By Spencer D Gear
Does God deterministically, fatalistically harden any people so that they are unable to respond to God? This has become a very controversial topic in Calvinistic-Arminian discussions, as will be evident as this article unfolds.
It is expected that:
A Calvinist would favour God deterministically causing the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart: ‘while it is said, for instance, that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, it is also said that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15; 8:32; 9:34). One description is given from the divine viewpoint, the other is given from the human viewpoint. God is ultimately responsible for the hardening of the heart in that He permits it to occur, and the inspired writer in graphic language simply says that God does it; but never are we to understand that God is the immediate and efficient cause’ (Loraine Boettner, Unconditional election, Reprobation).
An Arminian to agree to God and Pharaoh working together on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. An example is:
‘The same is true of God in his dealings with Pharaoh. God did not change Pharaoh’s heart to make him want to kill the Hebrews. Pharaoh already wanted to kill them. What God did was give Pharaoh the courage to follow through with what he already desired to do. Pharaoh was an evil man, but he was also timid and fearful of the Hebrews and their God. God simply gave Pharaoh the tenacity to follow through with the desires of his evil heart (Wesleyan Arminian, March 9, 2011).
What happened to Pharaoh? Who was it that hardened Pharaoh’s heart? We have two contrasting sets of verses that we will examine in this table:
Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
|God hardened Pharaoh’s heart||Pharaoh’s heart was hardened||Pharaoh hardened his own heart|
Exodus 4:21, ‘And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go”’ (ESV).Ex 7:3, ‘But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt’.
Ex 9:12, ‘But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses’.
Ex 10:1, ‘Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them’.
Ex 10:20, ‘But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go’.
Ex 10:27, ‘But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go’.
Ex 11:10, ‘Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land’.
Ex 14:4, ‘And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And they did so’.
Ex 14:8, ‘And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly’.
Exodus 7:13-14, ‘Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go’.Ex 7:22, ‘But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said’.
Ex 9:7, ‘And Pharaoh sent, and behold, not one of the livestock of Israel was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go’.
Exodus 8:15, ‘But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord had said’.Ex 8:32, ‘But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go’.
Ex 9:34-35, ‘But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. 35 So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses’.
1 Samuel 6:6, ‘Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed?’
Romans 9:17-18, ‘For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills’.
Do we have contradictory messages here?
Let’s check out these charges.
A. Determinism or choice?
This is how it played out on a large Christian forum to which I have contributed since 2005. A Lutheran wrote:
Been going around with Calvinist(s) for almost 3 decades regarding Rom.9:21. They assert the sovereignty which from the same fallen lump of humanity decreed and shaped some to salvation and decreed and shaped some to damnation where I assert such a sovereignty which is contrary to God’s very nature as agape does not exist.
I replied, ‘Have you had any discussions with them of the Hebrew thinking on the potter and the clay in Rom 9:21 and the parable of the potter and clay in Jeremiah 18?’ The Lutheran responded:
Our Lord had an uncomfortable discussion with me, ie, I didn’t construe Rom.9:21 with Jer.18. Good job! The unlimited power of God over mankind is exercised according to man’s conduct, not according to a decretum absolutum or unchangeable determination.
Most of my discussions have been with modern Lutherans, ie, against their post-1930 unionized modernization; however God impacted one Calvinist, not so recent, with the true interpretation of agape a little over 5 years ago and he’s available of course, ie, haven’t done too well with our Christian brothers Calvinist.
My comeback was:
You have taken some of your language from Keil & Delitzsch’s commentary on Jeremiah 18:6-10:
In Jer 18:6-10 the Lord discloses to the prophet the truth lying in the potter’s treatment of the clay. The power the potter has over the clay to remould, according to his pleasure, the vessel he had formed from it if it went wrong; the same power God possesses over the people of Israel. This unlimited power of God over mankind is exercised according to man’s conduct, not according to a decretum absolutum or unchangeable determination. If he pronounces a people’s overthrow or ruin, and if that people turn from its wickedness, He repeals His decree (Jer 18:7.); and conversely, if He promises a people welfare and prosperity, and if that people turn away from Him to wickedness, then too He changes His resolve to do good to it (Jer 18:9.) [in my hard copy edition it is Keil n d:295, emphasis added]
So are you saying that you have had some success in presenting this view of the potter and the clay with Lutherans? It is interesting that you have not had a similar response with brother Calvinists. Any idea why?
B. Potter and clay connection
I find the Jewish thinking of the potter and the clay between Rom 9:21 and Jeremiah 18 to be significantly strong and helped me in my hermeneutics of Romans 9.
I was originally alerted to this potter and clay connection between Rom 9:21 and Jeremiah 18 by Norman Geisler in his comments on Rom 9:21. He wrote:
The image this conjures up in a Western mind is often a deterministic, if not fatalistic, one where they have no choice but are overpowered by God…. However, a Hebrew mind would not think this way, knowing the parable of the potter from Jeremiah 18. For in this context the basic lump of clay will either be built up or torn down by God, depending on Israel’s moral response to God. For the prophet says emphatically, ‘If that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned’ (18:8). Thus, the unrepentant element of Israel becomes a ‘vessel for dishonour’ and the repentant group a ‘vessel for honour’ (Geisler 1999:90, emphasis in original).
The Luther’s response was that he did borrow his statement from Keil and Delitzsch’s commentary. Then he stated,
A Calvinist prior to the last one was a young 30 year old, I’m well over 70, and he was in profound shock when I put forward just a simple old outdated Lutheran definition of agape: The object intelligently understood with a higher divine intelligent purpose where both Calvinist and modern Lutherans reject of course. A few days latter he contacted me saying he couldn’t find fault thus opened up Rom.8 & 9 where he become ‘floored’ having to sit down. My point over a simple interpretation,, ie a paradigm shift would send them to an early grave.
C. Jewish understanding of the potter and the clay
As a result of this link that I understand between the meaning of God and nation as the potter and the clay in Jeremiah 18 – and its application to Romans 9:21 – I was engaged in various interactions with Calvinists on this forum. They did not want to accept that the potter and the clay in the Jewish worldview did not mean that God the determinist was in action with no thought of human responsibility by way of response. The following are some gleanings from what I wrote:
The God who can absolutely choose the nations of Jacob (Israelites) over Esau, who could absolutely choose the incarnation and passion-resurrection, is absolutely able to affirm that ‘if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it’ (Jer 18:8 ESV)
This God can absolutely choose to grant salvation to these: ‘If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Rom 10:9 ESV). He is utterly able to involve human beings in the choice.
The simple point I was raising in comparing Rom 9:21 with Jeremiah 18 was to show how a Jew (Paul) would understand the potter and the moulding of the clay analogy. God moulding the clay would not take place without the nation (the clay) also being involved. See Jeremiah 18:8, ‘and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it’ (ESV). If the nation turns from evil (human responsibility), God would relent and not send the disaster that He intended.
There is no autocratic determinism in God’s actions in the Jewish thinking re potter and clay. Paul was a Jew and was coming from this framework of the potter and the clay of Jeremiah 18.
Paul, as a Jew, would not be using the potter and clay example without his the Jewish (God’s) understanding of the clay’s responsibility (as in Jeremiah 18) in the hands of the potter.
God did not let Israel off the hook as the potter. If the clay (Israel) responded, God would relent from his threatened disaster. He was not a deterministic God in action according to Jeremiah 18.
Therefore, Romans 9 is written from within the Jewish framework/worldview that Paul endorsed. No matter who the audience was, the potter and clay analogy was not written as a deterministic potter with the clay not responding to arrive at the final result. That’s how it was for the Jewish worldview.
What you seem to be promoting here (and many Calvinists that I interact with try to do it) is a Western world imposition of determinism of God’s actions in Romans 9.
The Jews do not see the potter and the clay that way, as Jeremiah 18 demonstrates. It matters not whether Paul is addressing individuals or nations. The Jewish worldview was that God and human responsibility (whether national or individual) go together. In my understanding, it’s our Western world that wants to see determinism here.
I do pay attention to the details when I read Scripture and that applies to the Hebrews’ worldview of the potter and the clay. There was no deterministic God in action (that seems to be Western thinking), but the God who requires human responsibility, whether that be nation or individual.
Your presuppositions seem to be clouding your understanding of God, the potter, and the nation or individual as the clay. God is not the determinist in the Jewish understanding of the potter and the clay.
This is a red herring.
You want me to go on your tangent when you don’t seem to want to understand the Israelite worldview and God’s understanding that he gave them of the potter and the clay throughout the OT and especially in Jeremiah 18.
God hardened Pharaoh’s heart at the same time as Pharaoh hardened his own heart.
To further understand God, the potter, and the nation/human being as the clay from a Jewish worldview (which was the apostle Paul’s background) – the sovereignty of God and the human responsibility of human beings – see the article, ‘Who Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart?‘ by Dave Miller & Kyle Butt.
No matter how much I go over and over this in stating the Jewish (and Paul’s Jewish) worldview on the potter and the clay, exemplified in Jeremiah 18, you don’t seem to want to understand what I’m saying about what that means for Romans 9:21 and the Jewish view of the potter and clay.
The image you seem to be wanting me to see is something coming out of the Western mindset of God, the determinist, with your language, ‘he can make anything he wants’.
That is not how the Hebrews understood the potter and the clay analogy from Jeremiah 18 and this applied to how Paul used the analogy in Rom 9:21.
In the Jeremiah 18 example, the nation of Israel would be built up or torn down, depending on its response to God. Jeremiah 18:8 makes this clear: ‘And if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it’ (ESV).
So, God the potter is not God the determinist with Israel. God’s will for the nation is determined by whether it turns from evil or not. If it – taking human responsibility – turns from evil, God will relent.
That’s God’s understanding of the potter and clay example and that’s how Paul understands it as a Jew who is writing. He would not see it as God the determinist. Human co-operation was part of the plan of God.
This has been God’s requirement since the beginning of time when he did not deterministically require man to sin. God commanded the man, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’ (Gen 2:16-17 ESV).
God did not command: ‘You have only one option – you must eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’.
The potter and the clay analogy, from God’s perspective, is not a promotion of determinism. A human moral response is required.
You ask: ‘Do you see the difference between Paul’s analogy and Jeremiah’s analogy being two different times in the Potter’s creation process?’
No, I don’t. That’s because for the Jewish worldview from which Paul writes, God is not the determinist. God requires human response, whether that be national or personal.
That is but one example [Exodus 4:21] of a summary of the actions regarding Pharaoh’s hardening of his heart.
Justin Taylor has provided this summary of ‘the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart’:
Here is a quick run-down of the key biblical data:
- Three times Yahweh declares that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4:21; 7:3; 14:4).
- Six times Yahweh actually hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:8).
- Seven times the hardening is expressed as a divine passive with Yahweh as the implied subject, i.e., Pharaoh’s heart “was hardened” by Yahweh (Ex. 7:13; 7:14; 7:22; 8:19; 9:7; 9:35; 14:5).
- And three times we are told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15; 8:32; 9:34).
Most certainly let God be God. I agree wholeheartedly. But we need the elements of God’s revelation that he has supplied in the above verses and not one verse only that you supplied of Ex 4:21.
Just to bring a little more clarity: Rom.9:18 via Mr. Chemnitz, Matthias Loy, and Keil summarized: Ten times Exodus reports that Pharaoh hardened himself; then, only in consequence of this self-hardening, we read ten times that God hardened this self-hardened man.
Then Mr. Loy wraps up with something like after five plagues Pharaoh hardened his heart progressively; then after the sixth God’s hardening set in (Exod.9:12). After the seventh it is again Pharaoh (Exod.9:35); then it is God who hardened, but now in complete tragedy (Exod.10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 5).
I agree with all the former, and personally accountable for any discripancies (sic) in Exod., ie, my backyard.
D. God and human beings collaborate in causation
You do not seem to understand how the Jewish worldview understood the potter and clay analogy. God was not the determinist who acted without human response and responsibility. God’s method started in the Garden of Genesis 2 and it will not change throughout human history.
That’s what the potter and clay analogy teaches, but a Western worldview wants to make it mean a deterministic God, but Jeremiah 18 makes it clear that that is not how Yahweh understands his actions in human history, whether on nations or individuals.
The NEB reads thus,
8:15 He became obdurate
8:32 Once again Pharaoh became obdurate
9:34 So Pharaoh remained obstinate
***These do NOT necessarily infer that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.***
The NEB seems to be more in line with the English sub-text of the Online Hebrew Interlinear which does not indicate that Pharaoh acted upon himself. In fact, 9:34 in the Interlinear suggests that Pharaoh remained obstinate because YHWH was adding to his sin and making his heart hardened.
and he [YHWH] is adding to the sin of [Pharaoh] and he [YHWH] is making heavy heart-of-him [Pharaoh] Brackets mine.
My reply was that Keil & Delitzsch’s OT commentary, based on the Hebrew, does not agree with this New English Bible translation that he was promoting. Keil & Delitzsch state regarding Exodus 8:15,
‘Though Jehovah had thus manifested Himself as the Almighty God and Lord of the creation, Pharaoh did not keep his promise; but when he saw that there was breathing-time … relief from an overpowering pressure), literally, as soon as he “got air” he hardened his heart, so that he did not hearken to Moses and Aaron’ (Keil & Delitzsch n d:482).
Whether the language is ‘obdurate’ or ‘hardened’, the issue does not change. God did not make Pharaoh’s heart obdurate/hardened without the free choice of Pharaoh hardening his own heart. We know that ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ or ‘grew hard’ (Ex 7:13) the more that God pressured Pharaoh.
We know that the same sun that hardens clay also melts wax. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in a like manner. If Pharaoh had received God’s warnings and acted on them, his heart would not have been hardened.
‘Ten times Exodus reports that Pharaoh hardened himself; then, only in consequence of this self-hardening, we read ten times that God hardened this self-hardened man…. The door of mercy is not shut at once on the self-hardened so that they crash into the locked door with a bang. We might rush to close it thus. God’s mercy closes it gradually and is ready to open it wide again at the least show of repentance in answer to his mercy; and not until all the warnings of the gradually closing door are utterly in vain does the door sink regretfully into its lock.
In Exod. 4:21 the Lord tells Moses the final outcome: “I will harden his heart”; and “all those wonders” refers to all of them that Moses was to do before Pharaoh. After five plagues Pharaoh hardened his heart progressively: then after the sixth God’s hardening sets in (Exod. 9:12). After the seventh it is again Pharaoh (Exod. 9:35); then it is God who hardened but now in complete tragedy (Exod. 10:20, 27: 11:10; 14:4,5). The history of his hardening certainly speaks for itself. Pharaoh wanted none of the mercy for himself and for his own nation and with all his might intended to block the plans of that mercy with regard to Israel. The case of the Jews was even worse, for all the mercy was covenanted to be theirs, and they did not only refuse it and crucify the Christ but intended to prevent all other men from receiving this mercy (Matt. 23:13)’ (Lenski 1936:617).
The prediction that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart was before the hardening happened (Ex 4:21).
Exodus 4 and 7 give some reasons why God would harden Pharaoh’s heart after Pharaoh hardened his own heart.
When you leave out Pharaoh’s responsibility in what he did to Israel and to God and in the hardening of his own heart, you leave out a valuable part of the biblical evidence and make God a determinist.
Since Genesis 2, we know that God gives human beings, starting with the first man, the ability to say yes or no to God. It started with God giving man the ability to affirm or reject the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This God-given ability is affirmed throughout the OT and the NT.
The unchanging God has not changed his view on the need of human beings to respond to or reject God. A classical OT example is in Joshua 24:15,
But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (NIV, emphasis added)
From Genesis to Revelation, God has not changed his theology on the responsibility of human beings to respond to God’s commands before He announces the final decision.
If God were the determinist, it would have been determined in Genesis 2 and the first man would have had no choice. It wasn’t.
A person stated: ‘If this be the case, then please explain Ex 5:7-9 and Moses’ recognition of God as the causal agent in 5:22’.
My response was:
I find this to be such a basic question with a straight forward answer. The sovereign God of the universe causes many things to happen, but He does not do it without human involvement.
I write this on 22 November 2013, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of USA president, John F Kennedy. Was it God who deterministically caused it or was Lee Harvey Oswald involved in the cause?
Did God deterministically cause the September 11 2001 disaster in the USA or were human beings involved in the cause?
Did God deterministically cause the slaughter of Australian, New Zealand and other soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsular on 25 April 1915 in World War I, or were soldiers and others the cause of the slaughter?
Did God deterministically cause the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart or was Pharaoh involved in the cause of his own hardening? God works with human beings to bring about God’s ultimate decisions in the world. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but he did not do it without Pharaoh’s hardening his own heart and resisting God.
See the article, ‘An exegetical and theological consideration of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 4-14 and Romans 9’ (G K Beale, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’ (Trinity Journal, 5NS, 1984, pp. 129-154) for further insight into this controversial topic.
Geisler, N 1999. Chosen but free. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers.
Keil, C F n d. Commentary on the Old Testament: Jeremiah, Lamentations, in C F Keil & F Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol 8 (2 vols in 1). Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company. Jeremiah available online at: http://www.studylight.org/com/kdo/view.cgi?bk=23
Keil, C F & Delitzsch, E n d: Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch, vol 1 (3 vols in 1). Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Lenski, R C H 1936. Commentary on the New Testament: The interpretation of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers (limited edition, based on 1936 Lutheran Book Concern; assigned 1945 to The Wartburg Press, assigned 1961 to Augsburg Publishing House).
 Unless otherwise stated, all Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV).
 Christian Forums, General Theology, Soteriology, ‘Romans 9’, shturt678 #341, 19 November 2013, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7785192-35/ (Accessed 22 November 2013, emphasis in original).
 Ibid., OzSpen #343.
 Ibid., shturt678 #344.
 Ibid, shturt678 #367.
 This is beginning at ibid., OzSpen #369. There will be quite a bit of repeat in these responses as some Calvinists do not want to accept this view, so they raise all kinds of red herrings to try to distract me onto their way of thinking. I maintained my stance of God who is not the fatalistic, deterministic, autocrat who makes personal salvation decisions without the participation of human beings and their free will.
 Ibid., OzSpen #372.
 Ibid., OzSpen #379.
 Ibid., OzSpen #383.
 Ibid., Charis kai dunamis #384.
 Ibid., OzSpen #386.
 Ibid., shturt678 #389, emphasis in original.
 NEB = New English Bible.
 Ibid., OzSpen #398.
 Ibid., OzSpen #414, http://www.christianforums.com/t7785192-42/#post64536294 (Accessed 22 November 2013).
 Ibid., Charis kai Dunamis #413.
 Ibid., OzSpen #416, http://www.christianforums.com/t7785192-42/#post64536294 (Accessed 22 November 2013).
 See Stephen Smith 2013. ‘Accused JFK assassin is arrested, then gunned down’ (CBS News, November 24, 2013, available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/jfk-assassination-suspect-lee-harvey-oswald-is-arrested-then-gunned-down/ – accessed 24 December 2013).
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 12 November 2015.