Irrevocable Calling and Gifts: A Reading of Romans 11:29
Romans 11:29 comes at the end of a larger subsection - Romans 11:25-32 - which itself serves, in the words of one scholar, as "a summary-conclusion to Romans 9-11." (M. Getty, "Paul and the Salvation of Israel: A Perspective on Romans 9-11", Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50.3 [July 1988], p. 457) Andrew Wakefield comments further on the purpose of the still larger division of Romans 9-11 as a whole: "Once typically relegated to the status of a mere appendix to Paul's great exposition of justification by faith in chapters 1-8, chapters 9-11 are now seen by most commentators as the climax of that argument, and indeed of the book as a whole." (A. Wakefield, "Romans 9-11: The Sovereignty of God and the Status of Israel", Review and Expositor 100 [Winter 2003], p. 65)
In a way, then, this verse can be seen as a kind of summary of a summary, as a text which offers the supporting argument to everything that has been said in the previous chapters of Romans. At a minimum, Romans 11:29 must be seen as supplying the (theo)logical underpinnings of what is said immediately prior to it, in verses 25-28. St. Paul has just shared with his readers a "mystery" concerning the fact that "a hardening has come upon part of Israel"; this hardening, however, is temporary, and will only last "until the full number of the Gentiles come in" (v. 25); after this scenario has played itself out, "all Israel will be saved", says St. Paul, reaching for two Isaian texts (Is. 59:20 conflated with Is. 27:9) to demonstrate his point (vv. 26-27). A final assertion is made concerning the fact that the Jews are "enemies of God, for your sake" with regard to the Gospel, but "they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers" with regard to God's "election." (v. 28) In short, St. Paul asserts that God has not finished with Israel, nor has He abandoned them; on the contrary, for the sake of the Patriarchs, Israel continues to be "beloved" by God. The reason for all of this - the abiding and special relationship between God and Israel, the future conversion of "all Israel" - is given next:
For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. (Rom. 11:29)
The basis for the claims that St. Paul makes about Israel is, quite simply, the fact that God's "gifts" and His "call" are "irrevocable." As the lynchpin, so to speak, of St. Paul's argument, it is worth our time and effort to look more closely at this verse and ask a few basic questions. What are the "gifts" that St. Paul says are "irrevocable"? What is the "call of God" that is likewise "irrevocable"? Upon what is this calling based? More fundamentally still, what is even meant by the term "irrevocable"?
We will begin by looking at the "call of God" in v. 29, for this seems to be one of the more easily comprehended elements of the text. If we look back to the Old Testament, the calling of Israel - which is just another way of saying "the vocation of Israel" - is spelled out quite clearly. What is of most interest to us here is the chronology involved in this vocation/calling. We read in the prophecy of Hosea the following words of God:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hos. 11:1)
From this text we are able to formulate a foundational argument: God called Israel "when Israel was a child," and this calling was situated within the context of Israel's bondage to Egypt. Before Israel had departed from Egypt, they were God's son and had received their calling from Him. The Exodus story confirms this: "Thus says the LORD, Israel is my first-born son." (Ex. 4:22) Elsewhere, Isaiah speak in similar terms: "The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name ... he said to me, 'You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified'" (Is. 49:1,3)
The calling of Israel is thus established as a historical fact stretching back at least to Israel's time in Egypt prior to the Exodus, and, judging by Isaiah's words, even back to the time when Israel was still in "the womb" and "the body of my mother," that is, before Israel was even a nation. A later passage in Isaiah sheds further light upon the matter, identifying for us who was Israel's "mother":
Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance, you who seek the LORD; look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him, and I blessed him and made him many. (Is. 51:1-2)
The calling of Israel, then, is rooted in the calling of Abraham, and this calling of Abraham is envisaged by Isaiah as extending to Israel, in a sense, while Israel was still "in the body" of "Sarah who bore you." In other words, the gracious election of Israel by God did not take place in a vacuum, but is founded upon a much earlier calling: the calling of Abraham, and the subsequent covenant oaths sworn by God to him. This accords well with what St. Paul said in Romans 11: "as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers." The same thing is stated by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy: "he loved your fathers and chose their descendants after them, and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence" (Dt. 4:37)
The important point to notice about the chronology of Israel's calling is the fact that it took place before their deliverance from Egypt, which is to say, before the swearing of the Covenant at Sinai. Thus the calling and election of Israel by God is not based upon the Covenant made at Sinai; the calling and election of Israel came long before Sinai, and is based upon God's gracious choice, as both St. Paul and Deuteronomy again affirm: "It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the LORD loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers" (Dt. 7:7), and "when Rebecca had conceived children [Jacob/Israel and Esau] by one man ... though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God's purpose of election might continue ... because of his call, she was told, 'The elder will serve the younger.'" (Rom. 9:10-12)
If the calling and election of Israel was based on God's gracious choice, and upon His faithfulness to the oath He swore to Abraham, then it would be incorrect to say that the "calling of God" was based upon Israel's fidelity to the Sinai Covenant; indeed, as pointed out above, the calling took place prior to that Covenant, and is therefore quite independent of it.
An analogy could be drawn here to what takes place in the life of a young man who decides to enter the priesthood. There is a great deal of correspondence here, in fact, because in Catholic parlance this young man is said to have a vocation - a calling - and the result of his calling/vocation is that he will receive one of the sacraments of the New Covenant. Just as with Israel, so also will the young man receive his vocation and calling long before he actually receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders, his priestly consecration. The purpose of the consecration ritual is precisely to enable the man to fulfill his vocation, just as the Sinai Covenant - the consecration of Israel as a priestly nation (cf. Ex. 19:6) - was made with Israel in order to enable them to fulfill their priestly vocation. In short, the consecration (Covenant) comes after the calling/vocation, and serves to support the vocation; that is to say, the "gifts" enable the "calling" to be fulfilled. Israel's calling and election is not based on the Covenant, but rather, the Covenant is sworn because of an already-existing vocation.
This leads us to consider the next portion of Romans 11:29: what is the meaning or content of the "gifts" which God gave to Israel, and which are "irrevocable"? It seems obvious that those "gifts" refer, at a minimum, to the Covenant(s) which God swore with His people. Here we face something of an interpretive quandary, however, because this particular verse in Romans 11 has - for whatever reason - been largely ignored or given only cursory treatment by theologians and commentators for the past 2,000 years. The great commentaries by Fr. Haydock and Dom Bernard Orchard do not treat the verse directly; St. John Chrysostom skips it completely; Joseph Sievers notes that "None of the Latin Church Fathers stricto sensu (i.e., not counting Ambrosiaster and Pelagius) comments on this part of Romans." (J. Sievers, "'God's Gifts and Call are Irrevocable': The Interpretation of Rom 11:28 and its Uses", Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers, no. 36 , p. 339)
Sievers goes on to point out that "Rom 11:29 was never cited in official Catholic pronouncements before Vatican II." (Sievers, p. 347) After Vatican II, however, this verse has received a good deal of attention in various magisterial documents, undoubtedly because of its potential to advance Jewish-Catholic relations. The text has either been explicitly quoted or alluded to in the conciliar documents Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate, the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and speeches by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, just to name a few. In several of those cases, the text is interpreted in such a way that the "gifts" of Romans 11:29 refer to the Covenant:
In writing to the Romans (cf. Rom 11: 16-18), St Paul was already speaking of the holy root of Israel on which pagans are grafted onto Christ, "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Rom 11: 29), and you continue to be the first-born people of the Covenant. (Pope John Paul II, Message to the Chief Rabbi of Rome, May 22, 2004, 2, source)
The exegetical move made by the Catechism in this last example is of particular interest, for here the "gifts" of Romans 11:29 are explicitly linked to the privileges of Israel enumerated by St. Paul in Romans 9:4-5. Sievers notes in passing that "Most scholars agree that the divine favors of Rom. 9:4-5 are meant" by the "gifts" of Romans 11:29 (J. Sievers, "'God's Gifts and Call Are Irrevocable': The Reception of Romans 11:29 through the Centuries and Christian-Jewish Relations", in C. Grenholm [ed.], Reading Israel in Romans [Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000], p.133). As proof of the point, he references no less than 15 exegetes, including Catholic authors Rudolph Cornely, S.J., Stanislaus Lyonnet, S.J., and Francois Refoule, O.P. Protestant scholars John Murray and James Dunn concur:
"The gifts and the calling of God" have reference to those mentioned in 9:4,5 as the privileges and prerogatives of Israel. (J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968], p. 101)
At the very least, given the way in which the Catechism of the Catholic Church links Romans 9:4-5 with Romans 11:29, we must seriously consider the possibility that the gifts enumerated in Romans 9 are precisely those referred to in Romans 11. What are those gifts of Romans 9:4-5? St. Paul says, "They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ." Thus, the "covenants" are among the "gifts" which St. Paul says are "irrevocable."
What, finally, is the meaning of the word "irrevocable"? The Greek word ametameleta is only found in one other place in the New Testament, at least in this particular form; the root verb metamellomai simply means "to repent", in the sense of changing one's mind or disposition - see, for example, the way the word is used in Hebrews 7:21, "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, 'Thou art a priest for ever.'" The prefix a- negates the word metamellomia, and so the word translated as "irrevocable" is more literally translated as "unrepented" or "unrepentable." So why do so many English translations (NIV, NKJV, NASB, RSV, NAB) render the word as "irrevocable", then, if the word means "without repentance" or "unrepentable"?
To get a better understanding of the term ametameleta, we must examine the only other place in Scripture where it is used:
For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret [metamelomai] it (though I did regret [metemelomen] it), for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance [metanoian] that leads to salvation and brings no regret [ametameleton], but worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor. 7:8-10)
The phrase in question here is "godly grief produces a repentance" - and here the word metanoian is used - "that leads to salvation and brings no regret" - and here our word ametameleton is used. The usage of the word in this particular passage, then, only seems to strengthen the idea that it should be interpreted in the sense of something psychological (regret), rather than something juridical (irrevocable).
The great Catholic exegete Ceslas Spicq, O.P., has written one of the most thorough - and indeed, one of the only - treatments of the usage of this word ametameleta in Romans 11:29. In taking the time to comment upon the text of 2 Cor. 7:10, Spicq notes that St. Paul uses the word here as a kind of pun (juxtaposing a repentance [metanoian] which one does not regret [ametameleton], or, to capture the pun, a repentance of which one does not repent), and as such, the meaning of the Greek word in this particular context must retain its traditional meaning: "Le jeu de mots est évident, et cette évolution des 'regrets' demande de traduire l'adjectif selon sa signification classique." (C. Spicq, "AMETAMELETOS dans Rom., XI, 29", Revue Biblique 67 , pp. 214-215)
However, Spicq is also insistent upon the point that even here, the word carries with it something of a shade of the meaning "irrevocable" or "unchanging" - for any kind of real "repentance" must include true contrition and a purpose of amending one's ways. Even here, then, ametameleton includes a sense of "without return", a "repentance" that does not go back on itself: "Mais, si l'on y réfléchit, on ne voit pas bien ce qu'est une repentance dont on ne se repent pas, sinon, positivement, une contrition ferme et sans retour; ainsi que l'a compris l'étymologie, la pensée est celle d'une metanoia qui ne changera plus." (Spicq, p. 215)
Apart from this passage in 2 Corinthians, however, Spicq maintains that the Greek word ametameleton does indeed carry the legal meaning of "irrevocable", and he demonstrates this by appeal to various ancient papyri, noting that there are two "courants sémantiques" which overlap - "l'un littéraire, l'autre juridique." (Spicq, p. 212) In these legal documents ("actes juridiques"), Spicq says that "testateurs ou contractants affirment le détermination de leur volonté inchangeable et irrévocable", adding that if these documents were dated a bit earlier, one could almost say they were "parallèles" of Romans 11:29.
Spicq concludes that the translation of ametameleton as "without repentance" is too weak, and that a sense of irrevocability must be included here, understood in the context of the great love of the "Donateur par excellence." (Spicq, pp. 218-219) He ends by saying that, because Israel remains agapetos ("beloved") according to Romans 11:28, "sa vocation est indéfectible", and that the effects of God's grace will be realized per fas et nefas (Latin: "through right and wrong").
Finally, Dunn quotes Spicq's entry on ametameletos in volume 1 of Notes de lexicographie Néo-Testamentaire, in which he states that the Greek word in question has the "force of a legal axiom" (quoted in Dunn, op. cit., p. 686) As we have already seen in the way that the root word is used in the LXX of Psalm 110:4 ("The Lord sware, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedec"), to "repent" of something can indeed - as it does in this context of the royal coronation and Covenant oath to David - carry a legal meaning of something which is irrevocable. Perhaps this rather obvious sense of the word is precisely why it is so commonly translated as "irrevocable" in our English Bibles, and why Pope John Paul II referred precisely to Romans 11:29 in order to support his statement that the Old Covenant was "never revoked by God [cf. Rom. 11,29]." (Pope John Paul II, Address to the Hebrew Community in Mainz, November 17, 1980, source)
In conclusion, we have seen that Romans 11:29 provides the reader with St. Paul's justification and foundation for the claims he makes in Romans 11:25-28 concerning Israel's continuing relationship with God; He has not finished with Israel yet, even though a hardness has come upon a part of Israel, and He will save them in the end, precisely because the "gifts" and "call" are "irrevocable." We also saw that the "call" of God in v. 29 was synonymous with the "election" of God in v. 28; this call-vocation-election occurred before the Sinai Covenant, and is therefore independent of that Covenant; the vocation itself, as we observed in Isaiah, is rooted in the call and vocation of Abraham. Examining the usage of Romans 11:29 in the Catechism, and surveying the opinions of various exegetes, we saw that the "gifts" of Romans 11:29 are quite likely a reference to the privileges of Israel enumerated in Romans 9:4-5, including the "covenants." Finally, we saw that the Greek word ametameletos has historically had a literary and a juridical meaning, and that even in its usage at 2 Cor. 7:10, it carries the sense of irrevocability and refusal to change. In its context in Romans 11, with the love and grace of God in view, it only makes sense to render the Greek as "irrevocable" with regard to Israel.