J.P. Holding spent some time in his essay arguing that God’s choice of Jacob over Esau can be seen as a cost/benefit analysis on God’s part; that is, he invests a large amount of space discussing hypotheticals (infused with a little Molinism just for the fun of it–no, of course there is no effort to ground Molinism, or any of this, in the text itself) concerning alien planets and different races and the like, all to assert that it seems God chose Jacob because there would be more people “saved” if Jacob was chosen than if Esau was chosen (and I guess God, having that magical “middle knowledge,” could “foresee” this). So he writes,
Is there unrighteousness with God? Hardly. “Why not choose me?” — Esau. At the very least it may be said in reply, “Because look what happens if you do!” Now obviously we are using mere number of saved here as an exemplary hypothesis — the multiplicity of possibilities and events is much, much more involved, to a degree that blows Job out of the water and into the orbit of Pluto and beyond. Only God can manage the multiplicity! That’s why Paul’s final answer is the same as it was to Job: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” In other words, what do you know?
But we have not covered every aspect as yet. The crux of election is Romans 9:16 —
So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.
It is our contention that Romans 9 may be better understood in terms of the rubric of primary causality. But we anticipate the objection that we would be thereby reading into the text a concept not found therein. Our answer is that we would not expect it to be found within Romans 9 or any explanation offered by Paul — because such an “explanation expectation” would be the product of a Western low-context mind rather than a Hebrew high-context one, like Paul’s.
This then is what led to the “Hebrew block logic” discussion in the previous installment. I review it here because that was a bit of an “excursus,” and you need the previous section to follow what comes next. When Holding comes back to Romans 9:16, the key text he is seeking to answer from a non-Reformed perspective, he writes: “Then we have the matter of Jacob and Esau. Why one over the other? As we have suggested, one might theorize that under Esau, fewer would be saved than Jacob; or otherwise, God’s purpose was not served by Esau as it was by Jacob. Simple enough.” Of course, the person seeking to hear Paul in his own context, and finding the preceding arguments to be both disconnected from the text, and involving a great deal of eisegesis, has already had to get off Holding’ train, so to speak. But leaving that aside, he goes on:
Yet this has not been suggested, as yet, by any Calvinist commentary that I have seen on Romans 9. Rather it seems that there is a stumbling block to this interpretation involving 9:16 — “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.” The conclusion reached from this is that, as White puts it, “There was nothing in the twins that determined the choice.” [208, emphasis added] That is why Paul makes it clear that the matter was decided before the twins were born; thus the source of election is solely in God.
There is a reason why no Calvinist takes Holding’s position: we tend to be folks driven by exegesis. Creating extensive external “systems” based upon speculations involving other planets, Hebraisms disconnected from the text under consideration, and the like, is not the hallmark of Reformed exegesis. Of course, there are many who call themselves “Reformed” today who are embracing stranger and stranger things, so maybe someday someone will come up with something like Holding’s view while calling themselves Reformed, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. But we continue:
I am not sure whether White would disagree with what follows, but as the matter is stated by both he and Piper (“not merely prior to their good or evil deeds, but…also completely independently of them”) there seems to be a certain dissonance with a later portion of Romans 9. Paul goes on to analogically compare men to vessels made by the Potter. Doesn’t this indicate that vessels are made for certain purposes? (Of course it does.) And does this not suggest that to fulfill their purpose the vessels are made a certain way, and that there is something about them which fulfills the purpose? The point I see missed here is that the indication is not so much “completely independent” of what was in the twins, as what was in them that God as the Potter (and Prime Mover) created in them to enact His sovereign will. And it is not as though Esau could “compete” for Jacob’s place, or as though Jacob could boast because God made him more in line with the purpose He had established. We cannot boast of being a better runner if our legs are equipped with booster rockets. (We could boast, actually, but to do so would be profoundly silly!)
Allow me to answer the question included in the citation, “Yes, White would disagree with what follows.” Though it is hard to follow the reasoning, it seems Holding is arguing that if God makes vessels of mercy or vessels of wrath for a particular purpose, then there must be something “about them” which fulfills God’s purpose. But Holding has missed the point of both myself and John Piper: the choice by God is independent of what the twins did, good or evil: the point of the text is the freedom of God to accomplish His will independently of human interference or assistance. The emphasis is the freedom of God, not the freedom of creatures. Holding continues:
Consider this now as well with reference to Pilch and Malina’s observation that in an ancient context, “mercy” is better rendered as “gratitude” or “steadfast love” — as in, “the debt of interpersonal obligations for unrepayable favors received.” Mercy is not involved with feelings of compassion, as today, but the “paying of one’s debt of interpersonal obligation by forgiving a trivial debt.” To say, “Lord, have mercy!” (Matt. 20:31) means, “Lord, pay up your debt of interpersonal obligation to us!” Far from being a plea of the hapless, it is a request to pay back previously earned favor from our client (God) whose patron we are.
One should always take note when someone begins to define well-known, often used terms differently than they have been understood by the entire breadth of scholarship for a very long time, especially when they use non-standard sources to do so (remember the lesson of Dave Hunt). Here, Holding uses a single reference to a single source to overthrow the entirety of the body of Hebrew lexical study, and that without once making reference to the original languages or the issues involved in the translation thereof! The pattern is becoming familiar: single references expanded to general principles that are applied to specific texts without any concern for the actual language or context. Holding is not the first to do so, of course: he just does so with such confidence that those without the ability to evaluate the claims find him more compelling than someone like Dave Hunt. There is a reason why no modern translation done by committee renders the text the way Holding suggests: that’s not what “mercy” means, either in the OT as a whole, or in the NT, and surely not in Romans 9:16. Holding is simply beyond the left field bleachers on this one. In our next installment we shall list the problems with this “translation” and provide a response thereto. [continued]