Predestination: a Theological Train Wreck

I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Romans 9:1-5

People love to quote Romans 8. It’s glorious, after all. It feels good in the face of adversity and epic failure to claim Paul’s defiant, “I will survive” manifesto as one’s own. I’ve heard all manner of misappropriation of 8:28 to claim that “all things work together for good,” without paying much attention to the second part of the verse (“… for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose”). And yet, it is this second part of 8:28, that sets Paul up for the rhetorical and theological disaster that follows in Chapter 9.

Romans 9 is not so often quoted. And with good reason: Paul’s construction of a theology of predestination is a theological train wreck. Having described how nothing (death, life, angels, rulers, etc.) can separate God’s people from God, Paul now has to explain how the Israelites, who have been called and promised God’s redemption don’t seem to be coming along with the Jesus-salvation program.

I’m sure Paul does have great sorrow and anguish for them. Many commentators go on about how beautiful it is that he is offering to be separated from Christ himself if only it would get the Israelites to come along. And it is a great use of rhetoric: “I’d gladly give an arm and a leg if only my kid would eat his vegetables.” It’s not meant to be taken literally.

What’s at stake here is the problem of why some folk who have all the advantages life has to offer still “just don’t get it.” Why don’t the Israelites, who have received adoption as God’s own people, glory, covenants, the law, special instructions for worship, promises, and ancestral wisdom – why don’t they get the whole “Jesus as fulfillment” thing?

Paul can only figure up two explanations, and neither of them are really good:

  1. Not everybody who claims to be an Israelite really is one. Here Paul recalls the story of Abraham’s divided household. The only people who really count as children of Abraham (and therefore as children of God) are those who can claim Isaac’s branch of the family tree. In the same way there are spiritual Israelites and there are all the others, and you can tell the spiritual ones because they’re the ones who receive Jesus.
  2. God predestines some people to get it and others not to. Paul recalls two stories in support of this. First, the story of Jacob and Esau, in which one is blessed and the other cursed before they were even born. A second story comes from the Exodus, where Paul recalls that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” In both cases, those God predetermines to be “destined for destruction” are made examples against which the “glorified” can shine all the more brightly by comparison.

The problem, of course, and the reason why the Israelites (not to mention many modern folk) aren’t accepting Paul’s gospel is that that there aren’t many people who are really interested in a God who cuts off half the family tree for no reason other than “the conception didn’t happen according to plan.” We have enough of that vindictive pettiness in our families already without bringing that kind of God into it.

Nor do many people want to have anything to do with a God who sets some people up just to make other people look good. You can get that kind of politics at the office; nobody really needs it in church, except people who need to look down at someone else to feel better about themselves.

In the end, Paul’s theological train goes off the track because it reduces the God Jesus spoke of, the God who simply says, “Come unto me, all who are heavy-laden, and I shall give you rest” – reduces that God to a fickle cosmic celebrity: all that glorious bling without any depth, character, or even any real power.