About two days ago I finished reading the book “Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views,” Edited by Bruce Ware. I dreaded reading Paul Helm’s argument for the “Classical Calvinist” position, but after reading the other three views, I had no other direction in which to turn my attention. So I picked up Helm’s chapter and started reading. This post, then, will start a set of posts on Helm’s defense for the Classical Calvinist position.
We will start with the first mentioned in “the tradition” (the reference to Calvinism by Helm), Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). In 429, Augustine wrote his “On the Predestination of the Saints” in which he references some things he wrote to Simplicianus. One of these things concerned the election of Romans 9:11. Augustine writes,
“If election is by foreknowledge, and God foreknew Jacob’s faith, how do you prove that he did not elect him FOR HIS WORKS? Neither Jacob nor Esau had yet believed, because they were not yet born and had as yet done neither good nor evil. But God foresaw that Jacob would believe? He could equally well have foreseen that he would do good works…the reason for its not being of works was THAT THEY WERE NOT YET BORN, THAT APPLIES ALSO TO FAITH; for before they were born they had neither faith nor works. The apostle, therefore, DID NOT WANT US TO UNDERSTAND THAT IT WAS BECAUSE OF GOD’S FOREKNOWLEDGE THAT THE YOUNGER WAS ELECTED TO BE SERVED BY THE ELDER. He wanted to show that it was not of works, and he stressed that by saying, ‘When they were not yet born and had done neither good nor evil.’ He could have said, if he wished to, that God already knew what each was going to do. We have still to inquire why that election was made. It was not of works, because being not yet born they had done no works. BUT NEITHER WAS IT OF FAITH, because they had not faith either. What, then, was the reason for it?” [Augustine, “On the Predestination of the Saints (429), published in the book “Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views” by Paul Helm (Edited by Bruce Ware)].
Let me say first of all that in order to understand Jacob and Esau within Romans 9, we have to remind ourselves that the twins serves as SYMBOLS within Paul’s argument. Let’s go back to Genesis 25 to see what God says to Rebekah:
“But the children inside her [Rebekah] struggled with each other, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her:
‘Two nations are in your womb; two people will [come] from you and be separated. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger’” (Genesis 25:22-23, Holman Christian Standard Bible).
All that Rebekah is told about Jacob and Esau is that the elder will serve the younger, that the oldest would bow down to the youngest. God doesn’t mention anything about seeing their faith, or their works, or anything else. Some have said that God foretells of what will happen because He sees the future. I would agree with that. I would say that, according to Psalm 139, among many, that God does know everything before it takes place (I am an advocate of exhaustive divine foreknowledge, that God knows everything before it happens). God knows what Jacob and Esau would do after their birth.
However, I would caution the reader here by saying that, while this is a very plausible commentary on the calling of Jacob, we must be careful to not read things into the text that are not there. The prophecy regarding Jacob is NOT a prophecy regarding salvation; it is NOT a prophecy of one child being saved and the other child being damned!
But if the prophecy of God regarding the twins is not one of salvation, then what is it? We are only told that Jacob inherited the blessings of the Jewish nation Israel. Esau was “no less able to be saved” than Jacob was: for God promised Abraham in His Covenant that “I will keep My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant TO BE YOUR GOD AND THE GOD OF YOUR OFFSPRING AFTER YOU” (Genesis 17:7, HCSB). Esau, then, by virtue of being a descendant of Abraham, was just as entitled to being a worshipper of God as Jacob was. In that, neither was favored over the other.
When we return to Romans 9, then, we must understand that Paul uses the twins as SYMBOLS OF SALVATION, not as an example of salvation! As I said earlier, God said nothing about either of them being saved, or who would do great work, or anything of the sort. To read that into the text is to “add” things that aren’t there!
Jacob and Esau, however, are SYMBOLS OF SALVATION. What is a “symbol”? Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary tells us:
2 : something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially : a visible sign of something invisible (the lion is a symbol of courage).
A symbol is related to something else, whether by relationship or association. What this tells us is that there is a connection, in Romans 9, between Jacob and Esau and the Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 9:30); but we have to discover how strong or weak that connection is. From what we know of Genesis 25, there is not a double-bonded strong connection—in fact, there is a link, but only a simple one.
Now, let’s look back at Romans 9. We see in verse 7, with Isaac, that the “seed of the promise” is called. We know the story with Isaac: that even though he and Hagar had conceived Ishmael, and Ishmael was his OLDEST son by blood, Isaac (although the second-born) was the promised seed. Abraham even pleaded with God for Ishmael to be blessed—but God reiterated that Isaac was the promised seed (Genesis 21:12). In verse 9, we are told the promise of God to Sarah: “At this time I will come, and Sarah will have a son.” God decided to give Sarah a son, and that son was born, as God had promised.
In verse 10, we get to Jacob and Esau. If we follow the context of the verses earlier (with Ishmael and Isaac), we will see that the emphasis is on GOD’S PROMISE, not foreseen faith, or works, or anything else. In verse 9, God PROMISES Abraham that Sarah would have a son; in verse 12, God PROMISES Rebekah that “the older will serve the younger.” Why does God do this?
“(for though they had not been born yet or done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to election might stand, NOT FROM WORKS BUT FROM THE ONE WHO CALLS)…” (Rom. 9:12, HCSB).
The emphasis of Paul’s writing is on GOD WHO CALLS, not people who act! Ishmael was the HUMAN ACT of Abraham and Hagar—but he was NOT the promised of God. Esau was to be the one who was served, but that was NOT the promised of God. Only the promise of God would serve in these situations.
So there is an election of God; God does ELECT some and not others.
Here, I can see the Calvinists smiling…but, before you get the impression that I’m turning Calvinist, let me say something else: Calvinists and Arminians believe there is an election—but we differ on the NATURE of election. The Calvinist will say that the election is done according to the arbitrary choice of God; I will disagree with them (as Classical Arminians will) and say that God’s election occurs ACCORDING TO FAITH!
Look at Romans 9:30-32—
“What should we say then? Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness—namely the righteousness that comes from faith. But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the law. Why is that? BECAUSE THEY DID NOT PURSUE IT BY FAITH, BUT AS IF IT WERE BY WORKS.”
Did you notice the question of Romans 9:30? The question “What should we say then?” of Romans 9:30 MATCHES EXACTLY the question of Romans 9:14—“What should we say then?” Paul’s matching questions in the same chapter tell us that Paul is connecting his argument. In other words, he’s telling us that in the same way Isaac was PROMISED over Ishmael and that Jacob was PROMISED over Esau, is the same way that the Gentiles, receiving the PROMISE, are saved, while the Jews, still trying to do it in some other way than God’s way, have not received salvation.
Paul tells us in Romans chapter 10 what God’s righteousness consists of (in case Romans 9:30 doesn’t convince):
“For Christ is THE END OF THE LAW for righteousness TO EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES.”
Now, I will discuss the nature of God’s election in my next post; however, someone reading this will say, “Well, if the Gentiles are elected by faith, then doesn’t this mean that God elected Jacob on the basis of foreseen faith? As I said earlier, we cannot read faith into the Genesis 25 text (or works for that matter), since neither are mentioned.
Jacob and Esau are a case where the call of God TRUMPS established tradition. Both twins are SYMBOLS of the Jewish and Gentile nations. While the Jews “by birthright,” were expected to inherit “the blessing” of salvation, they have failed to receive it; in their stead, God has CALLED the Gentiles, “the Jacob,” “the younger,” the one LEAST LIKELY to inherit “the blessing.” And why? because God CALLED, and the Gentiles have responded in faith (Rom. 9:30).
While Jacob and Esau are used as SYMBOLS of salvation, their issue in Genesis 25 is not one of salvation. Symbols can only go so far; and, in this case, the issue of salvation must stop with Romans 9. Genesis 25, in its proper context, has NOTHING to do with salvation.
I will post a Part II to this work and we will look at the nature of God’s election next time.