Saturday, August 09, 2014

Does Paul “Invite” or “Anticipate” Human Reason?

One of the most interesting aspects of the Apostle Paul’s pedagogical methodology is his frequent use of staged questions which come from the vantage point of human reasoning. The book of Romans is filled with such a trail of staged questions, and this trail is established early on in the epistle:

Romans 3:1–8: 1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? 2 Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3 What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? 4 May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, “THAT YOU MAY BE JUSTIFIED IN YOUR WORDS, AND PREVAIL WHEN YOU ARE JUDGED.” 5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) 6 May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world? 7 But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? 8 And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just.

The Apostle purposefully jousts with a nameless opponent in order to demonstrate the dangerous dead end of human reasoning (i.e., speaking according to men - κατὰ ἄνθρωπον λέγω).

His descent into such calumnious rhetoric is designed to stage his repeated retort: may it never be! (μὴ γένοιτο). The thought of accusing God of unrighteousness (v.5), conjoined with the licentious consideration of doing evil that good may come, all stem from the madness of human reasoning, as John Calvin rightly says.

Though this is a digression from the main subject, it was yet necessary for the Apostle to introduce it, lest he should seem to give to the ill-disposed an occasion to speak evil, which he knew would be readily laid hold on by them. For since they were watching for every opportunity to defame the gospel, they had, in the testimony of David, what they might have taken for the purpose of founding a calumny, — “If God seeks nothing else, but to be glorified by men, why does he punish them, when they offend, since by offending they glorify him? Without cause then surely is he offended, if he derives the reason of his displeasure from that by which he is glorified.” There is, indeed, no doubt, but that this was an ordinary, and everywhere a common calumny, as it will presently appear. Hence Paul could not have covertly passed it by; but that no one should think that he expressed the sentiments of his own mind, he premises that he assumes the person of the ungodly; and at the same time, he sharply, touches, by a single expression, on human reason; whose work, as he intimates, is ever to bark against the wisdom of God; for he says not, “according to the ungodly,” but “according to man,” or as man. And thus indeed it is, for all the mysteries of God are paradoxes to the flesh: and at the same time it possesses so much audacity, that it fears not to oppose them and insolently to assail what it cannot comprehend. We are hence reminded, that if we desire to become capable of understanding them, we must especially labor to become freed from our own reason, (proprio sensu) and to give up ourselves, and unreservedly to submit to his word.[1]

Calvin is right in his understanding of Paul’s teaching method and message. Paul is neither inviting nor encouraging calumnious responses to truth. Instead, he anticipates what he knows will flow from the human heart as a result of corrupted and limited reasoning. Paul repeats this pedagogic procedure again in Romans 6:

Romans 6:1–2: 1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? 2 May it never be [μὴ γένοιτο]! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?

Once again, Paul anticipates the natural man’s response to God’s sovereignty over sin and corruption in order to refute such fleshly thinking.[2] This same methodology is again repeated in Paul’s profound treatment of God’s sovereignty in Romans 9:

Romans 9:14–21: 14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH.” 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. 19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?

In many respects, Paul increases the intensity of his warnings to those who would raise calumnious back-talk to the Potter. Paul already refuted the speculation that injustice can be found in God back in Romans 3, and it is repeated here in the ninth chapter for reinforcement to what follows:

Romans 9:19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?”

It is important to note that Paul anticipates (in the indicative mood) the above query, that is to say, he asserts with certitude that men will respond thus (“You will say [Ἐρεῖς] to me…”). Paul’s follow-up to such an anticipated question is extremely important. His reference to God as the molder and potter brings to mind God’s severe displeasure with those who question His authority and sovereignty:

Isaiah 45:9: 9 “Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker— An earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’ Or the thing you are making say, ‘He has no hands’?

Isaiah 29:16: 16 You turn things around! Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay, That what is made would say to its maker, “He did not make me”; Or what is formed say to him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?

Consistent with all of his other rhetorical questions, Paul’s staged queries in Romans 9 have the design of unveiling the heart of man behind the question. Therefore, Paul’s point of presenting such questions is designed to reveal: 1) the corruption of human reasoning; and 2) the purposes of God in all of His providential dealings with man. Once again, I believe that Calvin is right when he refers to the staged queries of Romans 9 as monstrous madness:

“Monstrous surely is the madness of the human mind, that it is more disposed to charge God with unrighteousness than to blame itself for blindness. Paul indeed had no wish to go out of his way to find out things by which he might confound his readers; but he took up as it were from what was common the wicked suggestion, which immediately enters the minds of many, when they hear that God determines respecting every individual according to his own will. It is indeed, as the flesh imagines, a kind of injustice, that God should pass by one and show regard to another.”[3]

Calvin reminds us that the normal questions raised by the natural man are typically bad questions which flow from the corruptions of the human heart. But such bad questions have a pedagogical purpose within Paul’s instruction. I would submit to the reader that Paul’s method here is designed to remind us all that, apart from grace, we are all madmen who are incapable of comprehending spiritual truth. The universal madness of men is well summarized by Solomon as follows:

Ecclesiastes 9:3: This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead.

Overall, it is important to understand Paul’s rhetorical methodology. For the sake of his readers, Paul anticipated questions that were formulated from the poverty of human reason. He did not do this in order to invite us to think in such terms, but to expose the danger and untrustworthiness of human reasoning. When applying this teaching methodology, we must remember never to shame people when they raise such questions about God; but neither should we invite them to persist in such rebellious thoughts. I believe that the balance is to remind them, as does Paul, that some questions are inherently bad. The problem with such queries isn’t just that they are misleading, but that they convey something quite insidious: blindness, foolishness, and rebellion against God – for all have sinned and fall short of His glory (Romans 3:23).

In the end we should be thankful that Paul raised these questions at all, for when we consider them carefully, we find that such thinking is a certain reality for all of the descendants of Adam. By exposing these faults within us, Paul reveals the supremacy of God’s revelation to us concerning His transcendent nature and purposes. Moreover, though it can be said that the believer can, by grace, embrace such transcendent truths – it must be acknowledged that our knowledge in this life is still limited and veiled due to our own sin and human frailty, and therefore we ought to confess with the Apostle:

Romans 11:33–36: 33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? 35 Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Paul’s summary in Romans 11 brings us all to the place that we all belong: on our knees before the Pottertrusting Him in faith while trembling before His awesome power and authority - Isaiah 66:2: 2 “For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD. “But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”


[1] Calvin, J. (1998). Romans (electronic ed.). Calvin’s Commentaries (Romans 3:5). Albany, OR: Ages Software.

[2] “We indeed know that nothing is more natural than that the flesh should indulge itself under any excuse, and also that Satan should invent all kinds of slander, in order to discredit the doctrine of grace; which to him is by no means difficult. For since everything that is announced concerning Christ seems very paradoxical to human judgment, it ought not to be deemed a new thing, that the flesh, hearing of justification by faith, should so often strike, as it were, against so many stumbling-stones.” Calvin, J. (1998). Romans, (Romans 6:1).

[3] Calvin, J. (1998). Romans (9:14).