Disputing Calvinism: vessels of temporary, conditional wrath?

I wanted to share this excellent article that answers, mostly via Scripture, many if not most of the arguments of Calvinism. In an admirable show of the author’s critical thinking, while he certainly rejects the Calvinist doctrine of election and predestination, he still refuses to embrace what he considers to be overwrought and unconvincing alternatives such as a corporate election, pleading ultimate ignorance:

Election is true, but is shrouded in deep mystery. It is one of the secret things that belong to the Lord our God (Deut. 29:29). Calvinists and Arminians both err when they make precise statements about the nature of election. God has not told us whether or not there are conditions attached to it and we should not venture into it with such bold assertions.

Now, while I’m fully in favor of admitting ignorance and not pretending certainty where none exists, I think that some of the mystery surrounding election and predestination is due more to misleading, uninformed readings of the NT than to an innate, intractable ambiguity there. In another display of reasonable thinking, the article’s author remarks, “Perhaps further theological works by thoughtful Christians will reveal a more satisfactory resting place for our convictions.” I happen to think that the understanding of election I’ve come to is fully credible and consistent with a fair treatment of the texts of Scripture, so I’d like to offer the following as a supplement to his otherwise extensive critique of Calvinism.

Recently I noticed a friend on Facebook referencing Exodus 33.18-19:

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

What probably piqued his curiosity (I conjecture — he made no comment) was the last sentence of this interesting passage, which was quoted by Paul in Romans 9.15 as part of a passage that has been famously championed by Reformed Christians to support the doctrines of predestination to life and reprobation.

While someone might be tempted, by way of synecdoche, to reference the Ex 33.19/Rom 9.15 quotation as a way of affirming God’s choice to save some and damn others, we should note that the negative aspect is wholly absent in the original Exodus passage: we have no clear indication that God’s remark, meant only to highlight His goodness manifesting as mercy, was intended to imply the converse of that mercy. Yet notice Paul’s creative use of this verse in Romans 9 to do something like that, when he sets up a contrast with God’s mercy and His dealing with Pharaoh, synthesizing the two in the statement, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (v. 18).

At any rate, Exodus 33.18-19 taken on its own terms is a far cry from ‘double predestination’. Here the emphasis is on broadening, not arbitrarily circumscribing, the scope of His merciful dealings with humanity. I believe that this is the key to election as articulated by Paul.

Only those insistent upon ignoring Paul’s overarching argument can find a subdivision of all humanity into two classes, “saved” and “damned” in Romans 9-11. We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the “vessels of honor, vessels of wrath” passage ends at Romans 9.22. On the contrary, Romans 9 through 11 is a sustained argument culminating in chapter 11: his point is that the “hardening” of Israel described in chapter 9 was only undertaken as a temporary measure and as a means to extend mercy to more, namely the Gentiles:

Again I ask: Did [the Jews] stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring! . . . Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. (Romans 11.11-12, 25)

Paul is saying that God only “hardened” the hearts of “natural”, ethnic Israel as a means to extend His grace outside ethnic Israel. Only recognizing this greater argument allows us to understand Paul’s justification of God in 9.18: “Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy – including that scoundrel Jacob and those scoundrels the Gentiles, like it or not – and He hardens whom He wants to harden – even His own chosen people, like it or not.”

But it doesn’t end there for those whose hearts He had hardened: “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you [Gentiles], provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (11.22-23). This again shows continuity with Jeremiah 18, the background passage of the potter and the clay analogy in Romans 9, in which the potter refashions rather than discards the “marred”, uncooperative clay.

To recap, Paul’s argument is that God’s mercy is so great and unrestrainable that, at least in certain times in redemptive history (e.g. Esau vs. Jacob, Pharaoh vs. Israel, natural Israel vs. the believing Gentiles), He will even “harden” the hearts of some of His own people if by doing so it will further His redemptive plan. Yet even those “cut off” will be restored upon their repentance (presumably posthumously).

“Ok, that sounds good for Israel. But what of Esau? Pharaoh?”

Well, laying aside the not-insignificant fact that such stories are not even likely to have actually occurred historically, perhaps we should turn to Paul’s conclusion to his argument in 11.32:

For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

So what if He ends up extending mercy to all? Returning to the original intent of Exodus 33.19, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

For Paul, the mere thought elicited a beautiful spontaneous doxology in the closing verses of that chapter (11.33-36):

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

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