Part 1: In Light of the Cultural context
Romans 9 is probably the most important chapter in the Bible from the perspective of Reformation theology, especially the doctrine of predestination. None other than R.C. Sproul has called Romans 9, “the most significant passage in the New Testament that concerns double predestination.” Calvinists teach that God predestined all those who would be saved apart from faith or foreknowledge of any other human factor, and some Calvinists, such as Sproul, teach that God also actively predestines all who will be condemned, which why it is called double predestination. Calvinists who do no affirm double predestination say that God merely passes over the lost without actively predestining them to damnation. This is the first in a series of articles dealing with the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. I will not focus on the damnation of the wicked, but on the predestination of the righteous. since Romans 9 is so important to this discussion, the following articles will be a detailed exegesis of that chapter.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its importance to Reformation theology, Romans 9 is one of the most debated, and therefore, most misinterpreted passages in the Bible. Therefore, in a discussion of the meaning of a passage such as this, one must take great care to understand its teachings in their proper cultural, historical, and especially, their literary context. I have already covered some of this ground in previous articles on Romans, which may be accessed on my blog page. But the most important information will be repeated in these articles when relevant.
The first three articles will cover culturally, the ancient Near Eastern mind set, which includes what some have called corporate solidarity, historically, the recent exile and return of Jews from Rome, and literarily, Paul’s overall purpose in writing Romans, and how chapter 9 contributes to this purpose. From a hermeneutical point of view, this latter consideration is the most important of the three, and will receive the greatest attention, but before we consider the literary context, we must cover the cultural and historical factors. below is a discussion of the significance of one important, but little understood cultural matter: the ancient Near Eastern concept of corporate personality.
One of the great repeated mistakes interpreters have made over time has been to impose their modern theological constructs upon the ancient text of Scripture. Romans 9 trails few other passages in falling victim to this error. In his discussion of Romans 9, Calvinist commentator Doug Moo affirms the tendency of interpreters to “import the issues of later Christian theology into Paul’s first century text,” asserting: “too easily we read Paul against our own individualistic heritage and miss the corporate concerns of the first century.” It is important we understand these corporate concerns before we endeavor to grasp what was in Paul’s first century mind when he wrote Romans.
The concept of corporate solidarity, or corporate personality, is that the group is more important than the individual. People with this mind-set respond to events and ideas first by thinking about its implications for the group they were a part of, and only later consider how it will affect them as individuals. Thus the importance of a thing is primarily tied up in its relevance to the larger community. Witherington calls this the dyadic personality. He explains that people with the dyadic mind-set derive their identity form the group they are a part of, not from their individualistic traits. This is the mind-set that all ancient Near Eastern peoples, including the biblical authors, shared.
This is quite the opposite of how modern Westerners think. Today in the West, we derive our identity from the things that cause us to stand out from the crowd. In the biblical world, one’s identity was found in the things that made them part of the crowd. Today, we consider it quaint if a person follows in his father’s footsteps by choosing the same profession. In the New Testament world it was considered scandalous if they did not. Today, when a young couple gets married, they go off and begin to live on their own, to start their new lives together. In ancient Israel, the newly married couple continued to live with the husband’s parents, extending the family, not dividing it.
Reading Romans 9 in its cultural context
How does this relate to Romans 9? Rome was part of the West, not the Near East, wasn’t it? Yes, but Paul was not. He was born in Tarsus, in present day Turkey, and was formally trained in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). Also, until a few years before Paul wrote Romans, most of the Christians in the Roman church were Jews, who would have been brought up in the concepts of Judaism, the Torah, and the oral tradition of the Pharisees, which means they too would have held to a corporate solidarity worldview.
In fact, the concept of corporate solidarity shows up at the beginning of Romans 9. In his introductory words, he mentions something that is problematic for most Western readers. Paul states that he would rather wish to be accursed by God in order that his people Israel might receive God’s blessing in his place (v. 3). I am sure that I am not the only person who has read that verse and thought, “Wow, I don’t think I could say that. I love the lost, but I am not willing to give up my salvation for them.” But Paul had no hesitation about saying this because he had a thoroughly developed understanding that the group, Israel, is more important than the individual, Paul. He understood that everything he received from God was his because he is part of the larger group of God’s people, Israel. He was not the autonomous possessor of God’s promises or the individual recipient of sonship or any other benefit that came from his faith in Jesus. No. Referring to Israel, he says: “Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs is the divine glory…and the promises (vv. 4-5). It belonged to him because it belonged to them and he belonged to them. That is why Gentiles can only receive salvation by becoming spiritual children of Abraham (Rom 4:16; Gal 3:29), and why Gentiles can only be included in the promises of God by being grafted into the olive tree that is Israel (Rom 11:17-19).
If we are going to understand Romans 9, we have to come to grips with Paul’s corporate mind-set. The post-Reformation interpretation of Romans has been fraught with anachronistic impositions of modern, Western theological and cultural constructs that have governed their interpretation – constructs that could not have been in Paul’s mind as he wrote. Corporate solidarity is Paul’s default mind-set. Any interpretation that is based on modern cultural constructs and is not in agreement with Paul’s presuppositions and paradigm is immediately suspect. We need to free Paul from our traditions and let him speak for himself. That is the goal of our exegesis of Romans 9 that will appear on this blog in future weeks.
In the interpretation of Romans 9 it is important to understand that Paul thought primarily about the group before the individual, and if we do not properly account for that in our interpretation, we are likely to produce an interpretation that is based on mental constructs that were foreign to the writer of the ancient biblical text. If Romans 9 affords more than one interpretation, then the one that best coincides with this paradigm is probably the correct interpretation. Let us keep this in mind as we continue our study. My next article will concentrate on the historical factors that help us understand why Paul wrote Romans, and how chapter 9 contributes to that purpose.