The Dialectical Role of the Jews in
the History of Salvation
In the light of this paradox, how are we to understand the role of Israel in the plan of salvation? To answer this question we now turn to the classic passage on Christ and Israel in Romans 9-11.
This passage belongs with Galatians as an equally thorough if less polemical treatment of the matter. Romans 9-11 has been regarded as a self-contained section that records "sermons" that the apostle might have preached to Jewish audiences, (1) and thus essentially unintegrated into the thought of the epistle. It has also been regarded as the heart of the letter, inasmuch as Paul's chief concern was precisely the relationship between Christ and Israel, and the place of the gentiles in the covenant. (2) I find the latter view more likely than the former, although I cannot accept it altogether. Nevertheless, the passage in question is well integrated into the overall argument and close to the heart of Paul's concern. For this reason Romans 9-11 will be the focus of our inquiry into Paul's more systematic thought on the role of Israel in the plan of salvation.
It might be helpful to set out as a guide to the exposition the principles that we have discovered through a reading of the text.
For Paul the Jews are God's appointed servants of sacred violence and their rejection of Christ served the plan of salvation; by saying no they said yes. Therefore, although they have been temporarily rejected and placed under the wrath (Rom 11:15; cf. Rom 9:22), their election stands unimpaired and they continue to play a pivotal role in God's purpose (Rom 11:11-12). That is to say, the Jews are "dialectically" in God's service, inasmuch as they perpetrate sacred violence in order to reveal it.
Israel's service is dialectical because it takes the form of opposition to God for the sake of God; "according to the [logic of] the gospel they are God's enemies for your sake; but according to the [logic of] election they are [God's] beloved for the sake of the patriarchs" (Rom 11:28). The Jews are God's beloved enemies; but they are beloved before they are enemies, and they will continue to be beloved after they cease to be enemies. God says both yes and no to Israel; but God's yes includes and swallows up God's no. Israel says both no and yes to God, and the two answers are in fact one; by killing Christ and driving out the missionaries to the gentiles, the Jews revealed the founding mechanism and propelled the gospel across the world, providing the initial point of contact in a new city by means of their synagogues and then providing the motivation to take the gospel to the gentiles by their driving out and persecuting the apostles. In this understanding Paul is at one with the Acts in its portrayal of the typical missionary experience of welcome and then ejection.
"If their transgression (paraptoma -- cf. Rom 5:15) is wealth to the world, and their loss gain to the gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!" (Rom 11:12). Their transgression is wealth, their loss is gain, and the ultimate fulfillment of their election -- namely, the eschatological acceptance of Christ -- will be "life from the dead" (Rom 11:15). This emotionally complex and easily misunderstood argument unfolds against a background of opposition from Judaizers (Rom 9:30-10:4; 12:9-13:10; cf. Gal 2:11-3:14), the accusation that Paul's teaching is univocally anti-Jewish (Rom 9:1-2), and a gentile arrogance over the apparent rejection of Israel (Rom 11:13-24). I shall try to expound it fairly, but in order for that to be possible, it must be emphatically established at the outset that all happens according to God's plan, which is a plan to effect mercy for all the world, and that even in their refusal the Jews are God's beloved and God's elect servants in carrying out this plan.
The foregoing argument could be dangerous if we do not emphasize that the plan of salvation, according to Paul, is guided by the divine mercy (Rom 9:15). In the hands of the secular ideologue, it easily becomes a warrant for anti-Semitism; in the hands of the theological partisan, a justification for anti-Judaism. However, it can be responsibly expounded if one keeps in mind that everything in this plan -- both the negative and the positive elements -- expresses the loving mercy of God in service of human salvation, and if one treats it as an irreducibly theological argument.
The explanation is emphatically theological, having to do with God and God's purpose of mercy, with the mystery of the death of God's Son at the hands of God's beloved Israel, with the revelation of the founding mechanism and the possibility of the renunciation of vengeance and the return of the world to God. This means that for Paul the issue between Christ and Israel, between Jews and Christians, is an irreducibly theological one, that secularized members of both groups might easily misunderstand by reading it ideologically or politically.
The nub of Paul's explanation of the role of Israel in the mystery of salvation is that all that has happened concerning Christ, including the Jewish refusal, has been willed by God as the plan for the salvation of the world. (3) It took place "according to the scriptures" (kathos gegraptai -- Rom 9:13, 33; 10:15; 11:8, 26; Moyses [he graphe, Hosee, Hsaias, David, ho chrematismos] legei [graphei] -- Rom 9:15,17, 25, 27, 29;10:5-8,16,19, 20-21;11:2, 4, 9). In these terms Paul expresses his understanding of the continuity of the plan of salvation with the faith of Israel and the God of Abraham, and his conviction that both the negative and the positive actions of the drama of salvation happened according to that plan, and that the Jewish refusal did not discredit God's word or dishonor God's promise (Rom 9:6). Thus Paul makes any Marcionite interpretation impossible; the God of Jesus Christ is one and the same God as promised Abraham, instructed Moses, and through them entered into the covenant that established Israel as a nation.
The first link to the Old Testament history of Israel is paradoxically through the rejected prophets who went unheeded and unaccepted (1 Thess 2:14-16; cf. Gal 1:15; Mark 12:1-12 par.). Jeremiah, the prophet of the first fall of Jerusalem, seems to have been on Paul's mind when he described himself as having been called from his mother's womb (Gal 1:15; cf. Jer 1:5). Elijah (Rom 11:2-10) and Isaiah of Jerusalem suggest to him the idea of the remnant that remains positively committed to God's plan in the midst of the unbelief and persecution of the opposition (Rom 9:27-29). In 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 he expressly says that the Jews killed Jesus in the same spirit in which they killed the prophets and drove out the Christians. Thus the rejecters are an integral part of the process of salvation. They serve God by saying no to God's messengers and plan.
The Argument in Romans 9-11
Paul begins by passionately insisting that he remains a Jew and that his soul is scored with grief at the Jewish refusal of Jesus (Rom 9:1-5). Such an asseveration suggests that he is responding to an accusation that he has turned against his own people and is preaching anti Judaism. There are several not surprising indications of such response to his work, and he is trying now to correct it. Thus he begins by reciting the marks of Israel's preeminence in the history of God's plan of salvation, to the climax in the Jewishness of Jesus. He also begins to make clear his conviction that he as a Jew who believes in Christ is part of the remnant of Israel that has traditionally been central to the plan of salvation.
In the light of this history it cannot be that God has suddenly changed the modus operandi and that the divine plan will now be fulfilled apart from Israel. Rather as one understanding of the plan gives place to another, Israel remains at the center of the action. The version that has all of Israel accepting the Messiah first and then the rest of the world, which Paul might once have held, must give way to the majority of Israel rejecting the messiah, a remnant of Israel accepting the messiah, then a fixed number of gentiles, and then all the world, in the eschatological denouement.
The first step in the exposition of this revised scheme of salvation history is to establish the idea of the remnant and its scriptural warrant (Rom 9:6-17). As in the case of the rejected prophets who revealed God's plan, both the rejectors and the rejected are necessary. The rejectors are the ones who cause the remnant to come into being, thus the plan goes forward with the participation of all Israel, both the rejected and the rejecters.
Paul begins by invoking the story of the divine election of the patriarchs and showing that it was selective -- Isaac not Ishmael, Jacob not Esau. In response to the complaint that this divine election is unjust, Paul invokes the story of the exodus, and the answer to this complaint based on that story is definitive for the whole explanation. He first affirms that both the election and the rejection are in the service of God's mercy (Rom 9:15) and then presents the figure of the Pharaoh as an exemplar of the rejecters who serve God's plan. Pharaoh served God's plan of salvation because his resistance enabled God to display saving power and to spread abroad the knowledge of it. "I raised you up for this very purpose, to show my power through you, and to spread my name through all the earth" (Rom 9:17 / Exod 9:16; cf. Exod 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:20).
The Pharaoh, therefore, served to spread the "gospel" of God's saving power by his resistance to it, and in this regard he is like those Jews who refuse Jesus. If the Pharaoh had not resisted, the liberation of Israel might have gone unnoticed by the world for whose sake it was ultimately undertaken. Since the liberation of Israel from Egypt was ever only a metonymy of the salvation of the world, the Pharaoh's role was critical in making this known. In the same way the refusing Jews serve to make the Cross known as the extension of the exodus to the world, and the realization of the promise implied by that liberation of the part for the whole, in the synecdoche of salvation. Jewish refusal of Christ is an integral part of the plan of divine mercy for the world. Therefore God still works through all Israel by means of the conflict between the rejected and the rejecters.
Predestination and Free Will (Rom 9:17-29)
The argument is complicated by the problem of predestination and free will (Rom 9:17-29) expressed in the fact that the Pharaoh's resistance is said to be the result of God's "hardening" (Rom 9:18) rather than the Pharaoh's free choice. This confirms the objection that God is unjust, because God assigns blame where there is no freedom of choice. Paul's response to this renewed complaint -- that God the potter can make vessels for destruction if he pleases -- lacks sensitivity if viewed from any other than the theological point of view (Rom 9:20-23). From the theological point of view, however, it is unexceptionable. He appeals to the well-known image of the potter and the clay (Is 29:16; 45:9; Jer 18:6; Wisd 12:12; 15:7; 2 Tim 2:20) to make the point that the creator can do what the creator wills with the creature and that creatures are not in a position to question the creator on the matter of their own creation. This is theologically self-evident; the creature owes its being to the creator and cannot complain that it is this creature rather than that; what it in fact is, is the immutable limit of what it might be, and God is free by right and by power to create whatever creature for whatever purpose he sees fit.
In this case, because vessels of wrath are in question, we must reemphasize that that purpose is defined by the mercy at the heart of the plan of salvation. God's purpose will always be merciful and conduce to the salvation of the world and the fulfillment of the creature. Therefore, to participate in this work of God is the joy of creatures whether they are vessels made for honor or dishonor, of mercy or of wrath. In either or both capacities the purpose of the creature's creation is fulfilled and one could only object to one's lot if one did not trust God to know what is best for one and to be able to provide the absolute fulfillment of bliss that the divine mercy promises. The Pharaoh, therefore, is also one of God's beloved enemies who performs one of the harder tasks in the history of salvation. This means that there is a special class of people within the process of salvation history who serve God negatively. The Pharaoh and the rejecting Jews are special agents with a special task.
Why then are they called "vessels of wrath made for destruction" and distinguished from the "vessels of mercy prepared beforehand for glory" (9:22-23)? Do the members of the respective classes have any choice in the matter or do we have here the doctrine of a double predestination (praedestinatio gemina), to hell and to heaven? The answer must be given in terms of the whole exposition, at the end of which it is said that all Israel will be saved (Rom 11:26). This means either that the rejecting Jews cannot be included among the vessels created for destruction, or that the phrase "vessels of wrath made for destruction" must be taken loosely, in the sense that while they perform their negative task, they seem to be vessels created for destruction, but are not so in fact.
There are other hints to support the latter interpretation. In Romans 9:22-23 God patiently bears with transgressors in the hope that they will repent (Rom 2:4; 3:26). This means that there is always the possibility that they, having done their strange work, will freely choose faith in Christ and so escape destruction. This is further indicated by the fact that Cranfield (4) points out, that while Paul says God prepared the vessels intended for glory beforehand (proetoimasen -- aorist indicative active), those intended for wrath are merely "made" (katertismena -- perfect passive participle), and suggests that this means that God actively predestines the former while the latter are merely said to be in a state ripe for destruction without implying that they were made for that purpose, or will in fact be destroyed -- that is, that they were created for a menial task but not necessarily to be destroyed.
Within the plan of salvation, therefore, there is a group of Jews that performs the noble task of accepting Christ and another that performs the menial task of rejecting him. All, however, are chosen for their roles and all, therefore, belong to the elect. This means that we must resist the temptation to generalize the double election beyond the narrow confines of the plan of salvation to the whole human race. Election to the negative task in the plan of salvation does not entail that there is in general a double predestination for all humanity. The Pharaoh and the rejecting Jews remain obedient parts of God's plan and so will eventually be saved, because they were appointed to their negative role for the special purposes of the plan of salvation, which needed contrasting roles for its fulfillment. They are confusingly called the "vessels made for destruction," but that does not mean that they will in fact be destroyed.
When we do apply the implications of this argument to all of humanity, we find a single and not a double predestination, and in the light of Romans 11:32 (cf. Rom 5:15; 1 Cor 15:21-22) a single predestination that is universal and inclusive. The purpose of the dialectic in the plan of salvation is the salvation of all the world. In Christ all are chosen for glory (Rom 8:29-30), inasmuch as he is the representative of us all in whom God has chosen to love us all. To have faith is to claim that election, and in due course all rejecters, inside and outside the plan, will come to faith. The Jews, therefore, within the purview of the plan of salvation accept and reject Christ for the sake of the salvation of the world.
The argument continues (Rom 9:30-10:21) by explaining what form the hardening of Israel took in terms of the plan. The rejecters pursued righteousness in the wrong way, by works rather than by faith, and therefore they stumbled over the stone God laid in Zion. "Behold I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of scandal, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame" (Rom 9:33), suggests that God directly causes Israel to be scandalized. The context, however, suggests that their decision to pursue righteousness in the wrong way is a free choice, even though it was what caused them to stumble over the stone that God had laid to trip them up.
The paradox of predestination at the macro level and free will at the micro level is operative here. The classes of rejectors and acceptors are predestined according to the plan, but the subjective choice of which class to belong to seems to the individual to be a free choice. This is a well-known feature of the traditional reflection on predestination and free will, which I cannot explore further here. It seems as if the divine purpose and human freedom interact in such a way as always to preserve the freedom of the human will.
The symbolism of the stone is multilayered because the quotation from Isaiah 28:16 is a reference to the remnant, into which Paul has inserted from Isaiah 8:14 the reference to stumbling. (5) Thus he identifies the crucified Jesus as the heart of the remnant, the stone laid in Zion on which the other members of the remnant are founded (cf. 1 Cor 3:11), and over which the rejecting Jews stumble.
The remnant is constituted by faith. "He who has faith shall not be in haste" (Is 28:16) is its motto. The stone therefore symbolizes a community based on faith in God through the Cross of Christ and patient trust in God's purpose. To have faith is to see the primal prohibition as a sign of God's trustworthiness, not as an indication of God's envy. Faith is to interpret the Cross aright, as the revelation of sacred violence, and to transfer from the community of the sacred to the community of faith. Christ is the end and goal of the Law in the sense that the faith that his death evokes is the real purpose of the primal prohibition (Rom 10:4).
Despite the fact that they were instrumental in the crucifixion of Christ, God has not abandoned the people (Rom 11:1-36). "I ask therefore, 'Has God abandoned his people?' Not at all!" And the evidence Paul brings for this is his own conversion; "For even I am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin" (Rom 11:1). In this way Paul begins the summary of the argument for the two contrasting roles within the one plan of salvation, roles played by the accepting remnant and the rejecting majority, respectively.
By referring to himself he identifies himself with the remnant, and takes a further step in the argument. The remnant is the evidence that God has not rejected the people; therefore, the rejectors are related to the plan of God through the remnant and not directly. They are accepted by God only because they are the rejecters of this particular remnant. Thus they are dialectically related through the rejection of faith.
Another feature of the remnant, which was mentioned in Romans 9:24, comes to the fore here -- namely, that unlike its traditional predecessor, this remnant is made up of gentiles as well as Jews. It comprises the whole motley membership of the Pauline churches. This explains the purpose of the allegory of the wild and domestic figs (Rom 11:13-24). The remnant of Israel is the root stock into which the gentiles have been grafted, because the domestic branches have given up their places. It also explains why the order of salvation now runs: remnant of Israel -- gentiles -- all of Israel, in the sense that the gentiles are entering and thus changing the traditional remnant of Israel into an inclusive unit (Rom 11:25). Nevertheless, all this change does not mean that the gentiles have replaced Israel as the apple of God's eye. This is the point that Paul makes in the climactic conclusion of the exposition of the plan of salvation in Romans 11:25-36.
The reasoning in this crucial passage (Rom 11:25-36) is, as so often in Paul, extremely compressed. The first part is clear: the plan of salvation (mysterion) includes a hardening of part of Israel until a fixed number of gentiles have come to faith in Christ; then all of Israel will come to faith as well and be saved. That this faith is Christian faith is evident from the comparison in Romans 11:30-31: just as gentile disobedience has been turned to obedience because of the Jewish refusal that forced the gospel out into the world, so Jewish disobedience will be turned to obedience by the "mercy shown to [the gentiles]." The mercy shown to the gentiles is inclusion in the remnant through faith in the gospel, and since there is no other way into this salvation, the Jews will believe the gospel and be saved at the end of history.
The concluding statement of the first part of this section: "For God has shut up all people in unbelief in order that he may have mercy on all" (Rom 11:32) is an allusion to Adamic solidarity in sacred violence and Christic solidarity in salvation. The Jewish refusal is the sign that the chosen people are not excluded by election from participation in the sin of Adam, and by the same token are not excluded by rejection from participation in the grace of Christ.
The "all" in this formula should probably be taken to refer to the level of the group rather than the individual, in the sense of the group as a whole whoever is part of it at that time. By the same reasoning the statement in Romans 11:26, "and thus all Israel will be saved," should be read in this context to mean "Israel as a whole" but not necessarily every individual Jew, (6) just as one might say that all the church will be saved and yet understand that there will be individual members who are not, because of their moral failure. It is significant that in Romans 11:32 Paul does not say that everyone will be saved, only that God will have mercy on all. The point he is making is that the only basis on which God has a relationship with the world is mercy.
The point being emphasized is that the Jews as a group have not been rejected by God, because of their role in the death of Christ. In that role they were engaged in a "strange work" on behalf of God's mercy, revealing the founding mechanism of the primitive Sacred. Therefore if their status is to be any different from that of other groups before the judgment throne of God, it would be more rather than less favorable. Despite the dreadful deed and the relentless refusal, "the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Rom 11:29) and "Israel as a whole will be saved."
Paul ends this subtle exposition with a confession in praise of the wisdom of God and the obscurity of the divine working in the world (Rom 11:33-36). It is ultimately beyond human comprehension, and, therefore, we infer, his own explanation, so laboriously presented, is to be read with that caveat in mind. Thus he closes with a disclaimer comparable to the one that ended the discussion of the "flesh" in Galatians (Gal 6:14-15), a disclaimer that relativizes the status of his argument with reference to the ineffable reality of the new creation beyond the structures of sacred violence. In this way he prevents his own theology from becoming just another myth of mimetic rivalry.
We have already said that this is a dangerous and easily misunderstood doctrine. Either one misses the point that the part of Israel that refuses the messiah does so to fulfil God's purpose and therefore is not to be regarded as cast off by God, or one is unable to tolerate the fine balance between freedom of individual choice and the divine predestination. On the one hand Paul holds that God caused the Jewish refusal, and on the other that the Jews are nevertheless guilty and under the wrath (1 Thess 2:16) until they too, like the remnant, come to the righteousness not of "works of Law" -- which killed Christ and expelled the gospel -- but of faith. At the same time God's gifts and call remain irrevocable and persist even under the wrath, and the proof of this is that certain Jews, like Paul, respond to the gospel on behalf of those who have the strange work of refusal to do. Just as in the time of Isaiah, the remnant represents the people.
One can only understand this doctrine theologically. It is appropriately called a mystery (Rom 11:25) and should not be carelessly revealed. Unfortunately it cannot be kept only to the mature; therefore we must make determined efforts to interpret it properly. According to Paul the Jews have performed a hard service for the world; they unveiled the founding mechanism of sacred violence once and for all in the crucifixion of Christ and the refusal of the gospel. In that work they represented all of us, and exposed the darkest shame of us all. Therefore, we hate them and load upon them the very violence that they uncovered in us. When we call them the "Christ killers," pretending thereby that we, of course, are on Christ's side, and would not have participated in this crucifixion had we been on hand, we treat them as they treated Christ and thereby show that we are their mimetic doubles, and more than that, that we have taken their place and they have taken Christ's. This is the theological cause of the continuing Christlike suffering of Jews at the hands of Christians, a mimetic reversal of roles that Paul in his robust theology of the divine purpose sought to forestall.
Both the positive and the negative poles of the drama of salvation are necessary until the end of history; Christians must continue to accept the messiah and Jews to reject him. In the dialectic of that relationship between the two groups each must accept the necessity of the other if they are to avoid the devastating mimetic rivalry that has marked the history of the relationship up to now. That means that Christians must affirm the Jewish existence of the Jews, because it is as such that they serve the divine purpose. The dark side of this is that that service is the service of the negative pole; the darker side is that mimesis causes the two roles to interact resulting in mutual recrimination and violence when power permits. The record shows more such violence on the part of Christians. This may be due to the lack of opportunity on the part of Jews because of their exclusion from political power. The record of the state of Israel under the pressures of state responsibility does not suggest that Jews are inherently less violent than gentiles, or that the Jewish religion less militant than others.
The Problematic of the Doctrine of Election
Having said all this in favor of Paul's doctrine of election, I must confess that I find it a dangerous doctrine that should be radically reversed. Election is an integral part of a theology that sees God revealed in history, specifically the history of groups, some of which are favored and others of which are abhorred. According to my theory such doctrines, which identify groups as especially beloved of the divinity, are ploys of the primitive Sacred. They are essential components in the victimage machine, justifying the expulsion of victims and the remorseless pursuit of enemies.
Since election is a myth of scapegoating, if Paul had carried through to the end the project of demythification started by the Cross, he would have decoded not only the scapegoating myth of gentile exclusion based on the misinterpretation of Torah, but also the myth of election, since they are aspects of the same myth of the sacred group. Paul did not, however, do that, but on the contrary used the myth of election to explain a central feature of his field of concern. In this regard, therefore, we must judge him to have failed to draw the logical conclusions from his insight into the sacred violence of Judaism.
We have suggested that he failed to draw this conclusion because of nostalgia. He could not bring himself consistently to accept the fact that since the crucifixion and resurrection his Jewishness and the Jewishness of Jesus were not negatively significant but rather simply insignificant. We have seen evidence that he could accept this, notably the fact that he could refer to Jesus' Jewishness as the "likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom 8:3) and ethnic identity as insignificant (1 Cor 9:19-23). However, when it came to the question of whether God had rejected Israel because Israel had rejected the Messiah, he could not accept an affirmative answer, but adapted the doctrine of election, logically discredited by his own theology of the Cross, to serve the ingenious argument that Israel served God by rejecting God's Messiah and persecuting God's prophets.
This makes God responsible for the persecution of the divine messengers and for the murder of the Son, and is, therefore, simply a form of the sacrificial doctrine of the atonement, by which we shift responsibility for our sins onto the divine. Paul wanted to maintain that the saving events were caused by God, that God was acting for the salvation of the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Judaism was integrally a part of those events, and so it was impossible on historical grounds to deny the significance of the Jewish role. It was from Paul's point of view a negative role and so his options were to identify the source of the negativity as simple human perversity of the kind that the theory of sacred violence reveals, or to say that this perversity was divinely inspired. If he had chosen the former option, he would effectively have dissolved the doctrine of election. In that case Jewish rejection of Jesus and the gentiles would have been simple sacred violence. By choosing the latter option, however, he lapsed into mythology, and covered up the responsibility of the Jews as representatives of us all by blaming God for their rejection of Christ. This is simply a form of the sacrificial doctrine of the atonement to the effect that God persecuted the Son because of humanity's sin. This God is the primitive Sacred, who takes part with the group in the killing of the victim.
There is, therefore, a major flaw and inconsistency in Paul's thought. It is no wonder that Jews are for the most part unconvinced by the far-fetched dialectical argument that makes them the divinely appointed killers of Christ. It would be better simply to identify them in that role as the representatives not of God but of us all, bringing to light the sacred violence of the world.
1. R. Scroggs, "Paul as Rhetorician."
2. K. Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles.
3. Barrett, Romans, 193-94.
4. Cranfield, Romans 2, 495-96.
5. Cf. 1 Pet 2:6, 8, where the same collocation of the two Isaiah texts occurs, leading some to suggest that it was a common property of the early church rather than a Pauline formulation.
6. Cranfield, Romans 2; Barrett, Romans; E. Kasemann, An die Römer, loc. cit.