Friday, June 1, 2012

Book Review: Abasciano on Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:10-18

This book follows "Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:1-9: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis" as Dr. Abasciano dives deeper into Romans 9 by examining 9:10-18.  (link to Amazon) The work is organized, in-depth and supported by careful examination of the original languages as well as a broad reading of historic and current scholarship. Its main appeal is to those who enjoy detailed exegetical works and those seeking answers on Romans 9.

A big picture view is in order before digging into the details. Dr. Abasciano holds that Romans 9 teaches corporate election, so his interpretation is not Calvinistic, nor is it like the church fathers who held Romans 9 teaches election based on foreknowledge, nor is it like the dispensationalists who hold Romans 9 describes the election of Israel to non-saving blessings, nor is it like the many classic Arminians who said the passage teaches how God will save (i.e. by faith) rather than who God will save (though Dr. Abasciano’s view has much in common with this view). Rather, Dr. Abasciano defines election as God’s choosing a group to be His people. While the group will certainly be saved, individuals may join or leave the group. God forms the group first and foremost by choosing Christ as the Corporate Head and source of salvation for group members and also by choosing Abraham and the Patriarchs as the vehicle for receiving and establishing salvation in Christ. God also sets the condition for joining the group; faith in Christ. Dr. Abasciano also mentions the condition for leaving the group; unbelieving apostasy from Christ, which applies both to Israel's national apostasy and individual apostasy.

So Paul answers the Jewish objection of “but we are God’s chosen people” with, “no you’re not” or perhaps, “not anymore”. Israel is represented by Esau who traded in his birthright as firstborn, rather than the chosen Jacob; because Israel for the most part has apostatized leaving the true Israel. Now perhaps Dr. Abasciano does see God’s election of Abraham as a multifaceted diamond with some aspects that provide blessings to ethnic Israel, but if so, that’s not the aspect Paul is discussing in Romans 9 and from what I could gather, Romans 11 either (i.e. it does not seem Dr. Abasciano holds to the reading of Romans 11 wherein God will save ethnic Israel in end times). Instead, Romans 9-11 discusses salvation - including corporate election by faith over and against salvation by works or nationality.

Now that we have seen the bird’s eye view, let’s not overlook some of the gems Dr. Abasciano leaves for us along the path. The study starts with helpful background material on Genesis 25:23 and Malachi 1:3, both of which support corporate election to salvation and also hint at the possibility of Esau and the Gentiles rejoining God’s people due to the promise that all nations would be blessed through Abraham. Paul appeals to Jacob to show God’s right to choose/name whoever He wants for His people. Paul’s argument relies on his audience knowing the original contexts of Genesis 25 and Malachi 1, and even contradicts the interpretive tradition of Jacob being chosen and Esau rejected based on works.

Dr. Abasciano provides a wonderful review of the different ways people understand the phrase "the purpose of God according to election" wherein he finds the phrase most likely means “election as a means to fulfilling God’s purpose” rather than “a purpose to elect” or “election is the basis for God’s purpose”. He views the purpose of election as to save the world.

Dr. Abasciano finds the means of salvation (faith in Christ) implicitly in the phrases “the children of the promise are counted as the seed” and “God who calls” in Romans 9:8, 9:11) and more explicitly in Romans 9:30 through Romans 11. Thus Paul defends justification by faith by discussing corporate election. Interestingly, Dr. Abasciano states he is undecided if Paul presents the election of Jacob as the corporate head as conditional or unconditional though he leans towards conditional and says it doesn't matter much since individuals join the corporate body on the condition of faith in Christ. Dr. Abasciano reasons that since Old Testament election in general and the passages Paul quotes in particular relate a corporate election, then it is most natural to take Paul as holding a corporate understanding of election and conveying such in Romans 9.

In Romans 9:6-13, Paul responds to the objection that God’s promise to Israel failed. The question in verse 14 of “is there unrighteousness with God” refers specifically to God's faithfulness to His promises to Israel, rather than generally to God's character in election. So Romans 9:14-18 repeats and further clarifies Romans 9:6-13 rather than answering new questions about God’s character spawning from his initial response. Thus the main point of the quotation “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” is not that God provides covenant status through mercy instead of works or ancestry. Rather Paul's point of the quote is that God can show mercy in the way He wishes in order to support God's election/mercy being conditioned on faith in Christ.

In Exodus 32-34, Israel lost its elect status and God pronounced He can have mercy on whoever He chooses and in whatever way He chooses. Since Exodus 32-34 is about corporate election, so is Romans 9:15. Willing and running refer to desire and effort to keep the law.

In the Exodus account, God rescues His people to fulfill His covenant with Abraham. God hardens Pharaoh to give occasion for the plagues so people would know the Lord, and this purpose enjoyed immediate fulfillment in a mixed multitude (including presumably some Egyptians) leaving with Israel. Hardening also punishes past sins, including the slaying of the Hebrew children and the refusal to let God’s people go.

Dr. Abasciano analyzes the three Hebrew words for hardening and determines that hardening is a strengthening of Pharaoh against fear of plagues, so Pharaoh can do what he really wants; refuse to let Israel go. Hardening is not the withdrawing of divine grace, but rather God working in an indirect and natural manner. Exodus 9 and Romans 11 show hardening is reversible and Moses' anger with Pharaoh in chapter 11 shows Pharaoh’s responsibility and ability to capitulate. The idea is not that a stubborn person cannot move his own will, but that someone else can't move it.

Paul’s main point in the Pharaoh quotation was God’s sovereignty and to present Pharaoh as a type for rejected unbelieving Israel, who had stumbled on the Stumbling Stone because they wished to be justified by ancestry and works. Secondarily, Paul’s point in the quotation is that just as hardening Pharaoh led to people knowing the Lord, so the hardening of the Jews is leading to the evangelization of the Gentiles. Dr. Abasciano argues that the phrase "raise up" could also be translated as “allow to live”. Given the Romans 9:17 quotation is more like the Hebrew than the Septuagint, Dr. Abasciano provides an interesting excursus on if Paul translates directly from Hebrew at times. Overall, Pharaoh answers the negative side of God’s right to show mercy to whoever and in whatever manner He chooses.

The volume closes by reviewing the connections between this volume and the preceding showing that this study confirms the conclusions of the first book and by looking forward to the upcoming third volume. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion to this trilogy.

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