It’s worth reiterating the importance of what was said in Deacon Hall’s post about not making demands on God. Only a universalism with this conditioning could be ”biblical.” Indeed, concerning these things, “Do not be arrogant, but tremble” (Rom 11:20).
And to stress God’s absolute freedom, doesn’t Paul warn that God could have made us, like clay in the potter’s hands, “objects for his wrath” (Rom 9:22)? But as recipients of “the good news that’s better than that,”[i] we choose to believe and humbly confess: this isn’t the last word. The love and character of God revealed in Christ says otherwise.
The voices of condemnation and heresy hunting have been too loud lately. They leave their traces everywhere on the blogosphere. Normally, we can ignore them, or at least drown them out with a more generous orthodoxy, not laying claim to any one interpretation absolutely. But instead of running for the hills when we hear red flag phrases like “biblical Christianity” thrown around, it might be better to answer this time.
In light of this, after Tripp and Deacon Hall’s posts, and in the spirit of “continuing the conversation” Rob Bell has started into the “next inning” (McLaren), I thought it might be constructive to look at a common exclusivist proof text from Romans 10:14-15 (see recent examples here and here), by which certain sects try to justify the belief that the vast majority of humanity in history must be consigned to hell – whatever hell is exactly (see a great post by Ben Witherington at Patheos about this here). I think that challenging this narrow and restrictive viewpoint, successfully or not, was Rob Bell’s chief concern in Love Wins.
14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Roman 9-11 as a whole is concerned with the tension between Israel’s disobedience and election.
Chapter 10 in particular addresses the gospel – the “Word of or about Christ/messiah/God” – as that which Israel indeed has “heard” before and should know. Paul references Isaiah 53:1, and the aorist (past) tense of the Greek word for “obey” in this case clearly makes reference to an announcement already received, having prepared the way as a condition for the present preaching of Christ by “missionaries.”[ii] Paul is saying that the Hebrews should have recognized Jesus as a “suffering servant” like the figure depicted in Isaiah’s song.
The correlations between the latter part of Isaiah and Romans are striking:
Isaiah 49:18 (see Rom 14:11), 50:8 (see Rom 8:33), 51:1 (see Rom 9:31), 51:8 (see Rom 1:17), 52:5 (see Rom 2:24), 52:7 (see Rom 10:15), 54:16 (see Rom 9:22), 59:7 (see Rom 3:15-17), 59:20 (see Rom 11:26)
But concerning v. 14 most explicitly, which is where the attention must be focused:
“To explain ou ouk ekousan as meaning ‘about whom they have not heard’ is not really feasible; for the use of akouein with the simple genitive of the person meaning ‘to hear about (someone)’ would be very unusual.”[iii] In other words, Paul is not condemning those who have not heard yet. Calvin’s commentary, which is otherwise still useful, awkwardly takes these questions to be referencing the Gentiles, but this makes little sense in view of Paul’s on-going mission, seeking of funds, and intention to travel all the way to Spain. He’s clearly just talking about Israel here (10.1) since he answers his own question in the affirmative (10.18 – “did they not hear? Of course they did”).
Furthermore, the “beautiful feet” of v. 15 would be merely “decoration” if this verse were meant to exclude those who haven’t heard a priori, but instead it forms the next step in the argument and draws our attention to Isaiah 52:7, showing that that prophetic message had indeed been fulfilled, and the apostolic proclamation commissioned. This runs quite contrary to interpretations by those like Thomas Schreiner who insist on an exclusivist reading, as he even laments the inclusivist leanings of C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham![iv]
“I will make you jealous of one that is not a nation, and with a foolish nation I will provoke you” – v. 19.
And even Isaiah anticipates this. Israel’s rejection of the prophets had been seen before:
“All day long, I stretched out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Isaiah 65:2).
Jesus echoes this in Luke 13:34:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Ok, great, so God loves the Gentiles . . .But does God abandon Israel? No, God remains faithful to the covenant – something Paul has in mind throughout the letter, just as was promised to Abraham:[v]
“I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means!” (Rom 11:1)
There is some harsh language in this passage, so we must be careful and not take our “inclusion” for granted, but before the closing doxology, “Paul’s [final] emphasis is on the positive rather than the negative: this remnant people is being formed on the basis of God’s gift in Christ Jesus (5:16; 6:23).”[vi]
30Just as you who [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31 so they [Israel] too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all (Rom 11:30-32).
Sounds like a good promise! Is Paul contradicting himself? No, for the people of Israel are still representative of God’s chosen people whom he is saving, and this judgment at present is penultimate,[vii] but the justification of the ungodly by faith on account of God’s righteousness (perhaps the major theme of Romans), which is also the resurrection from the dead, is the only hope both of the world in general and also of Israel.[viii]
Let us be awed by the depths of the riches and the mercies and purposes of God! (11:33-36)
[i] See Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011).
[ii] Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: a literary and theological commentary (Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2008), 173.
[iii] C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans (T&T Clark Int’l, 2004), 534.
[iv] See Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Baker Books, 1998).
[v] Johnson, Reading Romans, 177.
[vi] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic, 2009), 180.
[vii] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, 1st ed. (HarperOne, 1996), 415.
[viii] Ernst Kasemann, New Testament Questions of Today (SCM Press, 1969), 187.