NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XXII)
Early church scholar Pelagius heard some people saying that Paul is still speaking on behalf of those who they have the right to object to what is happening to them. But how can that be, when opposing the will of God is no different than criticizing God for doing His will. Then there are others who say that from here on the Apostle Paul contends that even if someone felt they had a reason to oppose what God is doing, it must not be done as though there were talking back to their Creator. When compared to God, all of us are like a clump of clay in the potter’s hands.1 Pelagius seems to be making the case that Paul was not on the side of those who question God’s intelligence for doing what He does, such as those who say, “God shouldn’t have let this happen to me! I don’t think He’s being fair!” Paul was trying to point out that by someone saying, “I don’t think that what God is allowing to happen is right,” is like a spoiled brat sassing God out of disrespect.
Yet others offer their opinions. For instance, one writer from the Roman Catholic point of view states that the Apostle Paul lunges out at the person who was contradicting him in the above verses, letting them know that all of this is part of God’s own will and decision making. Just as the potter makes the decision what to do with the clay, so God is the one who decides what to do with us. The potter can make whatever kind of vessel he wants, and the vessel has no say over it. The clay cannot object and say I want to be this or that. But when it comes to human clumps of clay, some argue that since they have a freewill, they are more likely to resist God’s purpose and find fault with His choice for their lives. Still, who would dare question the will of God.2
Then a Bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church, who was known as somewhat of a maverick, wanted to know how any object could turn around and blame its maker for the way things turned out? In his mind, everyone must be content and enjoy whatever God designed them to be.3 And then another Bishop, who was not afraid to speak out wrote that we are not like inanimate objects such as a clay pitcher. If it were so, then for sure we’d be quiet and accept things the way they are. But we have a freewill and a sense of independence, so why should we be quiet? By being able to reason, we can both describe and express to our Maker what we want to be. That’s why, if a believer is not happy with their status, then investigate the cause and seek to know if that is God’s will for their life.4
But Paul insists that the One who makes the pottery can form it anyway He wants, and the vase cannot complain if it is made for common everyday use, not sacred ceremonies. Early church Greek Bible scholar Diodore agrees that no one should dare condemn God or imagine that He showed mercy to one and hardened another by accident. It was all done as a result of the power of His foreknowledge. Nor should we think it wrong that God knew in advance what would happen. Rather, each one who sees what the Divine Potter has made out of their lives, are then responsible for their own reaction, whether positive or negative, good or bad.5
Ambrosiaster sees this from another angle. He notes that the substance of the clay is the same; it’s the will of the potter that is different. Likewise God made us all of the same substance and yet we all became sinners. Adam’s sin was not our choice, but it became our curse. The fact that God allowed this is depended on His divine will and purpose. Then according to His will He had mercy on one and rejected another. But He did not do so without proper reason. For He knew who should be shown mercy and who should not.6
Chrysostom is convinced that God does nothing at random or by mere chance. Just because we cannot comprehend the genius of His wisdom does not mean that He has no design or purpose in what He does. If a human potter can make different things from the same clump of clay and not be faulted for doing so, then why can’t we grant God the same freedom of expression? How unfair that would be. When vessels are used for honorable or dishonorable purposes, the potter is not charged with the responsibility, that belongs to the users. The same thing is true of God’s creation. He made us creatures of great complexity and ability. What is done with all that potential is a matter of our free choice.7 In the same vein, it can be said that the person that invented film is not responsible for how it is employed. Some use it for good motion pictures and misuse it for despicable movies.
Augustine did not remain quiet on this subject. He says that first comes the clay. Some of it fit for use and some only to be thrown away. But it doesn’t stop there. After that, that which is fit is selected, and gradually molded into what the Potter wants it to be. And once it is molded, that’s where it stops. In his mind, God does not use high-level quality clay to make something bad. Neither does He use low-level quality clay to make something good. It all begins with God’s choice in selecting the clay. And as soon as a person realizes what God has formed them to be, the quicker they can offer themselves for use in the role God intended for them, and the sooner they can be called to do what they were meant to do.8 But here is the good part, we were all made to serve Him and glorify Him in all that we say and do. So again, it comes down to our choice of being what He made us to be.
In another document, Augustine says that if someone does not understand these matters, who are they then to talk back to God? And if one does understand, they have even less reason to talk back. Once a person understands that the whole human race was initially condemned through Adam by divine judgment on his sin, and if not even one single member of the race were ever saved from it, no one could argue against God’s justice. Not only that, but those who understand this also see that those who are saved were saved on God’s terms. This helps them to see that those who were left unsaved, certainly the greater number, were left to suffer what the whole mass deserved and what God’s merited judgment brought them. Had God’s undeserved mercy not intervened, everyone would have been part of the group rejected. That’s why anyone who might be disposed to brag about their own accomplishments and the merit it brings them should be hushed.9 That way, the one who does give glory for their salvation, glories in the Lord10.11
But a great early church Christian scholar, from Alexandra, makes the point that it is not possible to say on the basis of this verse that Paul is suggesting there are different types of human nature. In fact, neither do the Scriptures claim that some people have been made cruel or obstinate, or even that vessels of honor and purity were fashioned. In addition, there is no hint that such attributes have been made part of their nature. Instead, Bishop Cyril believes it should be understood to mean that all vessels are made from the same clay, it’s how they are used that determines whether they become vessels of honor or dishonor12.13 This is clear from what Paul says to Timothy: “If anyone purifies himself from what is ignoble, then he will be a vessel for noble use, consecrated and useful to the master of the house, ready for any good work.14”15
Martin Luther agrees wholeheartedly with what Augustine said in his Enchiridion (Handbook on Ethics), mentioned in Augustine’s commentary above, and then add that the idea of talking back to God is an important thing to remember. The very idea should both enlighten and frighten us greatly. But that’s not its main purpose. If anything, we should be led to humble ourselves before the Almighty. Paul did not bring this up to cause us fear and despair but to glorify divine grace and destroy our arrogance.16 This should certainly cause any person to take their salvation more seriously when they realize they have been called, redeemed, chosen, sanctified, empowered, and glorified as one of God’s own. It is more than just confession of sins in a weak moment or joining a group because they share the same religious harmony. It is all a personal choice made by exercising one’s will. This is the result of a divine decision by the Eternal Almighty God.
In talking about the potter and the clay, John Calvin says that the reason why the vessel ought not to contend with the potter is that the potter does nothing other than what he has a right to do. In speaking of the potter’s power, Paul wants everyone to understand that it is not just a matter of the potter doing what he has the strength to do, but that he has the power to decide what to do. Paul does not use this illustration to contend that God possesses or exhibits any power that does not rightly belong to Him. He is not usurping some other power or authority with His decision. And this especially applies to mankind’s freewill. In fact, the potter takes nothing away from the clay when he decides what form to give it. In the same way, God takes away nothing from mankind when He decides in what image to create him. Without the potter’s intervention and ingenuity, the clay would remain just that, a shapeless, formless clump of clay. So it is with mankind. As descendants of sinful Adam, unless God had intervened we would all be still unregenerate forms made out of the dirt of the ground. There is no way to extract any honor from this, there is only the opportunity to give it honor. So whichever God decides to do, the clay has no reason to argue and complain it is not getting what it deserves.17
Robert Haldane offers this as a guide to understanding the questions from either a real or supposed objector to Paul’s message on God’s gratuitous method of salvation. He writes that the Apostle Paul in dealing with the previous objection and in the two following verses gives his answers. His answer here in this verse is similar to what we find in Isaiah.18 It is directed against the proud assumptions of those who presume that although they were born like a wild, untamed donkey’s colt, they know nothing of what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow.19 How can such ingrates presume they can scan the deep things of God, and to find fault with His plan and providence? Even angels which desire to look, find it incomprehensible for their enlightened understanding.
1 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 [Pseudo-]Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Theodore of Mopsuestia: Pauline Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Diodore: Pauline Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 16.46
8 Augustine: The City of God 15.1
9 Romans 3:19
10 1 Corinthians 1:31
11 Augustine: Enchiridion, Ch. 25:99
12 See 2 Timothy 2:20-21
13 Cyril of Alexandria: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 2 Timothy 2:21
15 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 142
17 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 Isaiah 49:5
19 Job 11:12