A Roman Holiday

Jim Anderson at Decorabillia requests an exegesis of Romans 9. He writes:

On a good day, the apostle Paul writes, “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.” On a bad day, he theodicizes, … [Romans 9:18-24 elided] … We are a hairsbreadth from the transcendent God of Islam, bound only by His own whims, answering to no one but Himself. We are allowed to speculate–and, paradoxically, forced to judge.

To examine this, I’m turning to Douglass Moo’s commentary (which had btw been recommended by Jeremy Pierce’s exhaustive commentary review).

Mr Moo instructs us that these verses can be understood to support God’s election. That is,

According to the typical understanding of Jewish Christians in Paul’s day, salvation history had taken an unexpected turn. Most of the people of Israel to whom the promises of salvation had been given refused to recognize the fulfillment of those promises. At the same time Gentiles, who were considered to be excluded from the covenant, were embracing the one in whom those promises had come to fruition. Paul insists, however, that this turn of events, though unexpected, does not violate the integrity of God’s word and his promises. Paul justifies that claim by showing what God’s word itself says about becoming a member of God’s true spiritual people. If the OT teaches that belonging to physical Israel in itself makes a person a member of God’s true spiritual people, then Paul’s gospel is in jeopardy … Paul therefore argues in vv 6b-29 that belonging to God’s true spiritual people has always been based on God’s gracious and sovereign call and not on ethnic identity. Therefore, God is free to “narrow” the apparent boundaries of election by choosing only some Jews to be saved (vv 6-13; 27-29). He is also free to “expand” the dimensions by choosing Gentiles (vv. 24-26).

To the verses in particular (Romans 9:14-23):

What shall we say then? 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 then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—

These are the verses in which Mr Anderson had particular confusion, and he is not alone. These verses, Mr Moo instructs, are “a detour from the main road of Paul’s argument.” for which he takes a bit of an aside to deal with a few questions, vis a vis “if God decides apart from anything in the human being whom he will choose and whom he will reject (v 13), how can he still be “righteous” (v.14) — and how can he blame people if they reject him (v 19).” Mr Moo then examines some other commenter’s remarks on this. Some suggest that these verses, because of their questionable theodicy. As Mr Anderson’s chief complaint is objecting to the theodicy displayed we might take close note of Mr Moo’s point on this. Mr Moo writes

These criticisms are sometimes the product of a false assumption; that Paul’s justification of the ways of God in his treatment of human beings (his “theodicy”) must meet the standard set by our own assumptions and standards of logic. Paul’s approach is quite different, He considers his theodicy successful if it justifies God’s acts against the standards of his revelation in Scripture (vv 15-18) and his character as Creator (vv 20-23). In other words, the standard by which God must be judged is nothing less and nothing more than God himself. Judged by this standard, Paul contends, God is indeed “just”. Paul does not provide a logically compelling resolution of the two strands of his teaching — God, by his own sovereign choice of their will, must believe in order to be saved. But criticism of the apostle on this score is unfair. It is unfair, first, because Paul can accomplish his purpose — showing God to be just — without such a resolution. And it is unfair, second, because no resolution of this perennial paradox seems possible this side of heaven.

Observations:

While the case I had originally made on this still holds water, that is, that the arguments of Romans are sufficiently involved and complex that pulling a short section out to criticise is dangerous given because one must remain cognizant of context. In this case, the section seems to be a seconday argument to support the idea that the gospel is meant for Gentiles and not just ethnic Jews. That point (the Universality of the Gospel) is not one seriously contested today. On the other hand, it demonstrates, for me, an approach to theodicy that I (in my naivete) had not previously considered, that of judging God’s actions based on the ethical principles demonstrated in His revelation. However, to take that seriously, still one must contemplate on what scale God operates, i.e., do we judge God’s actions as a person or state? However a key item on the theodicy issue not mentioned thus far in our discussions is that of sovereignty. From Juvenal (Sovereignty), when a man (or God) has authority, that authority is obeyed without coercion, because you feel that your obedience is right and owed.

This discussion came up when Mr Anderson questioned the difference between the reasonableness of Christianity as contrasted with Islam by Benedict in his lecture. Benedict had quoted:

Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word,

which is much like Jeremy Pierce had noted last week on the superomnipotence solution to the theodicy problem. It seems Ibn Hazn had resorted to superomnipotence for Allah, but I think that as Mr Pierce noted, aside from Rene Descartes (who while a front rank philosopher, I fear is not a front rank theologian), resort to superomnipotence for theodicy.

7 responses to “A Roman Holiday

  1. Thank you, Mr. Moo, for elucidating the very point I was trying to make: if God is judged by His standards, then “God is good” is pure question-begging.

  2. Jim,
    You question beg on what you percieve as a tautolgy? That is a fine irony from a guy who defends strongly the tautology present in “survivial of the fittest”.

    The demand for self-consistency, i.e., non-superomnipotence is a constraint, even if you deny it or judge it too weak.

    So what is, for you, a satisfactory theodicy? Or is Mr Moo right that this is not likely to be a matter solved without theosis.

  3. Actually, on second read–with the benefit of a night’s rest, and recognition that a line appears to be missing in your quoted passage–I don’t think it’s question-begging. Rather, it merely pushes the problem back–and, as Moo notes, there is no (forthcoming) reasonable solution.

    Before claiming I defend a tautology, I invite you to read John Wilkins on the subject.

  4. Jim,
    Exactly. The claim of tautology in Darwin is very analogous to the complaint that judging God’s individual revelation by comparing it to the rest of the body of his revelation is not empty.

    He considers his theodicy successful if it justifies God’s acts against the standards of his revelation in Scripture (vv 15-18) and his character as Creator (vv 20-23).

    is not empty of content.

    I’m not sure I understand the John Wilkin’s argument. The key point there, I guess, is that fitness is (apparently) understood independent of “that which survives” but some sort of undefined measure of adaptaption. But how else to define adaptation then how well something thrives in its environment? The problem I think is given in his analogy with F=ma (or for that matter 1+1=2). Equality in some sense always implies a tautology. ei * pi=-1 might be surprising, but it is a tautology as well. Everywhere we see one, we can replace it with the other. The tautology is not in the equality (as in F=ma and 1+1=2) (or the “is” in the statement on selection, but in the notion of an independent idea of fitness which is not related to survival.

    Where did you think I dropped a line? I inserted the “…” where I omitted a short bit to truncate the first passsage (but I didn’t think the meaning was lost) and the second seems complete, although it starts in the middle of a paragraph.

    I’m actually getting all confused about the theodicy problem in general. If one took the “set of all possible Gods” and wished to theodicize upon that set, by what criteria might one choose to use?

  5. It’s this phrase that confuses me.

    “God, by his own sovereign choice of their will, must believe in order to be saved.”

    It seems to be missing something.

  6. Pingback: Mere Orthodoxy » Rationalizing the Transcendent

  7. Jim,
    You are right! Here it is in full

    These criticisms are sometimes the product of a false assumption; that Paul’s justification of the ways of God in his treatment of human beings (his “theodicy”) must meet the standard set by our own assumptions and standards of logic. Paul’s approach is quite different, He considers his theodicy successful if it justifies God’s acts against the standards of his revelation in Scripture (vv 15-18) and his character as Creator (vv 20-23). In other words, the standard by which God must be judged is nothing less and nothing more than God himself. Judged by this standard, Paul contends, God is indeed “just”. Paul does not provide a logically compelling resolution of the two strands of his teaching — God, by his own sovereign choice, elects human beings to salvation; human beings, by a responsible choice of their will, must believe in order to be saved. But criticism of the apostle on this score is unfair. It is unfair, first, because Paul can accomplish his purpose — showing God to be just — without such a resolution. And it is unfair, second, because no resolution of this perennial paradox seems possible this side of heaven.

    Sorry. Serves me right for trying to quickly type when the kids are still awake.

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