Perhaps the central flaw in the Reformed reading of Romans – and why it generates such distorted definitions of key theological terms such as ‘wrath’, ‘salvation’, ‘righteousness’, ‘faith’ and ‘gospel’ – is that it sets out from the assumption that Paul is writing about the universal condition of individuals rather than the historical and contingent condition of Israel as a people. So Michael Patton’s post ‘Twelve reasons why Romans 9 is about individual election, not corporate election’ naturally caught my eye when it appeared on my blogroll.
It seems to me that the basic problem with his argument is that it fails to question the polemical polarization of the individual and the group. These are not mutually exclusive categories – indeed, they are both formally and exegetically interdependent. Corporate behaviour is always the product of individual behaviours; individuals always derive identity and behavioural norms from the group. But there are also a number of detailed questions to raise about the specific arguments that are put forward. This has been done in a bit of hurry, and you will need to read Michael’s post to get the point; but perhaps I might also refer people to The Future of the People of God for a more thorough exposition of a properly contextualized narrative-historical reading of Paul’s Letter.
1. The fundamental question that is addressed in Romans 9-11 is: How is God to remain true to his promise to Abraham (9:6-8) when the Jews have become ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’ (9:22)? Wrath in the Old Testament is generally – if not always – directed against nations. The symbols of Jewish identity listed in 9:4-5 are corporate symbols. It may well be the case the Paul is concerned about the ‘security’ of individual believers – not least because they will be required to suffer as individuals. But their security rests on the fact that God has called and will remain faithful to a people. Paul does not talk about the election of ‘nations’: a people has been chosen in Abraham or in Isaac or in Jacob or in Christ and now individuals from the nations are called to be part of that ongoing and redeemed people, but the primary thought of election is corporate.
2. The fact that election begins with individuals is irrelevant. The salient individuals in the story of election are always understood as progenitors of community – the children of Abraham, the offspring of Isaac (9:7), or even the brothers of Jesus, who is the firstborn martyr from the dead (cf. 8:29).
3. The purpose of the reference to the choice of Jacob over Esau before they had done either good or evil (9:10-13) is to reinforce the sovereign calling of God. Michael again confuses the secondary calling of Gentiles (that is, of people from the nations) with the primary election of a people.
4. The singular occurs in the quotation from Ex. 33:19 in 9:15 because in the Exodus passage God is addressing the singular Moses. The quotation serves the purpose of underlining the inalienable sovereignty of God; it has no bearing on whether election is to be understood in individual or corporate terms.
5. The same argument applies for the singular forms in 9:16. The thought is determined by the individual encounter between God and Moses. Michael is quite right to say that it is ‘hard to see national implications at all here’, but Paul is not at this juncture expounding a doctrine of election as such; he is answering the question, ‘Is there injustice on God’s part?’ (9:14).
6. The argument that Paul thinks of election in Romans 9-11 primarily in corporate terms does not preclude the thought that God deals in different ways and for different ends with prominent individuals such as Moses or Pharoah. But these individuals matter because their actions and attitudes determine the destinies of nations.
7. This argument again misses the point. Paul is not speaking about ‘national or corporate election’ in 9:14.
8. Michael’s argument concerning the third person singular (anthestēken) in 9:19 overlooks both the generalizing form of the singular and its relation to the image of the potter in 9:20-21. In the Old Testament the imagery is used to describe the rebellion of Israel as a nation not of individual Jews in isolation from the overarching and determinative behaviour of the people as a whole. The national dimension is reinforced further by the quotations from Hosea and Isaiah in 9:25-29.
9. This argument presupposes the same misunderstanding that was pointed out above. But it is also worth drawing attention to what seems an ironic oversight on Michael’s part. He speaks of an ‘imaginary objector’ who is brought in to ‘challenge the thesis on behalf of an audience’. Precisely. The Jew who puts these questions to Paul does so on behalf of the nation that has rejected the warning of wrath.
10. The fact that the community in Christ has been called from Jews and Gentiles is still compatible with the view that the embracing story of election-judgment-salvation is corporate.
11. The same argument applies here. It is not a case of corporate or individual. If a community is faithful, it is because the individuals who make up that community are faithful.
12. Paul makes reference to Elijah in order to answer the question, ‘Has God rejected his people?’ The seven thousand are a remnant, chosen by grace, through which the continuity of the people is assured. Paul then goes on to say that ‘Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened…’ (11:7). This is a corporate argument. The quotation from Isaiah 29 that follows (‘God gave them a sprit of stupor…’) comes from a prophecy addressed not to individuals but to Jerusalem (Is. 29:1).