Brian Abasciano, “A Response to Thomas Schreiner’s Review of My Book on Romans 9:10-18”

, posted by SEA

Thomas Schreiner reviewed my book, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9.10–18: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis for the online theological journal Themelios. His review may be found here. This is the response that I posted in the comment section attached to the review.

Tom,

Thank you for the gracious and thoughtful review. It is a privilege to have you, a distinguished and erudite scholar, interact with my work. But as you might expect, I have some disagreement with your criticisms. I do understand that your review had to be limited in its detail. So I will try to limit my reply accordingly and not try to reproduce the detailed arguments made in my book. My numbers below correspond to your numbered criticisms.

# 1: You assert that “calling in Paul isn’t merely an effectual naming based on faith, but is an effective action that creates faith (Rom 8:30). Faith is a consequence of calling, not a presupposition for it (cf. 1 Cor 1:23–31).” But these are mere assertions that beg the question. The passages you cite are not particularly supportive of your assertions of a call that creates faith over against a call that is based on faith. These passages work just as well, and even better, with an effectual naming by faith. Rom 8:30 is best understood as meaning, “And those whom he predestined he also named as his own, and those whom he named as his own he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (adapting the ESV). 1 Cor 1:26a is best understood as meaning, “For consider your naming as God’s own children, brothers . . .” (adapting the ESV), obviously referring to the Corinthians’ conversion. The strength of the Calvinist doctrine of effectual calling has always been the instances when calling seems to clearly have reference to those who have already become Christians. Hence, the idea of a call that is “effectual.” But an effectual naming fits such instances just as well. In fact, it fits them better because it does not rely on assuming an extra, unstated element—positive response to the call—as part of the meaning of the term. One might argue that it does assume something extra, namely, faith. But the term itself does not. It refers to the act of naming people as God’s children, which in effect, makes them God’s children. Biblical theology is what informs us that such a calling can only come through faith, for we become God’s children through faith. The fact that “the called” in Paul’s epistles = “believers” goes along much better with the fact that “God’s children” and “those who belong to God” = believers than does the idea that “the summoned/invited ones” = believers. Moreover, the fact that the Old Testament background of calling in Rom 9:7 (Gen 21:12) speaks of an effectual naming strongly supports the naming sense in Romans 9 as does the fact that Rom 9:25-26 indisputably employs the naming sense of the terminology. So we know that the naming sense is used in Romans 9. But there is no indisputable usage of summoning in Romans 9 nor anywhere in Paul for that matter (i.e., if one does not assume a summoning sense a priori, there is no instance of calling language in reference to Christians in Paul’s epistles that is unquestionably of summoning whereas we do have unquestionable instances of the naming sense in Romans 9 itself!).

# 2: I have to say that I was surprised by your objection that “it seems unlikely that the Roman Christians would question God’s justice/righteousness/fairness if Paul’s argument in 9:10–13 is that God elects based on faith instead of works or ancestry.” You seem to be confusing who Romans was written to with what it was written about. It is very odd that you would cite other sections of Romans in which Paul argues against the assumption of unbelieving Jews that their works could commend them to God, including later in Romans 9 in the conclusion of the chapter’s argument(!), yet claim that Paul could not be so arguing elsewhere in Romans 9. Moreover, you yourself as well as the majority of scholars believe that Paul is picking up and continuing in Romans 9 the argument of verses that you concede are surrounded by passages that argue against the assumption of unbelieving Jews that their works could commend them to God (Rom 3:1-8 surrounded by 2:1-29 and 3:9-20). Relatedly, Romans 9-11 defends Paul’s gospel of justification by faith against its most potent objection, that it is unfaithful to God’s promises to Israel.

Regarding Rom 9:16’s reference to willing and running, several scholars regard it as a reference to works, not least among these, John Piper in his influential exegesis of Rom 9:1-23, The Justification of God, who points out that there is a substantial parallel to Rom 9:11’s reference to works. And there is good evidence to think that Paul more specifically has the works of the Law in mind. I lay that case out in my book and won’t go over it again here. Instead, I will ask why we should accept your position that Paul speaks generally of human will and effort? You don’t seem to have much positive evidence for it, but seem mainly to rely on the fact that Paul does not explicitly qualify his terms. But it is a fundamental principle of exegesis that meaning is derived from context and background, and so it will not do to insist on only a general meaning based on only what is said explicitly when there are contextual and background factors that suggest a more specific meaning. Let me also point out that whether Paul refers specifically to works of the Law, he does refer to works more than once in Romans 9, including in parallel to Rom 9:16. And faith can never be works in Paul. But finally, as I point out in the book, even if Paul referred not to works generally or to works of the Law specifically, but to any human will or effort of any sort, it does not conflict with my basic reading of the verse that God is the Lord and source of mercy, which he bestows as he sees fit, and that no one can coerce God’s mercy.

# 3: For more than one reason I find it ironic that you would contend that I smuggle faith into Rom 9:6-18. In your commentary on Romans, you yourself admit that Paul’s doctrine of justification is in view in the section. But Paul does not explicitly mention justification in the section. It clearly is in view, and we can tell that because of context (cf. my point about context and background in the immediately preceding paragraph above). Moreover, if you admit that justification is in view in the section, then it makes little sense to deny that faith is also in view, since Paul’s doctrine of justification is justification by faith! This is not even to mention the implication of faith in Rom 9:8 and that the conclusion of Paul’s argument in which he seems to draw up the thrust of what he argues in Rom 9 explicitly mentions faith and refers to justification though not using the exact word.

Let me also point out an inaccurate statement in your review. You said, “Even though Rom 9:6–18 does not mention faith, Abasciano thinks faith is implicit in these verses since justification is clearly by faith in Paul.” My reason for thinking faith to be implicit in the passage is not because justification is by faith in Paul. That would be an obvious non-sequitur. I think faith is implicit for the same types of reasons many scholars, including you, think justification is implicit. Now perhaps you neglected to point out that justification is implicit in the section and really meant to say that I think faith is implicit in these verses because justification is implicit, and justification is clearly by faith in Paul and in Romans. That would be a more adequate description, but still not fully so. It is not as if faith is merely derivative of justification. But the two are so intertwined that the same sorts of textual elements that imply justification also imply faith.

# 4: You claim that I do not distinguish between corporate election in the OT and corporate election in the NT. But I do. There is obvious difference even on the face of it, since election is now in Christ and tied up in the New Covenant. But remember also that this is the second volume of 2 covering Rom 9:1-18. I discussed the difference you mention here in my first volume. It is true that election did not necessarily entail salvation in the OT. But it was ideally meant to issue in salvation as a result of participation in the blessings of the covenant and its conditional promises. As I describe in my article, “Clearing Up Misconceptions about Corporate Election” Ashland Theological Journal 41 (2009) 59-90 (83 n. 18), “In the Old Covenant, the covenant promises were conditional in that they could only be possessed by faith while the covenant generally included all Israelites, including the unbelieving. (Nevertheless, members of the covenant who demonstrated persistent unbelief by violating the covenant law without repentance were to be cut off.) But in the New Covenant, all in the covenant truly possess the promises because all in the New Covenant have faith since it is entered into by faith and believers only continue in the covenant by faith; if they forsake faith in Christ then they are cut off from the covenant.” I do not think my view of corporate and individual election suffers from ambiguity. In line with so much of the Old Testament that finds its fulfillment in the New, New Covenant election is the fulfillment of Old Covenant election, with Christ now fulfilling the role of the covenant head and mediator and his people sharing in his election. No ambiguity here! But what is ambiguous is how your statement that “all those who are elect will also be preserved until the last day” is relevant for the nature of NT corporate election. I suspect that you are invoking the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. But that is irrelevant to the nature of NT corporate election.

# 5: First, let me correct an inaccuracy in your description of my view of Exod 33:19. You assert that I take Exod 33:19 to teach that God shows mercy to those who repent of their sin. But while I do think the broader passage does communicate this, that is not what I say Exod 33:19 itself means. The verse simply states that God will have mercy on whomever he chooses without itself stating whether God will make his choice conditionally or unconditionally. In principle, the verse could go along with either conditional or unconditional election. However, the language used virtually never refers to unconditional choice. But many Calvinist interpreters treat it as though it is the most natural meaning of the language when the very opposite is the case. And when we look to the Old Testament context of the statement, there are indeed positive indications that God’s choice is conditional. So the standard usage of the language supports conditional election and the context supports it as well. There is simply nothing whatsoever in the context that would even hint that God’s choice would be, contrary to the standard usage of the language employed, unconditional.

Your description of the Old Testament context of Exod 33:19 seems inaccurate and like a reading of Calvinistic theology into the text. I present a full exegesis of the Old Testament context in my first book on Romans 9, which covers Rom 9:1-9. Exod 33:19 in context is essentially a response to Moses’ request that God restore covenantal election and its blessings to Israel. God goes on to do just that in the following verses, choosing Israel in covenantal election, not only some from Israel. It is true that Exod 34:5-7 expresses how God acts within the covenant, as I pointed out in the book. But Exod 34:5-7 contains a fuller expression of 33:19 and is a direct development of it. As I state in the book, “Exodus 34:6-7 explain how the principle of 33:19 gets expressed within the covenant” (p. 180), which confirms that the principle of 33:19 is expressed naturally with conditional action/choice/election.

# 6: Concerning the hardening of Pharaoh, after a note of agreement, you just assert positions opposite to mine without substantiation. So I’ll take the opportunity to share something merely anecdotal. Before publishing the book, I submitted my chapter on the hardening of Pharaoh to a distinguished Reformed scholar who is writing a major commentary on Exodus, asking for feedback. I was expecting some serious pushback or criticism of my reading. But to my surprise, the scholar largely agreed with my reading and, if anything, seems to think the divine hardening even less deterministic than I do and plans to cite my work. It is not as if it should be obvious that the divine hardening of Pharaoh was deterministic or irreversible.

Let me again thank you for your gracious and thoughtful review. I too am thankful for your commitment to the Scriptures and your excellent scholarship and exegesis. May our interaction help God’s people to discern his truth and grow in it.

In Christ,

Brian Abasciano