The Love and Hate of God in Romans 9

[A most excellent article by Professor Cyril Jenkins – from the site Lux Christi]

One of my former Calvinist mentors once opined that most people had little problem understanding why God hated Esau: what the real conundrum was, was why did He love Jacob?

jacobesauFor Orthodox, of course, this is a false alternative, for Romans 9, the passage in which St. Paul cites Malachi about loving Jacob and hating Esau, is not about individuals, but the divine providence in preserving the godly seed.

As an aside, in beginning to think about this, I would commend St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Romans. Calvin unhappily cited St. John’s teachings on this subject:

“Moreover although the Greeks more than others, and among these especially Chrysostom, have exceeded decorum in extolling the powers of the human will, nonetheless, all the fathers, with the exception of Augustine, in this matter are so wayward, vacillating, and confused, that nothing clear  can be had from their writings (Institutes, 2..2.4).

While an opportunity to comment again about what it says when one can so easily dismiss the universal testimony of the Fathers, it is instructive to see that even Calvin was willing to admit that St. Augustine alone spoke for his own views (and I think St. Augustine would take umbrage at how Calvin used them).

In regard to Romans 9, there are three things on should note: the matter of the love of God, the question of Providence in working out Salvation, and lastly, what is specifically meant by “predestination.”

First, the matter of God’s love and God’s opprobrium. God’s love, as everyone will confess, is eternal, for after all, God is love. But His hatred is not, not unless, that is, you have fallen into what has been termed the Origenistic problematic. Origen, the brilliant second/third-century father was influenced by middle-Platonism, and was a contemporary of the founder of NeoPlatonism, Plotinus. He and Plotinus had the same teacher in Alexandria, Ammonius Saccas. The starting point for both Origen and Plotinus was the ineffable singular unity of God (for Plotinus, “The One,” in Greek, to hen, which is neuter in form). For Origen, the eternality and unity of God was primary, and all that God was, he was eternally. Thus He was both Eternally Father with the eternally-begotten Son. (He was the first theologian to use the term “the eternal generation of the Son.”) But this comes at a cost: if God is creator, He is eternally so, and creation becomes eternal. Origen, moreover, was hard pressed to distinguish the eternal act of creation from the eternal act of begetting, for were we to begin with the unity of God, how can we distinguish acts (though Origen did seek to do so). In respect to the love of God, it would seem, hate becomes systemic of the divine nature as well. Origen reasoned that for God to be all-powerful, there must be something against which his power stood; for him to be infinite, His infinity must be opposed to finitude. We can see in this a dialectic of opposition, which would then entail that his love, while having an eternal object of love (and for Christians love is an energy within the Trinity and ultimately among us creatures), this same must be true of his hate. Origen really doesn’t comment on this, and later theologians have seen that God’s hate is but the disposition of God toward that which is not of Him, namely, sin. (Origen’s thoughts on all of this is in his On first principles.)

But Origen’s theology in these matters was condemned by the Church. God’s hate, such as it is, is not eternal (and neither is creation), but a response of his justice and love toward the corruption of His creation. This can be seen at the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy, for when Dante enters Hell he reads “eternal love created me.” Thus the love and hate of Jacob and Esau cannot be linked to the eternal purposes of God, in that the hate of God, like God’s creation, are acts of God in His relationship to time. This point was brought home to me by Fr. Aidan Nichols, a Dominican friar in Cambridge, in a conversation we had about the uncreated love of God within the saints, and what constituted freewill in heaven. I shall return to this, but first must note that the love of God, then, as an eternal energy of God, is not the opposite or corollary of God’s hate, the one part of the two decrees, what the Reformers dubbed gemina predestinatio, with the hate of God being the other. It is not some cosmic balancing act, as St. Augustine spoke of in his On Free Choice of the Will, in which God offsets the blessed and the damned by some cosmic scale to bring equilibrium to the universe. What the love of God is, is one of the myriad logoi of God’s existence, eternal, flowing from God and around God, and properly, like God’s glory, a consequence or creature of God, but not the divine essence. This love and into this glory constitute the goals, ends, and telos of the Christian, and properly said, of every creature of God. More anon.

Thus we come to the second point, the question of God’s providence. For the Orthodox God does not do violence to his creatures. The Reformed will maintain this as well, but still must assert that it is God that changes the will, and God that moves us from beginning to end. Providence, for the Reformed, is God’s active ordering of the world, part of God’s eternal decree by which He brings to pass all He has decreed. For the Orthodox, this is not the case. The Blessed Mother of God could have said “No.” (Most Holy Theotokos save us!) What Providence is, is God’s moving, calling, wooing, confronting, and ordering the world to effect salvation. God does have a way of being persistent (ask Jonah), and about making our lives miserable until we obey, and using His gifts in us to his own purposes (see Baalam). God uses people’s own ambitions and desires for His purposes (He will cause the wrath of man to praise Him), and we see in the case of Pharaoh that God ultimately moved Pharaoh’s heart in order to teach him a lesson. If we really want to resist God, He will grant us our request. This is why, as C. S. Lewis wrote, the gates of Hell are locked, from the inside. When we look at Romans 9 we see the working out of God’s purposes for “Israel.” And what Israel is, is not a clearly precise thing, as it is not those of the physical seed of Abraham, for not Ishmael but Isaac is the seed. That God is watching over Israel, waiting for the fullness of Israel (both Jew and Gentile Israel) is the thrust of Romans 9-11. But I must pause over those few verses, 9: 20-23, about the vessels of honor and dishonor, wrath and mercy, for here we have what seems a clear statement that what is being said is about individuals.

And this brings me to my third point, and back as well to Fr. Aidan Nichols. Fr. Aidan, who as noted is a Dominican (and someone whose writings) I highly recommend Papist though he be), like St. Thomas Aquinas, sees God as the highest good, the summum bonum, of all (and we would not dissent). But when this is pushed, it robs the Saints in light of any real freewill, for they would have no choice in heaven but the one Good, namely God. I was quite pleased, therefore, in pressing this point that Fr. Aidan said he would not hold to that for in the eschaton the Saints would also have each other, and thus a multiplicity of choices.  Thus, God’s intentions for mankind, His preordained goals and ends for us, His predestinations, inform us about what St. Paul is asserting in Romans 9: God’s love for Israel (and they are not all Israel who are of Israel) was worked out in spite of Pharaoh, and in spite of Edom (the hated Jacob), the vessels of wrath “adjusted to destruction” that he might show His mercy on the vessels of mercy “purposed for glory.”  St. Paul, I should point out, used two different words about how the respective vessels came to their ends. The ones’ ends were reached by an adjustment or a reordering; the other came to their proper end having fulfilled their purpose. What we have in 9:20-23 is not a double predestination, but an affirmation that God has ordered the world to a particular goal, but one which because of the freewill of the creature is not now for everyone. Hell was not something created for the damned, but is instead a place they shall take up with the first rebels against God’s order, namely the Devil and his angels. Thus the vessels of wrath are reordered into the nonorder of death. Each creature, each person, has their own proper logos of existence, and like the other logoi around God constitute the arena of our activity, the ends of our wills ordered to the good. Thus, I concur with Fr. Aidan that we are ordered to the Saints in the age to come, but also ordered to all the words of God.

What clinches this reading, at least for me, comes in the next verse (24):

“Even us whom He has called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles.”

These are the Israel not of Israel, the Gentiles who have fulfilled the righteous purposes (dare we say, predestinations) of the law. The purposes of God in showing mercy as He wills, and in enduring those who seek His wrath, is that He might fulfill His purposes among the Gentiles, that is, in the Church. The Church is the great mystery, prefigured in the garden in Adam and Eve, hidden but still present to the prophets, and now at last made known in God’s good time as fulfilling Israel’s purpose as a light to the nations.

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  1. nathan shoemaker says:

    how divine that you should post on Romans 9 today!

    it was only a few days ago that my reading took me through Romans 9 again. every time i read through it i struggle to understand how to form my thinking around it. i disagree with Calvin, but i can certainly see bits of where he’s coming from every time i read through this passage.

    i really appreciate your posts on this. it helps immensely. though i must admit there is still something (that i can’t put my finger on) about this that eludes me. perhaps it’s a capacity issue and i’ll never understand it fully. either way, thank you and bless you.


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