Where Calvinism Gets Romans 9 Wrong: Who do Jacob and Esau Represent?

After posting my exegesis of Romans 9, I deemed a follow-up series of posts necessary to show why the observations made therein are relevant to the debate on the conditionality of election. Interestingly, I’ve had a few comments that my exegesis sounds “Calvinistic;” this is quite far from the truth. Said post was actually foundational for showing where Calvinists often misinterpret the chapter.

The first major exegetical error that most Calvinists make with regards to Romans 9 is confusing who and what Paul is using his analogies (Isaac & Ishmael, Jacob & Esau) to describe. Looking at the text in question,

9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”
10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac
11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls),
12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” [quoting Genesis 25:23]
13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”

Rev. John Samson delivers commentary typical of the of the Calvinist position,

Regarding this issue of election, of God choosing one and not another, the Apostle denies in very clear and emphatic language that there is unrighteousness or unfairness in God. There is no injustice in God, and lets remember, there was no righteousness in us, which would require God to be gracious to us. … God reserves the right to dispense His mercy as He sees fit, to the person or persons He chooses.

I would agree with Rev. Samson and other Calvinists to the ideas that God is just in choosing as He wishes to, and that He’s under no obligation to save anyone. Where they drop the ball comes out in the latter sentence: equating God’s choosing as illustrated in Romans 9 with individual persons. In the Calvinist mindset, Isaac and Jacob represent individuals who are elected by God, and Ishmael and Esau represent those who are rejected (reprobate). Employing that assumption, they attempt to build something along the lines of, “God chose Jacob over Esau prior to their even being born! This demonstrates that God unconditionally chooses which people He wants to save.” In short, they see the difference between Jacob and Esau as being directly analogous to the difference between one who is elected by God and one who is rejected.

The Chapter’s Context

A close examination of the passage reveals the standard Calvinist interpretation to be oversimplified and decontextualized. Looking again at the very beginning of the chapter, does Paul’s main point pertain to why unbelievers in general are rejected? Looking at the verses that lead up to the analogies, it reads,

1 I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit,
2 that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart.
3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen [or kinsmen] according to the flesh,
4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises;
5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.
6 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel…

As can be easily seen, the context of the chapter up to where the analogies are used is addressing why many of the Jews fail to obtain God’s promises (while many Gentiles in the church do). It must also be noted that Paul isn’t switching subjects when he employs the analogies, the wording in verses 6-9 is particularly clear:

7 nor are they [the Jews] all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.”
8 That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.
9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”

Many of the Jews are not the seed of Abraham because the children of the flesh aren’t accounted as his seed, the children of promise are. The analogies of Abraham’s descendants are then used to illustrate the contrast between the Israel of flesh and the Israel of promise. That Paul is still addressing the issue of national versus spiritual Israel is made even more apparent by the conclusion of his message in the chapter,

30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith;
31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.
33 As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”

Israel is in fact the major theme of Paul’s exposition that begins in Romans 9 and continues to the end of Romans 11. Given the context of the chapter, the analogies of Ishmael and Esau being rejected in favor of their younger siblings then can only pertain to national Israel (Paul’s kindred according to the flesh that he loves) and its rejection in favor of spiritual Israel (his spiritual kin in Christ). In other words, Jacob and Esau aren’t being used to contrast some given saint and Joe-the-Generic-Unbeliever, but they’re figures of two distinct groups: the children of the fleshly covenant of Sinai, and the children of promise through faith (which is largely, though not exclusively composed of Gentiles – Romans 11:1-5).

The Calvinist methodology of interpreting Jacob and Esau as a representation of how individuals are chosen then is a decontextualized over-stretching of the analogy, and thus fundamentally flawed. The context of the chapter plainly dictates that the analogies demonstrate the choosing of one group over the other according to God’s eternal purpose in Christ.

Possible objections by Calvinists

Some Calvinists may object that Jacob and Esau were individuals, and thus would most naturally be expected to represent individuals. This objection falls short for a few reasons:

1.) As I pointed out in the original post, the figures of Isaac and Ishmael were used explicitly in Galatians 4:21-31 to convey the two covenants (and the members thereof).

2.) The original word of promise cited in Romans 9 even refers to the children as nations (i.e. representative heads of two people groups),

And the Lord said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

They were the corporate heads of the nations of Israel and the Edomites, and analogously represent the children of the flesh under the old covenant, and the children of promise under the new.

A second objection is that what applies to a group must apply to to all of its members as well, so if a group is specifically group is chosen, then every individual in that group must be specifically chosen. This is what is known as “fallacy of composition,” assuming that what applies to a group must necessarily apply to all of its members. Counter-example: “The U.S. military was of substantial power to topple the government of Iraq, therefore every member of the U.S. military was of substantial power to topple the government of Iraq.” The counter-example shows such reasoning to be unsound, since it took a substantial number of members to be an adequate fighting force to overthrow a government, because what applies to a group doesn’t necessarily apply to every member. Therefore, a group being chosen doesn’t imply that all of its members are chosen in the same way or sense.

A third possible objection is that much of the language in Romans 9 is singular, which a major objection by Thomas Schreiner to the concept of corporate election in Romans 9 (“Does Romans 9 teach individual election unto salvation? Some exegetical and theological reflection”, JETS 36/1 (March 1993) 25-40). Dr. Brian Abasciano pointed out in his reply to Schreiner that Paul’s usage of the singular is consistent with the collective singular (i.e. a collective group represented by a singular head) language employed throughout the Old Testament, as demonstrated by the language in Genesis 25 above. And finally, even if phenomena that pertain to individuals are spoken of in Romans 9, this doesn’t change the fact that the context of the chapter, including the preceding verses, leaves no room for interpreting the Isaac/Ishmael and Jacob/Esau analogies as anything but the natural and spiritual nations of Israel, not individuals.

14 thoughts on “Where Calvinism Gets Romans 9 Wrong: Who do Jacob and Esau Represent?

  1. Well done brother J.C.. Although this is good, I still feel as if my understanding of why Calvinists believe what they do is not acceptable. I will try to read the Institutes and compare Calvin’s exposition of Romans 9 with Arminian ones, and I think that such woud be a plentiful experience.

  2. Sorry, but I have to offer a criticism: Shouldn’t the first part of the title be, “Just One Among Many Places Where Calvinists Get Romans 9 Wrong” ?

  3. You are right on with this one, Mr. Thibodaux. Calvinists (and honestly many other groups throughout Christian history) often argue from a general to an individual when the general was all that was meant. In religion we cannot often take things to a logical conclusion or else we end up with cruel, foolish, or bizarre interpretations.

  4. @ JJ,

    Briefly, my understanding of the Rom. 9 passage is Paul’s answer to the Jewish objections of, ‘Why must one believe in Jesus if one is physically descended from Abraham, given God’s blessings on Abraham?’ and also, ‘How can it be that God will show favour on the Gentiles?’ Rom. 9 accentuates that belief in Jesus is for salvation, not physical, descended merit. This ties in with the corporate election (“in him”) of Eph, 1, also.

  5. The problem I noticed with this site is that no one seems to understand the doctrine of man’s absolute vileness and wickedness in the Bible. I swear, every generation man is just getting better and better.

  6. Everyone should read Arminius’ commentary on Romans 9, I think it is the best treatment. My own view is very close to Arminius himself. My own view is inbetween Dr. Cottrell’s article on Romans 9 and Arminius and also Dr.Abiasciano’s. I do agree with Arminius and Dr. Abiasciano that Romans 9 is talking about salvation,as opposed to Dr. Cottrell who says it is talking about election to service. But I agree with Dr.. Cottrell that what God is doing is unconditional, that is he decides what method he will use without anyone’s input

    Whether we are talking group election or not, it really doesn’t matter, in my opinion, because either way it is true that one cannot philosophically separate groups from individuals, though you can in specific contexts in Scripture.

    I think the key problem that Arminians have to be careful about is about foreknowledge and if God is in time or not. Let us assume that God is in time, because how else can we talk about him in his interaction with us? Then simple foreknowledge becomes a problem because then God can only know everything as contingents unless he specifcally plans something.

    So God would not predestine specific people because we believe in free will, so then we cannot believe in simple foreknowledge. When Arminians talk about foreknowledge then,as in Romans 9, we must think of another way. That way, I submit is where prognosis or proginwskw (foreknowledge in Greek) means to “judge beforehand” or “to perceive ahead of time” as in someone who comes up with a plan (like Hannibal from the A-team). The Greek word has this meaning in a few Greek texts, one being Demosthenes.

    So either way it really doesnt matter if it is group election or not. What God does is say, “Whoever believes” are the individuals who are going to be chosen. But the key is that it is not individuals in the sense that Calvinists see it if the future is conditioned on people’s response, so God says more specifically, “Whoever freely believes”

  7. Great explanation…however, one typo…I know I’m a few years late…sorry 🙂

    You say, “Israel is in fact the major theme of Paul’s exposition that begins in Romans 9 and continues to the end of Romans 11. Given the context of the chapter, the analogies of ISAAC and JACOB being rejected in favor of their younger siblings…”

    I think you meant, “…the analogies of Ishmael and Esau being rejected in favor of their young siblings…”

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