God hardened Pharaoh’s Heart

Theology / Biblical Studies

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Spoiler: God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, making him reject Moses’ pleas to let the Israelite slaves go free.

I saw a discussion unfolding the other day (and weighed in) about Romans 9 and the issue of divine sovereignty. With the greatest respect to all parties involved, what I saw – and what I have seen numerous times, actually – looked like St Paul’s publicity agent explaining to the press why Paul’s latest tweet really didn’t mean what it pretty obviously did mean. A range of issues in the interpretation of this passage were discussed, but one of them was the way in which Paul uses Pharaoh in the Exodus story as an example of divine sovereignty in action. A number of people use the argument I encountered, and it goes like this: You might think this is a case of strong divine sovereignty where God is responsible for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, but if you look back into the account in Exodus, the writer said actually that Pharaoh hardened his heart. So God was not ultimately responsible, Pharaoh was. I was thus told that this is not really an example of the strong view of divine sovereignty that I think it is.

In fact in this particular conversation, when I replied by pointing out that Paul explained the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by saying that God did it, I was met with the extraordinary claim that yes, we can all agree that Paul states that God was one of the agents responsible for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. But this is not agreement at all. At the risk of stating the obvious to everyone, while you might personally maintain that God was simply one of the agents but was not ultimately responsible, this is not what Paul states here (unless there is a missing fragment that we are all unaware of). Let’s quickly review how the subject comes up in this letter (although I will be focusing on only one aspect of Paul’s discussion here, namely what he says about Pharaoh).

Outlining Paul’s Claims

At the start of Romans 9, Paul expresses sorrow that Israel as a whole did not turn and receive Christ when he came. And yet, there are all these promises in Scripture to Israel. What gives? Did these promises somehow fail? No, says Paul. Paul claims that not everyone who is from the national of Israel is truly of Israel. It’s not the “children of the flesh” who are the children of God, but the children of God’s promise. Just look at the example of Jacob and Esau, Paul says. Even before they had been born and done anything good or bad, God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. But this doesn’t seem fair! Isn’t God being unjust? Paul answers this challenge partly by declaring that a potter has the right to prepare some vessels for one purpose, even destruction, and some vessels for glory. The clay has no right to complain to the potter about what the potter has made.

But before getting to the analogy of the potter and the clay, Paul first addresses the charge of injustice by using the example of Pharaoh as an instance of God demonstrating his right to act this way, in verses 14-18.

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (ESV)

As I hope we can all see, there is no claim here about God being one of the agents. Instead, we are simply told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as an example of the principle that God hardens whomever he wills. Even more than that, we are told, perhaps uncomfortably, that God raised this man, Pharaoh, up for this very purpose: To show his power when Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and deliver the Israelites miraculously when Pharaoh refused.

But What About Exodus?

True, there is no denying that in the Exodus narrative, Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart. Actually the Exodus description is rather mixed, as follows:

“And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” (4:21)

“But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt…” (7:3)

“But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.” (7:22)

“But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.” (8:15)

“But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had spoken to Moses.” (9:12)

“But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants.” (9:34)

“Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them,” (10:1)

“But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go.” (10:20)

“Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.” (11:10)

God always describes the hardening as his own action.

There are several other examples in the Exodus story, but you get the idea. Notice something interesting (or at I least I think it’s interesting). Whenever God describes what is going on, God says that he has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Unless I have missed an exceptional example, God is never depicted as saying that Pharaoh hardened his heart. God always describes the hardening as his own action. Whenever Pharaoh is said to harden his heart, the description comes within the narration of what Pharaoh did, not the divine description. This opens up the opportunity to explain the difference between theology “from below” and theology “from above.”

A God’s-Eye Perspective

Within the context of a narrative “from below,” that is, a description of events as the observer beheld them, this is all that we could expect to find here: Pharaoh hardened his heart. If God did indeed harden Pharaoh’s heart, we would not see it happening other than by observing that Pharaoh appeared to harden his heart and reject the imperative of Moses. What else should we expect to see – puppet strings from the sky? In other words, the fact that Pharaoh was observed to harden his heart against Moses and the Israelites is compatible with the explanation that it was God who hardened his heart, and it is compatible with the explanation that God did not ultimately cause the hardening of his heart. As is generally the case with narratives, we only see what happened. We do not see why it happened. The fact that the writer of the account in Exodus says that Pharaoh hardened his heart then, carries no force at all against Paul’s apparently blunt claim that this was God’s doing.

The eminent Pauline Scholar James Dunn makes the point eloquently. I only worry that people might think that I am drawing on such expertise because it is required. Admittedly when Paul (I think) is so clear it feels like crushing a peanut with a mountain:

In drawing this conclusion from Exod 9:16 Paul shows very clearly that he is conscious of its context, since that word (“harden”) is particularly prominent in that section of the Exodus narrative (Exod 4:21; 7:3, 22; 8:15[LXX 11]; 9:12, 35; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 13:15; 14:4, 8, 17). Whether or not a case can be made for a distinction in the Exodus narrative between a self-hardening on the part of Pharaoh (Exod 7:22; 8:15; 9:35; 13:15) and a hardening inflicted by God (the latter is obviously the dominant thought), Paul for his part clearly has in view the divine initiative … So to look for reasons for God’s hardening in Pharaoh’s “evil disposition” or previous self-hardening (Lagrange, Murray, Leenhardt) is a rationalizing expediency (equivalent to the old rationalist treatments of the miracle stories in the Gospels which D. F. Strauss so effectively torpedoed). Such a thought clearly has no place in Paul’s exposition and in fact contradicts what Paul has been so careful to stress in vv 11 and 16 (Michel; Schmidt; Blackman, 130; Luz, Geschichtsverständnis, 78 n.211; Käsemann; Piper, 154–56). It is to his credit that Paul himself does not resort to such expedients, or interpose a demonic intermediary (as in Jub. 48.17; T. Sol. 25.3), but faces up to the clear indications of the Exodus narrative without flinching.1

[Paul] is describing things “from above,” from the divine perspective

Paul is not writing the story from below. On the contrary, he is describing things “from above,” from the divine perspective – the same perspective from which God speaks in the Exodus narrative. He is not just recounting historical events as people saw them unfold, but he is giving a theological explanation of them. He was not building up to the conclusion that God hardens those who harden their own heart, but rather that God “hardens whom he will.” In context he only used the example of Pharaoh in the first place to make this point. This point can hardly be made if Paul only meant that God was somewhere on the list of causes that contributed to the hardening of Pharoah’s heart, but ultimately it was Pharaoh’s call.

Given the above, it strikes me as an exercise rather like that of a fly trying to escape a spider’s web to write articles like “Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?” And yet such articles are written, in my view wresting Paul’s theology out of his hands. After reading Romans 9 (and given the inability of the Exodus narrative to offer anything other than an observational perspective), why would the question even arise? I mean yes I understand why it would arise if we don’t want to think that God acts this way, but simply as an exercise in interpreting text, why would we read Romans 9 and feel that we need to re-explain things so that they don’t end up looking the way that they look – even to us – in Romans 9? Perhaps the solution is to put some distance between yourself and the text. You don’t have to immediately like it or be able to relate to it. Imagine if we only allowed ourselves to find what we wanted to find! Speaking for myself (the only person I can speak for), I never wanted to find this either. But there it was, and perhaps I’m still coming to terms with it even now. It hardly seems fair that other people get to shirk their responsibilities and use dubious techniques and end up feeling better about their theology while some of us just put up with what we find (Yes I know, you might feel that’s a bit low, but that’s truly how the situation looks to me).

Identifying the interference

It is worth noting that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is not even a question of soteriology.

It is more than a little frustrating – and I found this in the conversation that prompted me to write this – that as soon as we start going to the text of Paul’s letter to rule out claims about what he said and to demonstrate what he did say, interlocutors so quickly dive into a discussion about doctrinal schools of thought. No sooner had I made these observations about Paul, Pharaoh and God than I was told of the inadequacies of a “Calvinist” view. Such thoughts are the death of exegesis (I can’t possibly interpret a passage that way, that’s what so-and-so thinks!). It is worth noting that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is not even a question of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). The point is not that Pharaoh was doomed to hell (the thought is nowhere in this passage), but that God used Pharaoh to fulfil his historical purposes.

It is also frustrating that in trying to draw people’s attention to the details of biblical texts and what they mean, some will brush it off as an “apologetic for Calvinism,” as if I have the slightest interest in offering that here. I know that when I offer the following bit of advice people will naturally reply to me with the retort of “the same applies to you!” and of course they are right, but listen: When you have a piece of biblical text in front of you and your task is to observe and discern its meaning, you’re going to have to lower your doctrinal shields now and then so that something gets through, even if you’d rather it didn’t. Forget your antipathy for Calvin. You’re looking at St Paul, and you can either like what he says or not (I might not always like it), but at least have the politeness to be quiet long enough to let him speak.

St Paul (and the writer of Exodus, we will see if we read carefully) believed that ultimately Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he would not let the Israelites go, because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. James. D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 38B (Dallas: Word, 1998.), 554-555. []
{ 20 comments… add one }
  • Jason September 2, 2014, 12:05 am

    Would that be the Pharaoh who, as representative of the Egyptian people, had kept the Hebrews as slaves for decades, and in order to keep their numbers down engaged in the drowning of Hebrew babies? (Given the collective nature of ancient peoples it wouldn’t matter if he was the individual Pharaoh who gave that particular order. He was the one holding the bill when it came due)

    Sure, God hardened him. Egypt and its Pharaoh were due some payback. Through the plagues God showed his superiority to each of the Egyptian gods, culminating in the destruction of the firstborn, from the lowest in the land to the house of the god-king Pharaoh himself. Since it was Egypt who started the baby killing, they could hardly complain when God repaid them in their own coin.

    *****

    Mercy, according to Pilch and Malina (Handbook of Biblical Values), is akin to steadfast love or gratitude, or can be understood as the payment of interpersonal obligation within the Patron-Client relationship. So indeed, God has mercy on those on whom he will have mercy, those in the covenant relationship, Jews and Gentiles. Those outside the covenant, Pharaoh, Esau/Edom, the Jews of the former covenant, can’t request God’s steadfast love and gracious kindness.

  • Mick September 2, 2014, 1:00 am

    “The point is not that Pharaoh was doomed…”
    Except perhaps by his own disposition. Hardly surprising seeing he perpetuated the previous king’s enslavement of the Hebrews and slaughter of the male children [now at least 80 years into the genocide]
    “God said unto Moses…” in Ex 3.19 foretelling the obstinacy of Pharaoh
    And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand. [KJV]
    But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. [NIV]
    I know that the king of Egypt will not let you leave unless he is forced to do so. [CJB]

    Deliverance is only by the grace of God. We all have enough like disposition and ‘form’ to even contemplate that somehow God owes us salvation; that it wouldn’t be fair if he didn’t, that we can learn, earn, or claim some religious history as qualification.

    When salvation by faith is revealed, grab it. It might not come your way again.

    God is God.

  • Dave September 2, 2014, 3:36 am

    So God HAD to harden Pharaoh’s heart to ensure event would unfold according to His plan. This seems to imply that had God not hardened his heart he could have chosen otherwise.

  • Glenn September 2, 2014, 9:47 am

    “So God HAD to harden Pharaoh’s heart to ensure event would unfold according to His plan.”

    Dave, can you think of a good reason to believe that? I can’t. I see no reason why God could not have done things differently and gotten the same result. But this is the way he did it, says Paul. And it doesn’t imply anything about what state of affairs would have obtained had God acted differently. That’s another question.

  • Christopher Bowers September 2, 2014, 1:05 pm

    One of the reasons that I think Christians trip up on passages like these, and why Calvinists are incorrect about them, is that they take a very literal idea about how causality works, while Jewish commentators take a much less literal view of how things work. Attributing the simple causality to God and making him the cause of things is far too simplistic a reading and doesn’t do justice to how God’s will is manifest through free willed choices of individuals as well as the omnipresence of God.

    For instance, there are many times when God proclaims that the Israelites must not worship Idols, and if they do they’re going to be subjugated and punished by God (this is one of the themes of the Book of Ezra and the preceding books in the later part of the Old Testament).

    The cycle works like this. Israel starts allowing idol worship, taking foreign wives, and then the wives in turn show up with more family who take up residence in Israel. This process continues until the foreign presence is significant, and then those people create an uprising and the invading army of that culture can roll in and subjugate Israel.

    Is this a case of God simply waving a magic wand and punishing Israel for worshiping idols? Does the foreign army appear by magic out of a wizard’s portal so God’s Soveringty can reign?

    NO, the Israelites have done this to themselves. God doesn’t need to wave any magic wand to subjugate the Israelites, nor does he need to wrench away the free will of Pharoah (who as you note, already didn’t want the Israelites to go free), in order for the story to progress. There is no need for a Deus Ex Machina device, no need for magic or wizard powers and no need to posses Pharoah’s mind.

    If you were to say “I have decided not to eat Kosher in the desert, and God has punished me with disease” is what you’re saying correct? Yes, God has commanded you to eat Kosher and you have disobeyed and he’s promised to punish you.

    However I happen to know that leaving a slaughtered pig in the desert is bound to give you trichinosis, and that has nothing to do with God’s sovereignty, it has to do with the wisdom of God’s commands and the explanation of his punishment, not Predestination or Soverignty.

  • Glenn September 2, 2014, 2:48 pm

    Christopher, when you talk about God waving a wizard’s wand and enemies coming out of a magic portal, the overly derisive approach makes it look to me like you don’t have a robust understanding of Christian views on the subject. A very strong view of providence would not require any such ludicrous way of thinking. Rather, in a strong view of providence, God works through all things in such a way that the consequences of, say, Israel’s idolatry, even though it comes in the form of the armies of a nation that has long been building up to military conflict with Israel, can nonetheless be attributed to God. God’s sovereign action in punishment is thus not a “miraculous” addition to the course of events. Instead it is the course of events. It’s not at all clear what you mean by “literal” here. What I have just described is literal, rather than figurative. It looks like you’re having a rhetorical dig at a group of people (namely, Christians, including St Paul). The Kosher food example seems to fall outside of the sorts of issues that are relevant here as nobody is ever said to be punished with illness for violating Kosher laws.

    Your comment seems to be an overview of your thoughts (not specifically “Jewish” thoughts) on divine sovereignty (or lack thereof, as the case may be). I don’t see any interaction with the fairly close examination of the meaning of this piece of text in Romans 9. (Nor am I necessarily asking for any, just commenting.)

  • Dan Holmes September 2, 2014, 2:50 pm

    I don’t think any of this would necessarily preclude the possibility that said hardening was a Romans 1-style “giving over” to Pharaoh’s own chosen path. (And I’m surprised more people don’t make that connection; it seems to be a very similar principle.)

    I agree with Mick’s comment above. The author of Hebrews warns against hardening one’s own heart with grave eschatalogical consequences interspersed throughout the book’s warnings; I see nothing to preclude the notion that God may have a role in the hardening process alluded to there.

  • Glenn September 2, 2014, 5:35 pm

    Dan, I hope you’ll agree that that’s not what Paul appears to be saying. That would be more of an after-the-fact softening on the part of a reader. After all, Paul was quite capable, as you point out, of saying that when he meant it, and he never said it here.

  • Nathan September 2, 2014, 10:48 pm

    In discussions about God’s sovereignty, especially when this passage is involved, I always find myself asking “what’s at stake?” when the discussions starts building up steam. To those that wish to read this passage any other way than what is plain (God caused Pharoah’s heart to harden), what’s really at stake that requires you to read it differently? If you accepted a God like that, what have you got to lose?

    I take great comfort in God’s sovereignty, knowing that his plan cannot be thwarted by fickle humans, and that it will come to pass by the means that God decides to use (whether we like it or not!). Anything less would mean God is not God.

    I recommend reading “The Pleasures of God” by John Piper. Gaining insights into why God does what he does helps with understanding his sovereignty, and why it simply isn’t a theological problem for him to harden Pharoah’s heart. Here’s a hint (from the ESV, emphasis mine):

    Romans 9:17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

    Romans 9:22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…”

    Despite what we might wish, God is not motivated only by his love for us. Far more prevalent in Scripture is God’s concern for his name and his joy in being God. Once this is understood, accepting God’s sovereignty for what it really is (including what Paul says in Romans 9), is a very straightforward step indeed.

  • Nathan September 2, 2014, 10:51 pm

    Oops, the blockquote tag took away the emphasis.. No matter, the verses speak for themselves.

  • Christopher Bowers September 3, 2014, 4:25 am

    What I’m saying Glenn, is that divine providence may not require the abrogation of free will and that “God’s punishment” is not necessarily a causal event attributed to divine intervention, but rather a DESCRIPTION of natural causal events that play out without any divine intervention.

    God set into motion causality itself, yes? So even naturally causal events (like getting an STD from being promiscuous) can be said to be “God’s Punishment” because God knew, when he created the universe, that people would get stds from being promiscuous. The divine intervention happened at the beginning of time, and praying to God (or a lack therof) has little effect on your nervous day at the clinic.

    Much of God’s prophecy, warnings, and punishments in scripture are actually a description of natural causal events and their consequences. People should already know that these things are wrong and have negative consequences, but God needs to remind them because humans are stupid and want to ignore consequences. Of course allowing idols into Israel is going to aid Israel’s enemies and ultimately causes Israel’s downfall. There’s no divine intervention or sovereignty necessary: it’s just WHAT HAPPENS.

    In many Judaic references “What happens” and “God’s will” are sort of one in the same, the wages of sin is death, that’s built into sin since the fall of man, and God need not punish people, or alter a single atom in the universe to make that come into fruition.

    When God said “I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart”, or when Paul quotes it, does that mean that God has taken away Pharaoh’s free will and possessed him, akin to demonic possession? NO. I don’t think so!

    Because Pharaoh has sinned and thus there are consequences to it, that is why he won’t let the people go. Because God laid down causality at the beginning of time and thus all actions (that anyone does) are attributable to God. Because God lets Pharaoh defy him (and gave humans the free will to do so).

    Pharaoh didn’t let his slaves go because slave owners don’t let slaves go. Because they are mired in sin and because umm…. FREE LABOR. There’s no need for a divine intervention or a abrogation of free will for Pharaoh to have a hardened heart. The natural reasons to refuse setting the Israelites free are already in place.

    Is it the argument of Calvinists, that Pharaoh (as scripture states) initially decided to harden his heart, and then had a change of heart, but then God showed up in a wizard hat and FORCED Pharaoh to NOT let the Israelites go, even though Pharaoh wanted to?

    That doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. God simply forced Pharaoh to not let the Israelites go, even though God wanted to let the Israelites go? Is God schizophrenic now?

  • Glenn September 3, 2014, 10:11 am

    Thanks for reiterating your own view again, Christopher. Just one real quick answer:

    “Is it the argument of Calvinists, that Pharaoh (as scripture states) initially decided to harden his heart, and then had a change of heart, but then God showed up in a wizard hat and FORCED Pharaoh to NOT let the Israelites go, even though Pharaoh wanted to?”

    This isn’t about theological schools of thought, so if you want to delve into Calvinist arguments you’ll probably be best served by using Google or checking a book on Calvinism. I doubt you’ll find anything about Wizard hats. But a quick summary reply is: No, absolutely not. I can’t think of any mainstream Christian school of thought that says anything as bizarre as that. A Calvinist / Augustinian view maintains a very robust view of providence so that God works through all things. In a Calvinist view it would not be as though Pharaoh really wanted to do one thing (let the slaves go free) but God wanted him to do another, so God forced Pharaoh to give in. Instead the outworking of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is seen in the fact that Pharaoh did harden his heart and did not want to let the slaves go. But I stress again – this about Paul’s view expressed in Romans 9 – i.e it’s fairly strictly about the exegesis of a particular piece of text (boring though that might be to some people). This is not about systematic theology and what I’ve just said will be my last foray in that direction.

    Getting back on topic and coming back to Romans 9, however, Paul didn’t see God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, causing him to resist Moses’ demand, as “schizophrenic.” And I really wish people didn’t use the name of the disease that way, misunderstanding it as a split personality. Yes God intended that the Israelites be freed, but as Paul said, God raised up Pharaoh and hardened his heart so that the deliverance of the Israelites would be displayed as a work of God’s power. That’s Paul’s perspective, one that he takes to be supported by the Exodus narrative.

  • Dan Holmes September 4, 2014, 11:53 pm

    To clarify; I do agree that what I proposed is not a face value reading but rather that this particular philosophical tack is at least plausible. But having a couple days distance from my original comment, I frankly don’t see the Romans 1 link I proposed earlier to be as discernible.

  • Christopher Bowers September 5, 2014, 3:11 am

    Sorry to use the colloquialism rather than the medically correct term for God’s state of mind.

    But in any case, it seems difficult to reconcile the statement under ANY theological system, Calvinism or otherwise.

    > In a Calvinist view it would not be as though Pharaoh really wanted to do one thing (let >the slaves go free) but God wanted him to do another, so God forced Pharaoh to give in.

    So If I tell you I just had a discussion with a Calvinist who argued JUST THAT EXACTLY, and furthermore expounded that this passage is their basis for humanity itself doesn’t have free will…..?

    >Instead the outworking of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is seen in the fact that >Pharaoh did harden his heart and did not want to let the slaves go.

    Could you explain further?

    >Yes God intended that the Israelites be freed, but as Paul said, God raised up Pharaoh >and hardened his heart so that the deliverance of the Israelites would be displayed as a >work of God’s power. That’s Paul’s perspective, one that he takes to be supported by the >Exodus narrative.

    This is sort of a problem if we simultaneously assert that God is an omnipotent being. An omnipotent being doesn’t need to take away someone’s free will on order for people to see things as a work of God’s power. There are other ways to do that because…. God is omnipotent!

    I think the message that Paul is giving in Romans is about evil people who think that they are subverting God’s will, when in reality God had that (their rebellion) planned in his will from the beginning. That’s a lot less about forcing free will than it is about God’s Providence at creation.

    Paul here is responding to the Judaizers claim that it’s unfair to save Gentiles, who haven’t gone through the tribulations that Jews have, and Gentiles who haven’t had to obey the Torah law.

  • Glenn September 5, 2014, 9:00 am

    “But in any case, it seems difficult to reconcile the statement under ANY theological system, Calvinism or otherwise.”

    Agreed, I can’t reconcile that description with any Christian theological system that I know of.

    “So If I tell you I just had a discussion with a Calvinist who argued JUST THAT EXACTLY, and furthermore expounded that this passage is their basis for humanity itself doesn’t have free will…..?”

    Well, anecdotes happen. But as I said, it’s not reconcilable with Calvinism. The idea that Pharaoh really wanted to let the Israelites go free but God forced him to do otherwise is just not compatible with a Calvinist / Augustinian view of providence.

    “Could you explain further?”

    Well as I said, if you want to explore to contours of Calvinism then Google and books are the way to go (this is about the meaning of the text of Romans 9). Calvinism includes a compatibilist view of human freedom, so that’s the avenue to explore. In that view God doesn’t get his way by forcing people to do things against their will (as in the description you offered), as though he’s dragging them around as they struggle to break free (like unwilling puppets on strings). Instead, in the case of Pharaoh the fulfilment of God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and causing him to resist Moses is the fact that Pharaoh, from his perspective, hardens his own heart and decides to resist Moses. There’s no tug of war involved.

    “This is sort of a problem if we simultaneously assert that God is an omnipotent being. An omnipotent being doesn’t need to take away someone’s free will on order for people to see things as a work of God’s power. There are other ways to do that because…. God is omnipotent!”

    You state that this is a problem but I don’t see how. Sure, God could do all sorts of things. And if he’s omnipotent, he could also do this. Indeed, the very notion that God can’t do things this way because he’s omnipotent strikes me as incoherent.

    “I think the message that Paul is giving in Romans is about evil people who think that they are subverting God’s will, when in reality God had that (their rebellion) planned in his will from the beginning. That’s a lot less about forcing free will than it is about God’s Providence at creation.”

    That has virtually nothing to do with Paul’s message in Romans 9, which I summarised in the blog post.

    “Paul here is responding to the Judaizers claim that it’s unfair to save Gentiles, who haven’t gone through the tribulations that Jews have, and Gentiles who haven’t had to obey the Torah law.”

    That’s closer. Here in Romans 9, Paul is responding to those who might think that God’s promises had failed, since God made promises to the Jews and yet Israel did not turn en masse and follow Christ. His answer, in context, is to say that the true Israel is those whom God has chosen, and not just the children of the flesh (i.e., circumcised descendants of Jacob). But that’s an area well outside the scope of this particular blog post. This particular post was written on the back of a conversation I recently had where somebody sought to deny that God sovereignly hardened Pharaoh’s heart, because, they said, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. So I decided to write a post focused on the relevant passages. This isn’t about a wider foray into schools of thought systematic theology. This is about exegesis.

  • Christopher Bowers September 5, 2014, 3:31 pm

    Well, I am a bit dizzy now Glenn. It seems like we pretty much agree, which is unfortunate because we both know how much we like to disagree with one another.

    In any case,

    1. Compatibilism, okay, sure. I have had many discussions with many different Calvinists who don’t agree with Compatibilism. Some do, and some don’t. I don’t really understand YOUR objection to having a lack of free will.

    I have specific objections to Compatibilism, mainly that it’s contradictory and self refuting (having and not-having free will simultaneously). But perhaps that’s an argument for another time.

    MY PROBLEM with the absolute soverginty/abrogation of free will (puppet on strings as you call it) view is that it takes away moral accountability for those particular actions. And since actions set off a chain reaction of responses, it eradicates any moral accountability of humans for ANY of their actions.

  • Dominic Foo September 9, 2014, 6:41 pm

    I am not quite certain how much the distinction between “God’s eye” and our eye can be maintained in the Scriptures. I am thinking here of a passage from Isaiah 63:17 where it is written:

    O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways
    and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
    Return for the sake of your servants,
    the tribes of your heritage.

    Even the prophet complains and laments “from down here” God hardening of our own hearts. However, the prophet’s response is not to judge God or accuse God of some cosmic moral wrong but to plea for deliverance.

    If I may go slightly off tangent, I think a lot of the underlying motivations for attempting to explain St Paul or the bible’s description of God hardening people’s heart is the conviction or belief that God is part of the moral system rather than himself transcending it and as its foundation, just as God is the foundation of creation but not himself a part of creation. Thus civic morals is a system of principles and ordinances given to us by God for this worldly flourishing. To say that God is subject to civic morals would be on par to saying that God is part of the system of worldly flourishing, surely an absurdity. Anyway, so on the premise that God’s actions are themselves subject to moral evaluation, the idea that God hardens pharaoh’s heart and then punishing him seems to be immoral and “unfair” and taking away freewill or whatever. However, it is clear that the Bible in general, especially Isaiah, doesn’t seem to think that it is unfair of God to so harden our hearts. It is “too bad” for us, it is something to lament, but it is not simply something to which we can “morally” hold God to account. Thus, they don’t try to evaluate God within a moral frame, they simply want deliverance from evil and help from God and plead according.

    I think at the heart of the objections, we are convinced that somehow moral responsibility tracks onto self-determinism or agent causation or something like that. For myself however, I’ve found the concept of moral luck, the idea that our moral responsibility and evaluative judgement often exceeds our control, to be a very useful idea in helping me severe the link between moral responsibility and agent causation. One can affirm moral responsibility in the sense that certain actions will receive certain goods from God (right actions with rewards and wrong actions with punishments), without necessarily deriving the causation of those acts from a self-determining agent or whatever. In short, the concept of moral luck shows us that it is possible to have moral responsibility without freewill, and I think this would go a very long way towards addressing the underlying motivations behind the objections to the “obvious” reading of Romans 9.

  • Glenn September 9, 2014, 8:48 pm

    “Even the prophet complains and laments “from down here””

    Dominic, it’s true that even an earthbound perspective gets a glimpse of the divine perspective at times. Or maybe we can say that the prophet is actually describing things from above in his lament. The fact that he is describing God’s intent would suggest this. But I grant the point, there are times where the people below get glimpses of things from above. Indeed, that’s precisely what I am saying about Paul and the writer of Exodus.

    My point was just that we cannot rely solely on statements from below when in fact we do have statements from above, and when they offer differing perspectives, we can take advantage of that fact for our own learning – and I think we can see that happening in the Exodus narrative in the manner I described.

    But on the whole – yes, good thoughts actually. Thanks!

  • Christa Barnhizer September 12, 2014, 5:40 am

    So God willed that Pharaoh be in a position in which he would choose of his own free will to do what God willed that he do, that is, keep the Hebrews captive. Pharaoh had other options and therefore is morally responsible for his actions. God knew he would not take another path in the heart-hardening environment which God willed/allowed/created. God’s will was done.

    Is this too simplistic? unBiblical? unfair? It does make me uncomfortable, until I consider that I am applying my human knowledge and ideas of justice in God’s place. He will save whom he will save, and His justice and mercy, and therefore our salvation, is also perfect. If it is not, then He is not God. I would have said that the argument over who did the heart-hardening was simply a rabbit trail, except that it leads me back to acknowledging the perfection of God… Which then leads me to the question “Is anything that leads me to God a good thing?”

  • Giles September 15, 2014, 11:39 pm

    To harden means also to strengthen. As in “harden a wall”. God strengthened Pharoah to do what he already wanted to do but would have shrunk from due to cowardice. He gave him the courage of his convictions. Having said this I think the Calvinists are right on Romans 9 bar one crucial point. It’s fairly clear from the account of Jacob and Esau that Esau was also saved. Jacob is a type of those who will sit in judgement (Christians). Esau is a type of those who will be judged and accounted sheep. Pharoah is a type of those who are judged goats. Both Esau and Pharoah are objects of wrath, but Esau hyperbolically and Pharoah literally.

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