Predestination and Freewill: Joseph Fitzmyer

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

Joseph FitzmyerHaving looked briefly at some of the overarching views of scholars on the purpose of Romans and the insights that can be gained from a contextual understanding of Paul’s message and the implications for scriptural interpretation, let us now consider some of the more popular modern commentaries on Romans. The Anchor Bible commentary emphasizes the context of the division of the strong and weak Christians in Rome, a disunity that seems to stem at least in part from a dichotomous relationship between Jewish and Greek Christians.[1] Here Fitzmyer writes that “[Romans] overwhelms the reader by the density and sublimity of the topic with which it deals, the gospel of the justification and salvation of Jew and Greek alike by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, revealing the uprightness and love of God the Father.”[2] All Christians, indeed all people, are for Paul sinners who will one day face judgment for their sins. Fitzmyer argues that Paul insists on the impartiality of God’s judgment for sin, though he does not address Paul’s construction of any theological anthropology at this point.[3] Given the sinfulness of humanity, the major theme of Romans involves a call to Christian ethical action: “Christians are Jewish and Gentile persons who are justified by grace through faith and who live in Christ Jesus; they are no longer ‘under law but under grace.’ Yet, though already justified and reconciled through the Christ-event, they are still in this world and have to prepare themselves for the day, when ‘God’s just judgment will be revealed.’ Hence, Paul exhorts the Roman Christians” to live an ethical and Godly life in the spirit.[4] Key to understanding Romans 7:1-6 is Paul’s emphasis that “the law’s obligation ceases when death occurs.”[5] Concerning the law in Romans 7:7-13, “Paul implies that the effect of the law is to give human beings knowledge of sin, not only of the abstract notion of sin, but of sin as a dynamic overlord that induces a spirit of rebellion against God and disobedience to his commandments.”[6] Then, in Romans 7:14-25, “[Paul] finds that the problem is not with the law, but with human beings themselves. The trouble is that they are carnal, made of flesh that is weak, and prone to succumb to attacks of sin, which dwells within them. Because of such indwelling sin, human begins fail to achieve what God desires of them. Yet not all in human beings is sin; there is also the mind (nous), which does recognize God’s law and does acknowledge what it desires of humans. But the ‘mind’ itself is not empowered to resist the seductions of sin. Eventually, Paul recognizes the wretched state of human beings and acknowledges that only ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’ can this situation be remedies, through divine grace and the power of the Spirit.”[7]

In interpreting Romans 8:28-30, Joseph Fitzmyer considers Paul’s claim in Romans 3:23, that all have sinned apart from the gospel, and writes that, “now through the gospel God has not only manifested his uprightness and his salvific power in Christ Jesus, but even reveals how his purpose, his plan of salvation, destines all justified Christians for a share of glory in his presence.”[8] Fitzmyer understands Paul on this point to be speaking corporately: “He does not have in mind the predestination of individuals (either glory or damnation). Such an interpretation of these chapters began with Augustine in his controversy with Pelagians, and it has distracted interpreters of Romans from the main thrust of Paul’s discussion in these chapters since…. Paul begins by affirming that everything that happens to Christians in earthly life is somehow governed by God’s providence.”[9] Fitzmyer believes Romans 9:6-13 to be primarily concerned with God’s role concerning the corporate people of Israel, not the issue of individual predestination and salvation.[10] The salvation history of Israel, of primary consideration for Paul, becomes born out later in chapter nine. Paul does not have individual soteriological concerns in mind; instead he is interested in the power of God over the people of Israel. Indeed, “Paul uses this OT image [Potter and Clay] to inculcate the idea that a creature cannot really ask God to account for his ways. Hence the fact that Israel has reacted as it has to God’s new mode of salvation argues in no way that God has lost control of Israel.”[11] Thus, for Fitzmyer, while there are soteriological concerns that can be drawn from Romans 7-9, they must be derived from this passage carefully. Interpreters must consider that Paul does not directly have individual soteriology in mind when writing the passage and that when he does consider soteriological concerns, he does so on a corporate level in considering the election of the people of Israel as the people of God.


[1] Romans: A New Translation with Commentary. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. The Anchor Bible, Vol. 33. Doubleday: New York, 1993. 63-84. [2] Ibid., xiii. [3] Ibid., 136. [4] Ibid., 141-3. [5] Ibid., 455; Generally a non-issue for Christians today, but apparently an important enough concern for Paul to address in his context. [6] Ibid., 463. [7] Ibid., 472. [8] Ibid., 521. [9] Ibid., 522. [10] Ibid., 558-9. [11] Ibid., 565-6.


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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