Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Thielman on Rom 9

I was recently reading Frank Thielman's new commentary on Romans. His analysis of Rom 9 is a mess. I'll quote some representative statements, then comment:

Before the plagues descended on the Egyptians, God told Moses twice that he would "harden" Pharaoh's hear and that as a result Pharaoh would not grant Moses's request to let Israel go into the wilderness to sacrifice to God (Exod 4:21; 7:3). Throughout the subsequent narrative, we read either that Pharaoh "hardened" his heart (8:15,32; 9:34), that Pharaoh's heart "was hardened" (7:13; 8:19; 9:7,35), or that "the Lord hardened" the heart of Pharaoh (9:12; 10:20,27; 11:10; 14:8; cf. 10:1; 14:4). 

The interplay in Exod 4:14 between God's initiative and Pharaoh's initiative is helpful in understanding what Paul meant when he said that God "hardens' certain people such as Pharaoh. Paul believed that God punishes people for their own sin, not that God forced people to sin and then punished them for it. Otherwise, God would be acting nonsensically when he endured the rebellions of the wicked "with much patience" and stretched out his hands in appeal to disobedient Israel (Rom 9:22: 10:21). No patience is necessary for enduring the behavior of people doing what one wants them to do, and a lengthy appeal to people not to do what one has designed them to do is obviously fruitless.

When Paul says here, then, that God "hardens" people he must mean that God justly punishes people who, like Pharaoh (Exod 8:15,32; 9:34) and everyone else (Rom 1:18-3:20; 5:12-19), are already in rebellion against him. God punishes them by calcifying this rebellion, or, to put it another way, he further hardens resistant hearts. This second level of resistance, which God himself initiates, is Paul's concern here, and it corresponds exactly to God's judgment in 1:24,26, and 28 when he hands people over to their lust, dishonorable passion, and worthless thoughts [457-58].

Interpreters of this passage [9:21] often explain the image of God as a potter shaping clay as a reference to God's creation of human beings and his determination of their eternal destinies at creation…Paul does not, therefore, picture God as creating people in order to destroy them but as dealing sovereignly with a body of human beings who, without exception, are sinful. He mercifully saves some but justly punishes others [460]. 

One can describe the idea that God decides who will believe the gospel in a way that makes God not only responsible for the salvation of human beings but also for evil since he seemingly creates certain human beings in order that they might sin and that he might then destroy them for his glory. A variation on this idea depicts God as within his rights even to destroy innocent human beings, if any existed, simply because he created them. 

To read Rom 9:7-23 in these ways, however, is to read the passages in a one-sided way, without the balance provided by the context…The idea that this passage teaches God created people in order to destroy them, moreover, attributes conduct to God that God himself finds sinful in human beings. It depicts God as forcing people to sin and then condemning them for it or, worse, condemning the innocent…But he [Paul] tempers the entire concept with the notion that God endured the vessels of wrath that he made with much patience and by speaking of the fitting out of these vessels in the passive voice (9:22). By doing this, he indicates that one must not misread the illustrations to make God the author of evil and sin. 

Paul's illustration of the potter in 9:19-23, then, is not about God predestining certain people to sin, nor is it about the relationship between the entry of sin into God's creation and God's predestining will. It is instead about God's response to already sinful human beings. 

This does not mean that human sin took God by surprise and was somehow outside the scope of God's original design for the universe. It simply means that the answer to such questions lies beyond human understanding.

[Quoting Bavinck] Sin and its punishment can never as such, and for their own sake, have been willed by God…They can therefore have been willed by God only as a means to a different, better, and greater good…Sin is not itself a good. It only becomes a good inasmuch as, contrary to its own nature, it is compelled by God's omnipotence to advance his honor. It is a good indirectly because, being subdued, constrained, and overcome, it brings out God's greatness, power, and justice. 

God is not willing "that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Pet 3:9) [468-70]. 

1. He overlooks the fact that Exod 4:21 & 7:3 are programmatic for what follows. What follows is a fulfillment what was predicted in 4:21 & 7:3. So it's not just an alternation. Even when Pharaoh is said to harden his heart, that is meant to be understood as the result of God's action, forecast in 4:21 & 7:3.

2. "Was hardened" is a divine passive. That implies God was behind the hardening.

3. Hardening Pharaoh isn't equivalent to punishing Pharaoh. He suffers far less than his hapless subjects. The purpose, rather, is to drag out the process so that more plagues occur, demonstrating the supremacy of Yahweh. 

4. God is patient towards the vessels of wrath, not for their own benefit, but to benefit the vessels of mercy (23). God withholds immediate retribution to extend the process for the sake of the elect. 

5. One might as well say it's fruitless to stretch out his hands to those he hardens (Rom 11:7-8). Why take Rom 10:21 as the  trump card? What makes that more decisive than, say, 11:7-8 in one's overall interpretation? 

6. Rom 10:21 is anthropomorphic. In addition, God's appeals to Israel, mediated by the prophets, is mass communication. It's not to or for everyone indiscriminately. Some will heed the warning while others will not. In particular, the remnant will be responsive. 

7. Yes, hardening applies to sinners. However:

i) Paul uses examples of divine favoritism in 9:11-12 to illustrate the general principle that God doesn't take merit or demerit into account. 

ii) Likewise, God made his choice before they even existed (8:29-30; cf. 11:2). At that stage, they were merely divine ideas. 

8. The passive voice in 9:22 is a divine passive, which indicates divine agency. 

9. The potter/clay metaphor is a creative metaphor. The pot doesn't exist prior to its shaping. And it is shaped for a particular purpose or destiny. That's not after the fact but determines the outcome. 

10. Thielman fails to distinguish between divine responsibility and divine culpability. The former doesn't entail the latter.

11. What does he mean when he denies that God creates some people to "destroy" them? Does he mean to take their life or to damn them? God has the prerogative to take innocent life. That doesn't mean God has the prerogative to damn the innocent. 

12. It's philosophically crude and jejune to equate predestination with God "forcing" people to do things. Force implies resistance on their part. Making them act against their will. But predestination carries no such implication. 

13. "Authorship" of sin and evil is an opaque cipher. A facile intellectual shortcut. 

14. There are philosophically tricky issues regarding how God can be blameless and humans blameworthy for predestined sins. However, that's not a one-sided debate. Some philosophers don't regard libertarian freedom as a necessary condition for blameworthiness. Thielman is operating with unexamined assumptions. 

15. Bavinck's position is different from Thielman's. Bavink introduces key qualifications that are missing in Thielman's formulations. It's odd that Thielman fails to recognize the difference between his own position and the passage from Bavinck he approvingly quotes. 

16. As Richard Bauckham explains in his landmark commentary, 2 Pet 3:9 doesn't refer to humans in general but to God's people in particular. 


  1. "Likewise, God made his choice before they even existed (8:29-30; cf. 11:2). At that stage, they were merely divine ideas. "

    Unpack that a wee bit.

    Are you saying that God's idea of me, AMR, is fluid? That he contemplated variations of AMR, but decided upon the reality now existing: AMR?

    I regularly run across the argument that how could God predestine anyone that did not yet exist, as if temporal existence is the limiting factor upon God's decree. Why should we buy into this tactic?

    1. According to predestination, human beings originate in God's imagination. Rather like how storybook characters originate in the mind of a novelist. God has thought out a complete life-history for each human being, from conception through eternity.

      God then turns that idea, that imaginary person, into an actual conscious embodied agent. An agent who exists in space and time. The real person corresponds to God's exhaustively detailed plan for that individual.

    2. God's idea of you and me includes counterfactual scenarios, but that wasn't the point I was making in my post.

  2. Steve, how have you found Thielman so far other than on Romans 9?
    I've been tossing up between getting him or Schreiner (2nd Ed)

    1. On a related note, you might be interested in Steve's OT and NT bibliography.

    2. Yep I regularly use that as a guide when buying commentaries haha. High praise for the first edition! But I was wondering how well Thielman stacked up as this his first (to my knowledge )
      Seems like a weird interpretation given his commitment to Reformed Theology

    3. * high praise for the first edition of Schreiner

    4. I've been skimming the commentary. Doesn't strike me as exceptional. I expect the 2nd ed. of Schreiner's commentary will be much superior.

    5. Much appreciated. Pre-ordering Schreiner. There seems to be a fair few Romans commentaries out this half of the year

    6. Nobody is talking about Moo though:

      Schreiner and Moo's only let down is their views of NCT and progressive covenantalism.

    7. Moo is a close second.