Accepting/Rejecting Calvinism
(Pt. 9: The Potter)

, posted by jordanjapo

This is from a series of posts which was copied with permission from Jordan Apodaca’s blog, “Thoughts & Anti-Thoughts,” which can be accessed here: https://jordanapodaca.wordpress.com/

This particular post, which allows comments, can be accessed here: https://jordanapodaca.wordpress.com/2017/03/23/acceptingrejecting-calvinism-pt-9-the-potter/

Moving Forward

Thus far, I have shared my journey from being an ardent four-point Calvinist to doubting my faith to discovering William Lane Craig. And at this point in my life, I was hopeful that Christianity was true, yet uncertain what to make of Calvinism. Here was my problem: the Bible seemed to support Calvinism, but Calvinism didn’t seem able to answer the problem of evil. In fact, the answers that William Lane Craig gave seemed to rely on premises concerning the nature of free will and the nature of God’s sovereignty that directly contradicted Calvinism. So what was I to do? My strategy was to tentatively commit to Calvinism (because I thought it was biblical), and let Arminianism be my “backup.” Prior to this, the only “backup” I knew to Calvinism was atheism, because I didn’t think any other system of theology could answer the problem of evil any better. Now I had something more substantial to fall back on. But I didn’t like how neither perspective explained all the evidence, so I moved forward trying to do two things: 1) find an answer to the problem of evil from a Calvinistic perspective, 2) find a way to faithfully interpret Scripture that was non-Calvinistic. I would be content with either one. But in the end, I found only the second option to be a viable route. I already covered why I thought option #1 failed. This post will begin to cover the second piece: how I began to see Arminianism as actually being the more faithful interpretation of Scripture.

Class on Calvinism

One of the most interest-piquing moments actually occurred during a class on Calvinism during the Spring semester of my freshman year. My professor was going through his PowerPoint presentation, and I was following along in my Bible to the various passages he was pulling up. Naturally, I was soon in Romans 9, and my eye fell to verse 21: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” And I noted two verses were cross-referenced from the Old Testament. The first was Isaiah 64:8, which was actually the verse which convinced me to become a Calvinist, and Jeremiah 18:3-6, which I wasn’t very familiar with. So I looked up the latter and found this:

Jeremiah 18

18 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’

Quick Outline of Passage

  • Verses 1-2: God sends Jeremiah to the potter’s house to learn a lesson.
  • Verses 3-4: Jeremiah sees the potter working, he sees a piece of clay spoil, and he sees the potter rework the piece as it seemed good to the potter.
  • Verses 5-6: God asserts that he is in the place of the potter, and Israel is the clay.
    • Verses 7-8: If God says he’ll destroy a nation and they repent, he’ll spare the nation (like he did with Nineveh).
    • Verses 9-10: If God says he’ll raise up a nation and they do evil, then he will withhold the good he planned for them.
    • Verse 11: God tells Israel that he’s planning evil against them, and that they ought to therefore repent.

Three Observations

There was so much about this that immediately stood out to me:

  • First, the clay refers to nations, not individuals. Nations don’t go to heaven or hell. Therefore, Jeremiah isn’t talking about the potter sending people to heaven or hell.
  • Second, the potter’s actions are not unconditional. They are conditioned upon the actions of the clay. This is the exact opposite point that Calvinists say Paul is making in Romans 9 (“the clay doesn’t do anything — it’s all up to the potter”). Now, Jeremiah’s usage of the imagery of a potter does not determine Paul’s usage of similar language. But Jeremiah’s usage should certainly be a factor in how we think about Paul’s usage, and I hadn’t heard this passage ever mentioned in discussions on Romans 9.
  • Third, the potter’s intentions for the clay are not unchangeable. Verses 7-10 make this point in two ways: if God intends to destroy a nation, but it repents, he will spare it, and if he intends to uplift a nation, but they sin, he will cast them down. This corresponds to what Jeremiah saw the potter doing: he “reworked” the clay according to whether or not it was “spoiled.” In fact, this seems to be the main point of the passage, for verse 11 says “Therefore, since I’m currently intending to destroy you, repent!” The obvious inference the reader is to make is that if the Israelites repent, God will not destroy them!

Romans 9

Now, the question is this: is Paul using the imagery of a potter in the same way, in a similar way, or in a totally different way in Romans 9?

Nations

First, corresponding to my first point above: it seems plausible that this is referring to nations. Verses 1-5 depict Paul’s sorrow for his Israelite brothers who have rejected Christ. Verses 6-7 make a distinction between Israelite blood and Abrahamic faith. Verse 13 says God loved Jacob and hated Esau, each of whom became heads of two different nations. Verse 24-33 ends the chapter with a large chunk of quotations concerning the Gentiles’ inclusion into the people of God. And then as you move into Romans 10 and 11, you see that the main focus is on the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, and their respective roles in God’s plans.

Conditionality

Second, corresponding to my second point above: are the potter’s actions toward the clay conditional or unconditional in Romans 9? That is, does the potter fashion the clay as he does because of how the clay acts, or because of the potter’s will? It immediately seems as if Paul diverts from Jeremiah, claiming that the potter can have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and harden whom he will harden. This point, by itself, seems to lean in the Calvinist’s favor. Nothing in Romans 9 seems to immediately indicate that the potter’s actions toward the clay is conditional.

Irrevocability

Third, corresponding to my third point above: surprisingly, it seems as if Paul goes back to following Jeremiah, arguing that the potter’s actions can be changed — that is to say, that the clay can be “reworked.” This point is not immediately obvious unless you continue to read the context. But once you get to chapter 11, you get passages such as:

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
    eyes that would not see
    and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.”

And David says,

“Let their table become a snare and a trap,
    a stumbling block and a retribution for them;
10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
    and bend their backs forever.”

11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!

Follow the underlined pronouns. Paul attributes the following things to these Jews:

  • They were hardened,
  • They were given a spirit of stupor,
  • Their table became a snare, trap, stumbling block, and retribution
  • Their eyes were darkened
  • Their backs were bent back “forever.” (!!!)

And yet in spite of all this, Paul adds a few more to the list:

  • They did not stumble in order that they might fall.
  • Their sin brought salvation to the Gentiles.
  • Their sin and failure meant riches for the Gentiles.
  • Their inclusion will mean more than riches.

Their eyes were blinded, and yet Paul still sees them as legitimately savable.

What does it mean that they were blinded? Well, we know that they committed a sin that brought salvation to the Gentiles. I suspect, then, that their sin was their initial rejection of Jesus as the Messiah and their persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem, for those are the two things that spread the message of the Gospel to the Gentiles. If that’s the sin they committed, then what does it mean that they were hardened, blinded, and given a spirit of stupor? I’ll say more on this later, but I think it could mean a few different things. Perhaps it means that God, for a time, prevented some of the Jews from understanding exactly who Jesus was. Such an act of blinding their understanding obviously would not cause them to crucify Jesus or persecute Christians, but it may have been the occasion for their doing so. And perhaps this “hardening” was a hardening of the will in a decision which they had already chosen to do.

But notice: no matter how exactly you construe what the hardening of their hearts consisted of, it is clear that this did not entail their eternal damnation. Paul is hopeful that they will still be saved. This is further evident as you continue in the chapter:

13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? 16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.

Paul then uses an image that seems to be getting at the same point Jeremiah 18 was after:

17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.

The point seems plain: Israel, though hardened and blinded, can be grafted back into the tree, just as the clay can be reworked into a valuable vessel.

Back to Conditionality

The fact that these Israelites could be regrafted and reworked seems to suggest that what the potter makes of them is dependent on whether they believe, and it would simultaneously cast doubt on the idea that the potter arbitrarily chooses some to be saved and some to be damned. If this is so, then how should the rest of the passage be interpreted? Specifically, how should the following be construed, especially the verses in bold?

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 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.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Jacob and Esau

If this is referring to nations, then this portion isn’t hard to explain at all. God chose Jacob, and he did not choose Esau, to continue the chosen line.

But why would Paul be talking about nations at all in this context? Isn’t his concern for individual people who are lost? Yes. He’s concerned about individual Israelites, and so he’s explaining Israel’s corporate role in the plan of God, tracing their role as God’s chosen people, those who rejected the Messiah, and those who will still be saved.

Pharaoh
  • Notice that in verse 14, Paul asks the question: is this unjust for God to do, to pick one nation at the expense of another, or to choose to use one person over another? And he asserts boldly: No!
  • Verse 15 explains why it is not unjust, as the introductory word “for” indicates. Here’s the reason: for God has said “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” Now, the crucial question cometh: what does this mean? I think there are a few options:
    • It could mean that God chooses those whom he will have mercy on.
      • If so, on what basis does he choose to have mercy? It could be either arbitrary and unconditional (as the Calvinist says), or it could be conditioned on faith. The latter option seems more probable given the entire context of 9-11:
        • Ch. 9: 30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.
        • Ch. 10: But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
        • Ch. 11: 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.
        • Further, if we ask Paul who it is that God offers mercy to, he would say: “32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
    • Or, this phrase could be taken in a second way: as an affirmation of God’s nature as a merciful God. As explained in this article on pages 5-7, this was a Hebrew idiom that used repetition for emphasis. Hence, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” is a Hebrew way of God screaming out “I will have mercy!!!” Hence, this answers the question raised: is God just? Yes! Why? Because God is a God of mercy, and he extends mercy to all people, not just to Israel. Yes, he chose for Jacob to be an instrument of mercy over Esau, but his mercy still extends equally to everyone.
  • Verse 16 then reaffirms that it is God’s mercy that all people must depend upon — nobody deserves it by works or by ethnicity.
  • Verses 17-18 then bring up Pharaoh. We are told two things about him:
    • First, that God raised him up in order that God’s power would be shown and his power would be displayed in all the earth.
    • Second, Paul infers from Pharaoh’s life that God gives mercy to whom he wills, and hardens whom he wills.
      • So, here we go again: does God arbitrarily bestow mercy? Based on the context I showed above, it seems unlikely. Further, given the Exodus account of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, it seems that he certainly was involved in the process. And as I suggested above concerning the Israelites’ hearts being hardened: it may have been the case that God hardened Pharoah’s resolve to continue in the sin he had freely chosen, or perhaps this hardening is itself a punishment for sin (as Romans 1 teaches). And lastly, even if we conceded that these texts referred to God hardening people’s hearts from believing the Gospel, chapter 11 shows that this is not a permanent state of resistance, but is designed with their acceptance of the Gospel in mind.
Vessels of Mercy and Wrath

A quick commentary on two verses: “22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.”

It is correct, as the Calvinist is quick to assert, that God desires to show his wrath and make his power known. But, given that desire, what action does God then take? It is not that he prepares people to be vessels of wrath. It is that he patiently endures those vessels who have prepared themselves for destruction. The Greek word for “prepared” is in the middle voice when applied to the vessels of wrath, implying that the vessels prepared themselves for destruction; on the other hand, the same word is in the active voice, with God as the implied subject, when applied to the vessels of mercy. God makes people his workmanship when they respond to him in faith, but he does not prepare people for destruction. They do that to themselves. That’s what the text says.

So the point is this: God sees people who have prepared themselves for destruction, and instead of quickly punishing them, he is patient. Why? So he can show his power and make his name known through them. That’s exactly what he did with Pharoah. God did not immediately punish him, but waited to punish him in such a glorious fashion that even Rahab eventually came to hear of God’s great power.

Concluding Thoughts

I admit that the work I did here is not as detailed as it could be. But what I tried to do is offer a quick explanation for why I think an Arminian interpretation of Romans 9 is more faithful. And in my mind, it boils down to two strengths:

  • The Arminian position makes better sense of the original meaning of the Old Testament texts that Paul quotes.
    • Jeremiah 18: For the Calvinist, the imagery of the potter would have to mean the opposite of what it originally meant.
    • Exodus: The Calvinist position ignores the subtleties of the interplay between God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh hardening his own heart.
  • The Arminian position makes better sense of the logic of chapters 9-11.
    • It better displays the emphasis Paul has on explaining the role of Israel within the broad plan of God.
    • It better explains why God thinks that the Israelites whom God has blinded are able to still be saved.
    • It accounts for the appeals to faith better than the Calvinist position does.
    • It offers a more satisfying explanation of why God is not unjust.

What are the weaknesses of the view I outlined above? I sense at least two:

  • It is incomplete. This is the first time I’ve written out my views on Romans 9-11, and as you can tell, I’m not totally certain on how exactly every piece fits into Paul’s argument.
  • It is initially counter-intuitive. I admit, the view I outlined above can feel to some as nothing more than an attempt to avoid a Calvinistic reading. Nevertheless, I think the Arminian view of this chapter is more promising. And it makes sense that these chapters would initially strike us as Calvinistic. We naturally lack two things which the original readers would have possessed, both of which seem crucial to an accurate interpretation: an understanding of corporate solidarity, and a deep familiarity with the Old Testament. (Corporate solidarity is, roughly, the idea that a group is treated as an individual, as Israel was in the Old Testament. I’ll cover this more in the future.)

For the next few posts, I’ll begin to cover other difficult passages and theological issues pertaining to Arminianism. Till then, feel free to push back on my interpretation of Romans 9.