In seeking to promote liberty of conscience, or ‘free thought’, as opposed to submission to the tyranny of religious authorities – including ‘sacred scriptures’ such as the Bible – I first sought to show that the Bible was written by very human authors. It contains errors and contradictions, and ideas that (at least when interpreted with any degree of literalness) are more worthy of being called ‘doctrines of demons’ than ‘the Word of God’. But just because the authors were fallible humans doesn’t mean that there is not a lot of good and valuable material in what they wrote. It is my belief that the Bible contains a lot more valuable material than is generally supposed by ‘debunkers’ of Christianity – but it is the fault of ‘Christianity’ itself that a lot of this ‘good material’ is missed. Beginning largely at the time of Constantine – when Christianity became the ‘official’ religion of Rome – and the Church council of Nicea which Constantine supervised, there has been a concerted effort within the ‘Church’ to suppress and repress many of the beliefs of Christians in the first 3 or 4 centuries of the ‘Christian era’, and other teachings have been greatly distorted by means of a very literal ‘interpretation’ of the Hebrew and Christian writings which were accepted as ‘canonical’. One of the most repressed of early Christian beliefs was ‘Universal Salvation’, particularly as represented by those who believed in the preexistence of the soul and reincarnation. The repression of this belief led to a great distortion in such doctrines as predestination and the ‘eternal destiny’ of souls. For instance, there was a vast difference between the beliefs of Origen of Alexandria (185 – 254 A.D.) and Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 A.D.). Origen was the leading Christian teacher and theologian of his day, and taught reincarnation. His view of predestination (and particularly of the controversial 9th chapter of Romans) was consequently greatly different than Augustine’s – who denied reincarnation, and became the ‘father’ of the teaching of ‘absolute predestination and unconditional election’ that is popularly known today as ‘Calvinism’ (after John Calvin of Protestant Reformation fame). In this article, I want to compare these two views, and show how it affects the interpretation of Biblical statements in general, and Romans 9 in particular.
Rather than giving the complete text here, I will assume that anyone reading this has access to a Bible and can check out the passage for him/herself. If you don’t have a Bible, there are Bibles available for download on the Internet (some for free, others requiring payment). One such site is e-Sword. On this site, you need to download the basic program (free), which includes the King James Version and Strong’s Concordance. After that, there are many other Bibles, Commentaries, and Bible Dictionaries available for download (again, some free and some requiring payment).
First of all, there can be no doubt that Paul wrote from a Jewish perspective. He was raised as a Pharisee, and the Jewish prejudices were deeply ingrained into his thinking. He viewed God in a very ‘anthropomorphic’ manner – that is, he viewed God as more or less a super-man, or at least as an individual Being who is separate from ‘His’ creation. As a Sovereign Ruler over ‘His’ creation, ‘He’ had chosen Abraham and his descendants to be ‘His’ special people, made great promises to them, and given them the covenant of the Law. Everybody else (the Gentiles) had been rejected by God and left to wander in their own erroneous ways. This whole set of Jewish prejudices I consider to be erroneous; but it has to be taken into account when trying to understand Paul’s viewpoint. (Even from this Jewish point of view, though, it was recognized that the Gentiles would eventually be brought to the knowledge of God and worship ‘Him’ – Psalm 22:27, 28 for instance: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.”) This ‘national election’ was never in question for the Jews, and is not the problem Paul is referring to in chapters 9 and 11 of this letter. He and his readers did not question God’s right to choose one nation over others for ‘blessing’.
The ‘problem’ for Paul and other Christians – who believed firmly that Jesus was the Messiah promised by the Hebrew prophets, who would bring salvation to both the Jews and Gentiles – was that despite all of the special ‘blessings’ given to the Jewish people (Rom. 9:4 and 5), the promise to Abraham and his descendants seemed to be failing. In spite of the large numbers of Jews said to have been converted to faith in Jesus Christ by the Apostles (in the book of Acts), the majority of Jews either ignored or deliberately rejected Jesus as Messiah. While this caused great sorrow to Paul (9:1, 2), he denied that the ‘word of God had failed’ (9:6). This was because God had made clear to Abraham that it was not everyone who descended from him who was included in the blessing, but only those descendants whom God chose and gave to him by promise. This was shown first by God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael, before Isaac was even conceived. Both were Abraham’s children, though they had different mothers. It was shown even more clearly in Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Before they were born, and therefore before they had done any good or evil, Jacob (the second born of the twins) was chosen to inherit the promises, and Esau (who by right of being the firstborn would ordinarily have been the inheritor) was rejected. This choice of Jacob before his birth, said Paul, showed that nothing he or Esau did was a factor in God’s choice; it was strictly a matter of God’s choice and calling (verses 11 and 12). And it was not unrighteous or deceptive for God to make a general promise to Abraham and his ‘seed’, and then select one individual over another from among those descendants of Abraham, because God has always told us that ‘He’ operates in this manner – verse 15: “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’” And so, verse 16: “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy”. And God not only has mercy on whom ‘He’ will, but ‘He’ hardens in willful obstinacy whom ‘He’ will also (v.18) as shown by ‘His’ statement to Pharaoh that the very reason God had raised him to his position was so that ‘He’ could harden Pharaoh’s heart and thereby show ‘His’ mighty power. (So the implication is that those Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah did so because God hardened their hearts so that they obstinately refused to believe – just as God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he obstinately refused to believe Moses).
Now there was nothing terribly unclear in the reasoning of Paul thus far, but it did raise a very serious question: if some believe and inherit the promises only because God chose and called them – and others disbelieved and failed to inherit the promises because God had hardened their hearts in fulfillment of his purpose and plan – then how could God find fault with anyone? They were all just doing God’s will, and no one can resist the will of God! That is a very reasonable and valid objection, and unfortunately I don’t believe that Paul did a very good job of answering it. This is where the opponents of ‘Sovereign’ election and predestination have had a field day with Paul’s reasoning. Paul’s first response to the objection was: how dare you even ask that question! (Verse 20) “But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’’. When someone objects to even asking a question, it indicates that he recognizes that he doesn’t have a good answer to it! Two objections to this response of Paul are: (1) The objector was not arguing with God (because he didn’t believe God would act in that way), but was arguing with Paul (as having misrepresented God); (2) the objector’s question had been “why does God find fault with me when He is the one who made me this way” – not “why did God make me this way”. Then Paul introduces the illustration of a potter fashioning a vessel, but it doesn’t answer the objection. No one would deny that a potter can fashion his clay into vessels just as he pleases; but no sane potter would become angry with the vessel, and destroy it, for being just the way he had made it! Any potter who did that would be a candidate for an insane asylum! That, of course, is precisely the objection which Paul’s hypothetical critic had made to begin with, and Paul’s answer was no answer at all, unless other ideas are imported into his argument.
The idea usually imported into Paul’s reasoning by ‘Calvinists’ is that the clay being shaped by the potter is ‘sinful’ clay, already deserving the wrath of God. This is the idea of ‘original sin’, built on a somewhat questionable interpretation of Romans 5:12-19: that Adam sinned for all of his posterity; his one sin was accounted as the sin of every one of his descendants, and all of us bear the guilt of that one sin. So God ‘graciously’ chooses some portions of this corrupt lump of human clay to ‘save’ from our sinfulness and guilt; ‘He’ determines to leave the rest of the corrupt clay as it is, harden it in that condition, and then condemn us for the sinfulness into which we were brought by our original parents. All I will say to that is that one must really be brainwashed to buy the idea that it’s just to condemn the whole human race for the sin of our ‘first father’ (which is itself myth, not intended to be taken literally). I myself was once so brainwashed, so I have no right to pass judgment on others. To my present way of thinking, though, that is just using one absurdity to justify another! And even if you accept the justice of the concept of ‘original sin’, it still doesn’t justify God’s actions, as that very first sin of Adam must itself have been predestined by God according to the Calvinistic system. God ordained the sin of Adam so that he would have the opportunity of showing both ‘His’ grace in delivering ‘His’ elect, and ‘His’ righteous anger against sin by damning the non-elect. So ultimately we come back to an uncorrupted mass of clay which God predestined to become corrupt. It’s just one absurd ‘doctrine of demons’ piled on top of another!
The reincarnationist on the other hand (and Paul, being a Pharisee, almost certainly was one – see here) imports into the argument the absolute conviction that God is completely just in all ‘His’ ways. As Paul himself said in Galatians 6:7-9 – “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” The shape in which our present lifetime is molded is always the just result of what we have done in former lifetimes. While it may be true that at least some of the situations that occur in our lives were ‘predestined’ and have nothing to do with anything we have done in our present lives (‘it is not of human will or effort’), yet it is always justly based on what we have sown in previous lives. Paul has already stated this truth in this letter to the Romans. In chapter 2, verses 5-11, he said this: “But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.” Again, in 2 Timothy 2:20, 21 Paul uses the very same image of vessels for ‘special’ and ‘ordinary’ use which he used in Romans 9 (or at least it’s very similar): “In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.” Notice that what kind of ‘utensil’ we become is dependent on our own actions; whether we do ‘evil’ things, or cleanse ourselves from ‘evil’. While in Paul’s theology God is indeed a ‘potter’ molding vessels according to ‘His’ will, the form ‘He’ molds is always a just recompense for our actions, because that IS ‘His’ will: to reward us according to our actions, in the process of eventually forming each of us into ‘the image of his son’.
In Romans chapter 1, Paul has given us an example of how he believes this works out with regard to one particular character trait: homosexuality. While I don’t believe that Paul was correct in his ideas concerning homosexuality, they were typical Jewish ideas, and do show that Paul believed what we are today is due to what we have been before – not just a ‘Sovereign’ determination of God. In chapter 1, Paul first discussed the sin of idolatry. He said that men should have known God’s “eternal power and divine nature”, because everything that can be known about God is plainly revealed by what has been made (nature). But instead of honoring God properly, “they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (verses 21b – 23). Therefore, because they distorted nature by worshiping it – the creation instead of the creator – God gave them over to do things which are ‘against nature’ (according to Paul, and the Pharisees in general): “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (verses 26 and 27). In Paul’s estimation, it’s not so much that God hates and punishes homosexuality, as that God hates idolatry so much that he punishes it by giving men up to the ‘unnatural acts’ of homosexuality. Homosexuals have “received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” of idolatry. Homosexuality is a trait that is present from early childhood, and shows itself at puberty just as ‘normal’ heterosexuality does. Homosexuals no more ‘choose’ to be attracted to people of the same sex, than heterosexuals make a conscious choice to be attracted to people of the opposite sex. For both ‘homo’ and ‘hetero’, their ‘sexual preference’ is completely natural to them. Paul considers homosexuality to be a ‘punishment’ for previous idolatry. I disagree, but I agree with the principle of ‘karmic justice’.
When this principle of reincarnation and karma is taken into consideration when reading Romans 9, as well as all of the other ‘Divine Sovereignty’ passages, one can see how men can be chosen and predestined before their birth, without regard for any faith or works to be done in the life into which they’re being born, and yet the predestinating choice and formative actions of the ‘potter’ are strictly in keeping with righteous judgment. This was the teaching of Origen and many other Christians of the first few centuries A.D. It’s too bad that an organized and dogmatic ‘Church’ used the ‘power of the sword’ to suppress this honorable and just teaching.