Personal/Theological Notebook: Bob on Over-eating and Predestination
My friend and classmate Bob Foster is taking part in a medical study while he's studying for his doctoral exams. Some people would love to be pain big bucks to overeat and sit on a couch all day, as this is their prefered lifestyle. Bob, on the other hand, is already finding it hard going, as the note below indicates. The rest of the letter is in response to a question I had asked him. Bob's a biblical scholar, particularly a student of Paul, and as I was reading Luther the other day, I wrote Bob to ask him a question about Paul on the idea of predestination. I was familiar, I realized, with the idea of predestination in Paul's theology as it was developed by Augustine and through him to Luther and Calvin. What I suddenly wasn't sure about was what Paul's intellectual context was for the idea: were there sources he was developing for his language in his Letter to the Romans? I asked Bob if he could point me in the right direction for an answer, but instead he generously gave me a short, but fascinating, essay in response.
One day into this damn study and I am about to burst. It's a good thing I already spent all the money on books, or I don't know if I could handle 2 weeks of this. They are stuffing my face every time I turn around. I was full when they brought me dinner last night, I was full 2 hours later (I just finished my last bite) when they brought me angel food cake, grape juice, and ice cream, and I was full this morning when they brought me a bagel with a mountain of cream cheese, yogurt, and 2 cups of chocolate milk!
As for Paul and predestination, I still have not looked at anything, being in the hospital now, but I do have some thoughts. The problem is not finding possible sources or the right history-of-religions context for Paul's beliefs about predestination, but bringing some kind of conceptual clarity to the mass of data and relating Paul to it in an appropriate way. Almost ALL Jewish literature of the period operates with some kind of understanding of God's sovereign appointment of his people to himself, not least the OT. Of course, the idiom here is election, a term which more naturally leads to discussions of corporate bodies, and not predestination, a term which more naturally lends itself to considerations of individuals.
Jewish literature normally placed the initiative with God. ben Sira has a very strong statement of God's sovereign election that parallels what Paul has to say in Rom 9. He emphasizes that God chose Israel to be his people out of all the nations of the earth for no reason other than his own choice. A book like Jubilees is more complex. In the creation account, the election of Israel is the purpose for which God creates the world; this would naturally emphasize God's absolute decision apart from any particular righteousness of the nation. However, as the story of Abraham is narrated, every instance of God making a promise to Abraham to make him a great nation, etc, is subsequent to specific demonstrations of his own piety. The same is true when Jubilees moves on to the story of Israel/Jacob. The statement from Genesis that God chose Jacob from the womb is omitted, and Jacob receives Esau's birthright and the inheritance of Abraham only after is pious character is manifest.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have a very strong, deterministic outlook, and in at least one document, now incorporated into the Community Rule, goes so far as to claim that God created a good and an evil spirit, and appointed each man to walk in one or the other.
The rabbis are, as always, a mixed bag. They could follow Deut 8 and emphasize God's gracious election which came to Israel in spite of its lack of righteousness; alternatively they could emphasize Israel's superior righteousness in the face of the nations of the world, who were all offered Torah but refused it.
As far as Rom 9 itself goes, I am convinced that the current majority view is correct -- Paul is speaking about the historical election of Israel and of the Gentiles (ie, the Gentile Christians), not of the eternal election of some individuals to salvation, others to damnation. Even when he emphasizes that God has a right to fashion some vessels to be vessels of wrath, others to be vessels of glory, he is being a bit tricky, and cannot be taken at face value. This is because of the following: 1) if you follow his argument in a linear fashion to this point, you would most naturally think that the vessels of wrath = Ishmael, Esau, Pharaoh, ie, the Gentiles; and the objects of glory = Israel; 2) but he pulls a fast one in 9:24, where it becomes clear that the objects of wrath = Israel and the objects of glory = Gentiles (for his rationale on this point, see my dissertation, forthcoming); 3) Israel is quite emphatically NOT eternally locked into its present state as an object of wrath, but this is a temporary state of affairs (for his rationale on THIS point, also see my dissertation, which will be necessary, since no one in the world except for me and Carol Stockhausen knows why Paul argues that it is necessary for Israel to be excluded temporarily from God's historic people in order for the Gentiles to be included).
All that being said, I am convinced that in other places, such as Rom 8:29 ("Those whom he foreknew, he also predestined, etc), Paul means exactly what he says. I am no Calvinist, but Paul can with ease emphasize God's prior and sovereign action yet still proclaim the need to respond to Christ in faith. And he does not mean that God "looked down the corridors of time, and elected those whom he foreknew would freely choose him," or whatever. At least, that is how I take him.
I hope that this at least touches on some of what you are asking about. Let me know if I missed the mark and I will think on this further.