Sunday, June 22, 2014

BW3 on Romans

In this post I'm going to evaluate BW3's commentary on Romans with special reference to the predestinarian parts. Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans 2004).

By way of preliminary observations, he seems unaware of Schreiner's commentary on Romans. Given how once of his stated aims is to counter the Reformed exegesis of Romans, that's a damaging omission, inasmuch as Schreiner's commentary is currently the standard Calvinist commentary on Romans.

He still uses the 1979, second edition of BAGD, instead of the 2000, third edition. 

Hous, "whom," at the beginning of v. 29 must refer back to "those who love God," that is, Christians, in v28. The discussion that follows is about the future of believers. Paul is not discussing some mass of unredeemed humanity  out of which God chose some to be among the elect. But what are we to do with hoti, the first word in v29? It seems likely that it means for or because here and is not merely an unimportant connective. If so, then vv29 and 30 will explain why all things work together for the good for believers. This working together for good happens because all along God has a plan for believers (227-28).

That's misleading. What is means is that having referred to believers in v28, Paul then places that in the larger context of God's comprehensive plan. How they came to be believers in the first place, as well as their final destiny. Paul tells the backstory. Having discussed their present status, he goes back a step to describe how they arrived at that point, then charts their future. 

…but this is not how some of the crucial Greek Fathers that came before Augustine read it, including most importantly Chrysostom (228). 

How is that supposed to be significant? To begin with, Paul's analysis is steeped in OT theology. But Greek Fathers like Chrysostom had no special insight into the OT. Moreover, Chrysostom comes to the text with his own presuppositions. 

It is possible that in such a situation Paul wanted to tell believers not how they became Christians in the first place but rather show God always had a plan to get believers to the finish line, working all things together for good, showing them how they will be able to persevere through whatever trials they many face along the way (228).

On that view, God has half a plan. Moreover, even his truncated plan can be thwarted. In that case, God doesn't "work all things together" for their good. 

Dunn, Romans 1-8, p482, argues that the use of "foreknow" here "has in view the more Hebraic understanding of 'knowing' as involving a relationship experienced and acknowledged." This, however, makes no sense. You cannot have a relationship with someone who does not yet exist, and more particularly you cannot have the experience of a relationship that does not yet exist. You can, however, know something in advance without yet experiencing it, and this is what Paul has in mind here. Cf. Acts 26:5; 2 Pet 3:17 (228n25).

Of course, this represents BW3's attempt to preempt the Calvinist interpretation of proginosko. But it suffers from several problems:

i) If he's shadowboxing with Calvinism, why make Dunn his foil? Dunn isn't offering traditional Reformed exegesis of Romans. Dunn is a leading proponent of the New Perspective on Paul. 

ii) Even if his criticism of Dunn is on target, how does that present the Reformed alternative to BW3's Arminian preference? For instance, BDAG renders the verb in this passage: "to choose beforehand" (866b). 

Moreover, BW3's fellow Arminian NT scholar, Brian Abasciano, admits, in a roundabout way, that proginosko means "prior choice" in Rom 8 & 11:

While agreeing that God knows the future, including who will believe, the corporate election perspective would tend to understand the references to foreknowledge in Rom 8:29 and 1 Pet 1:1-2 as referring to a relational prior knowing that amounts to previously acknowledging or recognizing or embracing or choosing people as belonging to God (i.e., in covenant relationship/partnership). The Bible sometimes mentions this type of knowledge, such as when Jesus speaks of those who never truly submit to his lordship: “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt 7:23; cf. Gen 18:19; Jer 1:5; Hos 13:4-5; Amos 3:2; 1 Cor 8:3). On this view, to be chosen according to foreknowledge would mean to be chosen because of the prior election of Christ and the corporate people of God in him. “Those [plural] whom he foreknew” in Rom 8:29 would refer to the Church as a corporate body and their election in Christ as well as their identity as the legitimate continuation of the historic chosen covenant people of God, which individual believers share in by faith-union with Christ and membership in his people. Such a reference is akin to statements in Scripture spoken to Israel about God choosing them in the past (i.e., foreknowing them), an election that the contemporary generation being addressed shared in (e.g., Deut 4:37; 7:6-7; 10:15; 14:2; Isaiah 41:8-9; 44:1-2; Amos 3:2). In every generation, Israel could be said to have been chosen. The Church now shares in that election through Christ, the covenant head and mediator (Rom 11:17-24; Eph 2:11-22).
Back to BW3:

In Paul's use, "foreknow" and "predestine" "do not refer in the first instance to some limitation on our freedom, nor do they refer to some arbitrary decision by God that some creatures are to be denied all chance at salvation. They simply point to the fact that God knows the end to which he will bring his creation, namely redemption, and that the  destiny is firmly set in his purposes" (229, quoting Achtemeier).

i) To say the Reformed reading makes it an "arbitrary decision" is tendentious. 

ii) This interpretation fails to explain how the two actions are related in Paul's argument. But in this passage, Paul says God chose them beforehand. That's a way of saying the choice was up to God. God chose them before they were in a position to have any say in the matter.

But that, by itself, leaves things dangling. Why did God chose them beforehand? Choose them for what? And here, predestination supplies the answer. God didn't choose them beforehand, then leave the outcome hanging in midair. Rather, God chose them beforehand with a particular outcome in view. God's plan for them covers both the starting-point and end-point. Origin and destination. 

One point which Dunn, Romans 1-8, p485, and others seem to have clearly missed is that we continue to have reference to the same hous; once in v29, and three times in v30. The import of this is twofold: (1) Paul is deliberately talking about a group of people–"those who." He does not for instance address individuals, as we saw him doing with the "you " singular in 8.2. Election is seen as a corporate matter. There is an elect group (see below on v33). (2) even more importantly, since vv29-30 must be linked to v28, the "those who" in question are those about whom Paul has already said that they "love God"–Paul makes perfectly clear that he is talking about Christians here. The statement about them loving God precedes and determines how we should read both hous in these verses and the chain of verbs. God knew something in advance about these persons, namely that they would respond to the call of God in love. For such people, God goes all out to make sure that in the end they are fully comfored to the image of Christ. These verses would have had a very different significance had they read "and those God predetermined would love him, he then justified…" But this is not what Paul says or suggests, not least because it does not comport with his theology of the nature of love (229n28).

Several problems:

i) If God chose them because he knew something in advance about them, then BW3 can't drive a wedge between individual election and corporate election, for by his own lights, God chose them on the basis of his foreknowledge that some of them "would respond to the call of God in love." That's irreducibly individualistic. On that view, God chose some, but not others, because some met that personal criterion. That's a discriminating choice. Conditional election, contingent on who would respond to the call of God in love. 

ii) To say God chose a "group of people" is hardly at odds with unconditional election. In Calvinism, God chose a group of people. The elect constitute a group of people. A subgroup in relation to humanity at large. Just as the reprobate constitute a group of people. What makes BW3 imagine that saying God chose a "group of people" is evidence for Arminianism rather than Calvinism? 

iii) You have a "chain of verbs" because God intends the same set of blessings for the same set of people. Group-membership in unconditional election carries with it that package of benefits. 

iv) It's deceptive for BW3 to say "God goes all out to make sure that in the end they are fully conformed to the image of God," for he believes some individuals will drop out of the race before crossing the finish line. Not all who began the race will finish the race.

v) That also makes nonsense of his claim that God chose them on the basis of foreknowing that they would "respond to the call of God in love." For God would also know that some of them would later commit apostasy, after having responded to God's call. 

vi) To say Calvinism doesn't comport with Paul's theology of love begs the question.

vii) To say "the statement about them loving God precedes and determines" how we should read what follows is illogical. That's not a statement about temporal priority. Paul doesn't say they loved God before God chose them. By BW3's own admission, they didn't even exist at this juncture. That's why, even of BW3's construction, it can only have reference to their foreseen responsiveness, not their actual response. Their love did not and could not precede God's choice. 

Moreover, a logical author like Paul can make a statement about the present, then include a flashback to explain how the present situation came about. To say one statement precedes another doesn't mean one fact precedes another.

viii) And why do they love God? Because, as Paul goes on to explain in the same verse, God called them. So the source of their love goes back to God's unilateral and efficacious grace. 

The controversial revolution in Pauline studies that produced the so-called new perspective of the 1970s shifted attention away from the late-medieval soul-searchings and anxieties about salvation, and placed it instead on (in Sander's phrase) the comparison of patterns of religion. It was a self-consciously post-Holocaust project, aimed not least at reminding Paul's readers of his essential Jewishness (244, quoting N. T. Wright).

i) The fact that the NNP is driven by a post-Holocaust agenda raises red flags, for in that event the exegesis is controlled by concerns extraneous to the text. A concern to avoid what is perceived to be an anti-Semitic interpretation. The text is not allowed to mean what Paul intended if that could be construed by some as anti-Semitic. 

ii) Decades before the NPP, Schlatter wrote a commentary on Paul. Schlatter was a Lutheran, but at the same time, very sensitive to the essential Jewishness of Paul. 

OT references to God knowing someone or his people, that is, to his inclination toward or love for them, sometimes refer to a concept of election (Amos 3:2; Deut 9:24; Exod 33:12,17; Gen 18:19; Deut 34:10), and such passages lie in the background here (247).

Which is contrary to how BW3 glosses proginosko in Rom 8:29. 

BW3 then quotes from some Intertestamental literature, as well as rabbinical literature (which postdates the NT). Then summarizes Josephus on the Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. He quotes Josephus saying: 

While the Pharisees hold that all things are brought about by destiny, they do not deprive the human will of its own impulse to do them, it having pleased God that there should be a cooperation and that to the deliberation (of God) about destiny, humans in the case of the one who wills should assent, with virtue or wickedness (248).

That, however, is consistent with compatibilism or deterministic concursus. 

The relevance of Pharisaism for what Paul says should be clear. He was a Pharisee before his Damascus Road experience, and he affirms both God's foreknowledge, his destining of some things, and human responsibility for sin and the awful possibility of radical rebellion against God by a believer, namely apostasy...He stands directly in the line of the early Jewish discussion by affirming that in the most important matter of all–one's salvation and the possibility of virtuous behavior, humans must respond to the initiative of grace freely, and continue to do so freely after initially becoming a new creature in Christ. The divine and human wills are both involved in such matters (248).

i) Why should Paul's training as a Pharisee supply the frame of reference? Just a page earlier, BW3 admitted that Paul has "reenvisioned whatever he believed as a non-Christian Jew about such matters in the light of Christ…" (247). 

ii) If Paul's views of predestination and providence simply copy what he was taught as a Pharisee, then aren't his theological views a historical accident? Had he been trained by the Essenes, he'd be a strict predestinarian. Had he been trained by the Sadducees, he'd be a libertarian. If his theology mirrors the particular school of Judaism in which he happened to be indoctrinated, isn't it a flip of the coin whether or not his theology is correct?

In principle, a Calvinist could say Paul's theology was in some degree socially conditioned. God, in his meticulous providence, conditioned Paul to believe the right things by providentially prearranging events in his life to bring into into contact with influences which coincidentally select for true beliefs. But BW3 can't very well avail himself of that deterministic explanation. 

iii) Finally, BW3 begs the question by asserting that predestination is inconsistent with apostasy, human responsibility, responsiveness to grace, the involvement of the human will, &c. 

So when Paul is referring to the hardening of some, he is not talking about eternal damnation. He is talking about a process in history that is temporal and temporary (253).

i) BW3 erects a false dichotomy between salvation and a process of history.

ii) It's true that hardening, per se, is not synonymous with reprobation. That depends on the divine aim. To what end does God harden individuals? Whether or not hardening results in damnation depends on the context. 

iii) To say hardening, if temporary, is not about eternal damnation is logically confused. Sinners are mortal. We have a temporary lifespan. If an individual dies in a state of impenitent unbelief because God hardened him, that individual is doomed. Even if hardening is temporary, that's too late for the divinely hardened sinner who died an unbeliever. Death seals his fate. 

Hardening needn't be eternal to result in eternal damnation. A temporary cause can have a permanent effect. If you strangle someone to death, you don't continue to strangle him after he expires. You don't need to. 

iv) BW3 fails to distinguish between temporary hardening in reference to individuals and temporary hardening in reference to generations. If God temporarily hardens an individual, that might leave room for the individual's salvation–if God ceases to harden him before he dies.

If God's hardening is transgenerationally temporary, in the sense that he hardened the former generation, but not a later generation, his cessation is too late to benefit the former generation. That generation was doomed. Death is destiny. 

Of course, BW3 may not believe that's how God actually operates. My immediate point is that his argument is illogical as it stands.

But Esau's historical role, however determined by God, does not mean that God cursed Esau and damned him for eternity. As the OT context of the saying "Jacob I loved and Esau I hated" (Mal 1:2-3) shows, the subject there is two nations, not two individuals… (253).

i) To begin with, the determinative context isn't Malachi, but how Malachi functions in Paul's argument. 

ii) In Rom 9-11, Paul is using individuals as archetypal examples to illustrate general principles. How God dealt with Jacob, Esau, Pharaoh, et al., furnishes an exemplary principle: God's modus operandi. Even if Esau or Pharaoh weren't damned, that misses the point. For Paul is using them to typify reprobation.

Mind you, as an idolater and polytheist, it's almost assuredly the case that Pharaoh was hellbound. But that's inessential to the Reformed interpretation. 

iii) Rom 9-11 is about the salvation or damnation of Jews and Gentiles: 

It is too seldom noticed that the concept of the righteous remnant is used to further the discussion of God's historical purposes, and in particular his purposes to produce a Jewish messianic figure to save the world. The concern is not with a saved group of Israelites as opposed to a permanently non-elect group of Israelites, for Paul will go on to say that even those Jews temporarily and temporally broken off from the chosen people can and will be regrafted (254).

i) Once again, that's fatally equivocal, for it it would only be hold true if the same set of people are broken off and then regrafted. If, however, Paul is referring to diachronic generations rather than changes within the lives of individuals, then you do have unsaved groups.

ii) Since BW3 espouses conditional election, contingent on God's foresight of individual responsiveness, then in what sense would individuals be temporarily non-elect? If God chose them ahead of time, based on his prescience, then how could there be a time when they were non-elect? On those grounds, their elect status ought to be static. 

Election, insofar as the creation of a people is involved, is largely a corporate thing–it is "in Israel" or "in Christ," but the means of getting in is by faith (255).

i) But if the means of getting in is by faith, then election is primarily individual and secondarily corporate. Corporate election is the end-result of individual choice. 

ii) BTW, to say election is "in Christ" is by no means at odds with unconditional election. Rather, it means God chose who would be redeemed by Christ. Election is coordinated with redemption. Only the elect are redeemed (and renewed). By the Father's will, the elect are saved in union with Christ, who dies in their stead. His sacrificial death atones for the sin of the elect. It is for their benefit, and their's alone. 

BW3 routinely fails to grasp the nature of the alternative position he opposes. 

Election is in Israel in the first instance, and then in Christ (256).

It isn't clear what that's supposed to mean. Is BW3 referring to a historical sequence? Election in Israel and election in Christ don't range along the same continuum. That confuses the historical election of Israelites with the eternal election of heavenbound Jews and gentiles. 

It is not some abstract or inscrutable will of God that lurks behind the revealed will of God, for God's will and heart are truly revealed in Christ. Whatever is not known about God must comport with what God has revealed to the world in Christ. Thus it is not helpful to talk about pretemporal eternal decrees by God, unless one is talking about what God decreed about and for his Son, the chosen and destined one (256).

i) Predestination is a revealed truth. Election and reprobation are revealed truths.

ii) Who God has elected or reprobated is not a matter of public knowledge. But we could say the same thing about divine omniscience. 

iii) God's providence is often inscrutable, even though providence is manifested in the public domain. 

iv) Scripture doesn't say Christ is the Elect One. 

v) Scripture does refer to "pretemporal eternal decrees" in reference to who's saved and who's lost

Nothing is said about Pharaoh's eternal state (265).

This is one of BW3's persistent confusions. The Reformed interpretation doesn't require Pharaoh to be reprobate. Rather, it's a question of his emblematic significance in Paul's argument. What he and others represent

If Israel is any analogy, then "hardening" does not mean damning. It involves a temporary action of limited duration. The point of this discussion in any case is to deal with the fate and condition of Israel, not Pharaoh. How does one explain the Jews' rejection of their Messiah? What hope do they still have? Thus far Paul has talked about predestination of two groups–Christians in ch. 8 and Israel in ch. 9. Israel was destined to stumble so that Gentiles might rise, but also so that all might rise up by the grace of God. This destining is not to heaven or hell, but for God's  historical purposes, as was the case with Pharaoh (256-57).

BW3 is so shortsighted. A hardening of "limited duration" is sufficient to damn an individual who dies in that forlorn condition. What about the Jewish rejection of Christ? That's a salvation issue. If a Jew rejects the Messiah, and he dies in that condition, his eternal destiny is settled. 

BW3 chronically fails to distinguish between Jewish unbelievers and Jews as a people-group. Every few generations, there's a compete turnover. Some die while others are born. Although there is always a Jewish people-group, the composition is in a state of constant flux. 

Even if Paul teaches a future in-gathering of the Jews, that's too late to benefit his 1C contemporaries. They died and went to heaven or hell centuries ago. BW3 is reading this text 2000 after it was written. Most Jews continue to reject Jesus throughout church history, up until now–in addition to the Jews in Paul's own time. 

Vv 22 and 23 belong together and may seem particularly harsh. Paul is in the middle of using Jeremiah's metaphor (Jer 18:6) about the potter and the clay to discuss the relationship of God to his creatures (257).
The reader who recognizes the allusion will not slip into the error of seeing 9:14-29 as an excursus on the doctrine of the predestination of individuals to salvation or damnation, because the prophetic subtexts keep the concern with which the chapter began–the fate of Israel–in sharp focus (257n43, quoting Richard Hays).

i) In Rom 9, the source of Paul's metaphor isn't confined to Jeremiah.

ii) More to the point, metaphors don't have a fixed significance. From an exegetical standpoint, the question at issue is not how Jeremiah uses the metaphor, but how Paul uses the metaphor.

It is difficult to imagine Paul saying that God endured the vessels of wrath because he wanted to show forth his wrath (257).

How is that difficult to imagine? If the vessels of wrath serve as an object lesson, we'd expect God to preserve them for however long is needed to illustrate that lesson. 

Furthermore, it is not said that the vessels of mercy are destined for glory beforehand, but that they are prepared for glory beforehand. So the subject is not some pretemporal determination, but rather what ch. 8 has referred to–namely that God did always plan for believers to be conformed to the image of his Son…Thus, Paul would be alluding to the process of sanctification here, which has a pretemporal plan behind it (258-59).

i) This assumes that Paul isn't using "prepared beforehand" as a synonym for predestined. On the face of it, they seem to be interchangeable concepts. 

ii) While such preparation includes sanctification, there's no reason to confine it to sanctification.

iii) BW3 arbitrarily differentiates a "pretemporal plan" from "pretemporal determination," without bothering to explain how he thinks they differ, or–more importantly–showing that Paul would accept his distinction. He doesn't exegete that distinction from Pauline usage. 

iv) Since he thinks believers can commit apostasy, what does God's plan for them amount to? 

Furthermore, as Eph 2:3-4 makes quite evident, someone can start out as a vessel of wrath and later become a child of God by grace through faith (259).

i) He needs to show that the context of Eph 2:3-4 is comparable to Rom 9.

ii) Paul doesn't use the potter/clay metaphor in Eph 2:3-4.

ii) In addition, if predestination is pretemporal, then the result will be a delayed effect. BW3 fails to distinguish between a timeless cause and when that's effected in time. 

Foreknowledge [11:2] does not mean foreordination to salvation, clearly enough, unless one assumes that in 11:26 Paul is predicting the salvation of every Jew who ever existed (265).

i) That takes for granted BW3's interpretation of 11:26. To begin with, the meaning of that verse is notoriously disputed. Based, moreover, on OT usage, "all Israel" frequently has a representative scope. In context, it probably denotes the remnant (either a collective remnant or an endtime remnant).

ii) Since proginosko here functions as an antonym for "rejected," the elective sense (chosen beforehand) is hard to avoid. And it can't refer to national election at this stage of redemptive history, for the national election of Israel had already served its purpose by the time Paul wrote Romans. 


  1. Thank you Steve, this was a great review. I was wondering if you would also do a critique of BW3's take on similar passages in Acts, like 13:48. Or does he tread the same kind of ground as in Romans?

  2. In his commentary on Acts, BW3 says of this verse: "Throughout Acts we have seen Luke's emphasis on God's plan and sovereign hand guiding the circumstances in the life of Jesus and then in the life of the church, and here we are told that the Gentiles who came to faith were already within God's predetermined plan. This is certainly as strong a statement about predestination as one finds in Luke-Acts" (416).

    He then quotes Barrett's commentary (on Acts) in a footnote: "The present verse is as unqualified a statement of absolute is found anywhere in the NT" (416n242).

  3. Thank you for that. That's quite a bit more frank than I was expecting from Witherington, to be honest.

  4. Witherington has a history of pretending Calvinism amounts to hard determinism. It's as if he hasn't bothered to spend any time figuring out what Calvinists actually believe. It's as if he doesn't want to admit that Calvinists are really much closer to his own view of exhaustive providential libertarianism than he would like. It's so strange that he's got so much more animosity toward Calvinists and complementarianism than he does for various heretical or liberal fringe views that he clearly disagrees with. I've never been sure what to make of that. He's usually very fair to people in that category but is virtually never fair to Calvinists or complementarians.