The Meaning of “All Israel Will Be Saved” in Romans 9-11

st. paul1Lou Verrecchio, author of the popular Harvesting the Fruit blog wrote a post on the Second Vatican Council document intended to redefine the relationship of the Church with the Jewish people, Nostra Aetate. He rightly criticized an interpretation of the document by Swiss Cardinal Koch, who, in a recent speech celebrating its 50th anniversary suggested rather clearly that Jews who have rejected Christ as the Messiah may still find a pathway to salvation:

“That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.”

Lou points out how unbiblical such a notion is, as well as contrary to Catholic teaching regarding salvation. In a follow-up post, Lou attempts to clarify a passage from Romans 11:25-27 where St. Paul emphatically states that “all Israel will be saved”:

Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

Lou does not believe that this points to either a future conversion of the Jews or that somehow unbelieving Jews will find a path to salvation. He sees the phrase “all Israel” as a reference to the Church as a whole, including believing Jews. He references Romans 9:6-8 to prove his point:

“For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants.”

The “children of the promise”, not the flesh, is what is meant by “all Israel”; Lou explains:

“…it is clear that when St. Paul says that “all Israel will be saved,” he is not referring to those among ‘Abraham’s stock’ (his descendants in the flesh) who reject Christ and the New Covenant; rather, he is speaking of Abraham’s spiritual descendants through faith.”

Lou’s is a misinterpretation of both Romans 9:6-8 and 11:25-27!

The context of Romans 9:6-8 is a defense of God’s elective privilege by St. Paul. In the verse that follows Paul explains that the promise that Sarah would bear a son is meant to imply that Hagar’s son, Ishmael, is not included as part of Abraham’s stock. He also uses another example, that of Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau; God preferred one but not the other. Notice that Paul is still exclusively referring to the Hebrew race in contradistinction to the Gentiles. It was to Abraham that the messianic promise was given, but God retained the electoral right to choose who among his related descendants are the bearers of that promise.

Throughout Romans 9-11 Jews and Gentiles are presented as separate entities. The notion that the Church represents the “new Israel” is indeed consistent with Catholic teaching and is supported by many other passages of the New Testament, but it is not the subject  of Romans 9-11. The focus here is on the conundrum of the ultimate fate of unbelieving Jews. In the analogy Paul presents in the verses preceding this text, his reference to tree branches, the gentiles represent the wild olive branch that was grafted onto the the tree and the Jews, the original cultivated branch that, though cut off, could later be grafted back on. They are presented as separate entities, eventually unified by being grafted onto the same tree. Being re-grafted back on the tree is what Paul is anticipating and hoping to happen soon for the Jews.

There is a prophetic characteristic  to this expectation of the conversion of “all Israel”; it will not happen until after “…the full number of Gentiles come in”, a clear reference to a future (eschatological) event. “All Israel”, then, points to a to a future generation of believing Jews, and will include diaspora Jews. At that point in the future they will convert, as a whole, to the Christian faith.

When you read Romans 9-11 you will see that it was clearly a heart-rending writing experience for St. Paul, who lamented a “hardening” that had come over his own people. Paul, unfortunately, probably had the expectation for this conversion to happen in his own lifetime. Alas, almost 2000 years later, the rejection of their Messiah, the “hardening”, for most Jews, sadly continues.

…rjt

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