I’m going to comment on some sections from Brian Abasciano’s online dissertation regarding Paul’s Use of the OT in Rom 9:1-9. I take it that this is now the major Arminian alternative to the Reformed interpretation of Rom 9.
His dissertation has since been published, along with a sequel. The dissertation is focused on Rom 9:1-9, whereas the sequel takes it up through v18.
I haven’t read the sequel. (I wonder how many Arminians have.) However, his dissertation is the programmatic work which lays out his basic interpretive strategies, so I wouldn’t expect the sequel to mark a signal advance over the original argument, but simply extend the original argument. As he himself says:
The insights we have gained through the present study carry implications for virtually every verse in the rest of Romans 9-11. As the introductory and early stages of Paul’s argument, Romans 9:1-9 set an orientation with which to approach the larger passage (357).
I’ll be quoting and commenting what I take to be his major arguments. I won’t bother to transliterate the Greek phrases. You can look that up for yourself.
This presupposition then affects one’s reading of Paul, a presupposition which has often simply been carried overautomatically from individualistic western culture. An individualistic reading of Paul has long been the overwhelmingly dominant approach, until only recently with the appearance of the work of E. P. Sanders and the ensuing “new perspective on Paul.” Sanders’ work helped to usher in a far greater appreciation of the concept of covenant in Paul’s thought resulting in a far greater emphasis on corporate over against individual concerns, particularly concerning the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the Church of Christ. (108-09).
i) I find this odd because it isn’t clear to me who he’s alluding to. To judge by what he says elsewhere, Abasciano is shadowboxing with Calvinism. That seems to be the primary target of his dissertation.
Yet a covenantal orientation is hardly at odds with Calvinism. Calvinism is big on covenant theology.
Lutheranism, with its emphasis on sola fide, might be a better candidate for an “individualistic” reading.
ii) At the same time, the binary antithesis between a corporate orientation and an individualistic orientation is quite simplistic. For groups consist of many subsets. For instance, you could subdivide OT Jews into a group of pious Jews, a group of nominal Jews, and a group of idolatrous Jews.
So if we oppose corporate identity to individual identity, just which corporate entity are we referring to? There’s more than one. Put another way, individuals form groups, and individuals can be grouped together in a variety of different ways, depending on what commonality you wish to isolate. Men, women, priests, elders, tribes, &c. As social beings, human beings form many different, often overlapping associations.
Consider the doctrine of the remnant, which is a group within a group.
First, we must recognize that Paul’s thought was thoroughly covenantal, focused on the fulfillment of the covenant purposes of God in Christ and their consequences for Jews and Gentiles (110).
Paul is best taken as a covenant theologian, which means that the theological concept of covenant is foundational to his theology,8 coloring and directing much of his thought. Paul conceived of the gospel and the events of salvation-history wrought in Christ as the outworking of the covenant between God and Israel described in the Scriptures" (353).
Once again, how does that distinguish Abasciano’s overarching approach from the approach of Gregory Beale, Thomas Schreiner, or O. Palmer Robertson?
Second, for Paul and virtually all Jews (and non-Jews in Mediterranean and Hellenistic culture) of his time, the group was primary and the individual secondary. This is an essential point to grasp for interpretation of Paul and the NT. Modern westerners tend to view social reality in the opposite way: the individual is primary and the group secondary. So the individual is viewed as standing on his own, and corporate concerns are subordinated to individual concerns. One’s view of the group is conditioned by one’s view of the individual so that the group both draws its identity from the individuals in the group and is seen as merely a collection of individuals. But I would contend that Paul’s (and his culture’s) perspective was essentially corporate. The individual was not viewed as standing on her own, but was seen as embedded in the group to which she belonged. Corporate concerns generally took precedence over individual concerns, and when it did not, this was judged as wrong (110).
A statement like this invites so many qualifications and counterexamples that it seems pretty useless. Paul himself is very much the odd man out in Rom 9:1-5. His own people-group regarded him as a renegade Jew. Likewise, the Jewish Christians in Rome were outliers in relation to mainstream Judaism. Cut off from the Jewish community.
Yes, they form alternative communities, but that’s a bottom up process, not a top down process. The Christian movement was a grass roots movement–recruiting individuals. Picking them off here and there.
Applied individually, Christian calling refers to conversion, when one comes to share in the name and attendant blessings of the eschatological messianic community. To be sure, election and its appellation (i.e., calling) have to do with eschatological salvation, which necessarily affects individuals. But both of these divine actions apply first and foremost to the people of God as a group, and then to individuals as members of the elect people.7 Therefore, election and calling are conditional upon faith in Jesus Christ. In traditional theological terminology, Paul’s use of the OT in Romans 9:1-9 argues for an Arminian rather than a Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9, albeit on untraditional grounds (352).
So Abasciano’s version of corporate election is conditional election, where God chooses believers. But that’s essentially individualistic. God isn’t choosing a group. God doesn't make them a group. Rather, God is choosing individuals who implicitly comprise a group (of believers), apart from any action on God’s part What makes them a group isn’t God’s choice or election, but the fact that, as believers, they share something in common.
iii) By contrast, unconditional election radically undercuts individualism, for membership in that group is based on God’s unilateral grace rather than the responsiveness of this or that individual.
What Paul says about Jews, Gentiles, and Christians, whether of their place in God’s plan, or their election, or their salvation, or how they should think or behave, he says from a corporate perspective which views the group as primary and those he speaks about as embedded in the group. These individuals act as members of the group to which they belong, and what happens to them happens by virtue of their membership in the group (112).
i) Well, it’s often true at the historical level that what happens to them individually is bound up with their social identity. For instance, the righteous remnant goes into exile with the apostate majority. They suffer alike.
But does that also apply to “their place in God’s plan, or their election, or their salvation”? Does the group drag down the individual? Take him with them to hell?
Doesn’t God’s plan distinguish the fate of individuals from the fate of groups? Are they conterminous?
ii) I don’t think the corporate perspective is primary. Rather, the divine perspective is primary. Corporate Christian identity is the result of something God does. That’s secondary. The effect of something else. What’s primary is what causes that outcome. What’s primary isn’t corporate election or individual election, but divine election.
Thus, I agree with Wright’s basic approach, which takes Romans 11 to describe the salvation of the Church of Jews and Gentiles in Jesus the Messiah, and to convince a majority Gentile church in conflict over Jew-Gentile issues of a mission which includes—and I would stress, prioritizes—Jews.232 The fact that Paul began his discussion of the whole matter by redefining Israel as those who believe in Jesus Christ (or at least believing Jews) should alert us to the probability that Paul has thus laid the foundation for understanding the salvation of Israel described at the end of the discussion (116).
This raises another issue. Much of the time Abasciano describes the church as the new Israel in ways that seem indistinguishable from a Reformed amillennialist like O. Palmer Robertson–or a New Perspective preterist like. N. T. Wright.
However, many Arminians are also dispensationalists. The Society of Evangelical Arminians has been plugging Abasciano’s work on Rom 9, ever-eager to find a new club to whack Calvinism, but the question is whether his case for an Arminian interpretation of Rom 9 can be extracted from an eschatology and/or ecclesiology which seems to be diametrically opposed to the dispensationalism that many Arminians hold dear.
Paul’s allusions reveal that his calling language speaks of the naming/identification/recognition of God’s covenant people. Even near the end of the chapter Paul is still speaking of calling (9:25-26), where it is crystal clear that he speaks of the naming of God’s people as his sons (350).
For Paul, the divine call is not a gospel summons that irresistibly creates a response of faith and obedience; rather it is a naming of those who are in Christ through faith as his covenant people (352).
i) Abasciano doesn’t spell out why he thinks that’s significant. But, reading between the lines, he apparently imagines that this undercuts the Reformed category of effectual calling. If so, the inference is fallacious.
ii) Apropos (i), effectual calling isn’t dependant on Pauline linguistic usage, as if dogmatic terminology has to match or map onto Biblical terminology. Effectual calling is a theological category based on a range of Biblical data. Based on concepts, not words.
iii) Moreover, there’s no reason to think Paul’s usage in Rom 9 is definitive. That’s just a sampling of Pauline usage. Why assume that Paul’s usage is uniform?
iv) There are Pauline examples where election and calling are clearly predestinarian or “effectual” (e.g. Rom 8:29-30; Eph 1:4; 2 Tim 1:9).
We have observed a dynamic interaction between God’s sovereignty and human will and action in the OT texts that has been suggestive for understanding Paul’s rhetoric. Paul regarded God as both omnipotent (cf. Gen 18:14) and just, one who would never treat the wicked and the righteous indiscriminately. He held a conception of the divine sovereignty that found God to maintain ultimate control while limiting his own determinations to some extent so that he might respond to the free will of his creatures and grant them important roles in the outworking of his cosmic plan of salvation (352).
Paul speaks not of unconditional eternal decrees regarding individual election and salvation, but of the corporate election and naming of God’s people (352).
i) What is that supposed to mean, exactly? Does Abasciano mean Paul doesn’t use the terminology of Reformed scholasticism in Rom 9? Is so, big deal. Arminius uses lots of scholastic terminology you don’t find in Pauline usage, either.
ii) Even if Paul didn’t speak of “eternal” election in Rom 9, the eternal aspect of election can still be a presupposition of Paul’s discussion. Paul doesn’t come to Rom 9 in a vacuum. Paul brings to Rom 9 a Jewish view of God. Take the eternal creator God of Rom 1.
So even if the perspective of Rom 9 is largely focused on redemptive history, that’s not where God first comes into the picture. Paul’s God is responsible for the historical process in the first place. So what God is doing in history reflects back on God’s prehistoric purpose for history.
iii) In addition, Rom 9 comes on the heels of Rom 8:29: “for those whom God chose beforehand, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”
(BTW, when I render proginosko as “choose beforehand,” that’s not a Calvinistic rendering. That’s the definition given in BDAG, 866b.)
That’s what lies behind God’s activity in the patriarchal narratives and the Exodus. Redemptive history is the outworking of that antemundane plan.
And I’m just confining my immediate analysis to Romans. Yet that aspect of Pauline theology is attested in other Pauline writings (e.g. Eph 1).
Paul’s focus on faith in Christ establishes his covenantal theology upon grace, for the divine favor is provided in Christ/the New Covenant and is accessed (Rom 5:2) and maintained freely through faith in Christ. For Paul, grace and faith go hand in hand; faith is what makes effective possession of the promises of God according to grace (Rom 4:16) (355).
This sidesteps the question concerning the source of faith. On Abasciano’s construction, divine grace is ultimately reactionary rather than proactive–responsive to human faith. God makes a gracious promise, but only believers are the beneficiaries of that promise. Which is fine as far as it goes, but what makes them believers in the first place? Does that come naturally to sinners? Or do sinners have a predisposition that’s antithetical to faith (e.g. Rom 8:7; 1 Cor 2:14)? If so, what’s the differential factor? Why are some people believers while others are unbelievers? Does faith originate with the sinner, or does that have an outside source (e.g. 1 Cor 2:13).
While the vocabulary of God’s righteousness is rich and multifaceted, to a significant degree it should be understood covenantally as God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promises. Likewise, the vocabulary of human righteousness should be understood as referring especially (though by no means exclusively) to covenant membership (356).
Here, Abasciano is redefining the traditional Protestant doctrine of justification according to the New Perspective on Paul. Yet, to my knowledge, classical Arminianism reaffirms the traditional Protestant understanding of justification.
If Arminians accept his interpretation of Rom 9, that commits them to the New Perspective on Paul in this respect. Are they aware of that?
To begin with, we have seen that the background of Romans 9:9/Genesis 18:10, 14 identifies the ultimate purpose of Abraham’s covenantal election to be the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to Abraham. In the context of Genesis, God’s promise is to culminate in the blessing of all the nations of the world in Abraham. This is the purpose of Abraham’s election according to Genesis 18:17-19. All of this in turn suggests that the debated phrase h` katV evklogh.n pro, qesij tou/ qeou/ in Romans 9:11 refers to the same purpose of election, 18 found as it is in the Abraham cycle of Genesis to which Paul continues to allude in Romans 9:10-13 (cf. Rom 4 and its concern for inheritance of the Abrahamic promises). Thus, Paul’s use of the Old Testament again steers us away from an individualistic predestinarian reading of Romans 9, now specifically of 9:10-13, and helps us to see that Paul maintains focus upon God’s right to identify whom he will as his covenant people. More specifically, he maintains focus upon God’s plan of including Gentiles in the covenant and the necessary consequence of excluding unbelieving Jews, since faith is the means by which the whole world, Jews and Gentiles, can participate in the covenant and its blessings (357).
Why does Abasciano imagine that a divine plan which includes Gentile believers while excluding Jewish unbelievers is at odds with predestination?
This perspective is confirmed by the fact that 9:10-13 actually supports 9:8, furnishing further substantiation for the contention that it is the children of the promise (rather than the children of the flesh), who believe in Christ and have the Spirit, that are regarded as children of God and covenant seed (357-58).
i) Once again, how is that opposed to predestination?
ii) Moreover, “children of the flesh” represents a classic principle of corporate identity. You are not counted as a discrete individual, but as a member of your clan, tribe, &c. In Abasciano’s own words, “These individuals act as members of the group to which they belong, and what happens to them happens by virtue of their membership in the group.”
From a corporate perspective, we should treat Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Israel and Edom the same way. But, of course, God differentiates.
Hence, Paul’s consideration of the divine decision about Jacob and Esau before they were born applies to the character of Israel’s corporate election and is employed to argue that the fulfillment of God’s purpose/promises to bless the world rests not on human works but on his sovereign freedom to designate whom he will as his covenant people on whatever basis he chooses. Individuals figure into the picture by consequence of their participation or lack thereof in the corporate covenant on the terms God lays down (358).
Which is entirely consistent with predestination.
Surely it would be reading too much into Paul’s observation about the prenatal divine decision about Isaac’s children to contend that he subtly meant to teach that God makes such a decision about each individual concerning his eternal destiny prior to his own birth (358).
Actually, that’s not a “subtle” inference from what Paul says. Rather, that’s fairly overt.
It is better to take Paul’s own cue by paying attention to the interpretation of the observation that he provides: that God’s purpose to save the world is accomplished by an election based not on works, but on God’s own decision about who he will designate as his covenant people. Forlines, 258, is correct to point out that, “The fact that God’s choice of Jacob was made before he was born does not within itself prove that God’s choice was not by works. God in his foreknowledge could have chosen Jacob on the basis of works if He had desired to do so.” Indeed, some have astutely argued that Paul here counters a certain stream of Jewish theology, represented by Philo, Leg. All. 3.88, that took Jacob’s election to have rested on God’s foreknowledge of his deeds (e;rga) (see Dunn, 543; Moo, 583 n. 60). This seems probable, but even if not, it at least shows contemplation of God’s foreknowledge to be a factor in the first century discussion about the basis of election. This suggests that Paul was not arguing that the fact of the prenatal divine decision necessarily proves his conclusion, but that it supports and emphasizes it; his comment provides an interpretation of the event, and the interpretation he provides denies works as a basis of election and highlights God’s freedom in election"(359n20).
i) Yet Paul’s point in 9:11 is that God didn’t take their predisposition into account.
ii) Moreover, Jacob is hardly a paragon of pious faith. In Genesis, Jacob is a conman. I think the reader of the Jacob cycle would rightly conclude that God went out of his way to pick such unpromising material just to prove that the fulfillment of his covenant with Abraham depends on God rather than man. God chooses Jacob in spite of who he’s like, not because of who he’s like.
Jacob is surely a weak link in the chain. It’s only the providential orchestration of events that keeps the line of promise from breaking down at this juncture (and others).
Indeed, Paul’s intertextual use of the concept supports the claim, based on the deduction that the works/calling contrast of 9:12 is equivalent to the familiar Pauline works/faith contrast used earlier in Romans, that its reappearance in 9:12 implies faith as the condition of election in the New Covenant.20 For the divine call is pronounced over those who believe (358).
i) Jacob wasn’t a believer in the womb, so God didn’t elect him on that basis.
ii) Moreover, Jacob was pretty faithless until God put him through a refining process.
iii) Faith is not a condition of election or calling in Rom 8:29-30, which is programmatic for Rom 9.
See esp. our exegesis of Rom 9:7-8 and the discussion of the phrase ta. te,kna th/j evpaggeli,aj and the concept of calling in ch. 4 above. It is significant that the designating call of God spoken of in Rom 4:17 is based on faith, and in the context of establishing the Gentiles as part of Abraham’s covenant seed, “calls the things not existing as existing,” while the indisputably naming call of God in Rom
9:25-26 calls “the one who was not my people, ‘My People’, ” and “sons of the living God,” “and the one not beloved, ‘My Beloved’,” also referring to Gentiles who are said shortly thereafter to attain righteousness by faith" (Rom 9:30).
Similarly, Romans 9:15’s citation of Exodus 33:19 cannot be interpreted as some sort of statement of God’s righteousness in unconditionally electing individuals to salvation or damnation as was common in the past and as is still advocated by a handful of influential commentators. This verse requires a detailed exegesis founded upon the analysis of its Old Testament background which we have provided in chapter three that goes beyond the scope of our present purposes (359).
Actually, it doesn’t. What matters is how the verse functions in Paul’s argument. How does Paul use the verse? Paul’s framework supplies the primary context.
Here we can only make a few suggestive observations. First, Paul’s use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:1-9 urges us to take 9:15 as a statement of God’s merciful character and freedom to determine the basis on which he bestows his mercy, and therefore, who will receive it. Moreover, his mercy in this intertextual context again has to do with covenant and election. In Exodus, God speaks in relation to the question of whether he will again acknowledge Israel as his covenant people. Thus, Paul is again defending God’s right to choose whom he will as his covenant people generally and his righteousness in electing the Church specifically. As for the concept of the hardening of Israel to which Romans 9:15 is directly connected, our examination of Paul’s use of Exodus 32-34 would suggest both a divine judicial hardening rather than a divine prevenient decree and a stress on Israel’s own character and guilt (359-60).
You can’t simply reduce Paul’s use of Exodus to the OT situation, for Paul is taking that back a step further. It’s not that what Paul says is at odds with the original setting. Rather, Paul is going behind the scenes to consider God’s ulterior purpose. What is God’s goal in history?
Paul used this hardening of Israel as an explanation of her unbelief to defend himself against criticisms based on the failure of his mission among Jews in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, again in allusion to Exodus 32-34 (and again, see below). This all touches upon the question of whether in Romans 9-11 Paul presents the hardening of Israel, and therefore God, as the cause of Israel’s unbelief or as the result of it. The data we have been reviewing suggests that the answer is not simply one or the other, but a complex combination of both. First and foremost, Paul’s use of Exodus 32 at this point would suggest that his emphasis is on the guilt of Israel for their own sin and unbelief, and consequent rejection from the covenant under its fatal curse. That is certainly the emphasis of Exodus 32-34, the context of which is all the more significant for Paul’s viewpoint, since he returns to it again when he first addresses the concept of hardening in Romans 9:14-18 (cf. Ex 33:19). But this self-hardening has brought the judgment of God upon Israel, contributing all the more to their sin and unbelief, and naturally leading them to the ultimate apostasy—the rejection of Christ—bringing upon them an even more severe hardening according to the cycle of judicial hardening, without absolutely preventing any from believing (cf. Rom 1:18-32; 11:5, 7-10, 13-14, 23, 30-31). (213).
i) But Paul doesn’t say divine hardening is a response to Israel’s “self-hardening.”
ii) Moreover, Paul isn’t confining himself to the disbelief of the Exodus generation, but Jewish unbelievers in his own time. And Paul tells us in Rom 11 that divine hardening is instrumental to the evangelization of the Gentiles–and subsequent restoration of Israel. Therefore, it can’t be an incidental response to Jewish unbelief. Rather, that is part of God’s grand strategy.
Moreover, Paul argues throughout the passage that God’s judgment and hardening of Israel was for the purpose of mercy to both the Gentiles and the Jews (see esp. 9:22-29; 11:11-32). It would appear that Paul draws this general idea from Exodus 32-34 as he interprets his own ministry through its narrative (216).
In which case divine hardening is the cause of Jewish unbelief rather than the result of Jewish unbelief inasmuch as Jewish unbelief is a premeditated means to an end.
It is also noteworthy that interpreters have found the traditional theological tension between divine sovereignty and human will/action in the interaction between God and his servant Moses in Exodus 32-34.
Keep in mind that Paul doesn’t say there’s a tension between divine and human agency. That’s not an exegetical conclusion. Rather, that’s simply an impression which some interpreters have, because they can’t harmonize the two in their own minds. Paul himself doesn’t indicate that this is a tension in his own thinking.
For that is yet another prominent motif widely recognized in Romans 9-11. Paul’s allusion to a context filled with dynamic interaction between divine and human roles in the plan of salvation would suggest a model for understanding his musings over these issues. Just as the Lord limited his own determinations to some extent by granting to Moses a decisive role in his plan, and to a lesser extent, to Israel herself vis-à-vis the opportunity for repentance, so does he now limit his sovereignty, giving both Paul and Israel (and Gentiles for that matter) decisive roles in the outworking of his plan for the salvation of the world. While God remains in control of the overall direction of everything, he does not determine every minute detail, but responds to the wills and actions of his creatures in general, and Paul and Israel in particular. His sovereignty involves the prerogative to relent of judgment in response to intercession and repentance (217).
i) Abasciano’s statement is ambiguous. What does he mean by “dynamic interaction between divine and human roles in the plan of salvation”?
a) Does he mean humans have a role in the planning stage?
b) Or does he mean humans have a role as a result of the plan?
(a) doesn’t follow from (b). Humans aren’t planners in the plan of salvation. They don’t coauthor the plan with God. God doesn’t solicit their input in the planning phase. After all, they don’t even exist at that stage.
Rather, the plan assigns a role to humans. Their historical role is a result of God’s prehistoric plan.
ii) What does he mean by saying the human participants have a “decisive role” in the outcome? Does he mean, for instance, that the Jews could scuttle God’s plan for the salvation of the gentiles? Does God delegate or relegate the eternal fate of one human being to second parties? Does your salvation or damnation depend on whether another human being is fickle or faithful?
iii) Since, in Rom 9, the Jews are disobedient, wouldn’t we expect their disobedience to sabotage the outworking of God’s plan unless their disobedience is, itself, a planned event which furthers the implementation of the plan?
iv) To say God limits his “determination” is ambiguous. To say that God didn’t implement his plan through direct divine agency doesn’t mean he limits his “determination.” Everything can be predetermined even though God employs second causes to bring that about. On the face of it, Abasciano’s inference is fallacious.
v) The question of how a predestinarian God interacts with rational agents raises issues parallel to how a timeless God interacts with timebound agents. For instance, if a timeless God has a dialogue with a timebound creature, a timeless God will effect a temporal sequence. The human will hear God speak to him before or after the human speaks to God. That doesn’t mean God is literally waiting for the human speaker to finish. Rather, that’s just a special case of how a timeless God effects a chronological order–rather like a director who films a screenplay. In the screenplay, one thing follows another. And the final cut reflects that sequence.
But that doesn’t mean the screenplay is shot in that order. A screenplay is often shot out of sequence, then edited into a chronological sequence.
Likewise, a predestinarian God will relate to human beings on their own level. And this is empirically equivalent to what we find in the Pentateuchal narratives.
Take a boy who hides his father’s car keys. Maybe his father saw where the boy buried the keys. But the father has a conversation with his son. Questions him about the missing car keys. The father already knows the answer. But he wants his son to show him where the keys are buried. He’s using this conversation to draw him out, make him assume responsibility for his actions.
He will feign ignorance. Ask a series of rhetorically leading questions which increasingly reveal the fact that he knew the answer all along. This is not a learning experience for the father, but the son.
vi) Abasciano also needs to show how he distinguishes his hermeneutical approach from a Mormon or neotheist reading.
vii) Keep in mind that Abasciano’s argument marks a tacit shift from exegetical theology to philosophical theology. He’s postulating what must be the case for God to “dynamically interact” with humans. That’s not an exegetical datum. That’s ot something given in the text itself. Rather, that’s a philosophical background consideration.
Nothing wrong with considering background factors, but his position has no antecedent advantage over the philosophical alternatives.