Both Luther and Calvin used Romans 9:6-13 to teach that God has chosen which individuals will respond in faith to the gospel. How did the Reformers draw this interpretation from the text?
A Suspicion of Allegory
The Reformers interpret Isaac and Jacob, not merely as symbolic representatives, but as literal examples of individuals elected to eternal salvation. In other words, the Reformers believe God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael meant that the historical person of Ishmael, and not simply the “children of the flesh” whom he represented, was damned. Therefore, since God’s choice of Isaac and Jacob did not depend on the faith of either man, the Reformers conclude that election to eternal salvation is not conditioned on faith.
One may wonder why the Reformers adopt this interpretation, given Paul’s explicit statement in Galatians: “Now this is an allegory” (4:24). However, the comments which Luther and Calvin make on this verse reveal that they are both highly suspicious of allegory. Calvin states that the preference for allegory in past generations was “undoubtedly a contrivance of Satan to undermine the authority of Scripture,” and accuses Origen and others of “torturing Scripture, in every possible manner, away from the true sense.” Luther states, “Allegories do not provide solid proofs in theology,” and asserts that if Paul had not already advanced “more substantial arguments, he would not have accomplished anything with this allegory.” This allegory is simply “a kind of ornament” which provides further illumination.
In his treatise, On the Freedom of the Will, Erasmus argues that the pronouncement, “The greater shall serve the less,” in the context of Genesis 25 “does not properly apply to the salvation of man.” Luther not only disagrees; he is appalled. He labels this reading “ungodly and sacrilegious” and comes close to declaring Erasmus “anathema.” He states,
This is as good as saying that when Paul is laying the foundations of Christian dogma, he does nothing but corrupt the Divine Scriptures and deceive the souls of the faithful with a notion hatched out of his own head and violently thrust upon the Scriptures.
He continues, “Paul is quite right in understanding [God’s choice of Jacob] as referring also to eternal salvation,” adding, “I will not allow Paul to be besmirched by the calumnies of sacrilegious persons.” These statements seem to indicate that Luther believes Paul would be either distorting or misunderstanding the Scriptures if he took a passage which did not, in context, refer to eternal salvation, and used it symbolically in reference to eternal salvation. Calvin appears to share this conviction:
Should any one object that these minute and inferior favors do not enable us to decide with regard to the future life, that it is not to be supposed that he who received the honor of primogeniture was thereby adopted to the inheritance of heaven; (many objectors do not even spare Paul, but accuse him of having in the quotation of these passages wrested Scripture from its proper meaning); I answer as before, that the apostle has not erred through inconsideration, or spontaneously misapplied the passages of Scripture; but he saw (what these men cannot be brought to consider) that God purposed under an earthly sign to declare the spiritual election of Jacob.
Like Luther, Calvin asserts that if the election of Jacob described in Genesis did not in fact involve eternal salvation, then Paul has “erred” and “wrested Scripture from its proper meaning.” Therefore, in an overreaction to the past abuses of allegory, the Reformers seem to be placing artificial restrictions on Paul, whose use of the Hebrew Scriptures is varied and complex.
A Polemic against Merit
In addition to considering Isaac and Jacob as literal examples, the Reformers also associated the concept of merit with the response of faith. Consider the argument Erasmus made concerning Paul’s analogy in Romans 11:
Why are the Jews plucked from the olive tree? Because they refused to believe. Why are the Gentiles grafted in? Because they obeyed the gospel.
Luther’s summary of this argument is revealing. (Note that “she” refers to Erasmus’ treatise.)
In the end she draws the conclusion that the Jews were plucked from the olive tree for the merit of unbelief, whereas the Gentiles were grafted in for the merit of faith – and this on the authority of Paul!
Note that Luther adds the word “merit,” associating it with faith. Concerning Romans 9:13, Luther states,
God’s love towards men is eternal and immutable, and his hatred is eternal, being prior to the creation of the world, and not only to the merit and work of free choice.
Later on, Luther asserts,
Paul is proving from Malachi that this misfortune was brought upon Esau without any merit and solely by the hatred of God, so as to draw the conclusion that there is no such thing as free choice.
In his glosses on Romans 9, Luther states,
All these points argue that predestination and the certainty of our election, and not the righteousness of man’s will, are the cause of our salvation.
Thus in Luther’s mind, if salvation is conditioned on the free response of faith, then salvation is conditioned on human “merit,” “work,” and “righteousness.” This notion is difficult to reconcile with the logic of Romans 4:2-5.
In reading Luther’s exegetical works, one is struck by how often the Pope appears between the lines of Scripture. For example, in discussing Abraham’s statement, “A slave born in my house will be my heir” (Gen 15:3), Luther adds,
Just as we today are compelled to see and put up with the pretentions of the pope, who boasts that he is the head of the church, though it is certain that he has nothing else in mind than to fill the world with idolatry.
Quite naturally, Luther’s reading of Scripture was shaped by his fierce dispute with the Roman Church. While this led him to many valuable insights, we must, of course, consider the possibility that it also distorted his reading of some texts. Luther’s comments concerning Romans 9 seem to indicate that he is so intent on rooting out merit that he has come to see it everywhere, even in faith.
In this post, I have argued that the Reformers’ interpretation of Romans 9:6-13 is influenced by a suspicion of allegory and an unrelenting polemic against merit. These biases are understandable, given the historical context; however, these biases must be recognized when evaluating the validity of the conclusions which the Reformers draw from this passage.
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (trans. William Pringle; in Calvin’s Commentaries; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 135.
 Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians 1535 (trans. Jaroslav Pelikan; vol. 26 of Luther’s Works; Saint Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 435-36.
 Desiderius Erasmus, On the Freedom of the Will (trans. and ed. E. Gordon Rupp; vol. 27 of The Library of Christian Classics; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), 69.
 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (trans. Philip S. Watson; vol. 33 of Luther’s Works; Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1972), 196-98.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Henry Beveridge; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 618.
 Erasmus, Freedom of the Will, 70.
 Luther, Bondage of the Will, 201-202.
 Luther, Bondage of the Will, 199.
 Luther, Bondage of the Will, 200.
 Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia (ed. Hilton C. Oswald; vol. 25 of Luther’s Works; Saint Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 80.
 Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis Chapters 15-20 (trans. George Schick; vol. 3 of Luther’s Works; Saint Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), 80.