Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How We Handle Difficult Passages: One Unfortunate Bible Class

We just returned home after a week of visiting family in two different states. We enjoyed ourselves a great deal, but after sleeping in four different homes, it's nice to get back to our own beds. I didn't attend any Christmas services with family as our religious tradition doesn't view Christmas as a religious holiday. The Sunday following Christmas we attended my grandma's church. It was a reminder to me of why religion can make things so difficult for those willing to reflect on it.

The Bible class studied Romans 9:4-22*. I sat there feeling a bit sad for the teacher and several in the class. They confessed the difficulty they had with the passage and the time they spent pondering it and wondering how a loving God could harden some one's heart or hate someone. The teacher mentioned in passing that he had wondered about the existence of God before. It was clear that the teacher was a bright, educated individual who had reflected on his beliefs. However, he reminded me of myself back when I would only question for so long before retreating to the safety of my original beliefs. I would "search the scriptures" more to bolster my faith than to understand them. It didn't appear that he had come away from his questions with anything other than his original set of beliefs.

Instead of examining the passage in question within it's context, we took a magnifying glass to these few verses in isolation. (You may have attended such classes, where each week the teacher plods through a few verses of the book, until every verse has been read and discussed.) We spent our time discussing what the Bible meant in verse 13, where it states "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." The class reassured itself that God only loved Esau less. When in verses 17 and 18 scripture discusses Pharaoh's heart being hardened, the class determined that the phrase "he hardens whom he wants to harden" meant that God hardens the hearts of those who don't believe in Him. The class spent its time recovering God's unconditional love and the free will of man in every verse that threatened to snatch them away.

It was frustrating to sit through this exercise, though I understand it: I've practiced it myself many times before. The entire point of the passage within its context was ignored out of a need to view the Bible through the lens of prior commitments. Had we read on with some openness, we might have connected this passage to the remainder of the chapter as well as successive chapters where Paul expresses his belief that God is gracious in hardening Israel so that the Gentiles might be saved. We might have read his belief that God was willing to grant mercy to those of Israel if they repented. However, we didn't even connect our passage to the Israel/Gentile discussion. This is an interesting passage that ruffles the feathers of Arminian and Reformed alike. I don't claim exegetical expertise here, I just find it interesting to watch how we handle difficult passages. It was clear from class discussion that what the class valued and needed to protect was God's unconditional love and man's free will. It was not clear from the few passages we read that those concepts naturally emerged from them. They may be found in successive passages, but I felt we wedged them in quite forcefully into Romans 9:4-22.

*Read for yourself if you like:

4the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!a Amen.

6It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”b 8In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. 9For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”c

10Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”d 13Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”e

14What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

16It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”g 18Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

19One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 20But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”h 21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

22What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?


  1. This is one of those “can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube” moments. Once you have studied and tasted the broader aspect of the Bible’s context, it is hard (impossible?) to go back to trying to smash a short passage into one’s predetermined dogma.

    I once loved to argue those difficult scriptures amongst Christian friends. However, once I realized we were arguing over “how many angels danced on the head of a pin” without first embracing the more complex and urgent question of whether there were angels—whether there were pins—it all seemed so pointless. I was forced to become silent, and speculations abounded I was angry at someone. No…I just dared not ask the real questions, because I knew they could not face nor address them.

    The last church service I attended—Christmas Eve 2009—I sang the songs and enjoyed the program; laughing at all the right bits. But there were moments when they read from Luke 2, and then skipped back to Matthew 1-2 when my inner-being cried out, “Don’t you see the contradiction? Don’t you understand Luke was attempting to correct Matthew’s misconception?” Of course I kept quiet, and smiled. It was another reminder I cannot go back.

  2. DagoodS,
    I hear you. I'm having increasing numbers of these moments. Sermons are increasingly irrelevant or irritating. Though I'm finding it harder to attend services and Bible classes from my own denomination, I still study the Bible and seek out worship services from other denominations. I still find the UU services attractive, though my husband utterly disliked his experience and is unlikely to return. I also find myself drawn to denominations that recognize and value the role of art and music in their service instead of devaluing them. I think of them as being more formal and "high church."

    While I am likely to sit through a sermon with gritted teeth, I can still sing beautiful hymns, listen to a brass ensemble, or admire stain glass artwork without feeling a need to argue over doctrine or heurmenutics.

    I do wonder what it will be like for me a year from now. I notice you didn't attend a Christmas service this year. It seems like it may have become increasingly difficult over time to enjoy it or feel any desire for it.