Universalism in Romans 9–11?

Testing the Exegesis of Thomas Talbott

Reformed Journal 33:7 (July 1983): 11–14

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

For Thomas Talbott the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” teaches universalism. You cannot desire the good of your neighbor and simultaneously approve of a God who refuses to promote that neighbor’s good. But God does command us to love our neighbor. And we must approve of God’s ways. Therefore, God does omnipotently promote the good of all men, and so all men will be saved.

My first response to this argument (Reformed Journal, April, 1983) contained an inconsistency that I should own up to. I said, “It is questionable that we are commanded to love in a way which God fails to love” (p. 10). I had in mind the fact that “we are never commanded to dispense electing love.” That is God’s sole prerogative. But now I see (thanks to Talbott’s counter-response, RJ, June, 1983) that my position does imply that we are commanded to love in a way that God does not love. We are commanded to love people as ourselves. But God does not love people “as himself.” He does not esteem people “as himself,” for that would be idolatry. And he does not pursue the ultimate happiness of every individual with the same devotion he has to his own happiness, for that would jeopardize the manifestation of his power and wrath for the sake of the elect. I think the main argument of my previous essay still stands, however, because it was in fact not an argument that God must act only as he commands us to act, but that “the difference between God and man would . . . justify God acting differently toward people than he commands us to act toward people” (p. 10). That is, divine reprobation is not morally or logically inconsistent with the command that we love our neighbor as ourselves.

Talbott’s main quarrel with my essay was that its exegesis ignored contextual considerations. So I suppose what I need to do is show as briefly as I can the exegetical basis of my disagreement with Talbott’s universalism.

The contextual considerations of Romans 9 are there: In verses 1–5 the problem is introduced that Paul’s kinsmen are anathema, cut off from Christ. Paul expresses this by saying that if he could, he would be accursed in their place (v. 3). This raises the question (v. 6a) whether God’s word of promise to Israel has failed: How can God’s word stand if people of promise are under God’s curse? Paul’s first answer is that not all Israel is Israel (v. 6b). Or: not all who are descended from Abraham are his true seed or God’s children (vv. 7–8). In other words, God’s word of promise has not fallen even though many Israelites are accursed (v. 3), because the promise was not made to every individual Israelite.

God did not simply elect a nation for historical purposes, he also elects individuals within that nation to become “children of God.” The contextual issue of Romans 9 is how God’s word can stand when so many individual Jews within Israel are “accursed and cut off from Christ.” The only way to honor this context in dealing with verses 6–13 is to recognize that God’s election of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, apart from any human distinctives (vv. 9–11), is intended to illustrate a principle of unconditional election which supplies the answer to how Israelites can be accursed and God’s word of promise still stand. The answer to that question is this: God’s saving purpose for Israel has not fallen because he elects unconditionally who in Israel will be the beneficiaries of his saving mercy and who will not (vv. 10–13). “It is not as though the word of God has failed; for not all Israel is Israel” (v. 6). Any effort to avoid this implication does not answer to the contextual demands of Romans 9:1–5.

Romans 9:14–23 deals with the question whether God is unjust in this unconditional election. Therefore, the scope of Paul’s concern is still governed by the problem that many Israelites are under God’s curse (v. 3). Paul says in 9:14–18 that it is not unjust for God to show mercy on whom he pleases and harden whom he pleases (v. 18), because in doing that, he has a regard to the glory of his name (v. 17). The ultimate outrage of justice would be for God not to act in a way that magnifies the fullness of his glory. The fact that not all Israel (v. 6) is Israel but some are accursed and cut off from Christ (v. 3) is owing to God’s unconditional mercy and hardening (v. 18), which is not unjust, because therein God most clearly magnifies the fullness of his glory.

In Romans 9:19 someone objects that if God is so sovereign then he should not find fault with people who are hardened and not part of true Israel. Paul answers that the sovereign rights of the Creator cannot be impugned by the objections of his creatures and that there is no legitimate objection to his making one vessel for honor and one for dishonor out of the very same lump of clay (v. 21).

Talbott’s effort to construct the meaning of Romans 9 does not honor its context. For example, Talbott says, “God’s mercy requires him to deal severely with the disobedient; it requires him to mold the disobedient into vessels of wrath; and it requires him to prepare these vessels of wrath for destruction.” By destruction he means conversion: “Was not Saul, for example, utterly destroyed on the road to Damascus?”

There are three obstacles to this view. God’s saving promise applies to true Israel, not to every individual Israelite.

(1) If preparing vessels of wrath for destruction simply means preparing disobedient people for conversion (whether in this life or through the purifying fires of hell), then it is hard to see why the issue of God’s injustice would have been raised (v. 14). The intense theodicy of 9:14–23 would not have arisen if God was simply using severe discipline on disobedient people in order to bring them to faith. That would not cause any Jew to say God is unjust (v. 14) or to say “Why does God still find fault?” (v. 19).

(2) Talbott is wrong to say that God “molds the disobedient into vessels of wrath.” Romans 9:21 says God makes “from the same lump” vessels for honor and dishonor. It is not the disobedience of the lump that determines its destiny. There is only one lump and from it the Creator fashions vessels for dishonorable use and vessels for honorable use. The context suggests that we read 9:21 as a restatement of 9:11. Before Jacob and Esau were born or had performed any disobedience God determined in his freedom to mold one for honor and one for dishonor.

(3) To say that “prepared for destruction” means prepared for conversion stretches the semantic range of apoleian (destruction) beyond reasonable possibility. Moreover, there is a very close parallel between 9:22 and 9:17 which shows Pharaoh (not Paul!) as the typical vessel of wrath prepared for destruction. And it is his hardening not his conversion which is in view. Talbott challenges me to explain how a vessel of wrath could be destroyed and yet maintained for wrath in hell. The answer is that the word “destruction” does not have to mean annihilation (TDNT, 1, 396). It is not the opposite of existence but of glorious existence. But here I must cut short our discussion of Romans 9. I plead not guilty to the charge of contextual negligence. In fact, I wrote 300 pages of historical-grammatical exegesis on Romans 9:1–23 to undergird the position taken here. It is found in The Justification of God, An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:7–23 (Baker Book House, 1983).

But what about Romans 11? For Talbott Romans 11 teaches universalism: all individuals will finally be saved, for verse 32 says, “God shut up all in disobedience in order that he might have mercy on all.” If the “all” of human disobedience is universal so must the “all” of mercy be universal. Does this universalistic reading of Romans 11:32 square with the argument of the chapter?

The question Romans 9–11 was written to answer is this: How can God’s word of promise to Israel stand (9:6) when so many of Paul’s Jewish kinsmen are accursed and cut off from Christ? The first answer Paul gave was that all Israel is not Israel. God’s saving promise applies to true Israel, not to every individual Israelite (9:6–13). So his word stands even though some Israelites are accursed. The second answer Paul gives to the question of God’s faithfulness is that some of Israel are Israel; that is, God has not rejected physical Israel (11:1), for there is, and always has been, a “remnant according to the election of grace” (11:5) who have not bent the knee to Baal. Romans 9 says: God’s word stands in spite of lost Israelites because the promise did not apply to every Israelite. Romans 11:1–10 says: God’s word stands because the promise did guarantee a remnant of believing Jews, and the election of grace has preserved this very thing. “Israel (as a corporate whole) failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened” (11:7).

But there is a third and final answer given to the question of God’s faithfulness to his word of promise (9:6), namely that this corporate Israel will all one day be saved (11:26). But just as Romans 11:1–10 showed that the inclusion of a Jewish remnant in true Israel is owing to an election of grace, so Romans 11:11–32 shows that “all Israel” will be saved in a way that excludes all boasting by Jew and Gentile and gives all glory to God.

The first step towards bringing salvation to “all Israel” is to harden them. “Israel failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, the rest were hardened, as it is written, ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor . . . ’”(11:7–8). Notice that this is not a reference to all Jews but to Israel as a corporate whole conceived as an entity that endures from generation to generation made up of different individuals from time to time. A hardening has come upon this corporate whole until the full number of Gentiles comes in (11:25). As a whole, Israel has been temporarily rejected (11:15); it has been shut up to disobedience (17:32); it has stumbled (11:11).

But it has not stumbled simply to fall and be lost. Rather God’s purpose (and this is the second step towards the salvation of all Israel) is that through the stumbling and failure of corporate Israel salvation might come to the Gentiles (11:11). Through the disobedience of corporate Israel mercy comes to the Gentiles (11:30). Israel is counted as God’s enemy now for the sake of the Gentiles (11:28). The hardening of corporate Israel will last “until the full number of the Gentiles comes in” (11:25).

But the Gentiles who benefit from Israel’s hardening do not include every individual Gentile. It is a corporate whole, or a “full number,” which must “come in” before the hardening of Israel is lifted. Therefore, this group of Gentiles cannot include those who (on Talbott’s scheme) may later be saved from hell. Yet it is the mercy shown to this corporate entity which leads to the third step in the salvation of all Israel. When the “full number” of Gentiles has come in, then “the Deliverer will come from Zion and will banish ungodliness from Jacob” (11:26). Thus when 11:30 says that “by the mercy shown to [the Gentiles] [Israel] also will receive mercy,” it is clear that the group of Gentiles in view is the “full number” of verse 25. And the Israel who receives mercy (11:31) as a result of the salvation of the “full number” of Gentiles is also not every individual Jew but the same corporate entity which had for a time been rejected (as 11:15 shows).

Therefore in 11:30–31 the two groups in view (Israel and Gentiles) do not have reference to every individual Jew and Gentile that exist. The same corporate groups are in view that have been in view since 11:7. The stumbling (11:11), failure (11:12), rejection (11:15), hardening (11:7, 25), and disobedience (11:30–31) of corporate ethnic Israel lead to the mercy (11:31), salvation (11:11), riches (11:12), reconciliation (11:15), and coming in (11:25) of a “full number” of Gentiles. This in turn leads to the mercy (11:31), acceptance (11:15), and salvation (11:26) of “all Israel,” the same corporate entity that had to be temporarily hardened (11:7, 25) and rejected (11:15). Romans 11:32 (the linchpin of Talbott’s universalistic construction of Rom. 9–11) is the summary statement of this remarkable plan of salvation by which the full number of Gentiles and all corporate Israel will be saved: “For God has shut up all (tous pawns) to disobedience that he might have mercy on all (tous pantas).” There is no exegetical warrant for construing the two “all’s” of 11:32 to refer to anything other than the complete number of Jews and Gentiles in the corporate entities referred to throughout the chapter. A universalistic reading of Romans 11:32 is not exegetically defensible. Again I plead not guilty to contextual negligence. Romans 9–11 remains a grand pillar in the Reformed doctrine of God’s sovereign freedom to have mercy on whomever he wills and harden whomever he wills (9:18).

Finally, Talbott cannot dispose so easily of passages which teach eternal punishment; for example, Matthew 25:46, “And they will go away into eternal punishment (kolasin aionion), but the righteous into eternal life.” Talbott argues that aionios does not mean “eternal” but only characterizes the “mode of life” and “form of punishment” associated with the age to come. This is very unlikely, for while aionios need not always mean everlasting, this is its usual meaning in the New Testament and it does not have the modal sense Talbott wants it to. Yes, kolasin aionion means the punishment of the age to come, but in Jesus’s mind that is an eternal age. Jesus thought of reality in two ages, this age and the age to come. In Matthew 12:32, he said, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him either in this age or in the one to come.” This is virtually the same as saying that the blasphemer will enter “eternal punishment” — punishment that will not end with forgiveness throughout the whole future age which never ends. When Mark (3:29) records the saying of Matthew 12:32, Jesus says that the blasphemer is guilty of an “eternal sin” (aioniou harnartematos). Thus an “eternal sin” is not one whose “mode” or “form” is associated with the age to come, but one which will not be forgiven in the age to come and therefore is not forgiven forever. Therefore, “eternal punishment” on the lips of Jesus cannot be stripped of the implication that the punishment last forever.

While aionios need not mean everlasting, this is its usual meaning in the New Testament. Nor can Revelation 14:11, “And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever [eis aionas aionon].” Nor Revelation 20:10, “And they shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever (eis tous aionas ton aionon).” Nor Hebrews 6:2, “Eternal judgment” followed by: “It is impossible (adynaton) to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened . . . if they commit apostasy” (cf. 10:25–31; 12:16–17). Nor 2 Thessalonians 1:9, “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” These are formidable obstacles to Talbott’s temporary, remedial hell — much more formidable, I think (together with Rom. 9:17), than are the strongest universalistic texts (Col. 1:20; Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15:27–28) for the orthodox doctrine of eternal retribution. (On the universalistic texts see George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974, pp. 567–68.)

Two hundred years ago Charles Chauncy of Boston published his defense of universalism (not unlike Talbott’s) entitled The Salvation of All Men (reprint: New York: Arno Press, 1969). Five years later Jonathan Edwards the younger published his 300-page rejoinder (The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined in Works, Vol. 1, Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1850). The orthodoxy of Edwards did not prevail in New England. Instead, “From the tradition of Chauncy arose Unitarian and Universalist churches stressing the primacy of human reason, denying the supernatural work of Christ, and viewing the church as a creation of society” (Woodbridge, Noll, Hatch, The Gospel in America, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979, p. 188). The practical issues at stake in any one intellectual controversy are always more than we realize. This is especially true where fundamentally contrary views of God are in conflict. When the paths diverge at the top, almost everything below will be different.