The Vatican committee’s position paper bases it claim that Jews who do not believe in Jesus are nonetheless saved almost entirely on Rom 11:29, which is even quoted above the caption of the document.
(Rom. 11:29 ESV) 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
Now, obviously, if by “gifts” and “calling” Paul means “personal salvation,” the Catholic interpretation might carry some weight. So how does Paul really use these words?
The word translated “gifts” is, of course, charismata, which Paul uses in 1 Cor 12 and Rom 12:6 to refer to special gifts of the Spirit. But that is unlikely to be his meaning in this context. Rather, this is certainly a reference back to —
(Rom. 3:1-2 ESV) Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.
(Rom. 9:4-5 ESV) 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
In the thousands of years that God had been in covenant with the descendants of Abraham, he’s provided them with many things — gifts — that gave them an incredible advantage over the Gentiles.
There is a well-grounded consensus that τὰ χαρίσματα [ta charismata] (“the gifts”) refers back to the formal list of Israel’s divinely bestowed attributes in 9:4–5.
Robert K. Jewett and Roy D. Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary on the Book of Romans (Hermeneia 66; ed. Eldon J. Epp; Accordance electronic ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 708.
… Paul is not referring to natural endowments of any kind. He is speaking rather of the gifts he has listed in 9:4–5. Israel was a special people and had special gifts accordingly, gifts like covenants, adoption, and the like which are not to be thought of as individual or racial endowments.
Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 424.
Of course, there is nothing in this list of gifts that makes each Jew necessarily saved even without faith in the Messiah. In fact, Paul explained earlier that these very gifts make the Jews subject to greater accountability for having greater advantages —
(Rom. 5:20-21 ESV) 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The gift of the Law increased sin, due to greater accountability, due to greater knowledge of God’s will. God made up for this by providing the Jews with greater grace (through faith, as explained in chapter 4).
Later, Paul picks up this theme to put a new twist on it —
(Rom. 10:12 ESV) 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.
The Jews received God’s gifts — which are irrevocable — but now God bestows “riches” on both Jews and Gentiles without distinction. “Riches” is, of course, a stronger word than “gifts.” And surely Paul’s point is plain. The Gentiles are now full participants in God’s generosity on the same terms and with the same privileges as the Jews. Through Jesus, God’s generosity has increased from gifts to riches — bestowed without racial discrimination. The Jews are no longer privileged as compared to the Gentiles, but they now receive blessings that far exceed what they enjoyed before the gospel was opened to the Gentiles.
When we read “calling,” our theological ears have been trained to hear the term in Calvinist or Arminian terms. That is, we desperately want “calling” to refer to God’s prevenient grace.
Now, many readers, especially those raised in the Churches of Christ, will not be familiar with this term. But Calvinists, classical Arminians (those who reject Calvinism), and Catholics agree that humans cannot come to faith in Jesus unless the Spirit first opens their hearts to receive the good news. This work of the Spirit on the not-yet-converted is called “prevenient grace.”
Calvinists teach that prevenient grace is irresistible and limited to the elect. That is, the Spirit opens the hearts of the elect to believe, and they will necessarily believe because God’s sovereignty will not be denied.
Arminians and Catholics teach that all who hear the gospel have their hearts opened but only some choose — as a matter of free will — to respond to the gospel.
The Churches of Christ have been highly influenced by the work of Alexander Campbell, who in response to Calvinism denied prevenient grace entirely, believing that humans have free will to accept or reject the gospel message because they are made in the image of God — a fallen image admittedly but not so fallen as to be unable to believe.
Catholics and Calvinists would call Campbell’s view Pelagian (a heresy) and the views of classical Arminians and Catholics semi-Pelagian, that is, half-heretical. Neither term is spoken in a particularly kind way.
Of course, it’s hard to see much practical difference between the Arminian view and Campbell’s view. Both conclude that all who hear the gospel are able to respond if they so choose. But the impact of Medieval Scholasticism and the Fourth Century debates between Augustine and Pelagius is such that the Catholics made this into a damning distinction, and many Calvinists have adopted the Catholic attitude.
As a result, we all have a tendency to read “calling” through either Augustinian or Calvinist eyes, believing that the question to be answered is the question posed in these ancient debates that post-date the NT by centuries. And yet, on reflection, it seems very unlikely that Paul wrote this passage to either support or refute debates they came centuries later. We should rather place Paul and Romans in their own historical context, and give no further thought to the niceties of prevenient grace and such like — not until we’ve first sorted out what Paul’s would have meant in the middle of the First Century.
Now, having said that, I’m not saying that the Bible does not speak to Calvinist issues. In fact, it does, but only incidentally. Calvinism is not the question Paul was dealing with in Rom 11. And until we understand what Paul was saying, we really can’t deal with the incidentals.