At the end of Paul’s closing arguments about what God is up to in the world in Romans 9-11, he breaks into doxology. He bursts out: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To Him be glory forever, Amen.” (Rom. 11:33-36)
In other words, Paul thinks that this whole business is amazing, mind blowing, and absolutely wonderful. Of course some might accuse Paul of covering for a lack of argument with a rhetorical flourish, but an examination of his argument along with the testimony of many others confirms that this is genuine astonishment and worship and not just a pious platitude.
One way of examining Paul’s case is through the objections of modern skeptics.
Greta Christina, author of the article The Top 10 Reasons I Don’t Believe in God, gives as her first answer: “The consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones.” She writes: “When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller. Why the Sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightening come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents… all these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the explanations based on religion were replaced by ones based on physical cause and effect.” She continues and asks: “The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural one? Exactly zero. Sure people come up with new supernatural ‘explanations’ for stuff all the time. But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? … Again – exactly zero.”
Christina’s objection to the existence of God is a common one. Many of the students I talk to on campus on a regular basis have a similar testimony: I grew up in the Church, professed faith in Jesus, but when I came to college I found out that I don’t need God for morality, and science provides a better explanation for the world than God or religion. Christopher Hitchens makes a similar claim in his book God is Not Great. He writes: “All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule… there would be no such churches [attempting such reconciliation] in the first place if humanity had not been afraid of weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse, and all manner of things now easily explicable” (64-65).
This objection is actually not far removed from the question that Paul begins wrestling with in Romans 9. The connection between what Paul is explaining and modern objections against the existence of God has to do with history. Paul has just finished a lengthy defense of Jesus as the fulfillment of all the covenant promises to Abraham in the Old Testament. He has just finished insisting that this means that nothing can separate anyone from the love of God who is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39). But this leads to the obvious question about all the Jews that did not believe in Jesus. Haven’t they been separated from the love of God? Aren’t they in the process of leaving His love? Aren’t they on a trajectory of judgment?
Paul says that he has great anguish about this. He says he wishes he could be cursed and cut off for their sake (Rom. 9:3). But the skeptics might reply that that’s very courageous and noble of Paul, but the fact remains that it seems like the word of God has failed. God said things were one way but history is proving otherwise. And this is really the same objection that modern atheists and skeptics bring against faith in God based on naturalism or science. Ancient men believed that certain things happened because of the gods, because of religion, because of magic, but we have since figured out that the world follows scientific laws. Human beings are part of the great cosmic process, and as material creatures, they function and live just like everything else on the planet. They are affected by their environment, by their diet, by the climate, by sociological and political factors.
The story of ethnic peoples and tribes and civilizations can be explained naturally, and here is another instance of a natural explanation supplanting the supernatural. The Jewish religion followed by the Christian religion were attempts at explaining sociological and psychological and political trends and events with supernatural explanations which we now know are just easily accountable evolutionary and anthropological realities. It’s what highly evolved chimpanzees do under these circumstances.
See, Paul? God’s word can’t be trusted. You can’t reconcile religion and science. It’s doomed to fail. But Paul refuses to admit this and strenuously objects. He says, “It is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Paul’s appeal is in the first instance back to history, back to the actual data. He says in fact, it has never been the case that all of Israel believed and remained in covenant with God. There has always been a line of promise beginning with Isaac and then Jacob, continuing through the Exodus all the way to the present. God’s word has always explicitly declared this. The fact that some have rebelled, some have left the covenant, some have come under judgment, some have not believed is in no way a contradiction to the Word of God. In other words, there is nothing to reconciled here between God’s word and the actually facts of history.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. Paul says, not only that, not only are the facts in keeping with the word of God, but he has the audacity to claim that this winnowing process, these facts have always been the activity of God throughout history. Not only has history proven the word of God, but Paul insists that it was the Word of God ensuring that every event, every fact, all the historic data matched. God has mercy on whomever He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whomever He wills (Rom. 9:18). It doesn’t depend on human will or exertion but on God who has mercy. While our atheist and skeptic friends are freaking out and getting ready to drop their problem-of-evil bombs, Paul beats them to the punch by saying, yes, that means that God is the Potter; He’s the great Story-Teller, and He is orchestrating all of it.
Paul knows that the come back will be the immediate objection that this makes God evil; it makes Him unjust. How can He find fault for who can resist His will? But Paul says “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” In other words, the skeptics in Paul’s day and the skeptics in our day insist that God be defined as part of our system. They insist that God be put in a test tube; they insist that He be subject to our demands. But this is like insisting that in order for human beings to exist that one must show up at 3:30 in the afternoon on the moon. And then when you adjust your telescope pointing it at the moon and find no human beings waving back, you triumphantly declare that human beings don’t exist. In other words, when you define the parameters by which the Infinite God and the supernatural must exist by insisting they become natural and finite, you have defined them out of consideration. If you say you honestly would like to find any evidence of the existence of birds, and then as a criteria you insist that you will not consider any data that includes flying or feathered creatures, you are not being honest or open minded or scientific at all.
Part of Paul’s case is found in the conclusion of chapter 9 that the Gentiles have attained justice by faith, and the Jews who should have found the same justice didn’t because they did not pursue it by faith but instead by works: And Paul summarizes by saying that they stumbled over the stumbling stone (Rom. 9:30-33).
This is a curious quotation of the Prophet Isaiah, and it comes in the broader context of the prophet proclaiming judgment on many of the surrounding nations around Israel, culminating in a promise of judgment on the whole earth. Then, in the midst of the empty and desolate world, Isaiah promises that God will set a feast on a mountain and there He will swallow up death forever and wipe away tears from all faces and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth (Is. 25:6-8). The promise of coming peace continues in Isaiah 26 and then chapter 27 announces that in that day the Lord will slay the dragon, Leviathan in the sea, and the verses that follow are all about a new Exodus where God’s people will return to the land of Promise. In other words, what Isaiah says is that the solution to human sin and violence and destruction is supernatural. The central problem is death. The central problem is the dragon of old who deceives men and women. This is part of the historic data; this must be part of any honest evaluation of the evidence.
It’s in this context that Isaiah says that God is laying a new foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone – and Paul quotes the Septuagint which calls it a stone of stumbling. And this fits the context since in the following verse Isaiah says that the Lord is stretching a plumb line from that corner stone and God is about to measure everyone by that line of righteousness. Either the people will believe and embrace the new foundation or else they will be scattered. The following chapter is all about the coming siege on Jerusalem in 586 B.C. – which Paul probably suspects is coming yet again, anticipating 70 AD.
And just a couple verses later Isaiah says: Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, He did not make me, or the thing formed say of him who formed it, He has no understanding? … In that day, the deaf shall hear, the eyes of the blind shall see, the meek shall obtain joy in the Lord (Is. 29:16-20). In other words, skeptics have been saying the same thing for millennia. Skeptics want to say that there is no potter. There is no author. There is no artist, no composer, no God. And when pressed, the answer is always the same: there is no evidence of the potter here in this clay. All I see is clay; and when I insist that the potter be measured and analyzed as clay, nothing happens. There’s only always clay.
For Hitchens and Christina and other skeptics of their ilk to demand that God come down and do a little turn on the catwalk of their science experiment is the height of pride and folly. If God could be beckoned He would be no God. This is to demand that God be clay. But God is the Potter; He is not the clay. To object to the existence of God because you can’t test Him is like objecting to the existence of a Painter because he isn’t made of paint or like denying the existence of an Author because He isn’t made out of paper and ink.
But we hasten to add that one time God did come when He was sought. The Potter came and freely lived among the clay and took on the clay of human flesh. He was found by a regiment of fearful soldiers in a garden late at night. He was lied about, falsely accused, beaten, and then nailed to a Roman cross and died like all clay dies. But because He was not merely clay, because He was also the Potter, when he died, He swallowed up death forever, He rose victorious over death. Clay can’t defeat death. Clay can’t swallow up death. But the Potter can. Jesus is the stone that causes stumbling because He is the rambunctious Son of the Living God. He is the Child who plays with dragons and crushes their heads when He’s finished. He causes stumbling precisely by being the Sovereign one. His central act of defiance is His refusal to stay dead which defies all the laws of science, which defies all the laws of clay.
The sovereignty of man gives us small minds and hard hearts and certain death. But the sovereignty of God gives us a story that is worth reading and hearing and telling again and again. There are horrors and evil deeds and suffering wound through it all, and our God wrote every word. But why has He done it? Paul says He consigned all to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all. He breaks pottery in pieces so that He may make it again. He brings the proud low so that He may exalt them. This is what it means to walk by faith. This is the righteousness of faith: to trust in God our Maker and so not be put to shame.
These are the depths of the riches of the wisdom of God. This is good news that God is not clay. God is the potter.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.