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Romans 9.1 and Asyndeton

As I was reading Romans 9 recently I noticed that the chapter begins asyndetically—that is, without a conjunction or other marker to connect it with the preceding. This is fairly rare in Greek and, apart from its use in staccato-like commands and aphorisms, almost always means one of two things: either a total disconnect from the preceding or a connection so strong that it would be superfluous to add the conjunction.

Paul uses asyndeton at the beginning of a major paragraph nine times in Romans. In 2.17, 10.1, 11.33, and 13.8 it is obvious that the same topic is in view. (On a smaller scale, see 2 Tim 3.16—which obviously connects to the previous verse; cf. also Phil 4.4b.) In Rom 12.9, 13.8, 16.3, and 16.21 the connection is not as clear, though it is probably there in most of these instances. Romans 13.1 offers the most obvious break without connection with the preceding. We thus see Paul beginning new paragraphs in Romans both for rhetorical effect (at least four instances, and perhaps eight) and to indicate a complete switch in topic (at least one instance but as many as five).

Significantly, Paul’s use of asyndeton for rhetorical purposes often requires the readers to think through his argument and make the connection for themselves. For example, in Eph 5.22—the only major paragraph since 1.3 in Ephesians to begin without a conjunction—we read “Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord” (the reading of P46 B as well as Clement; Jerome also mentions that some MSS lack the verb here). Later MSS add the verb ‘be subject’ (D F G Byz Syriac), by picking up the participle in the preceding verse. This means that while v. 22 begins a new paragraph, it is still connected with the preceding conceptually (discussing submission), and almost lexically by the verb that must be supplied. The connection is thus quite subtle, but the connection is still there—so much so that the Nestle-Aland text begins a new paragraph with v. 21 instead of v. 22.

A similar thing is going on in Rom 9.1. Paul has just finished his hymn of assurance (8.35–39), letting genuine believers know that their salvation is secure because God always keeps his word. But a nagging question would have stuck in the craw of these readers: “How can we be certain that God will keep his word to us that nothing will ever separate us from the love of Christ if he didn’t keep his word to Israel?” The asyndeton that starts off the next section thus has a powerful rhetorical, though subtle, effect. Keeping this assurance to each individual believer is crucial if one is to grasp the full import of Rom 9.

Paul’s argument in Rom 9–11 is governed by his statement in 9.6: “it is not as though the word of God has failed.” The next three chapters demonstrate this thesis.

Although it is true that Paul is speaking of corporate election in chapter 9, this would give no comfort to the believers in Rome about their own salvation unless he was also speaking of individual election. (One piece of evidence that Paul is speaking both of corporate and individual election is that he uses individuals for his illustrations (Jacob vs. Esau, Moses vs. Pharaoh)—individuals who also represent nations.) A Christian in Rome would not be assured of his or her salvation if they thought that Paul was only speaking of corporate election because this tells them nothing about their own fate. The fact that Paul links the corporate promises to Israel to the individual belief of each Jew shows that for both covenants faith is the essential means of becoming the full beneficiaries of the promise.

And this means that eternal security is linked to unconditional election in Paul’s view since individual election is in view in Rom 9. Another way to state this is that Rom 9–11 is both about God’s promise to Israel and his promise to believers in Christ. This is why Paul interlaces throughout these three chapters statements about Gentile faith (Rom 9.23–26, 30, 33; 10.4, 5–13, 14–17; 11.17–23, 29). Indeed, so strong is the emphasis on individual faith that to ignore this theme is to miss the impetus for these chapters and its most relevant application to Gentile believers. In short, God’s promise of eternal security to the genuine believer in Christ is based on God’s elective purposes, his mercy and grace, and his sovereign choice. “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11.29) because “God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling” (Rom 9.11).

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8 comments on “Romans 9.1 and Asyndeton

  1. Reblogged this on Vanitas Vanitatum and commented:
    In the attention of theologians and exegetes!

  2. Reblogged this on Interpreting the Cosmos and commented:
    A splendid little observation on the relationship of individual election to assurance of salvation, through the lens of a technical observation of Paul’s Greek… COOL!

  3. Reblogged this on A Man from Issachar and commented:
    Reblogging from Daniel B. Wallace

  4. Amen.

    God chooses us. Not the other way around.

    “We are born NOT of the will of man…but of God.”

    (the gospel of John)

    It says so, right there. But the “free-will” folks will have none of it.

  5. Reblogged this on beliefspeak2 and commented:
    Here is some in-depth teaching from Daniel B. Wallace. This type of study I really enjoy since the teacher takes time to build the analysis through careful reading of the text using syntax. The resulting application and understanding is very solid because it is derived clearly from exegesis.

  6. It would seem that you assume that Paul must be reassuring Roman Christians of their individual election, thus the words must be interpreted as individual, i.e. circular logic. If I assume that the unspoken question of his audience after Chapter 8 is: “If God can allow Israel (corporately) to become separated from him. how do we know he won’t allow Christians (corporately) to become separated from him?”, then all of the words that you interpreted individually will appear to be corporate.

    • The problem with that view is that it offers no assurance to individual Christians, yet Rom 8.31-38 seems to do just that.

      • Yes, Romans 8;31-39 assures individual Christians that nothing can separate them from God, which is not the same thing as saying that they are not allowed to leave God of their own free will. The analogy to the election of Israel in Romans 9 is interesting, for Paul deals with the fact that all of Israel was elect as God’s chosen people, yet not all individuals were saved. That indicates that “election” is not synonymous with irresistible salvation. Israel was elect, yet the majority of the individuals in Israel rejected God. That is clear in Romans 9.

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