Romans 9 Exegesis: Who are Paul’s People in 9:1-13?

Individuals or nations?
In determining whether Paul teaches unconditional election in Romans 9, there may not be a more important question than this: Is Paul in verses 1-13 talking about individuals or nations? Most Arminians believe Paul is talking about nations, but all Calvinists interpret Romans 9 as a discussion of individual salvation by God’s sovereign election.

In order to take this view, Calvinists must view Paul’s own interpretation of Scripture with some suspicion. Today, almost all conservative interpreters agree that correct exegesis of Scripture centers in interpreting the text according to the author’s original intent. This is one of, if not the single greatest tenet of the grammatical-historical method of biblical exegesis. But in order to interpret Rom 9:6-13 to be referring to individuals, it is necessary for Calvinists to accuse Paul of taking Scripture out of context. Moo is forthright about this:

“If Paul applies Old Testament texts according to their original intent, the Calvinists’ appeal to Romans 9 is undercut and perhaps excluded altogether.”

Moo’s solution to this problem is simple “Paul does not always apply his Old Testament quotations in accordance with their original intent.” Although Piper argues that Romans 9:1-13 is about God’s election of individuals to salvation, he grants that the OT texts Paul uses do not teach the salvation of individuals. How does Piper justify Paul’s misuse of Scripture?

“How else could Paul have argued from the OT for the principle of God’s freedom in election, since the eternal salvation of the individual as Paul teaches it is almost never the subject of discussion in the OT?”

It should be understood that when Piper says, “as Paul teaches it” he means, “as Calvinists interpret Paul to teach it.” The salvation of individuals is discussed in the OT, just not the Calvinist version of it. Apparently, it has not occurred to Piper that if the OT does not teach Calvinist predestination, then maybe that is not what Paul is trying to teach in Romans 9, and maybe that means Calvinist predestination is not a biblical doctrine, after all. Instead, he claims that Paul is teaching something that is not found in the OT, and to get around this dilemma, he takes Scriptures out of context in order to find OT support for his doctrine. This is problematic on many levels, not the least of which is the challenge to the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture that this poses. Not only are Paul’s quotations of OT texts in the inspired letters, but also some of his interpretations of them. If they are faulty, then so is the New Testament. If Calvinists wish to say that Paul applies an OT text out of context, it is incumbent upon them to show how this is still a valid use of Scripture.

Is it not better to accept that Paul’s use of Scripture is indeed according to the context and teaching of the Old Testament verses he cites? Is this a difficult position to maintain and still remain true to the context and flow of Romans 9? After all, Paul was an expert in Hebrew and Aramaic and a master exegete.

The key text in play is Rom 9:13, which is a direct quotation of Mal 1:2-3: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” It is obvious that in Malachi the referents are not individuals, but the nations of Israel and Edom. Each nation consists of the direct descendants of the individuals named, and thus the nations can be referred to by reference to their founding fathers. Because Calvinists teach that Romans 9:6-13 is about the salvation and damnation of individuals, they claim that Paul wrests the passage from its context and applies it in a way that is not in accordance with the original intent of Malachi when he wrote it.

Connecting 9:6-13 to verses 1-5
Most Arminians argue that the context and original intent of Malachi confirm that Paul is referring not to the individuals, Jacob and Esau, but to the respective nations they founded when he discusses them in Rom 9:13. Piper says such an interpretation violates the context of Romans 9:1-5, in which Paul grieves, wishing that he could be accursed, “for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (9:3b-4a). Arminians argue that Paul’s reference to the nation’s plight refers to the forfeiture of the nation’s theocratic privileges and the loss of her historic role in God’s grand plan. But Piper says these verses are about individuals within Israel, not the nation as a whole: “Paul is not moved to constant grief (9:2) because corporate Israel has forfeited her non-salvific ‘theocratic privileges’ while another people (the church or the remnant) has taken over this ‘historical role.'” Rather, he states, it is because “many individual Israelites…are damned in their unbelief.” He concludes, “therefore the solution which Rom 9:6-13 develops in response to this problem, must address the issue of individual, eternal salvation.”

In my article on cultural context I demonstrated that Paul was dyadic in his thinking, meaning his default position was to think of the group first, and only secondarily of the individual. This is the exact reverse of almost every modern Western mind, including Piper’s. He makes it sound ludicrous that Paul would grieve so much over the nation’s plight if it referred to anything less than their individual salvation. But even a Western, individualistic American living overseas would have grieved if, for example, in the 1980s the Soviet Union had obliterated the United States with nuclear warheads, ending the American dream, the Constitution, and everything else that pertained to the nation’s privileges and historic role. Sure, people would grieve over the loss of life, but they would also grieve over the loss of America. How much more would a dyadic thinker, whose very identity is wrapped up in what it means to be a Jew, grieve not merely over the loss of souls, but also over the loss of his nation, that has failed to fulfill her historic role, especially when that role includes the salvation not only of the Jewish people, but as Paul will argue, of the entire world?

I agree with Piper against many Arminians that the eternal fate of the people is in Paul’s mind when he confesses his grieving heart. But that does not mean he is only thinking of them as so many individual lost souls. He still is thinking with his dyadic mind set and grieving over the total loss of the nation of Israel: her loss of theocratic privileges and the forfeiture of her historic role, but with that also comes the inevitable result that there is also the loss of millions of souls who have rejected Jesus and now will not be saved.

The issue of disagreement is not one of emphasis, as if Piper emphasizes individual salvation over national privileges and historic role. Piper denies that Paul even refers to the latter, confining the argument simply to individual salvation. he must do this because his argument stands or falls on this section being about individuals, not nations. But Piper’s interpretation does not explain why Paul takes so much time in chapter 11 delineating Israel’s historic role in God’s plan of salvation, with references to Israel as a national whole, not as so many individual souls (see 11:11-15, 25-32).

Arminians go too far when they argue that salvation is not part of the picture when Paul discusses the benefits of the nation of Israel. If that were the case, then why does Paul climax his argument with, “all Israel will be saved”? But Calvinists go too far when they deny that the privileges and historical role of the nation is not in view, but only eternal salvation. If that were so, then why would Paul take the time to list eight specific theocratic privileges that define Israel’s historic role in verses 4-5, none of which include eternal salvation? The simple fact is Paul discusses the condition of Israel as a nation in order to explain how she could fail to fulfill her role without God’s promises also failing. The clear implication of these promises is that they entail salvation, but spiritual salvation of individual souls is not the topic; the fulfillment of God’s promises is.

Paul was a gifted exegete whose extant interpretations of Scripture are not only reliable, but inspired and inerrant. If taking Scripture out of context is the only explanation of our theology, we might consider altering our theology before we charge Paul with misusing Scripture. Nevertheless, John Piper does not reject the Arminian interpretation of Romans 9:1-5 because his Western mind cannot wrap itself around Paul’s concern for the nation as a whole and her historic and salvific privileges, though I believe that is a factor. He has an exegetical argument that he claims supports his argument that verses 1-5 refer to individuals, not nations. In my next article we will address Piper’s argument and propose an alternative interpretation, one that makes better sense of the context of Romans 9 and of the overall context of Romans than the one Piper presents.


2 comments on “Romans 9 Exegesis: Who are Paul’s People in 9:1-13?

  1. Excellent thoughts on a age-old debate!

    Your comments about how Arminians & Calvinists “go too far” are a necessary contribution to what is most often a winner take all approach by both sides. Perhaps some kind of divinely intended paradox is intended here?

    Question for you with a preface: While I agree with your key point about the Malachi context of Paul’s quote (national & not individual), what do you make of the fact that, in seemingly every case when the NT quotes the OT, it spiritualizes and/or tweaks the original context? The classic e.g. is the Mt. 2:15 use of Hos. 11:1. In Hosea the subject is the nation of Israel (“son”); in Matthew the “son” is applied to Jesus. So here we have an example of an OT national context being applied to an individual in the NT.

    What say you?


    Paul Spurlock

    • Paul, thanks for your comments. In Matthew 2:15 Matthew is presenting Messiah Jesus as the embodiment of Israel. The messiah fulfills the experiences of Israel as its representative. As such he had to be tempted, baptized, and even go to Egypt. Jesus is “fulfilling” historical experiences of Israel, not direct prophecies. It is a typological fulfillment, and is just what Jews in the first century would have expected of the messiah.

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