I thought this would be a fun topic for a blog post because Michael and I have had some good interaction on the subject. In this first post, I want to present the three positions that scholars on Paul have taken in answering this question of how Paul thought all Israel would be saved. So that the reader will know where I’m going, I state up front that I hold to the third view. In my next post, I will provide the main lines of justification that convince me that this view is correct, while acknowledging the helpful insights of the other two views for understanding the broader section of Rom 9–11.
Some readers of the Bible may not realize the options that are available to interpreters when approaching Paul’s expectation of the eventual salvation of a group he calls “all Israel” in Rom 11:26. This was sort of a none question in the church where I first began to study the Bible theologically. It was a very popular-level dispensational church where “Israel always means Israel.” However, it doesn’t take too much critical reading to realize that this is not actually the case. There are numerous instances in the NT where authors apply OT passages about the nation of Israel to Jesus and his people, the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. So, simplistic answers that avoid engagement with Paul’s context and the views of scholars cannot be taken for granted.
Survey of Interpretations
In the history of interpretation, there are basically three positions that interpreters have advanced. I have actually held each of these at one time or another, so I’m happy to say that I have almost certainly been right at one time or another! (unless there is another possibility that I am unaware of) Each of these positions is founded on valid observations from the larger context of Rom 9–11, so each needs to be considered carefully.
(1) The Church View: Some have taken “all Israel” as the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles, who in this age are being gathered into the fold of God’s saved people in Christ. This has been the view of notable interpreters in church history, such as John Calvin (although he seems to hold it in concert with the third view). The most prominent proponent of this position today is N. T. Wright (see his Romans commentary in the New Interpreters Bible, The Climax of the Covenant, and Paul and the Faithfulness of God). The primary basis for this position is that in Rom 9:6–8 Paul explicitly says that one’s ethnicity is not what makes one “Israel.” Rather, one is a descendant of Abraham not on the basis of such fleshly considerations, but according to promise. Elsewhere Paul says that all, both Jews and Gentiles, are Abraham’s children—i.e., true “Israel” (e.g., Rom 4:12, 16; Gal 3:7–9, 29; Gal 6:16). Moreover, Paul goes on in Rom 9:24–26 to identify both Jews and Gentiles who have been called effectually into Christ as the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophetic expectation of Israel’s restoration after covenant judgment. So, it would be quite consistent if Paul has this same notion of Israel in mind in Rom 11:26. It is also noted that Paul’s Greek in Rom 11:26—and in this way (καὶ οὕτως) all Israel will be saved—isn’t normally used in a temporal sense (“and then”), but instead it suggests that the context is concerned with the way God will keep his salvific promises to Israel. Thus, v. 25 says that Israel has been hardened so that the fullness of the Gentiles will come into the covenant, v. 26 then says this is how Israel will be saved, that is, through the salvation of the new Israel, the church made up of Jew and Gentile in Christ. However, this view is not widely held by interpreters of Paul because, I think, it neglects the flow of Paul’s argument in Rom 11, which we will discuss on the next post. It seems to suggest that since Paul identifies Israel as the church in some sense in Rom 9:6ff, he cannot employ an ethnic definition of Israel later in Rom 11, even though the broader context Rom 9–11 is concerned with the apparent discrepancy between Paul’s Gospel and the small number Jews who have embraced Jesus as Messiah (Rom 9:1–7; 10:1–4; 11:7; etc). As I will try to show in the next post, Paul’s discussion of God’s faithfulness to Israel, which is the undisputed subject taken up in Rom 9–11, is complex and cannot be subjected to the kind of reductionism this view seems to be guilty of (as I too used to be guilty of, and which my friend, Mr. Metts still is!).
(2) The Remnant View: Another view makes much of the more of the immediate context of the earlier part of Rom 11, where Paul says God has kept his promises to ethnic Israel, Abraham’s physical descendants, by saving a remnant in his day, as God had done in the time of Elijah, and of which Paul himself is evidence (vv. 1–6). Thus, just as God in Paul’s age had saved a remnant, he will continue to extend saving grace to a remnant of ethnic Israelites throughout this age, and this is how all Israel is saved. Although this view seems to have strong contextual support, it is rarely advanced by scholars whose expertise is Pauline exegesis. Well-known advocates of this interpretation include Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, O. Palmer Robertson, and Herman Ridderbos. The most recent scholarly treatment that takes this position which I have been able to find is an article by Ben L. Merkle (“Romans 11 and the Future of Ethnic Israel,” JETS 43/3 : 709-21). Like the previous view, this one is founded on a valid observation in Paul’s answer to the ‘elephant in the room’ problem of Israel with his Gospel. However, this view too, I believe, ultimately proves to be an insufficient explanation of Paul’s argument as it progresses through the chapter.
(3) The Ethnic View: The final view is that the salvation of “all Israel” in Rom 11:26 reflects Paul’s belief in a future large-scale conversation of ethnic Israelites to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Least those skeptical of this view object too quickly, it needs to be noted that this is not a view unique to dispensationalists. In fact, there are prominent theologians and commentators from every theological tradition who have strongly advocated this position. So, this is not an interpretation that commits one to the distinctives of dispensationalism, unless we want to label folks like the great Reformed theologian John Calvin, the editors of the Geneva Bible, or the great Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer as dispensationalists. In addition, this is the view you will find most often advanced in the standard commentaries by Bruce, Cranfield, Dunn, Jewett, Longenecker, Moo, and Schreiner, just to name a few. Also, the work of J. Ross Wagner should be mentioned here, because he has done extensive and influential work on this question and lands on this view. When I first began studying the Bible theologically, this was my default position because I was in a very dispensational church. Eventually, I embraced the first position because of the force of Rom 9:6ff. However, due to some continuing research and study, as well as an exegetical course in seminary on Romans, I began to favor the second position, but only for a short time. Then, when this topic came up during a class I had on the historical Jesus with Darrell Bock, he put some challenging questions to my exegesis that made me go back to the drawing board and think through Paul’s argument more carefully. This brought me back full-circle to this third view, but without some of the theological baggage of my former dispensational assumptions.
In my next post, I’ll explain what specifically has led me to come back to embracing the view that Paul believed in a future mass conversion of ethnic Israelites.