed.

To strengthen this point about the contrast between Israelites according to the flesh and the true Israel, Paul contrasts the children according to the flesh with the children of the promise with the figures of the two patriarchs and their descendants: Abraham and Isaac. Not all Abraham’s children constitutes the true Israel, there is an allusion here to Ishmael, also Abraham’s child according to the flesh, and yet no heir to the promise simply by virtue of fleshly Abrahamic descend. As such, being of fleshy descend does not necessarily make one a member of true Israel. Rather, it is only the children of the promise, that is Isaac who was both promised and to whom the promise was transmitted, whose descendants would constitute the true Israel, “counted as descendants”. Once this argument is understood, its application to our present argument is quite clear. Just as Ishmael, although also Abraham’s child according to the flesh, is no heir or citizen of true Israel simply by physical descend, likewise now, Paul’s kindred according to the flesh who claim Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as their fleshly forefathers, to whom are given all the gifts and blessings of their forefathers, also do not constitute “true Israel” simply by virtue of a visible heritage.

At this point the conclusion for which St Paul is contending for should be quite evident. He isn’t trying to speak of God’s right to choose one group of people over another group of people, or one corporate body over another corporate body. Paul is arguing about who compose the true Israel. This conclusion doesn’t involve the line of argumentation of choosing one corporate entity over another, as if he was arguing that God has the right to choose the Isaac and his descendants against another corporate entity, Abraham and his descendants. His discussion on Abraham and Isaac, and their children, was to make a very different point, that fleshly descend does not automatically qualify oneself as part of the true people of Israel, and having established this premise, is able to justify the conclusion which he has set out to prove in verse 6, not all who are Israel are truly Israelites.

If Paul’s focus was truly upon God’s right to choose one corporate entity to be Israel as opposed to another corporate entity, the quoted passage would cease to make any sense. Isaac’s descendants are a subset of Abraham’s descendants, it doesn’t make any sense to speak of God electing Isaac’s descendants as opposed to Abraham’s descendants, Isaac’s descendants are Abraham’s descendants! Rather, there is only one elect corporate entity involved here, and that is the True Israel. Paul’s discussion then is about who composes the True Israel, and so far, the argumentation at hand is that fleshly descend does not by default make one a member of the true Israel but rather the promise does. And if we have been following the argument in Romans 4, the children of the promise are those with faith in Jesus Christ who are justified by faith without the works of the law.

The Rejection of Works as a Qualification for One’s Election

After having rejected sheer physical descend as qualifying one as a member of true Israel, Paul goes on to argue in verse 10-13:

Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.”

As it is written,
“I have loved Jacob,
but I have hated Esau.”

It is here where we can see that there are two problems with the corporate reading. It cannot be choosing one corporate entity over against another because as we go down the line the subsequent chosen set is simply a proper subset of the previous chosen one. Suppose we want to maintain that Paul was trying to argue in verse 6-9 that God has called Isaac’s descendants, as a group, as opposed to other groups (although as I have already said this makes no sense because the group opposed, Abraham’s descendants, does include Isaac and his descendants). What sense then would verse 10-13 make which is precisely about rejecting a portion of Isaac’s descendants, that is, Esau as opposed to Jacob? If Isaac’s descendants ex hypothesi is the elect group in verse 6-9, how then can part of that group cease to be elect and another group within that set be the elect group? The referent of the elect group is constantly shifting without rhyme or reason and mangles the flow of the argumentation.

On the other hand, if we maintain the theme of what determines the composition of True Israel, better sense could be made of the argumentative structure. Verse 6-9 rejects mere physical descend as qualifying of being part of True Israel, being “children of the promise”, that is, those who believe in Jesus Christ does. Paul then further explain the manner in which the composition of the Elect True Israel is determined by arguing that, that the purpose of his election might continue, not by works but by his call, God chose Jacob over Esau before they had done any good or evil works. Thus, not even good or bad works has any effect upon qualifying oneself for “election”, but whether one is elect is determined solely by the call of God.

Corporate Personality and the Question of Agency

Before I develop my argument against the corporate reading of this passage on the basis of the agency language explicitly interwoven all over the passage, it will be useful to quote the next chunk from the passage (verse 14-20).

What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!
For he says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.

You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who indeed are you, O man, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?”

My next main objection against the corporate reading will be that it cannot make sense of the use of agency language throughout the passage, especially from verse 10-20. It is all well and good to say that God elects groups or corporate bodies, however the argument becomes difficult when Paul attributing the objects of election with such vivid agency. They act, do good or evil, they will and exert themselves, they have hearts, etc. However, does it make much sense to speak of a corporate entity as choosing, having a heart, willing, etc? In order to make such a language work one has to subscribe to something very much like a “corporate personality”, where groups can be treated like individual persons or agents which can act very much like a person. The corporate personality theory in the Bible was at one time quite popular but has since however fallen into disrepute. Without the corporate personality thesis however, there will be considerable problems with explaining Paul’s emphasis upon the corporation’s agency, or futility of their agency.

Even if we assume somehow that we can interpret both Esau and Jacob as corporate agents, this reading becomes impossible to sustain when it comes to Pharaoh. It is telling that Brian, in the article mentioned above, does not attempt to discuss Pharaoh at all. This is hardly surprising because here we have an individual, whose heart gets hardened, who is the literal object of address, and who is simply not symbolic of the Egyptian people as a whole. The Exodus episode is quite clear that it is Pharaoh’s heart alone, and not the hearts of all Egyptians, which was hardened. And the Exodus episode in fact has some Egyptians themselves leaving Egypt to join the Hebrews when they left. The corporate reading may work on the main patriarchs (even then the emphasis on what they did or did not do before they were born, again agency language, makes it difficult to see how it could fit the corporate reading), but it becomes a complete nonsense when it comes to Pharaoh himself who isn’t a representative or symbolic of the general hardheartedness of all Egyptians.

That’s why also when Brian discusses the “vessel” point he can’t spend too much time except to note in passing that it does not necessarily have to refer to a singular person and could refer to a corporate entity. To be sure it is entirely possible, but mere possibility is not enough, he has to make sense of the argumentation and he can’t because again, too much agency and personality has been interwoven into the argument especially at Romans 9:19. If indeed the emphasis is upon the corporate persons and who is this group making the reply of “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” The Egyptians? Furthermore, if we assume that it is a corporate entity making that reply, that just sounds bizarre, why does a corporate entity want to absolve itself of blame? And what sense could be made of Paul’s response “But who indeed are you, O man, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it?, etc” It is “O man”, not “O people”. If Paul is simply talking about corporate salvation against other corporations who presumably cannot be saved, while leaving it an open question as to whether individual people can freely choose to dissociate and associate with the correct corporate group, why would an individual person bother making such a response about not being able to resist God’s will? And why doesn’t Paul just reply, “No my friend, you can choose to leave Esau (as a corporate group) and join Jacob.” instead of “Who are you to answer back O man?”

As such the corporate reading cannot make sense of the personal agency language and responsibility intricately embedded throughout the argument. The arguments and responses fundamentally assumes that the person of address is an individual person, like Pharaoh, with hearts which can be hardened, who possesses responsibility for their actions which can be abrogated should it seem to be compelled by some sort of divine hardening by God. If those were not the focus of the argumentation, then the exchange and arguments would cease to make any sense.

God’s Sovereign Right to Save Whoever He Pleases 

So far we have been discussing this in largely negative terms of refuting the corporate reading. I will now develop a positive reading of God’s argument by looking at the next set of verses 21-22:

Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction…

It is important to note that Paul doesn’t teach what is known as the “reprobation of the damned” or God actually deliberately preparing for destruction the objects of wrath. We cannot ignore both the “What if”, a hypothetical conditional, as well as the structure of the argumentation which is about what God has the right to do and what is just for him to do, not what he actually did. St Paul response to the objection that if God hardens hearts then we would be “faultless” is met with the rebuke that we have no right to argue or question God’s actions, if God has the right to do whatever he pleases in deciding whether to save or not. This also ties in with verse 14 where Paul asks rhetorically, “What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part?”

I would contend therefore that these arguments about what is just or what God has the right to do, that is, to save or not to save, is to be kept distinct from whether God in fact has chosen to make some of them for destruction. This point I believe is strengthened b verse 21: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?” He doesn’t actually say that that lump has been put to ordinary or special use. He’s just saying that God can do what he likes with that lump. This is why the hypothetical “What if” is very important. He doesn’t actually say that God has prepared vessels of wrath for destruction, he’s just saying that hypothetically God could  have made those vessels of destruction and that he is well within his rights to do so.

To tie in with our earlier discussion, Paul initial arguments were about the composition of the True Israel. Paul excludes both physical descend or being Jews “according to the flesh” as well as works as constitutive for one’s membership into the true Israel. The real point he is driving at is that God has the right to add whoever he likes to the true Israel, and whoever is part of the True Israel is there by the sovereign grace and mercy of God alone independently of physical descend or works.

Conclusion: Gratuitous Calling

It will be fitting to end off this discussion with the next set of quotes from the passage:

…and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

As indeed he says in Hosea,
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ ”

“And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they shall be called children of the living God.”

From the beginning we contended that Paul’s main issue was concerning the composition of True Israel, who is part of this elect body? Who are truly God’s “beloved”, his “people”? His answer is that this composition is determined by the wholly gratuitous calling of God alone to the exclusion of considerations of physical descend or good works. And furthermore, contra the idea that his calling has as its object one group against another, Paul reiterates that this calling occurs regardless of groups, for “us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles”. Thus God’s calling extends beyond any group boundaries and reaches to the individual by his sheer grace alone.

The argument that this passage is dealing with the election of a group or corporation makes no sense simply because it is never clear what group exactly or in particular is being elected. The group in question seems to randomly shift and jump from group to group without rhyme or reason. First it is Isaac, then it is Jacob, then it is… Egypt?

One can say that Paul’s exposition of election and calling is simply an extension of his previous discussion about justification.

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