Commentary on Romans 9:14-29

Notes (NET Translation)

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not!

One might accuse God of injustice or unrighteousness because he decides who he will elect and who he will reject apart from anything in the human being. Paul rejects this charge against God.

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.”

The quotation is from Ex. 33:19. God’s decision to choose Jacob and reject Esau was not an isolated case but reflects God’s nature.

In the Exodus context, Moses requests that the Lord show him his glory. The Lord replies by promising to cause all his “goodness” to pass in front of Moses and to proclaim to him his name, “the LORD.” Then follow the words that Paul here cites. Justifiably, Paul finds in God’s words to Moses a revelation of one of God’s basic characteristics: his freedom to bestow mercy on whomever he chooses. It is against this ultimate standard, not the penultimate standard of God’s covenant with Israel, that God’s “righteousness” must be measured. Paul’s reference to Moses reinforces the point, for it is to the mediator of the covenant himself that God reveals his freedom in mercy.1

How does this constitute an answer to the objection that God is unrighteous? God is righteous because he is committed to proclaiming his name and advertising his glory by showing his goodness, grace, and mercy to people as he freely chooses. The righteousness of God is defended, then, by appealing to his freedom and sovereignty as the Creator. His righteousness is also trumpeted by the appeal to his mercy. No human being deserves his mercy. The choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau must be construed as a merciful one. In other words, the stunning thing for Paul was not that God rejected Ishmael and Esau but that he chose Isaac and Jacob, for they did not deserve to be included in his merciful and gracious purposes. Human beings are apt to criticize God for excluding anyone, but this betrays a theology that views salvation as something God “ought” to bestow on all equally. Piper rightly observes that what is fundamental for God is the revelation of his glory and the proclamation of his name, and he accomplishes this by showing mercy and by withholding it. God’s righteousness is upheld because he manifests it by revealing his glory both in saving and in judging.2

16 So then, it does not depend on human desire or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.

Verse 16 is the conclusion Paul draws from the quotation in verse 15. The “it” in verse 16 is God’s bestowal of mercy. “Human desire” and “exertion” sum up the totality of man’s capabilities.

17 For the scripture says to Pharaoh: “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may demonstrate my power in you, and that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”

The quotation is from Ex. 9:16. If verses 15-16 expand the positive side of God’s sovereignty then verses 17-18 expand the negative side of God’s sovereignty.

Paul’s wording, “I have raised you up,” differs from both the standard Greek LXX text and the Hebrew MT. Various explanations for the differences have been offered, but it seems reasonable to conclude that Paul has deliberately accentuated God’s initiative in the process. The verb “raise up” probably, then, has the connotation “appoint to a significant role in salvation history.” Of particular importance in the quotation is the purpose of God’s raising Pharaoh up: “so that I might demonstrate through you my power and so that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Indeed, this purpose clause is probably the reason that Paul has cited this particular text since its lack of explicit reference to Pharaoh’s “hardening” makes it less suitable than others as a preparation for Paul’s conclusion in v. 18. Paul wants to make clear that even God’s “negative” actions, such as the hardening of Pharaoh, serve a positive purpose (a point Paul will develop further in vv. 22-23). And this positive purpose is the greatest imaginable: the demonstration of God’s power and the wider proclamation of God’s name. In Pharaoh’s day, the plagues on the land of Egypt and the deliverance of Israel through the “Sea of Reeds,” made necessary by Pharaoh’s hardened heart, accomplished this purpose (see Josh. 2:10). In Paul’s day, he implies, the hardening that has come upon a “part of Israel” (see 11:5-7, 25) has likewise led to the name of God being “proclaimed in all the earth” through the mission to the Gentiles.3

18 So then, God has mercy on whom he chooses to have mercy, and he hardens whom he chooses to harden.

No doctrine stimulates more negative reaction and consternation than this one. Some degree of such reaction is probably inevitable, for it flies in the face of our own common perceptions of both human freedom and God’s justice. And vv. 19-23 show that Paul was himself very familiar with this reaction. Yet, without pretending that it solves all our problems, we must recognize that God’s hardening is an act directed against human beings who are already in rebellion against God’s righteous rule. God’s hardening does not, then, cause spiritual insensitivity to the things of God; it maintains people in the state of sin that already characterizes them. This does not mean, as I have argued above, that God’s decision about whom to harden is based on a particular degree of sinfulness within certain human beings; he hardens “whomever he chooses.” But it is imperative that we maintain side-by-side the complementary truths that (1) God hardens whomever he chooses; (2) human beings, because of sin, are responsible for their ultimate condemnation. Thus, God’s bestowing of mercy and his hardening are not equivalent acts. God’s mercy is given to those who do not deserve it; his hardening affects those who have already by their sin deserved condemnation.4

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has ever resisted his will?”

Paul is using the rhetoric of diatribe so he is addressing a hypothetical dialogue partner, not a member of the Roman church.

The objection of verse 19 flows out of the previous context and can be summarized as follows. If God shows mercy and hardens whomever he wills regardless of human effort or choice, then how can he possibly assign blame to human beings for their choices and actions? God’s will determines whatever occurs, and thus he rather than human beings must be held responsible.5

20 But who indeed are you — a mere human being — to talk back to God? Does what is molded say to the molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

Paul emphasizes the creaturely status of the objector.

Paul quotes Isa. 29:16 to remind the objector of the dependent and subordinate position of the human being in respect to God. Human beings are in no more of a position to “answer back” to God than a vase is to criticize its molder for making it in a certain way. Paul is not here denying the validity of that kind of questioning of God which arises from sincere desire to understand God’s ways and an honest willingness to accept whatever answer God might give. It is the attitude of the creature presuming to judge the ways of the creator–to “answer back”–that Paul implicitly rebukes.6

The word ἀνταποκρινόμενος denotes disputation and resistance, not merely an attempt to procure an answer to a difficult question. Paul’s response to the protestor, then, is this: How can finite, frail, and weak human beings venture to dictate to God how the world should be run (cf. also Wis. 12:12)? Who do we think we are that we presume to call God to account and pass judgment on him?7

21 Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use?

Potter and clay imagery is widespread in the OT (Isa. 29:16; 45:9-11; Jer. 18:1-6; Wis. 15:7; Sir. 33:7-13; T. Naph. 2:2, 4; 1QS 11:22; 1QH 9:21; 11:23-24; 12:29; 19:3; 20:26, 32) so it cannot be determined what, if any, passage Paul has in mind.

22 But what if God, willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath prepared for destruction?

God is patient with the objects of wrath because he wants to more gloriously display his wrath and power against sin.

23 And what if he is willing to make known the wealth of his glory on the objects of mercy that he has prepared beforehand for glory — 24 even us, whom he has called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

God is also patient because he wants to make known the wealth of his glory on the objects of mercy.

When the vessels of mercy perceive the fearsome wrath of God upon the disobedient and reflect on the fact that they deserve the same, then they appreciate in a deeper way the riches of God’s glory (τὸν πλοῦτον τῆς δόξης αὐτοῦ) and the grace lavished upon them. The mercy of God is set forth in clarity against the backdrop of his wrath. Thereby God displays the full range of his attributes: both his powerful wrath and the sunshine of his mercy. The mercy of God would not be impressed on the consciousness of human beings apart from the exercise of God’s wrath, just as one delights more richly in the warmth, beauty, and tenderness of spring after one has experienced the cold blast of winter. As we have observed before in Romans, God’s ultimate purpose is to display his glory to all people. His glory is exhibited through both wrath and mercy, but especially through mercy.8

Many commentators are troubled by Paul’s apparent disregard for human choice and responsibility. Dodd criticizes the argument here as “a false step.” O’Neill goes further, claiming the teaching is “thoroughly immoral,” and follows a number of the church fathers in ascribing the offending verses to someone other than Paul. These criticisms are sometimes the product of a false assumption: that Paul’s justification of the ways of God in his treatment of human beings (his “theodicy”) must meet the standard set by our own assumptions and standards of logic. Paul’s approach is quite different. He considers his theodicy to be successful if it justifies God’s acts against the standards of his revelation in Scripture (vv. 15-18) and his character as Creator (vv. 20-23). In other words, the standard by which God must be judged is nothing less and nothing more than God himself. Judged by this standard, Paul contends, God is indeed “just.” Paul does not provide a logically compelling resolution of the two strands of his teaching–God, by his own sovereign choice, elects human beings to salvation; human beings, by a responsible choice of their will, must believe in order to be saved. But criticism of the apostle on this score is unfair. It is unfair, first, because Paul can accomplish his purpose–showing God to be just–without such a resolution. And it is unfair, second, because no resolution of this perennial paradox seems possible this side of heaven.9

Paul is content to hold the truths of God’s absolute sovereignty–in both election and in hardening–and of full human responsibility without reconciling them. We would do well to emulate his approach.10

Verse 24 introduces Gentiles as among those whom God is calling to be part of his people. It is God’s sovereign call, not physical descent, that determines who is part of God’s people.

25 As he also says in Hosea: “I will call those who were not my people, ‘My people,’ and I will call her who was unloved, ‘My beloved.'”

This quotation is from Hos. 2:23 but is not an exact quote. Paul is saying that God has called the Gentiles (those who were not my people and who were unloved) to be his beloved people.

26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.'”

This quotation is from Hos. 1:10. In context, “where” and “there” probably refer to the land of (northern) Israel’s exile. Gentiles, who were previously considered outside the realm of God’s people, are being called.

[A] potentially . . . serious instance of what seems to be arbitrary hermeneutics on Paul’s part is his application of these Hosea texts to the calling of Gentiles. For the prophet Hosea is predicting a renewal of God’s mercy toward the rebellious northern tribes of Israel: those whom God rejected and named lō-ruhamah, “not pitied,” and lō-ami, “not my people” (the symbolic names given to Hosea’s children [1:6-9]) are again shown mercy and adopted again as God’s people. The problem disappears if Hosea is including the Gentiles in his prophecy; but this is unlikely. Others avoid the difficulty by arguing that Paul applies these passages to the calling of the Jews rather than the Gentiles. But the explicit reference to Israel in the introduction to the Isaiah quotations in v. 27 suggests that Paul views the Hosea quotations as related to the calling of the Gentiles. Others think that Paul may imply an analogy: God’s calling of Gentiles operates on the same principle as God’s promised renewal of the ten northern tribes. But Paul requires more than an analogy to establish from Scripture justification for God’s calling of Gentiles to be his people. Therefore we must conclude that this text reflects a hermeneutical supposition for which we find evidence elsewhere in Paul and in the NT: that OT predictions of a renewed Israel find their fulfillment in the church. Moreover, Paul’s use of these texts may further his effort to break down the boundaries between the Jews and other peoples that were so basic to Jewish thinking.11

Nor should the application of these verses to Gentiles when they originally related to the Jews trouble us. Paul detected a principle in these verses that he applied to his day. But Moo is correct in insisting that Paul’s thinking goes further. Paul conceives of Hosea’s prophecy as fulfilled in the calling of the Gentiles. The church is the renewed Israel and the arena in which God’s promises find their fulfillment. Paul wants to show his Jewish contemporaries that the calling of the Gentiles was not without precedent; it fits with the surprising way God has always acted. Indeed, Paul likely anticipates the mystery shared in Rom. 11:26, for once again he will summon those who did not belong to him (the Jews) to belief.12

1 Peter 2:9-10 makes a similar point and also alludes to Hos. 2:23.

27 And Isaiah cries out on behalf of Israel, “Though the number of the children of Israel are as the sand of the sea, only the remnant will be saved, 28 for the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth completely and quickly.”

Contextually, Isaiah 10:22-23 is part of a prophecy about the judgment of God upon an arrogant Assyria, and the salvation of a remnant of Israel. The prophecy says also that though the number of the Israelites taken into captivity was ‘as the sand of the sea’, it is a remnant that will be saved when the Lord will make short work of his judgment of the world. Paul quotes this prophecy to explain that the minimal response to the gospel he found among the Jews was foreshadowed in Scripture — a remnant will be saved — and therefore the rejection of the gospel by the majority of his contemporary kinsfolk cannot be claimed as evidence that ‘the word of God has failed’. And by implication it cannot be claimed that Paul’s gospel is not true because many of his own people failed to embrace it.13

Most Jews expected a few Gentiles to be saved and many Jews, but the initial response to the gospel has been precisely the reverse.14

The meaning of verse 28 is unclear. The NET stresses the completeness and swiftness of the Lord’s judgment.

29 Just as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of armies had not left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, and we would have resembled Gomorrah.”

This is a quote from Isa. 1:9 to show that even the salvation of the remnant is by God’s grace and mercy. The term sperma (seed, descendants) refers to the genuine children of God (Rom 9:6-9). Sodom and Gomorrah were cities destroyed by God because of the wickedness of their inhabitants (Gen. 19:24-25).

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Moo 1996, 592 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10024-10032 
  3. Moo 1996, 594-595 
  4. Moo 1996, 599-600 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10130-10133 
  6. Moo 1996, 601-602 
  7. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10159-10162 
  8. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10293-10300 
  9. Moo 1996, 590-591 
  10. Moo 1996, 601 
  11. Moo 1996, 613 
  12. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10373-10380 
  13. Kruse 2012, 389-390 
  14. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10394-10395 

The Perils of Assisted Reproductive Technology #6

He was the perfect sperm donor. Then 26 families found out he wasn’t

At least 36 donor-conceived children face uncertain futures after their supposedly healthy sperm donor turned out to be a man with serious mental illness.

By: Theresa Boyle Health, Published on Sat Apr 09 2016

The donor was nothing like the perfectly healthy man — aside from some colour blindness on his dad’s side — touted on the sperm bank’s website. Nor was he working on a PhD in neuroscience engineering en route to becoming a professor of biomedical robotics at a medical school.

Instead, Chris Aggeles, a now 39-year-old man from Georgia, has struggled with serious mental illness for much of his adult life. In addition to schizophrenia, court documents show he has had diagnoses of bipolar and narcissistic personality disorders, and has described himself as having schizoaffective disorder.

He has a history of run-ins with the law, has done time in jail, dropped out of college and struggled in the past to hold down jobs.

His sperm has been used to create 36 children: 19 boys and 17 girls from 26 families, according to a 2014 email to Collins from Georgia-based sperm bank Xytex Corp.

The international debacle has shaken confidence in the industry and fuelled a cross-border debate over the ethics of paying men for their sperm. In Canada, where it is illegal, there are calls to change the law to help address a shortage of sperm, and opposing arguments against its commercialization.

Allegations against Xytex, which include fraud and negligent misrepresentation, have not been proven in court and the company denies any wrongdoing….

But Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney pointed out that the law is behind the times when it comes to dealing with advances in reproductive technologies, and suggested there should be some way for plaintiffs to seek justice.

“Science has once again — as it always does — outstripped the law,” he wrote. “Plaintiffs make a compelling argument that there should be a way for parties aggrieved as these Plaintiffs are to pursue negligence claims against a service provider in pre-conception services.”

“Given the current state of affairs in the sperm-bank industry, it is strictly a matter of luck if a sperm donor is an upstanding and healthy individual, not a matter of testing, screening, regulating or legislating,” Collins charges.

“Who would have thought that an industry that makes people would be like this?”

Note the absolute cluelessness. Who would have thought that an industry that treats human beings as a product would act unethically in any way? Does she not understand that this industry not only makes people but also kills them if they are unwanted?

She has spent much of the last 22 months calling and writing to sperm banks, distributors and bureaucrats, urging them to address the lack of industry oversight, insufficient screening of sperm donors and Canada’s reliance on U.S. imports.

Why should taxpayers foot the bill?

Hersh calls Collins a “hero” for her ongoing efforts and for going public with the battle.

“She is the Erin Brockovich of the sperm-bank set,” Hersh says. “She is very brave and courageous to be doing all of this to prevent these problems from happening to other people.”

The best way to prevent these problems from happening to other people is to ban assisted reproductive technology.

Collins always wanted to have children, but being in a same-sex relationship presented a challenge. In need of sperm, she and Hanson spent about four months in 2006 researching their options.

In today’s world merely wanting children is reason enough to have them. What is best for the child is irrelevant.

In 2006, Collins pored over Xytex’s online catalogue in search of a donor. From hundreds of profiles, she zeroed in on “donor 9623” because he was “the male version of my partner,” she says. Like Hanson, the man in the ad was blue eyed, intelligent, academically accomplished and musically gifted.

The donor’s full profile, an archived copy of which can still be found on Xytex’s website, states he has an IQ of 160 (the same as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking), bachelor’s and master’s degrees in neuroscience and is pursuing a PhD.

He has received international acclaim for his talent as a drummer, it says.

Obtained by the Star, the 2006 recording portrays an articulate and impressive-sounding young man who says he speaks five languages, is studying artificial intelligence and plans on becoming a professor of biomedical robotics at a medical school.

He says he reads four or five books a month (“non-fiction mostly”) and tells of once winning a pizza party at Pizza Hut because he read 300 books in a single month.

The interview was not available when Collins chose 9623. The written profile was nevertheless enough to sell her on him.

Doesn’t the donor sound too good to be true (note: later in the article we learn that he probably is quite intelligent but has mental health issues)? I particularly like the part about reading 300 books in a single month. Either the donor is lying through his teeth (that comes out to 10 books a day in a 30-day month) or he was reading children’s books. I can remember Pizza Hut giving away pizzas to young readers when I was a child. But the fact that this man appeared perfect is not what gave Collins pause.

She admits there was one sentence that gave her pause: “The medical and social history was provided by the donor and cannot be verified for accuracy.

Collins says she was concerned enough to call Xytex and alleges that her misgivings were allayed when a company representative told her: “We do all of our own internal testing to the degree that you will know more about your donor than your own partner.

The problem is that you don’t know how trustworthy Xytex is either. You get to know your partner in an experiential manner that you will never know a faceless corporation.

The mothers who used 9623’s sperm learned of his real identity when Xytex released it to some of them in a 2014 email, seemingly inadvertently and “in a breach of confidentiality,” Hersh says….

Through public record searches, the Star has verified Aggeles’ donor profile contained incorrect information and has discovered additional details about his mental health, criminal past, education and work history.

In an open letter posted on the company’s website last April, president Kevin O’Brien indicated Xytex relies on the honour system when it comes to collecting medical and social histories of donors. Xytex has always been upfront about letting would-be parents know the company does not corroborate such information, he said.

Collins wants the Canadian government to amend the 2004 Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which made it illegal to pay sperm donors, egg donors and surrogates anything but expenses.

She may have found a friend in Quebec Liberal MP Anthony Housefather (Mount Royal). A lawyer, he has been pushing for changes to the legislation since getting elected last October, prompted by friends who have hit him up for free legal advice after being stymied in their attempts to expand their families through assisted reproduction.

They have been forced to look abroad for sperm, eggs and surrogates because the legislation limits availability here, he says, explaining that demand for assisted human reproduction is growing because of the increase in same-sex unions, single parents and women conceiving later in life.

Just because there’s a demand does not mean we have to meet said demand.

She says she feels cheated: “I felt like I was duped by Xytex and I failed my son for having chosen Xytex. In hindsight, a hitchhiker on the side of the road would have been a far more responsible option for conceiving a child.”

Of course if she had not chosen Xytex her son would not exist. A different son would exist. The responsible option is to conceive with a spouse of the opposite sex who you will spend the rest of your life with. This way the child can know his/her biological parents and not be reduced to a product.

Science. It Works. #3

Scientific Regress by William A. Wilson

The problem with ­science is that so much of it simply isn’t. Last summer, the Open Science Collaboration announced that it had tried to replicate one hundred published psychology experiments sampled from three of the most prestigious journals in the field. Scientific claims rest on the idea that experiments repeated under nearly identical conditions ought to yield approximately the same results, but until very recently, very few had bothered to check in a systematic way whether this was actually the case. The OSC was the biggest attempt yet to check a field’s results, and the most shocking. In many cases, they had used original experimental materials, and sometimes even performed the experiments under the guidance of the original researchers. Of the studies that had originally reported positive results, an astonishing 65 percent failed to show statistical significance on replication, and many of the remainder showed greatly reduced effect sizes.

Their findings made the news, and quickly became a club with which to bash the social sciences. But the problem isn’t just with psychology. There’s an ­unspoken rule in the pharmaceutical industry that half of all academic biomedical research will ultimately prove false, and in 2011 a group of researchers at Bayer decided to test it. Looking at sixty-seven recent drug discovery projects based on preclinical cancer biology research, they found that in more than 75 percent of cases the published data did not match up with their in-house attempts to replicate. These were not studies published in fly-by-night oncology journals, but blockbuster research featured in Science, Nature, Cell, and the like. The Bayer researchers were drowning in bad studies, and it was to this, in part, that they attributed the mysteriously declining yields of drug pipelines. Perhaps so many of these new drugs fail to have an effect because the basic research on which their development was based isn’t valid. . . .

A tremendous amount depends on the proportion of possible hypotheses which turn out to be true, and on the accuracy with which an experiment can discern truth from falsehood. Ioannidis shows that for a wide variety of scientific settings and fields, the values of these two parameters are not at all favorable.

For instance, consider a team of molecular biologists investigating whether a mutation in one of the countless thousands of human genes is linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. The probability of a randomly selected mutation in a randomly selected gene having precisely that effect is quite low, so just as with the stones in the field, a positive finding is more likely than not to be spurious—unless the experiment is unbelievably successful at sorting the wheat from the chaff. Indeed, Ioannidis finds that in many cases, approaching even 50 percent true positives requires unimaginable accuracy. Hence the eye-catching title of his paper: “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.”

What about accuracy? Here, too, the news is not good. First, it is a de facto standard in many fields to use one in twenty as an acceptable cutoff for the rate of false positives. To the naive ear, that may sound promising: Surely it means that just 5 percent of scientific studies report a false positive? But this is precisely the same mistake as thinking that a stone has a 99 percent chance of containing a ­diamond just because the detector has sounded. What it really means is that for each of the countless false hypo­theses that are contemplated by researchers, we accept a 5 percent chance that it will be falsely counted as true—a decision with a considerably more deleterious effect on the proportion of correct studies.

Paradoxically, the situation is actually made worse by the fact that a promising connection is often studied by several independent teams. To see why, suppose that three groups of researchers are studying a phenomenon, and when all the data are analyzed, one group announces that it has discovered a connection, but the other two find nothing of note. Assuming that all the tests involved have a high statistical power, the lone positive finding is almost certainly the spurious one. However, when it comes time to report these findings, what happens? The teams that found a negative result may not even bother to write up their non-discovery. After all, a report that a fanciful connection probably isn’t true is not the stuff of which scientific prizes, grant money, and tenure decisions are made.

And even if they did write it up, it probably wouldn’t be accepted for publication. Journals are in competition with one another for attention and “impact factor,” and are always more eager to report a new, exciting finding than a killjoy failure to find an association. In fact, both of these effects can be quantified. Since the majority of all investigated hypotheses are false, if positive and negative evidence were written up and accepted for publication in equal proportions, then the majority of articles in scientific journals should report no findings. When tallies are actually made, though, the precise opposite turns out to be true: Nearly every published scientific article reports the presence of an association. There must be massive bias at work.

Ioannidis’s argument would be potent even if all scientists were angels motivated by the best of intentions, but when the human element is considered, the picture becomes truly dismal. Scientists have long been aware of something euphemistically called the “experimenter effect”: the curious fact that when a phenomenon is investigated by a researcher who happens to believe in the phenomenon, it is far more likely to be detected. Much of the effect can likely be explained by researchers unconsciously giving hints or suggestions to their human or animal subjects, perhaps in something as subtle as body language or tone of voice. Even those with the best of intentions have been caught fudging measurements, or making small errors in rounding or in statistical analysis that happen to give a more favorable result. Very often, this is just the result of an honest statistical error that leads to a desirable outcome, and therefore it isn’t checked as deliberately as it might have been had it pointed in the opposite direction.

But, and there is no putting it nicely, deliberate fraud is far more widespread than the scientific establishment is generally willing to admit. One way we know that there’s a great deal of fraud occurring is that if you phrase your question the right way, ­scientists will confess to it. In a survey of two thousand research psychologists conducted in 2011, over half of those surveyed admitted outright to selectively reporting those experiments which gave the result they were after. Then the investigators asked respondents anonymously to estimate how many of their fellow scientists had engaged in fraudulent behavior, and promised them that the more accurate their guesses, the larger a contribution would be made to the charity of their choice. Through several rounds of anonymous guessing, refined using the number of scientists who would admit their own fraud and other indirect measurements, the investigators concluded that around 10 percent of research psychologists have engaged in outright falsification of data, and more than half have engaged in less brazen but still fraudulent behavior such as reporting that a result was statistically significant when it was not, or deciding between two different data analysis techniques after looking at the results of each and choosing the more favorable.

Many forms of statistical falsification are devilishly difficult to catch, or close enough to a genuine judgment call to provide plausible deniability. Data analysis is very much an art, and one that affords even its most scrupulous practitioners a wide degree of latitude. Which of these two statistical tests, both applicable to this situation, should be used? Should a subpopulation of the research sample with some common criterion be picked out and reanalyzed as if it were the totality? Which of the hundreds of coincident factors measured should be controlled for, and how? The same freedom that empowers a statistician to pick a true signal out of the noise also enables a dishonest scientist to manufacture nearly any result he or she wishes. Cajoling statistical significance where in reality there is none, a practice commonly known as “p-hacking,” is particularly easy to accomplish and difficult to detect on a case-by-case basis. And since the vast majority of studies still do not report their raw data along with their findings, there is often nothing to re-analyze and check even if there were volunteers with the time and inclination to do so.

One creative attempt to estimate how widespread such dishonesty really is involves comparisons between fields of varying “hardness.” The author, Daniele Fanelli, theorized that the farther from physics one gets, the more freedom creeps into one’s experimental methodology, and the fewer constraints there are on a scientist’s conscious and unconscious biases. If all scientists were constantly attempting to influence the results of their analyses, but had more opportunities to do so the “softer” the science, then we might expect that the social sciences have more papers that confirm a sought-after hypothesis than do the physical sciences, with medicine and biology somewhere in the middle. This is exactly what the study discovered: A paper in psychology or psychiatry is about five times as likely to report a positive result as one in astrophysics. This is not necessarily evidence that psychologists are all consciously or unconsciously manipulating their data—it could also be evidence of massive publication bias—but either way, the result is disturbing.

Speaking of physics, how do things go with this hardest of all hard sciences? Better than elsewhere, it would appear, and it’s unsurprising that those who claim all is well in the world of science reach so reliably and so insistently for examples from physics, preferably of the most theoretical sort. . . .

And yet the flight to physics rather gives the game away, since measured any way you like—volume of papers, number of working researchers, total amount of funding—deductive, theory-building physics in the mold of Newton and Lagrange, Maxwell and Einstein, is a tiny fraction of modern science as a whole. In fact, it also makes up a tiny fraction of modern physics. Far more common is the delicate and subtle art of scouring inconceivably vast volumes of noise with advanced software and mathematical tools in search of the faintest signal of some hypothesized but never before observed phenomenon, whether an astrophysical event or the decay of a subatomic particle. This sort of work is difficult and beautiful in its own way, but it is not at all self-evident in the manner of a falling apple or an elliptical planetary orbit, and it is very sensitive to the same sorts of accidental contamination, deliberate fraud, and unconscious bias as the medical and social-scientific studies we have discussed. Two of the most vaunted physics results of the past few years—the announced discovery of both cosmic inflation and gravitational waves at the BICEP2 experiment in Antarctica, and the supposed discovery of superluminal neutrinos at the Swiss-Italian border—have now been retracted, with far less fanfare than when they were first published.

Many defenders of the scientific establishment will admit to this problem, then offer hymns to the self-correcting nature of the scientific method. Yes, the path is rocky, they say, but peer review, competition between researchers, and the comforting fact that there is an objective reality out there whose test every theory must withstand or fail, all conspire to mean that sloppiness, bad luck, and even fraud are exposed and swept away by the advances of the field.

So the dogma goes. But these claims are rarely treated like hypotheses to be tested. Partisans of the new scientism are fond of recounting the “Sokal hoax”—physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper heavy on jargon but full of false and meaningless statements to the postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text, which accepted and published it without quibble—but are unlikely to mention a similar experiment conducted on reviewers of the prestigious British Medical Journal. The experimenters deliberately modified a paper to include eight different major errors in study design, methodology, data analysis, and interpretation of results, and not a single one of the 221 reviewers who participated caught all of the errors. On average, they caught fewer than two—and, unbelievably, these results held up even in the subset of reviewers who had been specifically warned that they were participating in a study and that there might be something a little odd in the paper that they were reviewing. In all, only 30 percent of reviewers recommended that the intentionally flawed paper be rejected.

If peer review is good at anything, it appears to be keeping unpopular ideas from being published. Consider the finding of another (yes, another) of these replicability studies, this time from a group of cancer researchers. In addition to reaching the now unsurprising conclusion that only a dismal 11 percent of the preclinical cancer research they examined could be validated after the fact, the authors identified another horrifying pattern: The “bad” papers that failed to replicate were, on average, cited far more often than the papers that did! As the authors put it, “some non-reproducible preclinical papers had spawned an entire field, with hundreds of secondary publications that expanded on elements of the original observation, but did not actually seek to confirm or falsify its fundamental basis.”

What they do not mention is that once an entire field has been created—with careers, funding, appointments, and prestige all premised upon an experimental result which was utterly false due either to fraud or to plain bad luck—pointing this fact out is not likely to be very popular. Peer review switches from merely useless to actively harmful. It may be ineffective at keeping papers with analytic or methodological flaws from being published, but it can be deadly effective at suppressing criticism of a dominant research paradigm. Even if a critic is able to get his work published, pointing out that the house you’ve built together is situated over a chasm will not endear him to his colleagues or, more importantly, to his mentors and patrons.

Older scientists contribute to the propagation of scientific fields in ways that go beyond educating and mentoring a new generation. In many fields, it’s common for an established and respected researcher to serve as “senior author” on a bright young star’s first few publications, lending his prestige and credibility to the result, and signaling to reviewers that he stands behind it. In the natural sciences and medicine, senior scientists are frequently the controllers of laboratory resources—which these days include not just scientific instruments, but dedicated staffs of grant proposal writers and regulatory compliance experts—without which a young scientist has no hope of accomplishing significant research. Older scientists control access to scientific prestige by serving on the editorial boards of major journals and on university tenure-review committees. Finally, the government bodies that award the vast majority of scientific funding are either staffed or advised by distinguished practitioners in the field.

All of which makes it rather more bothersome that older scientists are the most likely to be invested in the regnant research paradigm, whatever it is, even if it’s based on an old experiment that has never successfully been replicated. The quantum physicist Max Planck famously quipped: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Planck may have been too optimistic. A recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research studied what happens to scientific subfields when star researchers die suddenly and at the peak of their abilities, and finds that while there is considerable evidence that young researchers are reluctant to challenge scientific superstars, a sudden and unexpected death does not significantly improve the situation, particularly when “key collaborators of the star are in a position to channel resources (such as editorial goodwill or funding) to insiders.”

. . .

The hagiographies of science are full of paeans to the self-correcting, self-healing nature of the enterprise. But if raw results are so often false, the filtering mechanisms so ineffective, and the self-correcting mechanisms so compromised and slow, then science’s approach to truth may not even be monotonic. That is, past theories, now “refuted” by evidence and replaced with new approaches, may be closer to the truth than what we think now. Such regress has happened before: In the nineteenth century, the (correct) vitamin C deficiency theory of scurvy was replaced by the false belief that scurvy was caused by proximity to spoiled foods. Many ancient astronomers believed the heliocentric model of the solar system before it was supplanted by the geocentric theory of Ptolemy. The Whiggish view of scientific history is so dominant today that this possibility is spoken of only in hushed whispers, but ours is a world in which things once known can be lost and buried.

And even if self-correction does occur and theories move strictly along a lifecycle from less to more accurate, what if the unremitting flood of new, mostly false, results pours in faster? Too fast for the sclerotic, compromised truth-discerning mechanisms of science to operate? The result could be a growing body of true theories completely overwhelmed by an ever-larger thicket of baseless theories, such that the proportion of true scientific beliefs shrinks even while the absolute number of them continues to rise. Borges’s Library of Babel contained every true book that could ever be written, but it was useless because it also contained every false book, and both true and false were lost within an ocean of nonsense.

Which brings us to the odd moment in which we live. At the same time as an ever more bloated scientific bureaucracy churns out masses of research results, the majority of which are likely outright false, scientists themselves are lauded as heroes and science is upheld as the only legitimate basis for policy-making. There’s reason to believe that these phenomena are linked. When a formerly ascetic discipline suddenly attains a measure of influence, it is bound to be flooded by opportunists and charlatans, whether it’s the National Academy of Science or the monastery of Cluny. . . .

Now, however, science and especially science bureaucracy is a career, and one amenable to social climbing. Careers attract careerists, in Feyerabend’s words: “devoid of ideas, full of fear, intent on producing some paltry result so that they can add to the flood of inane papers that now constitutes ‘scientific progress’ in many areas.”

If science was unprepared for the influx of careerists, it was even less prepared for the blossoming of the Cult of Science. The Cult is related to the phenomenon described as “scientism”; both have a tendency to treat the body of scientific knowledge as a holy book or an a-religious revelation that offers simple and decisive resolutions to deep questions. But it adds to this a pinch of glib frivolity and a dash of unembarrassed ignorance. . . . Some of the Cult’s leaders like to play dress-up as scientists—Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are two particularly prominent examples— but hardly any of them have contributed any research results of note. Rather, Cult leadership trends heavily in the direction of educators, popularizers, and journalists.

At its best, science is a human enterprise with a superhuman aim: the discovery of regularities in the order of nature, and the discerning of the consequences of those regularities. We’ve seen example after example of how the human element of this enterprise harms and damages its progress, through incompetence, fraud, selfishness, prejudice, or the simple combination of an honest oversight or slip with plain bad luck. These failings need not hobble the scientific enterprise broadly conceived, but only if scientists are hyper-aware of and endlessly vigilant about the errors of their colleagues . . . and of themselves. When cultural trends attempt to render science a sort of religion-less clericalism, scientists are apt to forget that they are made of the same crooked timber as the rest of humanity and will necessarily imperil the work that they do. The greatest friends of the Cult of Science are the worst enemies of science’s actual practice.

Commentary on Romans 9:6-13

Notes (NET Translation)

6 It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel, 7 nor are all the children Abraham’s true descendants; rather “through Isaac will your descendants be counted.”

One might think that God’s promise of salvation to Israel had failed because most Jews of Paul’s day were rejecting the gospel and therefore forfeiting its promise. Paul responds by saying that physical descent does not determine who is part of the people of God. God never promised that every individual Israelite would be saved. He notes how the one people of God have developed through time in order to show that the current state of affairs is not so unusual. Verses 7-9 allude to the fact that both Ishmael and Isaac were descendants of Abraham but only Isaac was the son of promise. Verse 7 quotes Gen. 21:12 LXX.

In Genesis “calling” (καλεῖν, kalein) means “named” or “identified”. But in this context in Romans it also bears its usual Pauline meaning, an effective call that creates what is desired (cf. Rom. 4:17; 8:28, 29; 9:12, 24, 25, 26). Indeed, there is probably an echo here of 4:17, where God “calls things into being that do not exist,” which in the context of Rom. 4 refers to the birth of Isaac by God’s creative word. This interpretation of calling in 9:7 is also validated by the structure of the verses, for the parallel to “calling” in verse 8b is “promise” (ἐπαγγελία, epangelia). The promise of God secures that which is pledged just as the call creates that which is intended. Thus the thesis of verse 6a is defended. God’s promises have not and cannot fail, because they are based on his call, which is always effective, and on his promise, which is guaranteed.1

8 This means it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God; rather, the children of promise are counted as descendants.

9 For this is what the promise declared: “About a year from now I will return and Sarah will have a son.”

The quotation is from Gen. 18:10, 14 LXX. “Paul emphasizes again God’s initiative in creating his covenant people: not by natural generation but by God’s supernatural intervention is the promise to Abraham fulfilled.”2

10 Not only that, but when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac — 11 even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling) — 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger,” 13 just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Verses 10-13 provide a second example where physical descent does not determine who is a member of the people of God.

Three particulars in the scriptural story about God’s choice of Jacob over Esau provide Paul with powerful support for his insistence that covenant participation comes only as the result of God’s call. First, Jacob and Esau shared the same father and mother. This silences the objector who might argue that Isaac was preferred over Ishmael simply because they had different mothers. Second, God promised that Jacob would be preeminent before the twins were born, implying that it was God’s will alone, and not natural capacity, religious devotion, or even faith that determined their respective destinies. Third, Jacob’s being the younger of the two makes it even more clear that normal human preferences had nothing to do with God’s choice.3

Most translations (e.g., NRSV; NIV; NASB) suggest that Paul is simply referring to the birth of both Jacob and Esau from the same father, “our ancestor Isaac.” This point fails, however, to advance Paul’s argument, for the essential situation is then no different than it was in the case of Isaac and Ishmael, who were both children of Abraham. It is therefore attractive to interpret Paul’s Greek as a reference to the one act of conception that produced the twins Jacob and Esau. Paul would then be highlighting the utter lack of natural distinguishing characteristics separating Jacob and Esau. Born of the same mother, sharing the same father, and conceived at the same point in time, neither of the twins had a better claim to the divine promise as a birthright than the other.4

The older was Esau, and the younger Jacob. There was nothing to distinguish the one from the other apart from God’s sovereign choice — they had the same father, and neither had yet done anything either good or bad. Had it been the younger that would serve the older, it would be in accordance with the natural order of things in the ancient Near East. By reversing this order, God was indicating that it was his choice, not ancient Near Eastern custom, that was the determining factor as far as the outworking of his purpose is concerned. This is expressed in the clause, ‘in order that God’s purpose in election might stand’.

It is important to note that God’s choice of Jacob through whom to effect his purposes and not Esau was made before they were born, and before they ‘had done anything good or bad’. It was determined, Paul emphasizes, ‘not by works but by him who calls’. The indications are that the ‘works’ the apostle denies had any effect upon God’s choice are the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ that people do. Clearly, such works are not the performance of, or the failure to perform, ‘works of the law’, that is, those things that are prescribed by the Mosaic law and understood by some as Jewish sociological markers, because Paul is speaking of the patriarchal period prior to the giving of the law. Nevertheless, Paul may have used the expression ‘works’ here to prepare the ground for his later contention that Israel, in spite of her pursuit of righteousness (by works of the law), failed to achieve it (9:30-33).5

“Purpose” is one of those many words that connect Paul’s argument here with his teaching about the children of God in 8:18–39. In 8:28, it denotes the “plan” or “design” according to which God calls people to belong to him, a plan whose steps Paul unfolds in vv. 29–30. Here, similarly, the word denotes a predetermined plan that God would use to bring covenant blessings to a people, Israel, and eventually to the world. Paul’s use of the word “election” to characterize this plan reflects his purpose in this part of Rom. 9: to demonstrate that God’s plan has unfolded in the OT by a series of free “choices” that he has made. Isaac was chosen; Ishmael was not. Jacob was chosen; Esau was not. By these choices God has seen to it that his plan to bring into existence a people who would be his “peculiar possession” would “remain.” If God’s plan depended on the vagaries of sinful human beings for its continuance, then, indeed, God’s “word” would have fallen to the ground long ago (see v. 6a). But God’s purpose in history is fulfilled because he himself “elects” people to be part of that purpose.6

The quote in v. 12 is from Gen. 25:23 LXX. The quote in v. 13 is from Mal. 1:2-3 LXX, where the nations of Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau) are spoken of.

The shocking nature of the verb ἐμίσησα is sometimes explained in terms of the Semitic contrast between “love” and “hate,” so that the latter means “to love less” (cf. Gen. 29:30–31; Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26). Even if this option is correct, which is doubtful here, it hardly lessens the problem, for the point of the text is that God set his affectionate love upon Jacob and withheld it from Esau. It is a doubtful expedient in any case since Malachi describes God’s “hatred” of Esau (Edom) in active terms: he lays waste their land (Mal. 1:3), tears down their buildings (v. 4), and his “anger” is upon them “forever” (v. 4). What Rom. 9:13 adds to the promise of verse 12 is that the submission of the older to the younger is based on God’s choice of Jacob and his rejection of Esau. This was already evident from the explanation in verses 11–12a, but the OT citation confirms it further.7

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9811-9818 
  2. Moo 1996, 578 
  3. Moo 1996, 578 
  4. Moo 1996, 579–580 
  5. Kruse 2012, 378-379 
  6. Moo 1996, 580–581 
  7. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9907-9914 

Commentary on Romans 9:1-5

Notes (NET Translation)

1 I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit — 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.

The tour-de-force argument in chs. 9-11 begins abruptly with Paul swearing an oath. The rhetorically astute audience would recognize this as a prelude to a specific kind of argument, namely one having to do with a testimony of witnesses, Paul as witness and Scripture as witness, as well as God himself speaking through the divine Word.1

Paul asserts right from the beginning that he is telling the truth, and he seems to be suggesting that the rule of testimony by two witnesses has been met, because both he and his conscience attest that he is telling the truth, but he also affirms that the Holy Spirit is involved, so that what he says are Spirit-inspired words.2

The conscience, of course, is fallible and does not invariably judge matters aright (cf. 1 Cor. 8:7, 10, 12; 1 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15). Any notion that Paul’s conscience on this occasion is fallible is excluded since his conscience bears witness ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ [en pneumati hagio, in the Holy Spirit]. In this instance his conscience has been informed by and is under the control of the Holy Spirit, so the Roman readers can be assured of the truthfulness of his assertion.3

What Paul affirms is that he has great sorrow and anguish over the many non-Christian Jews who reject the gospel/salvation (9:3; 10:1). The gospel was more readily accepted by Gentiles than Jews.

Why has Paul stressed so strongly the truth of his concern for Israel (v. 2)? Almost certainly because he knew that his passionate and well-known defense of the law-free Gentile mission had earned him the reputation–in Rome, as elsewhere–of being anti-Jewish. To the Jewish Christians in the church Paul therefore wants to make clear that his focus on the Gentile mission has by no means meant the abandonment of his concern for, and, indeed, plans for, the salvation of their fellow Jews. But he also wants to dispel any notion that he might have joined with the Gentile Christians in Rome in their sinful disdain for the Jewish people (cf. 11:13–24).4

Thomas Schreiner adds:

Alternatively, the pathos of the introduction signals the theological weight of the question he is about to tackle. Most probably Paul expresses such grief because the honor and faithfulness of God are inextricably intertwined with the fate of Israel. In Exod. 32–33 Moses interceded for Israel when God threatened to destroy them by reminding God that his name and honor were at stake in the fate of his people. Indeed, Paul’s lamentation is reminiscent of the OT prophets who expressed grief over the sin and exile of their people (cf. Jer. 4:19–21; 14:17–22; Dan. 9).5

3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed — cut off from Christ — for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, 4 who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises.

Implicit in Paul’s wish/prayer is his belief that most of his fellow Israelites are accursed and cut off/separated from Christ because they have not embraced the gospel. To be accursed (anathema) is to be damned.

Paul’s prayer that he become anathema for the sake of his fellow Jews strikingly demonstrates his love for his own people. But it also creates a difficulty: Would Paul actually have prayed that he be eternally damned so that others could be saved? A few scholars, noting that Paul uses a Greek tense that usually denotes past action (the imperfect), think that Paul is describing only what “he used to pray.” But this is both contextually unlikely and grammatically unnecessary. I prefer, in agreement with most English translations, to ascribe a hypothetical nuance to the imperfect tense; as Cranfield paraphrases, “I would pray (were it permissible for me so to pray and if the fulfillment of such a prayer could benefit them).”6

And the wish cannot be fulfilled, for we have already seen that nothing can sever believers from Christ’s love (Rom. 8:35–39). Thus Paul expresses an impossible wish, for there is no such world in which believers can suffer banishment from Christ forever for the sake of others. This does not detract from the weightiness of the expression, for Paul signals the depth of his concern for his people with these words. In doing so he follows the path of Moses, who was willing to be blotted out of the book of life for Israel (Exod. 32:32–33), but this request was also not granted by God. The parallel with Moses also suggests that Paul himself never contemplated the possibility that his desire could become a reality, for he was too well aware of the precedent already established in which Moses’ request was not granted. In both cases the future of Israel depended on the covenantal promises of God, not on the immolation of God’s representative.7

The Israelites had privileges and so their failure is theologically significant because it calls into question the faithfulness of God (9:6). They were adopted as sons by being set aside by God for blessing and service. The “glory” is the glory of God’s divine presence.8 The “covenants” would include (but not be restricted to) those with Abraham, the Israelites at Sinai, and David. By “the giving of the law” Paul probably means the possession of the law by Israel. The Greek text merely mentions “worship” (service), not “temple worship”. The OT sacrificial system, which foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ, is part of the worship in view. The “promises” are those contained in the covenants.

The covenantal promises include the pledge of salvation, as Rom. 11:26–29 demonstrates, for there the “covenant” involves the taking away of sins. Indeed, 11:29 indicates that the saving promises in the covenant must be fulfilled, “for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” The list in 9:4, then, culminates with the promises of eschatological blessing for Israel.

We must understand the relationship between the past blessings of Israel recounted in 9:4 and the future promises. It is not as if gifts in the past actually contain the promise of future blessing. The point is that the people upon whom God has lavished his favor in the past have also received saving promises with respect to the future. Thus the former gifts are not mere historical relics, for there is continuity between the past and the future. The God who chose Israel to be his children, gave them the law, manifested his glory among them, and to whom they had access in the cult promised them future salvation. Paul’s sorrow over his people, therefore, cannot be ascribed merely to a keen sense of ethnic identity with his people. He grieves because ethnic Israel has been the beneficiary of God’s goodness in the past and was promised a glorious future. These promises have not come to pass and thus they call into question God’s righteousness. To see these privileges as passed on to the church badly misconstrues Paul’s argument since his grief is due to the promises made to ethnic Israel. The present tense verb εἰσιν (eisin, they are) indicates that the Jews still “are” Israelites and that all the blessings named still belong to them. It does not follow that all ethnic Jews without exception are saved because of the privileges itemized. Paul agonizes because many of his contemporaries are unsaved, even though God made saving promises to the nation as a whole.9

5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen.

The patriarchs/fathers are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Rom. 9:10; 11:28; 15:28). They are valuable to the Israelites because God gave promises to them and their descendants (Gen. 12:1-3; 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:3-4; 28:13-14; 35:11-12). The saving of Israel is the fulfillment of the promises first made to the patriarchs.

The last privilege mentioned by Paul not only occupies its own clause but is introduced in a different construction. Rather than “belonging” to the Israelites, the Messiah “is from” them. The shift is significant, suggesting, as do vv. 2–3, that the Israelites, for all the privileges they enjoy, have not, as a group, come into genuine relationship with God’s Messiah and the salvation that he has brought. As Paul qualified the meaning of his own relationship to the Jewish people (“kindred according to the flesh,” v. 3), so he now qualifies in the same way the descent of the Messiah from the Israelites. The Messiah, Paul is pointing out, comes from the people of Israel “only in respect to that relationship which is strictly and narrowly human.” “Flesh,” then, while it is basically “neutral” in meaning here, carries with it that nuance of “this-worldliness,” with implicit contrast with “the world to come,” which is rarely absent from the word in Paul’s usage.10

The earliest manuscripts lack systematic punctuation and so there is debate over whether Paul intends to affirm the deity of Christ. Douglas Moo gives the two basic options:

(1) A comma could be placed after “flesh,” meaning that the words following the comma would modify “Messiah.” The words following “Messiah” can then be punctuated in two different ways:

a. “. . . from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (NRSV; cf. also KJV; JB; NASB).

b. “. . . from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (NIV).

(2) The second general approach to the punctuation of these words places a period after “Messiah” and takes what follows as an independent ascription of praise to God. Again, two possible translations result, depending on the punctuation adopted within the clause.

a. “. . . of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen” (RSV; cf. also NEB; TEV).
b. “. . . from them, in natural descent, sprang the Messiah. May God, supreme over all, be blessed for ever! Amen” (NEB; cf. also TEV).11

The first option is supported by the following arguments:

  1. The phrase “the one who is” is most naturally taken as a relative clause modifying a word in the previous context.
  2. No other Pauline doxology lacks ties to the preceding context (Rom. 1:25; 11:36; 2 Cor. 11:31; Gal. 1:5; Eph. 3:21; Phil. 4:20; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2 Tim. 4:18; see also Heb. 13:21; 1 Pet. 4:11; 2 Pet. 3:18).
  3. With the exception of Ps. 67:19-20 LXX, the word “blessed” is always the first word of an independent blessing of God in the LXX and NT. Thomas Schreiner notes that it is doubtful even Ps. 67:19-20 is a legitimate exception. Bruce Metzger adds that Semitic inscriptions follow this rule too.12
  4. The “qualifying phrase ‘according to the flesh’ implies an antithesis; and Paul usually supplies the antithetical element in such cases, rather than allowing the reader simply to assume it. In other words, we would expect, after a description of what the Messiah is from a ‘fleshly’ or ‘this-worldly’ standpoint, a description of what he is from a ‘spiritual’ or ‘otherworldly’ standpoint; see especially Rom. 1:3–4.”13
  5. “In the light of the context, in which Paul speaks of his sorrow over Israel’s unbelief, there seems to be no psychological explanation to account for the introduction of a doxology at this point.”14
  6. The Church Fathers were almost unanimous in understanding the passage to refer to Christ as God.

The second option is supported by the following arguments:

  1. Eulogetos (blessed) is always used in reference to God in the NT (Mark 14:61; Luke 1:68; Rom. 1:25; 2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31; Eph. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3).
  2. Nowhere else does Paul refer to Christ as God.
  3. The abnormal word order, with eulogetos (blessed) following theos (God), is due to Paul emphasizing God’s lordship over all (Ps. 67:19-20 LXX).
  4. No doxologies to Christ exist in the undisputed Pauline epistles.
  5. Eph. 4:6 provides the closest parallel to this verse and it says the Father is the one who is over all.
  6. The doxology in Rom. 11:33-36 does not refer to Christ, suggesting the same is true of 9:5.

The main objection to the first option is that Paul would not call Christ “God”. This objection is not as strong as it may first appear. I quote a few scholars at length stating why they find the first option preferable (as I do).

Ben Witherington III says:

In fact, the one real objection to Christ being called God here is that Paul supposedly does not do so elsewhere. But this is not true. He does do so in equivalent terms in Phil. 2.5-11, and furthermore when he calls Christ “Lord,” he is predicating of Jesus the divine name used for God over and over in the LXX. We find Jesus called divine Lord, indeed confessed as such in Rom. 10.9, and then an OT passage (Joel 3.5 LXX) in which God is called “Lord” is applied to Jesus at 10.13. Paul has christologically redefined how he understands monotheism, and 9.5 is just further evidence of the fact.15

Thomas Schreiner writes:

That Paul would call Christ “God” is also credible given Phil. 2:6, where Jesus is said to be “in the form of God” (ἐν μορϕῇ θεοῦ, en morphē theou) and “equal to God” (ἴσα θεῷ, isa theō); Col. 1:15, where he is “the image of the invisible God” (εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, eikōn tou theou tou aoratou; cf. also 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:19; 2:9); and the application to Christ of OT texts that refer to “Yahweh” (cf. Rom. 10:13; Phil. 2:10–11). Although the authenticity of the Pastorals is debated, as is the meaning of Titus 2:13, it is quite probable that the letters are genuine and that Paul refers to Christ as “God” there as well. The notion that the ascription of θεός to Christ is incompatible with Pauline thought should therefore be rejected. I should note that Paul does not say that Christ is θεός in an exhaustive sense, for the distinction between Christ and the Father must also be maintained (1 Cor. 15:28). The implication here is that Christ shares the divine nature with the Father.

Having concluded that the reference is to Christ, should we understand the verse to say that Christ “is over all, God blessed forever,” or that Christ “is God over all, blessed forever”? The latter option is less likely since it could imply that Christ exercises universal sovereignty even over the Father. Thus one should prefer the former option, which speaks of the universal sovereignty of Christ as Lord (cf. Rom. 1:3–4; 10:12; 14:9; Eph. 1:20–23; Phil. 2:9–11; Col. 1:15, 17–18). The idea communicated is one of universal sovereignty over all things, not merely his lordship over history or over other creatures. Indeed, given the argument of Romans, “all” especially includes the Gentiles. The Messiah from Israel is the God over all, both Jews and Gentiles. He is not merely the God of the Jews; he is also the God of the Gentiles (Rom. 3:29–30). The paragraph concludes by highlighting the stunning nature of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as Messiah, for the Jews are separated “from the Messiah” (9:3), who is not merely ethnically descended from them but also the Lord of all and who even shares the divine nature.16

Finally, Douglas Moo opines:

The theological issue boils down to the insistence that Paul does not elsewhere call Jesus “God” and that, considering his Jewish monotheistic background, it is very unlikely that he would have done so. But this objection cannot stand. First, Paul almost certainly does call Jesus “God” in one other text (Tit. 2:13). Second, the exalted language Paul uses to describe Jesus as well as the activities Paul ascribes to him clearly attest Paul’s belief in the full deity of Christ. The argument from context is that it would be inconceivable for Paul to describe Christ as God in a passage in which he is trying to create common ground with his unbelieving “kindred.” However, as we have noted, Paul’s shift in construction when introducing the Messiah implies already a certain “distance” between unbelieving Jews and the reality of Jesus the Messiah. And this fits naturally into Paul’s overall perspective, accenting his grief at Jewish unbelief by highlighting the divine status of the Messiah whom his fellow Jews have rejected.

Connecting “God” to “Christ” is therefore exegetically preferable, theologically unobjectionable, and contextually appropriate. Paul here calls the Messiah, Jesus, “God,” attributing to him full divine status. The frequent association of God with “blessed” makes it likely that these should be kept together, and the whole taken in apposition to “the one who is over all”: “Christ, who is supreme over all things, God blessed forever” (thus, essentially, option 1.a above).17

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Witherington III 2004, 249 
  2. Witherington III 2004, 250 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9510-9513 
  4. Moo 1996, 556 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9516-9520 
  6. Moo 1996, 558 
  7. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9534-9541 
  8. Ex. 16:10; 24:15-17; 29:42-43; 40:34-35; Lev. 9:6, 23; Num. 14:10; 16:19, 42; 20:6; Deut. 5:24; 1 Kgs. 8:11; 2 Chr. 5:13-14; 7:1-3; Zech. 2:5; Isa. 60:19; Ezek. 10:4, 18-19; 11:22-23; 43:2, 3-4; 44:4; 11QT 29:8 
  9. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9620-9634 
  10. Moo 1996, 565 
  11. Moo 1996, 566 
  12. Metzger 2005, 461 
  13. Moo 1996, 567 
  14. Metzger 2005, 461 
  15. Witherington III 2004, 251-252 
  16. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9689-9707 
  17. Moo 1996, 567–568 

Book Recommendation: The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Habermas and Licona

The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona presents a minimal-facts argument for the historicity of the resurrection. It is written at a level accessible to those not familiar with the subject but also provides enough information to be of use to others. I would recommend the book to anyone, but especially those who want an introduction to the subject. The authors tell the readers how history is performed and then argue for four minimal facts: (1) Jesus died by crucifixion; (2) Jesus’ disciples believe he rose from the dead and appeared to them; (3) the church persecutor Paul suddenly converted; and (4) the skeptical James, brother of Jesus, suddenly converted. A fifth fact, the empty tomb, is also argued for even though it is not as widely accepted by the scholarly community as the previous four. The resurrection hypothesis is put for as the best explanation of these facts. Alternative theories are considered and argued against. 5/5 stars.

Commentary on Romans 8:31-39

Notes (NET Translation)

This passage constitutes a peroration, the function of which, according to classical rhetorical theory, was to move the audience to accept the case made already in the speech, of which the peroration formed the climax. If, as seems likely, this is what Paul is seeking to achieve in 8:31-39, the passage forms an important transition between his response to objections that his gospel undermines moral standards and the status of the law on the one hand (6:1–8:13), and to charges that his gospel does away with Israel’s special place in the purposes of God on the other (9:1–11:36). In other words, Paul is seeking to gain his audience’s agreement to what he has argued so far, and to carry them along with him into the argument he is about to mount in 9:1–11:36.

The peroration, containing seven questions, is reminiscent of the style of the diatribe, but it is employed here not to confront but to encourage the audience. Four of the questions provide the basic structure of the passage (8:31: ‘What, then, shall we say in response to these things?’; 8:33: ‘Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?’; 8:34: ‘Who is the one who condemns?’; 8:35: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’); each of which provides a cue for positive statements about God’s love and grace that follow.1

31 What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

“These things” refers back to the blessings described in chapters 5-8. The theme of hope in 8:31-39 forms an inclusio with 5:1-11. The expected answer to the second question is that no one can successfully oppose the one God is for. Paul acknowledges that opposition will come our way (v. 35). What he means is that God’s ultimate plans for us will be fulfilled.

32 Indeed, he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things?

The idea of sparing one’s son probably alludes back to Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac (Gen. 22). God gave Christ up as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (3:25). Since he gave up the greatest thing of all he will surely give us all things.

But what are these “all things”? The context makes clear that Paul is not talking about material wealth and the like. He means all that is necessary for salvation, all that is necessary to protect believers from spiritual danger in all sorts of difficult and dangerous circumstances. Again, this is not a promise of continual good health or that believers will never suffer or die, but rather that no third party or power or force or circumstance or lesser supernatural being will be able to separate the believer from the love of God in Christ.2

33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.

The “elect” are believers. The future tense suggests the last judgment is in view. The answer alludes to Isa. 50:8-9 and indicates that the church, not Israel, is now God’s chosen servant. The idea is that when God justifies his people no charge against them can stand.

34 Who is the one who will condemn? Christ is the one who died (and more than that, he was raised), who is at the right hand of God, and who also is interceding for us.

No one will condemn believers on the last day because the Messiah, Jesus, died for them. Here Paul assumes what he has stated in 3:21–26: the death of Jesus on behalf of believers satisfied God’s wrath (1:18) against them. Not only did Jesus die but he was also raised. His resurrection signified his vindication, indicating that his atoning work was completed. The first two statements hark back to the formula in 4:25, “He was delivered up for our transgressions and raised for our justification.” The resurrection of Jesus was inevitably accompanied by his exaltation. Thus in fulfillment of Ps. 110:1 he reigns at the right hand of God. Finally, he intercedes on behalf of the saints. This intercession should not be separated from his death on behalf of his people; rather, his intercession on behalf of the saints is based on his atoning death.3

35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

The “love of Christ” is Christ’s love for believers. Nothing will separate believers from the love of Christ even though believers will face suffering and hardship.

The list of difficulties that follows requires little comment, except to note that all the items except the last are found also in 2 Cor. 11:26–27 and 12:10, where Paul lists some of those hazards he himself has encountered in his apostolic labors. All these, then, Paul himself has experienced, and he has been able to prove for himself that they are quite incapable of disrupting his relationship with the love of Christ. And the last–the “sword,” death by execution–Paul was to find overcome for him in the love of Christ at the end of his life.4

36 As it is written, “For your sake we encounter death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

The quote is from Ps. 44:22 (44:23 LXX).

Parlier argues that it is not by chance that Paul quotes a passage from Psalm 44 in which the psalmist complains that God’s people are suffering though they remain faithful to the covenant, and calls upon God to redeem them in his ‘unfailing love’. It is as if Paul is responding to the psalmist’s complaint by asserting that no suffering is able to separate believers from the love of God in Christ. Jewett, on the other hand, suggests that Paul incorporated the quotation to adduce scriptural support to show that suffering is not a disqualifying mark for those claiming to be true disciples. He had to do this to silence criticisms of his apostleship along these lines. The apostle certainly had to defend himself in this way in 2 Corinthians 11:22-33, but whether this is the case here in Romans 8 is debatable.5

37 No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us!

‘We are more than conquerors’ (lit. ‘we are completely victorious’) translates a verb found only here in the NT, and is a heightened form of the more common verb ‘to overcome’, which is found twenty-eight times in the NT. The two predominant NT uses of ‘to overcome’ are (i) in relation to believers being victorious over pressure from those who would lead them astray doctrinally (1 John 2:13, 14; 4:4; 5:4, 5), and (ii) in relation to believers being victorious in face of trouble and persecution by not denying their faith in Christ even in the face of death (Rev 2:7, 11, 17; 3:12; 12:11). The latter seems to be the meaning of being ‘more than conquerors’ in 8:37. Believers are ‘more than conquerors’ when they refuse to deny their Lord even when they are ‘considered as sheep to be slaughtered’. Their victory is achieved ‘through him who loved us’, that is, through the Lord Jesus Christ, who stands beside his followers and strengthens them when they face persecution for his name’s sake (cf. Acts 18:9-11; 2 Tim 4:16-18).6

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Because Christ is Lord he has power over all things and can prevent them from separating believers from the love of God.

Some scholars have argued that although nothing in creation can separate one from the love of God, people can themselves choose to depart from God and thereby fall outside the scope of the saving love of Christ. This interpretation should be rejected. As we have seen, Rom. 8:28–30 constitutes an unbreakable process. All those who are foreknown end up being glorified. No possibility is extended that some of those who are justified may not be glorified. The category of the justified is inseparable from the category of the glorified. Such an interpretation makes sense because those upon whom God set his covenantal love before creating the world are those he predestined to share the eschatological image of the Son. Those whom he has chosen before history began will surely persevere and attain to glorification. These comments should not be interpreted as a denial of the necessity to meet conditions in order to obtain eschatological salvation (cf. 8:17). The point is that God will grant sufficient grace so that believers will inevitably and surely be enabled to meet those conditions.

Those who defend the view that believers may possibly forsake their salvation note that nothing is said here about the impossibility of believers separating themselves from Christ’s love. Gundry Volf, however, is correct in arguing that the objective of the text is to rule out that very eventuality. Affliction, persecution, famine, death, and so on are mentioned because these are the sorts of things that would cause a believer to renounce faith in Christ. Paul is not only saying that Christ still loves believers when persecution arrives, although that is doubtless true. He is also saying that the love of Christ is so powerful that believers will not forsake him despite the sword, persecution, famine, and so on. There is no need to mention the will of the believer in this text because Paul canvasses every possible thing (οὔτε τις κτίσις ἑτέρα, oute tis ktisis hetera, neither any other created thing) that could provoke believers to apostatize. None of these threats will succeed, for the love of Christ is stronger still and he will see to it that what has been started will be finished (cf. 1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:24).7

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Kruse 2012, 359 
  2. Witherington III 2004, 232 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9208-9214 
  4. Moo 1996, 543 
  5. Kruse 2012, 363 
  6. Kruse 2012, 364 
  7. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9266-9282