Romans 11:26 and the Battle Over Context

How does Romans 11:26 fit into the overall argument of Romans 9-11? We know that when Paul says, “all Israel will be saved,” he is finishing an argument that takes up three chapters of his letter to the Romans. What does he mean by saying that? Can we look back on those three chapters of Romans and confirm what he meant?

This is the second in a series of posts looking at the book Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Roman 9-11 (edited by Jared Compton and Andrew David Naselli, published by Kregel Academic in 2019). In this post, we are going to look at two different answers to the questions above.

The Remnant View

Benjamin L. Merkle represents a “typological non-future-mass-conversion” view of Romans 11. I call this the “remnant” view. In his own words, when he reads Romans 11:26 that “all Israel will be saved,” this is how he understands it:

Thus, the sum-total of all the elect remnant throughout history represents the salvation of “all Israel.”[1]

I am tempted to call this the “only a remnant” view, but this would not be fair. His point is that the salvation of a remnant was all that Paul was arguing for, beginning in Romans 9, and that the salvation of a remnant is worth celebrating, as Paul does at the end of Romans 11. If we look for more than that, we are looking for something Paul’s words do not give us:

He states that God is not unfaithful to his promises. Why? God never promised to save every ethnic Jew but only an elect remnant. But if that is the answer to this apparent dilemma, then why do some feel that such an answer is insufficient?[2]

According to Merkle, what Paul says at the beginning of Romans 9 would be pointless if he promised, at the end of Romans 11, something beyond a preservation of a remnant. But if we take it seriously, “Romans 9:6–13 is the single greatest argument against the future mass-conversion view.”[3] Romans 9:6, specifically, he says, should inform our understanding of Romans 11:26:

Romans 9:6 is not given its full weight as a programmatic statement for chapters 9–11 and instead is viewed as the first stage in Paul’s argument. The problem with such a view is that the supposed second stage of Paul’s argument (future mass-conversion of Abraham’s physical seed) runs contrary to his initial response about why God’s word has not failed (God never promised to save all of Abraham’s physical seed).[4]

Within Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 9-11 form a discrete, extended argument, with a clear beginning and ending. There is agreement about this, and also general agreement about the importance of Romans 9:6 and 11:26 as bookends of these three chapters. Romans 9:6 is a kind of thesis statement that Paul sets out to demonstrate, whether or not Merkle is correct that it is a “programmatic statement for chapters 9-11.”

There is also general agreement about what Paul means in Romans 9:6. It is Romans 11:26 that is disputed. Is it a climax or a recapitulation? New information or a summary of the entire argument?

Here are the two “bookend” statements:

“For they are not all Israel who are of Israel” – Romans 9:6 (NKJV)

“And so all Israel will be saved“ – Romans 11:26 (NKJV)

Destroying the Entire Development of Paul’s Argument?

As I said, there is general agreement about the meaning of Romans 9:6. Paul is contrasting Israel according to the flesh with the smaller number of true believers among the people, whom he will later call the “remnant” and the “elect.” Here is the verse again in a bit more context:

“But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.”

Romans 9:6-8 NKJV

Here is Merkle’s point: Paul believes that the existent of the faithful remnant of Israelites throughout history is enough to demonstrate that the word of God has been effective. He sets forth this thesis and then takes three chapters to prove it. After all that, for him to claim that there will be a future mass conversion of Israel gives an answer that “runs contrary” to his original answer, as if what he has been saying for three chapters is “insufficient.”

But is this true?

Merkle also quotes a 1978 article by Charles Horne:

If Paul is speaking in 11:26 of a future mass-conversion of the nation of Israel, then he is destroying the entire development of his argument in chaps. 9–11. For the one important point that he is trying to establish constantly is exactly this: that God’s promises attain fulfillment not in the nation as such (that is, all of ethnic Israel) but rather in the remnant according to the election of grace.[5]

“Destroying the entire development of his argument” is a strong way to put it. It is also a wise move to find a scholarly article that makes the point you are trying to make and does so with stronger language. This article does that: “For the one important point that he is trying to establish constantly…”

The article is available online. In reading it, I do not see any effort to back up the assertion.

An Extraordinary Anticlimax?

One of the views Merkle is engaging with in the book is called the “non-typological future-mass-conversion view,” represented by Michael J. Vlach. I call this the “restoration” view, one that sees Romans 11:26 as promising a kind of national restoration.

Michael J. Vlach also quotes a scholar using strong language (this one is a 2011 article by Cornelis P. Venema):

To hold that Israel’s “partial hardening” expires at some point in the future without a reversal is anticlimactic. As Venema explains, “It would be an extraordinary anti-climax for Paul to conclude that Israel’s restoration, acceptance, and life from the dead will amount to nothing other than the salvation of a small remnant.”[6]

So, according to the two sides of this debate, Paul is either “destroying the entire development of his argument” or ending with “an extraordinary anti-climax.”

Venema’s article, also online, tries to show that Romans 9-11 builds up to something, as opposed to making what Merkle calls one “programmatic statement” at the beginning and sticking to that one point. For example, Paul quotes a passage from Moses at the end of Romans 10 about God provoking Israel to jealousy, a theme that reemerges in Romans 11.

Here is another possible structural clue, depending on how you understand it: In the beginning of Romans 11 Paul pretty much says the same thing he said in Romans 9, just with different illustrations. Does he really have nothing more to say? Is he ready to hammer home his one point as hard as he can? Or, as Venema suggests, is he restating his thesis so that he can go beyond it?:

The interesting feature of these opening verses of chapter 11 is that they do not seem to add anything new to the argument of the previous chapters… However, though these verses reiterate points made in the preceding chapters, they do offer a hint that Paul has not concluded his answer to the question whether God’s Word has failed in respect to Israel. Paul is not simply repeating himself, but offering a prelude to a further unfolding of God’s redemptive plan and purpose for Israel. That this is so becomes especially evident in the next section of the chapter.[7]

It could be, then, that Romans 11:1-10 is the recapitulation of Romans 9:6-8, while Romans 11:11 marks the beginning of something new, a climax which has been hinted at.

Conclusion

The correct interpretation of Romans 11:26 should indeed shed light on all of Romans 9-11. That is, we should see some hints and foreshadowing. Even better would be if we could see foreshadowing in Romans 1-8. Romans 11 could be the climax of the entire letter. If so, we should be able to look back on Romans and see it coming. For example, why does he say, in Romans 1:16, that the gospel is “for the Jew first, and also for the Greek”?

More important than the overall context, however, are the actual words of Romans 11:11-36. For it is at verse 11 that the disagreements of interpretation become more pronounced. Paul had asked a question in Romans 11:1 and he asks another in Romans 11:11. Here are those two questions:

“I say then, has God cast away His people?” – Romans 11:1 (NKJV)

“I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall?“ – Romans 11:11 (NKJV)

Is that second question the same as the first, or is it altogether different? This becomes a point of debate in Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Roman 9-11. We will take a closer look at this in the next post.


[1] Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Roman 9-11 – kindle location 2796

[2] Three Views – kindle location 2907

[3] Three Views – kindle location 2577

[4] Three Views – kindle location 2685

[5] Charles Horne, “The Meaning of the Phrase ‘And Thus All Israel Will Be Saved’ (Romans 11:26),” JETS 21 (1978) –Quoted in Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Roman 9-11 – kindle location 2916

[6] Three Views – kindle location 3745 –Quoting Cornelis P. Venema, “‘In This Way All Israel Will Be Saved’: A Study of Romans 11:26,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 22 (2011): 36

[7] Venema, p.31