I am publishing a series of guest posts that have been generously contributed to the blog in honor of our ten-year anniversary. Each post is written by a recognized expert in our field who has previously made guest posts for us. This one comes from Jason Staples, my erstwhile PhD student who now teaches at North Carolina State and whose (long!) dissertation has turned into TWO separate monographs, the first already published by Cambridge University Press (The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism), and the other now forthcoming from Cambridge (focusing on Paul).
Here, after some much-appreciated kind words, Jason deals with an unusually important and little-understood topic, of ultimate relevance to us all!
Thanks to multiple best-selling books, Bart is one of the few widely recognized names in the field of biblical studies, and when people learn I did my training under his guidance, I invariably get asked, “so, what was that like?” Many of the more conservative-leaning Christians are surprised when I tell them the truth: it would be difficult to find anyone better to work with than Bart. He’s not interested in making clones of himself; he really cares about his students and wants them to become the best scholars and versions of themselves that they can be. He’s consistent, detailed, and tailors his approach to each student. With me, he gave me lots of room to run and only periodically pulled on the reins with a “whoa!” And unlike many especially prolific scholars, Bart invests heavily in his students, always making time whenever it’s needed and responding swiftly with detailed comments on drafts or any other needs.
In many respects, this blog has revealed those aspects of Bart more than his other public work. Not many have the stamina, consistency, or intellectual curiosity needed to maintain a regular blog for a decade—let alone the ability to write so well that tens of thousands actually want to read it! But even beyond that, the fact that he’s poured all that energy into something that doesn’t make him a dime shows who he really is. Bravo, Bart, for consistently investing your time to better the lives of others, and for raising over $1.5 million for charities over the past decade. And thanks.
Did Paul believe God creates some people specifically to burn in hell for all eternity? For many Christians, the answer is a definitive “yes.” One of the most important passages in this discussion is the potter/clay analogy in Romans 9, where Paul addresses the charge that because God chooses to show mercy to some and not others, God is unjust to find fault with those he did not choose. The passage comes as part of a larger discussion about who inherits Abraham’s blessing. Paul points out that although Abraham fathered more than one child, only Isaac was chosen as the heir. The same was then true of Jacob (chosen) and Esau (not chosen). It is at this point that Paul acknowledges the potential objection, “What then, there is no injustice with God, is there?” (Rom 9:14)
His argument against this conclusion takes a peculiar direction, however, as he appeals to God’s statement to Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will show compassion to whomever I show compassion” (9:15). This is a quotation of Exodus 33:19, a statement in the aftermath of the infamous golden calf incident in which Israel managed to violate the covenant while the covenant was being delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. Paul pairs this statement of God’s character with another quotation of Exodus, in which Pharaoh is told that God had raised him up “in order to demonstrate my power in you, and so that my name might be proclaimed throughout the earth” (9:17, quoting Exod 9:16), concluding, “so then, he has mercy on whom he wishes, and he hardens whom he wishes” (9:18).
This line of argumentation is hardly reassuring to those concerned about the implications of God arbitrarily choosing to save some and condemn others, and Paul anticipates another objection: “Why then does he still find fault? For who has resisted his will?” (9:19). This is the question that leads to the potter/clay metaphor, typically translated something like this:
On the contrary, who are you, O human, who answers back to God? The molded thing will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and make his power known, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…”
This response has frequently been read not as a rebuttal of the accusation that God is arbitrary but rather as a defense of God’s right to arbitrary choice. In this reading (reflected in the typical English translation above), rather than challenging the idea that God is unjust because he arbitrarily chooses who to save and who to condemn, the argument is that such standards of justice and injustice do not apply to God, who has the sovereign right to declare whatever he chooses to be justice. Since God is the potter, he has the right to choose to make clay vessels simply to smash them to show his power over them.
Such logic, however, would be surprising given Paul’s emphasis on God’s just judgment in Romans 2, where he argues that God “will render to each one in keeping with what they have done” (2:6), “for God does not show favoritism” (2:11). Although the possibility that Paul was sometimes self-contradictory cannot be ruled out, in this case the fault lies with modern interpreters, who have not adequately followed the logic of Paul’s argument in Romans 9. (Note: If you’re interested in the more technical details of this discussion, I encourage you to read the fuller explanation in my recent article with Harvard Theological Review, “Vessels of Wrath and God’s Pathos: Potter/Clay Imagery in Rom 9:20–23.” It’s open-access and available for download by all!)
The problem is that modern interpreters have assumed that Paul cites the pottery metaphor to illustrate God’s absolute sovereignty and power over humanity (represented by inanimate clay). But if this is what Paul meant, it is strange that he would have chosen clay as his example because even today clay has a reputation for being especially difficult to work with. Modern master potters, for example, regularly talk about how clay “has a mind of its own.” In other words, rather than representing a creative process involving imposing one’s will on an inanimate object, working with clay is an art form that requires a dynamic process of planning and improvisation. And thanks to the force generated by the spinning of the wheel, the clay feels as though it’s “pushing back” against the shaping hand of the potter, making it an especially suitable metaphor for the human response to the divine hand.
All this is helpful background for the metaphor, but is there any evidence that Paul was thinking along these lines? Yes! First of all, Paul’s appeal to God’s “patience” is peculiar—what would it mean to “patiently endure” a clay pot? But in the context of referring to shaping unformed clay, the concept of patience does make sense, as patience by definition refers to situations in which one is not getting exactly what one wants.
Secondly, Paul is not inventing this metaphor from thin air; he’s borrowing an analogy widely used in the Hebrew Bible and early Jewish literature. The longest and most famous of these is found in Jeremiah 18, where God tells the prophet to go watch a potter at work in order to receive a prophetic word. Jeremiah then observes the clay become misshapen in the potter’s hands, at which point the potter balled it up again and started over again, making it into something else. At that point, God says, “can I not deal with you in the same way as the potter,” declaring that God’s decisions are not unilateral but change based on human responsiveness.
Thirdly, it turns out that the specific language Paul employs in this passage does not mean what the above English quotation says. In brief, instead of “endure,” the word Paul uses is better understood as referring to the process of “producing” the vessel. And where it is often translated “prepared for destruction,” the word rendered “prepared” instead means something closer to “reshaped.” Finally, “for destruction” does not necessarily mean the destruction of the vessel but can also refer to the creation of a destructive vessel—something used for destruction of other things. Putting that all together, the passage is better rendered as follows:
Or does the potter not have a right over the clay to make from the same lump a vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable? And if God produced with much patience vessels of wrath reshaped for destruction…
This reading presents a very different picture of God. Rather than arguing that God does indeed create people for the purpose of their own eternal damnation, Paul provides a surprising answer to the question “who has resisted his will?” Far from presenting God as impassive and irresistible, Paul suggests that humanity has regularly and flagrantly resisted God, who nevertheless patiently integrates human responses into the process, reshaping stubborn clay to produce the best possible outcome, at which point the clay is “hardened” (Rom 9:18).
By appealing to the potter/clay metaphor, Paul therefore argues for a dynamic divine/human relationship and explains how God’s sovereign choice does not obviate human responsibility or contradict God’s justice as established earlier in Romans. In the process, Paul presents a God of pathos, a God who can be impacted by humanity, a God who suffers—a God whose nature and character corresponds to the suffering and crucified messiah Paul proclaims as Lord.