Tuesday, November 29, 2011

J.P. Holding, Unconditional Election, Middle Knowledge (Part II)

Abridged Exegesis in Romans 9

Holding contends that Romans 9 should best be understood in terms of the rubric of primary causality. Holding then tells us that we should not expect to find the answer to the objection that he is reading into the text something that is not there. He then explains this away with an obscure reference to Paul’s high-context Hebrew mind versus our low-context western mind. Holding then contends that the Hebrew would have no interest in issues of free will and predestination. I wonder how Holding reconciles this with the fact that Paul was a Roman citizen writing to a Roman church that had a predominantly Gentile composition with a Jewish minority. Yes, Paul was treating an issue that was closely related to Hebrew thought, but he was doing so in a predominantly non-Jewish culture. Holding then parades out something he calls “block logic.” First of all, Wilson (Holdings source for this block logic) is an ecumenist and a staunch anti-Calvinist. Therefore, it is clear that he comes to this subject with a specific axe to grind. He wants to flatten the distinction between the church and the synagogue on the one hand, and take a swipe at Calvinistic theology on the other. I am amused at how quickly Holding is ready to dispense with logic where it suits his purpose and to use it in other cases where it equally suits his purpose. This is consistent incoherence at least. He does the same sort of thing in hermeneutics. If one examines Wilson’s supposed evidence from Scripture in support of his “block logic” thesis, they find a radically contorted interpretations of the biblical text. It follows that if Wilson’s theory around “block logic” fails, then Holdings argument again falls short.

To demonstrate Wilson’s fallacious understanding of Hebrew block logic, we will look at a minimum number of examples. These are texts that Wilson’s claims are paradoxical in nature. The question is are they really paradoxical or are they something else?

1. The book of Exodus where Pharaoh hardens his heart and God also hardens Pharaohs heart. Wilson would contend these two units of thought are both true but appear to contradict one another. Therefore he concludes the Hebrew thought process would not be so ready to worry about such apparent contradictions due to how the Hebrew mind thought. However, this simply does not hold. There are two perspectives here: God’s perspective and man’s perspective. We see Pharaoh hardening his heart in fulfillment of God hardening His heart. Moses was told clearly that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart.

2. The prophets teach that God is wrathful and merciful. This is a fascinating assertion. How is this a paradox? God can be wrathful and merciful. He can even pour out wrath while showing mercy at the same time. David is a perfect example. He could have killed David, Bethsheba, and the baby. He did not. He executed wrath, tempered with mercy.

3. Wilson considers Jesus’ description as Lion and Lamb as a paradox. This is only true if one insists on a silly wooden interpretation of clearly metaphorical language.

Mr. Wilson is a gentile attempting to get into the Jewish mind. He does not bring some internal insight that any other gentile might be lacking. There are a number of examples like the ones above, some of them more absurd, some not as absurd. Clearly, Hebrew block logic is in no way a satisfactory answer to what is taking place in Romans 9. There are no apparent contradictions in Romans 9. The apparent contradiction only exists if you concede the Pelagian idea that ‘ought’ requires ability. We reject such Pelagian nonsense. That issue has been thoroughly treated repeatedly and Holding has the burden of demonstrating why we should side with Pelagius against Augustine on the matter.

We begin our shortened exegesis at Romans 9:9 with the epexegetical preposition “for.” The concern has to do with the question of failure as it regards God’s promise. Any question regarding the failure or not of God’s promise is a question concerning God’s sovereignty. Paul clarifies the promise of God in v. 9. He indelibly ties the promise to Sarah with the promise to Rebekah who conceived Jacob and Esau. Paul attaches again the epexegetical “for” in v. 11 as he gives the basis for his selection of the individuals to begin with. “For though the twins were not yet born and had done anything good or bad” hearkens back to v. 8. The children of the flesh bring to mind Ishmael. There was nothing in Abraham that God should have chosen him. There is nothing in Isaac that God should have chosen him. The whole point is that it was not the child, or anything about the child, but the promise and everything about the promise. Israel had a very rich heritage, having been God’s chosen people. The temptation to boast and think that there was something about the nation would naturally have been great. Paul spends considerable time pointing out that it was the promise. Moreover, it wasn’t just a promise, but it was a specific promise of a sovereign God that helps us understand the present circumstances in which we find ourselves. This is exactly where Paul brings us back to in v. 11. It was not the children of flesh, it isn’t Abraham, it isn’t Isaac. Moreover it isn’t Jacob or Esau which is why Paul goes out of his way to say the twins were born of one seed. There was no material difference in these boys. Moreover, there was nothing in their character or actions because they had not even been born when God chose.

What was it then? Why Jacob and not Esau? At a minimum, we see Paul going to great detail to trace his argument and even anticipate potential responses from reason. The purpose clause “so that God’s purpose according to His plan would stand” would ordinarily follow the clause it modifies. If we reconstruct the statements, it makes for smoother reading: for though the twins were not yet born and had not done good or bad, it was said to her, The older will serve the younger so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls. Just as it is written, Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated. We simply moved the sentence that the hina clause modifies in front of the hina clause which helps give the text a smoother reading in English. The focal point is not man, it is not Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Esau. The focal point is God’s choice. It is God’s promise. It is God’s sovereignty.

V. 14 then provides us with a very logical and easily anticipated objection to Paul’s argument. The Greek, “What then shall we say?” “No unrighteousness with God?” If you can read Paul’s argument and feel this very tension, you have read Paul rightly! Good job. You are on the right track. How does Paul answer this question of fairness? He gives the strongest Greek negation possible! Me Genoito! Absolutely not! Unthinkable, unimaginable is Paul’s response. One would expect Paul to explain why not! And he proceeds to do exactly this! He does not let the tension stand. Perhaps for the Pelagian and Arminian he allows the tension to stand. But for those who are not afraid to accept the truth of Romans 9, Paul explains how this works. “For” he says to Moses! Another explanatory preposition! Again, there is nothing generic about Paul’s argument. He is going to great lengths to explain his position and help the church understand how sovereignty, election, and responsibility work. The answer is that it is entirely God’s prerogative to have mercy on whom he wills to have mercy. God selects Jacob for reasons known only to Himself. The objection is made! God answers by saying election, mercy, grace, whatever the case may be, is my prerogative. I will extend it to whomever I desire. Even in the face of the client-patron relationship, God introduces a new concept. Mercy is something I will extend by my own sovereign choice. The Greek “hara” is a logical inference conjunction. This is a resultant clause inferred from Paul’s answer. The NAS translates it “so then.” It means, consequently then, or as a result of this then…” It does not depend on the man, but rather on God. It does not depend on willing men nor on acting men or men’s actions or wills, but rather on God who chooses to exercise His freedom to chose and elect so that his choice according to his purpose might stand. We return to this idea again and again. It is not Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, but it is God. It is the sovereign God behind a specific promise.

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, for this reason I have raised you up. Initially, Paul talks about the promise. He moves to God’s choice of Jacob and His rejection of Esau. He defends God’s choice. And now he demonstrates from history an example of God’s freedom to choose men for glory and men to dishonor. Again, it is difficult to miss the fact that Paul is spending a great deal of time on the details of God’s sovereign choice according to His divine plan. The phrase eis auto touto is used five times in the Greek text of the NT. This is a very emphatic phrase pointing out that it was this very purpose that God had raised up Pharaoh. We then have another preposition of logical inference. Paul draws the logical conclusion, based on the Scriptural evidence that God has mercy on whomever He desires and whom He desires, He hardens.

Well, if it is true that God raised men up for this purpose, and he chooses men before they are even born, how is it that He is justified in finding fault with their actions since He ordained them in the first place? In other words, if God determines things in this manner, how can Pharaoh be culpable? How can God raise Pharaoh up to show His glory in him in this way and then still judge Pharaoh for doing what God raised him up to do? If you are wondering about this, you are not alone! However, pay very close attention because Paul is about to answer this reasoning and even tell you if such reasoning is in accord with Christian ethics. God’s norms not only govern how we live, and speak, they govern how we think. According to Paul, not only is such thinking wrong, it is out of accord with God’s standards for Christian thinking. In other words, thinking along these lines is off limits to believers. I realize that opponents like Holding will recoil over this response and contend that it is little more than naïve, uncritical nonsense from a stupid fundamentalist. Perhaps he wouldn’t say as much openly, but he will certainly do so behind the curtains of Theology Web. So, what do I mean that God forbids this kind of reasoning?

Paul’s response to this line of thinking is a bold one. He basically says, enough! Paul says, on the contrary, who are you to answer back to God? Paul then compares such a riposte to the foolish idea of a pot complaining to its molder about how it was molded! In other words, Paul is saying you are foolish to raise such an accusation against God. After all, Paul had already provided an emphatic answer to the question of unrighteousness with God. One gets the sense that Paul’s patience is wearing thin in this hypothetical argument. Paul is actually rebuking anyone and everyone who dares to say that the fact of God’s hardening Pharaoh and choosing to have mercy on whomever He pleases and to harden whomever He pleases is unfair! Such thinking must be put far away from the believer. The Greek word in v. 20 is ἀνταποκρινόμενος and it means to express disapproval in return, to criticize. The only other time it is used is in Luke 14:6 in a challenge-riposte between Christ and the Pharisees. This is precisely what Paul warns against. In other words, Paul is cautioning the Roman Christians that challenge-riposte with God is forbidden. In modern vernacular, we would say that it is forbidden to debate with the Divine. Paul has given us the answer to this question and that is as far as we can take it. I realize this offends the modern quest to subject every proposition to critical human reasoning and demand harmony within our dearly held basic beliefs. If this answer violates or offends your basic beliefs, perhaps it is time for you to reconsider the truthfulness of them. Calvin often warns against the wicked pride of philosophical speculation. I leave you with one of his many warnings:

Still, however it will be our principal study to provide a sure footing for those whose ears are open to the word of God. Here, if any where, in considering the hidden mysteries of Scripture, we should speculate soberly and with great moderation, cautiously guarding against allowing either our mind or our tongue to go a step beyond the confines of God’s word. For how can the human minds which has not yet been able to ascertain of what the body of the sun consists, though it is daily presented to the eye, bring down the boundless essence of God to its little measure? Nay, how can it, under its own guidance, penetrate to a knowledge of the substance of God while unable to understand its own? Wherefore, let us willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself. In the words of Hilary (De Trinit. lib. 1), “He alone is a fit witness to himself who is known only by himself.” This knowledge, then, if we would leave to God, we must conceive of him as he has made himself known, and in our inquiries make application to no other quarter than his word. [Institutes, 1.13.21]

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