Navigating Romans 9 Exegetically and Theologically: Part 1

I and a partner are currently teaching through a series on Romans for our church’s Sunday School, and we have recently gone through Romans 9-11.  All of these chapters can be challenging, but Romans 9 in particular is notorious for being one of the most difficult and debated chapters in the Bible.  It is also one of the most, if not the most, important prooftexts for the Calvinist position, and that makes it a hotbed for a lot of disagreement (some Arminians, in turn, claim that Romans 9 proves their position).  I hope to address the chapter here succinctly, carefully, yet civilly, though it will not be possible to address every single issue fully without making these posts absurdly long.

Tackling a chapter like this in an efficient manner is challenging, but I’ll try to lay out my methodology:

-It is widely accepted that 9-11 is one unit, but for space considerations my focus will be on chapter 9.  The other two chapters will be mentioned in passing when helpful.  This will no doubt be a deficiency in these posts, but it is practical.

-Paul uses several Old Testament references that cause a lot of interpretive issues.  My working assumption will be that the original contexts of those references will be helpful to look at because while NT writers may do some new things with OT texts, I don’t think we can say that they changed what they meant to their original audience without seriously jeopardizing the trustworthiness of God’s Word.

-I will focus on what Paul wants to answer and largely assume that he avoids wild tangents.  To see his argument, I think it will be particularly helpful to first focus on both his introduction and his conclusion, similar to how one might get the gist of an academic paper by reading its introduction, scanning its body, and then reading its conclusion.  This helps one see where the author starts and where he plans to end up.  Granted, not all academic papers are written well and coherently, but in this case, I think it is fair to expect the inspired writer Paul to make sense.

-This post will focus on issues regarding the introduction and conclusion, and the next will address the body.

With these things in mind, I’ll begin.

The Start

There is fairly widespread agreement on 9:1-6a that this is the introduction to this section that shows Paul’s sorrow for Israel due to their unbelief and subsequent hardening.  The Israelites had many blessings: The adoption of sons, the covenants, the law, the temple service, and the fathers.  Most importantly, from them came Christ according to the flesh, whom, I take it, Paul identifies as God over all (5).

Given the status of Israel as God’s elect nation, a natural question arises: Why isn’t Israel, as a whole, not saved?  Jesus was a Jew and the first Christians were Jews, but by this time and at this location, it was obvious that the number of Gentile Christians far outstripped the number of Jewish believers.  What happened to God’s promise to Israel as the chosen nation?

This is an important question to answer because up until this point, Paul has said that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation and the righteousness of God revealed (1:1-17), that both Gentiles and Jews are sinners (1:18-3:20), that justification comes by faith (3:21-4:25), that justification means peace, unity in Christ, freedom from the law, and no condemnation in Christ (5:1-8:17), and that nothing can take away the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:18-39).  Such a promise at the end of chapter 8 in light of the gospel is amazing indeed, but why should anyone trust it if God’s promises to Israel seemed to have failed?  There is therefore widespread agreement on Paul’s purpose: Paul is going to defend God’s word to Israel (6a).

This is the question that Paul is answering.  Any interpretation that fails to cohere with this is most likely mistaken.

The Finish

Where there is more disagreement is if 9:30-33 is a proper conclusion for 9:1-29 or if it signals a complete change of perspective.  No one disputes that it is a transition from 9 to 10; the question is if it is a break in Paul’s argument or if it is a somewhat smoother transition than that, concluding the previous section and leading into the next.  This is no small matter; in fact, a significant part of the Reformed case is built on the contention that Paul is shifting gears because 9:30-33 clearly places the blame of Israel’s situation on Israel’s unbelief:

30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone,33 just as it is written,Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”

If this is a more seamless conclusion from 9:1-29, then it would naturally cast doubt on any interpretation that lessens the emphasis on faith.  It is fair to ask why Paul would teach strong double-predestination and/or a Calvinistic view of sovereignty and then conclude that it is Israel’s unbelief that put them in their situation.  This is why most Reformed commentators or preachers argue for a big change here; in the first 29 verses, they argue that Paul was looking at Israel’s situation from the side of divine sovereignty and election (defined in Calvinistic terms), but in 30-33 going into chapter 10, they argue that Paul changes his focus to talk about Israel in terms of human responsibility.  They will often admit that this is “paradoxical” and has “tension,” but they claim that these two truths are “complementary” because obviously Paul had no problem juxtaposing those two ideas.  Examples of this move come from Thomas Schreiner (whose commentary on Romans is very good, by the way), John McArthur, and Leon Morris.

They have several reasons for this, other than the obvious motivation of preserving a Calvinist reading of Romans 9:

  1. Many have argued that Paul’s usage of “What shall we say then” almost always signals a shift to a new subject rather than concluding the previous section.
  2. The subject matter of 9:30-33 goes better with chapter 10 than with the first 29 verses of chapter 9; after all, the original Greek text did not have chapter divisions, so it is fallacious to assume that 9:30-33 should go with the rest of chapter more than chapter 10.
  3. Proper exegesis of 1-29 simply demands a conceptual break.

Answering #3 will have to wait until the next post, though I will point out there that 30-33 of course can have an impact on how one interprets 1-29 as well.  For now, I will address the first two.

What shall we say about “What shall we say then?”

By my count, the exact phrase of “What shall we say then” (ti oun eroumen) happens four times in Romans before chapter 9: In 4:1, 6:1, 7:7, 8:31, though there are many similar constructions as well.  This phrase is also used one other time in Romans 9, in verse 14.  There is little doubt that such a phrase signals a transition, but the question is a matter of degree: Does it first wrap up or conclude thoughts from what comes before, or is it simply moving on to a fairly new subject?

In 4:1, the phrase signals a transition to the topic of Abraham’s faith.  The transition here seems pretty smooth; Paul introduces justification by faith in chapter 3, and Abraham in chapter 4 serves as an illustration of justification by faith before circumcision and the law.  There is no “tension” or paradox here.

At first glance, there seems to be more discontinuity between 6:1 and chapter 5.  However, on closer inspection, Paul states in 5:20 that where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more.  Naturally, that can give rise to attitudes that one may as will sin in order to increase grace (similar to the attitude expressed in 3:8), so Paul addresses that question in chapter 6.  Here as well, there seems to be no tension involved in Paul’s concluding transition.

The reference in 7:7 is a little bit more difficult to figure out, given that chapter 7 in general is a difficult passage.  Once again, Paul seems to want to stave off a potential objection or bad attitude.  In the first six verses, he uses an analogy between being united to another in marriage and being united to the law: Sinful desires were aroused by the law, but those who have died in Christ are no longer bound to the law just as death releases someone from the bonds of marriage.  Thus, Christians are no longer controlled by such sinful desires.  This complicated argument can lead to belief that the law itself is sin, which Paul emphatically denies.  Again, the transition from the previous section does not seem to involve much tension, as it is easy to see why Paul would want to address such a bad conclusion.

In 8:31, it seems fairly clear that the phrase concludes the previous section.  Paul talks about how the Holy Spirit intercedes on behalf of Christians and how all things work together for the good of those who love God.  This is promised to those who belong to God (however you interpret the so-called golden chain, it at least means that much).  Thus, Paul concludes: What then shall we say about these things?  He asks a series of rhetorical questions that emphasize that God is with Christians, and he promises that the love of God that is in Christ Jesus will not be separated from believers.

Thus, contrary to Reformed commentators, it is not at all obvious that the phrase “What then shall we say?” signals a major shift in perspective that should allow for paradox or tension.  Even the use in 9:14, which transitions into addressing a possible objection, is very much tied to the content of what comes before.  In fact, it seems more reasonable to conclude that the phrase gives us more reason to closely connect the content of what comes before with what comes after.  Therefore, Paul’s concluding answer to the possible objection that the word of God failed is to ultimately point to the fact that Israel as a whole did not have faith while the Gentiles did.  Paul then expounds more on faith and the obstinacy of Israel in chapter 10, a fairly smooth transition.

Is there really “tension?”

Some Calvinists may object that my analysis assumes tension between their conception of sovereignty and human responsibility when ultimately there is none in God’s mind.  However, I’m merely going by what Reformed commentators themselves have admitted; on face value, there is tension between their interpretations of chapter 9 and chapter 10.  If anything, Calvinists are often the ones simply assuming that their interpretations are complementary and consistent without much argument.  An apparent tension of course does not automatically mean a contradiction, but it surely demands investigation and argument.  It does not do to note the apparent tension and paradox between chapters 9 and 10 and then simply say, “Well, in God’s mind, they go together cleanly because Paul juxtaposed them.”  Why isn’t this instead a sign that perhaps one or both of their interpretations are a bit off?  In comparing interpretations, one that readily makes more sense without obvious tension, all things being equal, should surely have the advantage.


Of course, Calvinists would not admit that all things are actually equal because they would argue that their exegesis of the rest of Romans 9 is better.  That remains to be seen.  However, while it may seem a bit tedious to go through the exact usages of a phrase in Romans, it is helpful to show that the phrase alone does not justify Calvinists asserting a major, tension-filled shift.  In fact, the use of the phrase tips the scales towards an interpretation that is not Calvinistic due to the content of 9:30-33 and the rest of chapter 10.  For Calvinists to overcome this, they will have to show vastly superior exegesis of 9:6b-29 such that it overcomes this smoother transition between ch. 9 and 10.  I’ll address that in the next post.


2 thoughts on “Navigating Romans 9 Exegetically and Theologically: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Navigating Romans 9 Exegetically and Theologically: Part 2 | leesomniac

  2. Pingback: A Primer on Calvinism | leesomniac

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