Predestination and Freewill: Modern Scholars on Romans 7-9, Part II

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

BookshelvesMany context scholars emphasize the importance of remembering Paul’s Jewish-worldview[1] in reading and interpreting Romans.[2] Bruce Malina and John Pilch argue in their Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, that each of his letters would have been, to some degree, “pre-read” by collectivist recipients of the Ancient Mediterranean context.[3] Malina and Pilch believe that Paul was primarily apostle to the Jews living among the Gentiles, and thus place a strong emphasis on the elect status of the people of Israel within Romans.[4] Within his social setting, Malina and Pilch argue that Paul’s message was one of social and religious innovation and not conversion, which he only worked within the elect of Israel, though among the Gentile people outside of Israel.[5] Thus in commenting on Romans 7, Malina and Pilch argue that Paul writes concerning the relationship of the elect before Jesus’ death and resurrection and the current condition of those who have now becomes slaves to death. “Paul describes the before/after situation in terms of persons under the control of others (husband, slave owner, possessing spirit) who lose their control by death. A dead husband, a former slave owner, and an exorcised possessing spirit lose their entitlements to control others.”[6] Malina and Pilch read Romans eight in a similar manner, understanding Paul’s primary concern in light of “us” versus “them,” the elect controlled by the spirit and those controlled by the flesh.[7] In chapter nine, Malina and Pilch argue that Paul focuses solely on the elect of Israel as a people group marked off by the common features of “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and according to the flesh, the Messiah, Jesus.”[8] Regarding Romans 9:19-24, Paul’s construction of God indicates that He chooses whom to call and not call, and the comparison of the potter clearly indicated to the ancient Mediterranean audience that people have nothing to say about how God forms them. Thus, Paul can conclude that based upon his calling that God’s call goes to all of us Israelites, not only from those resident in Judea, but also from those resident among non-Israelites.[9] Thus Malina and Pilch’s social science commentary emphasizes Paul’s Jewish qualities in such a way that heightens the distinctive characteristics of Israel as the chosen people of God, though in a modified manner through Christ.

Before we consider some commentary treatments of Paul and his letter to the Romans, let us quickly survey several additional views held by scholars on the purpose and context of Romans 7 through 9. Richard Longenecker believes that most important considerations for Paul in writing Romans were his delivery of a spiritual gift to help them better understand the world[10] and mission emphasis for Spain. Thus in Romans 5-8, Longenecker believes that Paul expresses the spiritual gift of Christian freedom for both Jewish and, especially, Gentile Christians.[11] Longenecker then proposes that Romans 9-11 be “best understood when it is approached in terms of a Jewish and/or Jewish/Christian ‘remnant theology,’ which combines both a distinctive use of OT texts and distinctive type of Jewish rhetoric.”[12] W.A. Elwell writes that “Paul teaches that in all of God’s dealings with the created order he works according to a predetermined plan, as eternal as himself, in such a way that his own inner being and divine good are satisfied. That plan has a definite goal: to sum up all things in Christ. This encompasses objects, means, and ends…. With respect to human beings, it is important to emphasize that Paul speaks of the election of sinners, that is, he joins means and end. The good news of the gospel is that humans do not need to work their way into God’s favor (indeed, they cannot). Rather, God’s grace is given freely. This excludes human boasting and results in the eternal praise of God’s goodness.”[13]

L. Morris argues that key for Paul’s theology is the fact that, “The initiative in salvation is with God… Indeed almost every passage dealing with salvation could be cited, for characteristically Paul puts before his readers information about a salvation in one sense already brought about by Christ and in another sense to be consummated by the age to come. In neither is there the slightest suggestion that human effort avails. It is relevant that Paul prays for the salvation of Israel, for if their salvation is a matter of prayer, then clearly it is to be a gift of God. Salvation is brought about by God in Christ.”[14] Michael Middendorf offers a perspective that addresses concerns of soteriology directly, writing that “Paul does not speak specifically in terms of ‘getting into God’s covenant’ in Romans. Rather, in somewhat broader fashion and with legal terminology, he addresses the issue of how one can and cannot become righteous before God.”[15] In Middendorf’s view, Paul “uses Romans 7 to exclude the possibility of anyone attempting either to become righteous or to maintain righteous standing before God by observing the Law’s commands.”[16] The Oxford Bible Commentary offers a similar perspective, indicating that “the concern of Romans is not so much to explain justification by faith in Christ as to explain how such a stereological system upholds God’s righteousness, especially God’s righteousness toward non-Christian Israel.”[17] Clearly then, there are a plethora of interpretations of Paul’s purposes and contexts for his letter to the Church at Rome that scholars employ in seeking to understand the purpose and application of specific passages, including those that take direct issue with the concerns that Luther and Erasmus derive from Romans.


[1] And perhaps even his Pharisaic background. [2] Alan F. Segal. “Paul’s Jewish Presuppositions.” The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul. Edited by James D.G. Dunn. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2003. 159-172. [3] Bruce J. Malina and John J. PIlch. Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2006. 1-3. [4] Ibid., 4-12. [5] Ibid., 23-5. [6] Ibid., 254. [7] Ibid., 258-63. [8] Ibid., 265. [9] Ibid., 267. [10] Richard N. Longenecker. Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul’s Most Famous Letter. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2011. 159. [11] Ibid., 372-4. [12] Ibid., 410. [13] W.A. Elwell. “Election and Predestination.” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Editors Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1993. 228. [14] L. Morris. “Salvation.” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Editors Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1993. 859. [15] Michael Paul Middendorf. The “I” in the Storm: A Study of Romans 7. Concordia Academic Press: St. Louis, 1997. 258. [16] Ibid., 259-60. [17] The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. “Romans.” Craig C. Hill. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2001. 1099.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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