Charles Hodge on Romans 9:22

Those who side with the Apostolic critic in Romans 9:19 make much of the fact that the passive voice is used in the phrase, “vessels of wrath fitted for destruction.” They think the passive voice means that God is not the One who prepares them since Paul used the active voice in the phrase “vessels of mercy which he prepared before for glory.” So, Charles Hodge:

“This phrase admits of two interpretations. The passive participle may be taken as a verbal adjective, fit for destruction. This leaves undetermined the agency by which this fitness was effected. Comp. 2Co_10:10; 1Pe_1:8. In favor of this view is the change of expression adopted in 1Pe_1:23. Of the vessels of wrath, it is simply said that they are fit for destruction; but of the vessels of mercy, that God prepares them for glory. Why this change, if the apostle did not intend to intimate that the agency of God is very different in the one case from what it is in the other? Besides, as it is the object of the writer to vindicate the justice of God in these dispensations, it is specially pertinent to represent the vessels of wrath as fit for destruction in the sense of deserving it. The other interpretation assumes that the reference is to God, and that κατηρτισμένα has its full participle force; prepared (by God) for destruction. This is adopted not only by the majority of Augustinians, but also by many Lutherans and Neologists. This sense they say is demanded by the context. God is compared to a potter, who prepares one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor. So God prepares some for wrath and some for mercy. This, however, is not to be understood in a supralapsarian sense. God does not create men in order to destroy them. The preparation intended is that illustrated in the case of Pharaoh. God did not make him wicked and obdurate; but as a punishment for his sin, he so dealt with him that the evil of his nature revealed itself in a form, and under circumstances, which made him a fit object of the punitive justice of God” (Charles Hodge, Commentary on the epistle to the Romans, p. 321).

Chris: Hodge asks: “Why this change, if the apostle did not intend to intimate that the agency of God is very different in the one case from what it is in the other?” Not blanket-endorsing Cheung, but I think this is a good response (I’ll intersperse some commentary below in view of Hodge’s question):


“Fourth, reprobation is active. Many people claim that even if reprobation is scriptural and individual, it must nevertheless be a passive decree; however, Scripture teaches otherwise.

Paul writes that just as some are ‘prepared in advance for glory,” others are “prepared for destruction.’ Because of grammatical considerations but also their theological biases, many have suggested that perhaps ‘prepared for destruction’ is meant in the passive sense, so that it is as if the reprobates prepared themselves for destruction. However, a variation in expression does not always signify a variation in sense. For example, suppose I were to say, ‘I bought this book for myself; the other was bought for my friend.’ This does not mean that whereas I bought the first book, someone else bought the second one for my friend, or worse yet, the second book bought itself for my friend. The context clearly shows that I bought both books – one for myself, and the other for my friend.”

Chris: Hodge’s reasoning goes like this: “Why this change in expression, if Cheung did not intend to intimate that the agency is very different and either someone other than Cheung bought the book or perhaps the book bought itself for his friend?”

More from Cheung:

“The false interpretation seems to require the constant use of rigid expressions. Instead of saying, ‘I bought this book for myself, but the other was bought for my friend,’ I would be always required to say, ‘I bought this book for myself, and bought the other for my friend.’ William Strunk would have preferred the second version all the time, [47] but other than that, why must I submit to this requirement when the context is clear enough to determine the meaning, unless the interpreters do not want to accept the clear meaning?”

[47] William Strunk, Jr., E.B. White, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition; Allyn & Bacon, 2000; p. 18.

Chris: Hodge seems to demand that the Apostle use rigid expressions despite the clarity of who exactly is doing the “fitting,” given the context (Romans 9:11-22). Hodge does not want to accept the clear meaning. The context is clear enough to determine the meaning. In verse 21 Paul stated unabashedly that the Potter makes from the same lump vessels of dishonor. He makes the vessels of dishonor; He fits out the vessels for destruction. Then there is this parallel:

“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very thing I raised you up, so that I might display My power in you, and so that My name might be publicized in all the earth…’ But if God, desiring to demonstrate His wrath, and to make His power known, endured in much long-suffering vessels of wrath having been fitted out for destruction” (Romans 9:17, 22).

The above parallel shows that God fitted out Pharaoh for destruction. Pharaoh did not fit himself out any more than a pot makes itself; or any more than a book buys itself. Or, as Marc wrote to Lutheran heretic Steve Bobea, anymore than a ball throws itself.

Concluding Cheung’s comments:

“That said, the context of Romans 9 is as follows. Paul writes in verse 18, ‘Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.’ It does not say that the people harden themselves. Many want to make it say this, but it does not say it. Then, Paul writes in verse 21, ‘Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?’ Surely the pots do not make themselves! But this is the context that Paul gives us by which we must understand the expression, ‘prepared for destruction’ (v. 22)” (Vincent Cheung, Commentary on Ephesians, p. 27).

Chris: Well, at least some Calvinists will not say that pots are the exclusive makers of themselves. Matthew Poole admits that the pots do receive some help from the Potter:

“They are vessels of wrath, fitted to destruction; partly by themselves, and their own sensual courses; partly by God’s righteous judgment, who gives them up thereunto” (Matthew Poole on Romans 9:22).

Chris: Poole’s view would twist Paul’s analogy by having the Potter initially take up the unformed clay and place it upon the Potter’s wheel. But then the Potter walks away from the wheel, leaving the unformed clay to itself. Then somehow (mysteriously) that slab of clay manages to get that wheel a spinnin’, forming itself into a vessel (pot) of destruction. Now what began as unformed clay is now a pot of destruction.

Now is Poole’s pot going to say, “Why does the Potter yet find fault? For who resists the Potter’s will?” Is Paul going to respond to Poole’s pot by saying, “Shall the pot formed say to the Potter who formed it, why did You make me like this?” Of course not. Poole’s pot made itself; Poole’s potter did not make the pot like this. For while Poole’s potter appears superficially to have hands to make clay and to place it upon the wheel, yet he has no hands when it comes time to actually start forming the clay into the actual vessels (cf. Isaiah 45:9). Men like Poole and Hodge cannot make sense out of Romans 9:20:

“Yes, rather, O man, who are you answering against God? Shall the thing formed say to the One forming it, Why did You make me like this?”

Chris: Poole and Hodge say that the Potter did NOT make them like this. Charles Hodge writes in his commentary: “God did not make him wicked and obdurate.” But Paul’s objector is under the impression that God DID make him like this, and that is precisely why he objects. Both Hodge and the objector have a problem with God making a person wicked. Where they differ is that the objector understands Paul better than Hodge does and Hodge is trying to console the objector by saying that he has misunderstood Paul.

But Paul gives the figurative slap to the face of both Hodge and the objector by his response in Romans 9:21 that God has the sovereign right to make whatever kind of vessels He desires to make. The objector to Paul understands the loud and clear teaching that the vessels of wrath are fitted out by God for destruction. The objector responds that God cannot find fault with him if this be the case. Paul then asserts rhetorically the foolishness of a pot complaining of what the Potter has formed (created, made) it to be.

And lastly, here is a sermon (on Romans 9:22-23) quote by Samuel Davies (who was Jonathan Edwards’ successor as President of Princeton University, then known as the College of New Jersey):

“It is a criticism worthy to be mentioned, even in this solemn place, where I never choose to make a parade of useless learning, that the apostle uses a different form of expression, when speaking of these different sorts of persons. The preparation of the vessels of mercy for glory, he ascribes to God, as his work. Hence he uses an active verb, [I omit the Greek here–CD], referring expressly to God as the agent–the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory. But the fitting or preparing the vessels of wrath for destruction, he does not ascribe to God, but intimates that it is their own work. Hence he uses a passive particle–[Greek word I omit here–CD], the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction–fitted by their own wilful sin and impenitence, during the long-suffering of God towards them, which had a tendency to lead them to repentance” (Sermons of the Rev. Samuel Davies, p. 364-365).

Chris: Paul says, shall the thing formed say to Him who formed it, why did You make me like this? Davies says that He didn’t form them, it is their own work. Paul says that God has the right to do this. Davies says that God doesn’t even do it. Samuel Davies (like so many other apostolic critic, Sovereign-God-hating-sympathizers after him) makes much ado about Paul’s different forms of expression regarding the vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath. But it’s clear in the context of Romans 9 that things like the long-suffering of God that Davies perverts is a display of wrath and power in people like Pharaoh. The Passover story in the book of Exodus taken together with the relevant passages in Romans 9 show us that God’s long-suffering of and endurance of Pharaoh was for the purpose of demonstrating His power and wrath in Pharaoh.

But if God, desiring to demonstrate His wrath and make His power known, endured in much long-suffering Pharaoh, who was fitted out for destruction. God did not destroy Pharaoh and the Egyptians at the outset because He desired to multiply His wonders by sending plagues.

Contrary to Davies, the long-suffering of God toward Pharaoh is a demonstration of wrath. It is BECAUSE God desired to display His power and wrath in Pharaoh, THAT He endured him in much long-suffering.