Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Deconstructing Romans 9

A recent letter to another Christian blog writer referenced this bleak little video, in which a young woman who formerly professed faith in Christ shares with her audience why she no longer calls herself a believer. In her video, she quotes and attempts to dissect five passages of scripture that she says “caused me to lose my faith”.

“Losing her faith” also inspired her to start her own YouTube channel debunking it, which currently has 76 videos mostly devoted to “deconstructing” scripture. Jezebel Vibes has over 54,000 subscribers. Naturally, this self-styled “Jezebel” has monetized her apostasy. Viewers are invited to buy one of her deconstructionist T-shirts to share their non-faith with the world.

Hey, it’s YouTube. Why wouldn’t you?

Evangelical Atheism

Deconstruction is an increasingly common pastime these days on social media. I know nothing about Kristi Burke, but it would not surprise me in the slightest to find her alleged intellectual difficulties with scripture are the all-too-predictable rationalistic camoflage for a lifestyle choice condemned in the Bible. No, I’m not accusing a woman I don’t know of any particular sort of wickedness, but that’s usually the way I have observed it to work. Whenever some former proponent of the faith declares God has let him down and he doesn’t believe anymore, it always seems to come in a context in which he is leaving his wife for the love of his life, whose name happens to be Frank. Nobody seems to abandon the faith to live a principled, moral life. Most often, the sinful behavior precedes the deconstruction, not the other way round. Kristi seems unlikely to be the sole exception to this trend, as her short video “Maybe They Are Just Envious of Our Guilt-Free Sin” certainly seems to imply.

The desire to sin guilt-free also explains the eagerness with which deconstructionists embrace the YouTube pulpit. As Paul puts it in Romans 1, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Nobody seems to leave the faith to go off in a corner and quietly live out their lives as they see fit. No, they feel compelled to invest thousands of hours in attempting to undermine or destroy the faith of others, turning their lives into the social media equivalent of a Pride Parade. As Shakespeare put it in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Anyway, nothing about this sad spectacle inspires me to write a passionate defense of the scriptures Kristi insists caused her to lose her faith. For one, I don’t believe they did. Going to Sunday School and Youth Group, being raised in a Christian home, and being familiar with Bible stories and doctrinal passages doesn’t bring you into a living relationship with Christ, and those who have ever truly known Christ don’t fall away. When you have really met Jesus, a nagging doubt or two just makes you search harder for answers. But when someone’s difficulties with Christianity are moral rather than intellectual, you can’t persuade them with better intellectual arguments. Secondly, those passionate defenses of scripture are already out there, and Kristi could easily have looked one up if she were interested in better interpretations of the passages with which she claims to have such intellectual difficulty.

Vessels of Wrath Made for Destruction

One of these is Romans 9:16-24, the famous potter/clay passage concerning vessels of wrath made for destruction, which Calvinists apply to the salvation or damnation of individuals as alleged evidence of their determinist theology. For anyone interested in an alternative interpretation more consistent with the apostle’s thought flow, I’ve examined the passage here and here, so I won’t bother to recycle that lengthy argument in this post. The gist of it is that Paul’s subject is not the eternal salvation of individuals, but rather the sovereign work of God in electing groups of people to strategic roles in human history. We ought to read the entire passage corporately rather than individually. Individuals are always free to choose belief over unbelief, just as Rahab chose to shelter Israel’s spies and side with the people of God rather than perish in Jericho.

I will thank Kristi for provoking me to re-read Peter Kerr’s excellent rebuttal of the standard determinist interpretation of the passage, which she has unfortunately embraced and claims stumbled her. Peter’s Election and Predestination should be required reading for anyone who has difficulty with these concepts. In it, he mentions that Paul lifts the potter/clay analogy from Jeremiah, where it too has absolutely nothing to do with the eternal destiny of individuals.

Potter and Clay

Here’s the passage as it reads in Jeremiah:

“So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.’ ”

What does the clay in the hands of the potter represent? Not an individual heart hardened to refuse the gospel, but a nation or kingdom, specifically the house of Israel. The “vessel of wrath made for destruction” is Judah. The fate with which God threatens the sinful nation is not eternal damnation, but rather that he will “pluck up and break down and destroy it”, in this case through the agency of the Chaldean army. Numerous godly individuals were preserved through this process, including Ezekiel, Daniel and Jeremiah, and we may assume a reasonable number of less-godly individuals survived the siege too. Moreover, even the brazenly wicked Judeans of Jeremiah’s day received ample opportunity to repent corporately and avoid their fate.

When Paul picks up Jeremiah’s analogy and uses it in Romans 9, context tells us he is doing exactly the same thing: talking about the historic destiny of groups, not the salvation of individuals.

Debunking or Discovering?

Deconstructionists claim to want answers, yet seem remarkably disinclined to look for them; their energies are exclusively devoted to debunking rather than discovering. I have found many scriptures difficult on first reading, and I still struggle with a few. Experience has taught me to give the Lord the benefit of the doubt and sit tight. Answers do exist, but only the believing heart is equipped to process them.

As the Lord himself taught in John, if you want to know whether a teaching really comes from God, you must first purpose to do his will.

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