This summer I’ve been making my way through a number of works on eschatology, including Sam Storms’ new book, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative. In Kingdom Come, Storms defends the teaching of covenant theology, making the common claim that the church of Jesus Christ is “the true Israel in and on behalf of whom all the Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled.” One of his arguments for covenant theology is Paul’s use of Hosea in Romans 9:25-26.
In Romans 9:24 Paul writes that God has called individuals unto salvation “not from among the Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.” Continuing in Romans 9:25-26, the apostle then quotes the Old Testament, writing:
“As He says also in Hosea, ‘I will call those who were not My people, “My people,” and her who was not beloved, “beloved.” And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, “You are not My people,” there they shall be called sons of the living God.’”
In these two verses, Paul is specifically quoting Hosea 2:23 (in Rom 9:25) and Hosea 1:10 (in Rom 9:26) in reference to the Lord calling vessels of mercy from among the Gentiles in the present age. In their original context in Hosea, however, these verses speak of God’s restoration of ethnic Israel in the last days. According to Storms and other covenant theologians, this is clear evidence that the church is the true Israel of God and that all the OT promises of Israel’s restoration are fulfilled in the church in the present age.
Although I can certainly appreciate the logic and simplicity of this argument, a more careful consideration of Paul’s use of Hosea shows that Romans 9:25-26 cannot be used as a proof text for covenant theology. To explain what I mean, it may be helpful to consider the three most common views of how the OT is being used in the NT in this passage.
The Reinterpretation View
The first view is aforementioned argument of covenant theology—that Paul has reinterpreted the Hosea passages and provided their true meaning in Romans 9. This approach was advocated by George Eldon Ladd, who claimed that “the New Testament frequently interprets Old Testament prophecies in a way not suggested by the Old Testament context.” For this reason, such interpreters say that not only should we accept the NT writer’s interpretation as the true interpretation of the OT passage in question, but we should also take that same hermeneutical approach with similar OT prophecies. As Ladd explains:
Paul deliberately takes these two prophecies about the future salvation of Israel and applies them to the church. The church, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, has become the people of God. The prophecies of Hosea are fulfilled in the Christian church. If this is a “spiritualizing hermeneutic,” so be it…. It is clearly what the New Testament does to the Old Testament prophecies.
The main problem with this view is a hermeneutical one. In their original contexts, the clear antecedent of the “people” in Hosea is the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. There was no other meaning available to the original hearers or readers of these passages. Likewise, there was no other possible meaning available to faithful Jews until Paul’s epistle to the Romans 700 years later. Put bluntly, the reinterpretation view abandons the original authorial intent of the passages in Hosea in favor of a new and different meaning that was hidden from the readers of the Old Testament until the first century A.D.
To some, this is not a problem. But others will find it very difficult to accept a hermeneutical approach which denies the perspicuity of the Old Testament and insists that the original readers of Hosea were left in the dark regarding the true meaning of God’s promises. In His Word, God’s intention is to reveal truth, not to conceal it. It is difficult to embrace a view which implies that much of the Old Testament was intended to be a mystery to its original audience and subsequent generations, at least until new light was provided hundreds of years later.
Another difficulty with this view is that it appears to flow out of the untested assumption that whenever a NT writer cites the Old Testament, he must be setting forth its divinely intended meaning. Some who make this assumption have never considered any alternatives—and have never considered the variety of ways that the OT is used in the NT—and in this way they have failed to appreciate the complexity of the issues involved in the use of the OT in the NT. [For a helpful introduction to this difficult subject, read this essay or listen to this seminar, both by Michael J. Vlach.]
The “People” = Israel View
The second view is to say that, in the flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 9, he applies the Hosea passages not to the salvation of Gentiles, but rather to the salvation of Jews. In other words, according to this view, the word “people” in Paul’s quotations of Hosea in Romans 9 refers exclusively to ethnic Israel just as it did in its original context in Hosea. In this way, Paul’s use of the Old Testament is seen as one in which he interprets the passages according to the normal grammatical-historical method and then appropriately applies that meaning to the calling of Jewish vessels of mercy. According to John Battle, “this approach has the distinct asset of taking Hosea’s prophecy at face value and maintaining complete harmony between Hosea and Paul.”
In contrast, however, there are two indications in the immediate context which tell us that Paul is indeed applying his quotations of Hosea to Gentiles. First, in Romans 9:24, the apostle speaks of God calling individuals “not from among the Jews only, but also from among the Gentiles.” Therefore, when Paul begins his quotations of Hosea in Romans 9:25, not only is the closest antecedent “Gentiles,” but he has also just emphasized the identity of the Gentiles by saying “not only Jews, but also Gentiles.”
Second, in Romans 9:27, Paul introduces further quotations from the OT with the words: “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel….” It makes good sense that Paul, having just quoted the OT in reference to Gentiles, would then introduce an OT quotation in reference to Israel by explicitly naming Israel in the way that he does. In this way, after stating that God has called vessels of mercy from among both Jews and Gentiles (v. 24), Paul quotes the Old Testament in reference to both groups, Gentiles in verses 25-26 and Jews in verses 27-29. In fact, as Douglas Moo points out, Paul’s quotations from Hosea are chiastically related to the final words of verse 24:
- A God calls Jews (v. 24)
- B God calls Gentiles (v. 24)
- B’ OT confirmation of God’s call of Gentiles (vv. 25-26)
- A’ OT confirmation of God’s call of Jews (vv. 27-29)
Then, starting in verse 30, he continues his discussion by contrasting the two groups he has just discussed. For this reason, it is unlikely that Paul’s use of Hosea in Romans 9:25-26 is a reference to God’s calling of ethnic Jews.
The Analogical View
There is a third view, however, which does more justice to the biblical data than the other two. Put simply, Paul’s use of Hosea in Romans 9:25-26 is best understood as analogical because the apostle is highlighting a point of correspondence between (a) the restoration of Israel from exile and judgment and (b) the calling of Gentiles from unbelief—“Just as God can bring Israel back from the dead, he can also call Gentiles to new life” (Scott Hafemann).
In other words, rather than setting forth a reinterpretation of Hosea, Paul is drawing a parallel between the future restoration of the Jews and the present salvation of the Gentiles for the specific purpose of highlighting the graciousness of God toward those who have no claim on His mercy. In this way, the apostle is underscoring a point of continuity between these two distinct situations without equating them or suggesting that one fulfills the prediction of the other. That point of continuity is the mercy of God toward those who are not His people and the calling of God to make them His people. As F.F. Bruce writes:
What Paul does here is to take this promise, which referred to a situation within the frontiers of the chosen people, and extract from it a principle of divine action which in his day was reproducing itself on a world-wide scale. In large measure through Paul’s own apostolic ministry, great numbers of Gentiles, who had never been “the people of God” and had no claim on his covenant mercy, were coming to be enrolled among his people and to be recipients of his mercy.
As Herman Hoyt observes, while Paul does apply promises of Israel’s restoration to Gentiles in Romans 9:25–26, he does so not to include Gentiles in his concept of “Israel,” but rather to explain something that is true of both the future restoration of Israel and the present salvation of Gentiles. To summarize:
In the original context these passages from Hosea refer to the spiritual restoration of Israel. But Paul finds in them the principle that God is a saving, forgiving, restoring God, who delights to take those who are “not my people” and make them “my people.” Paul then applies this principle to Gentiles, whom God makes his people by sovereignly grafting them into covenant relationship (Kenneth Barker).
There are several arguments for this understanding of Paul’s use of Hosea. First and most importantly, this view honors the integrity of the clear meaning of both Old Testament verses in their original contexts, while—at the same time—providing a reasonable explanation of how Paul used these verses to make a point in his own context. Furthermore, it provides an explanation of Paul’s use of the OT (analogical) which has precedent elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., see the use of Isaiah 53:4 in Matt 8:17; Deut 25:4 in 1 Cor 9:9; Ps 2:1-2 in Acts 4:25-26; Hos 11:1 in Matt 2:14-15; Jer 31:15 in Matt 2:17-18; and Deut 5:16 in Eph 6:2-3).
Second, the word translated “as” at the beginning of the introductory formula in Romans 9:25 is the particle hos, which often denotes comparison in the New Testament. This may suggest that the Hosea quotations in Romans 9:25–26 are analogous to the previous statement in verse 24 that God is calling Gentiles unto salvation. At the same time, however, it is difficult to be dogmatic about the significance of the introductory hos for two reasons: (1) nowhere else does Paul introduce an Old Testament quotation with hos, so there is no recognizable pattern of how he might be inclined to use the particle; and (2) the particle hos is used outside of Paul to introduce OT quotations that do not consist of an analogy.
Third, this interpretation is supported by “the absence of any referent in the introductory formula such as the explicit formula ‘concerning Israel’ found in 9:27” (Hafemann). And fourth, although Paul’s use of the Hosea passages basically follows the text of the Septuagint, his various modifications (e.g., he alters the verb “I will say” in Hosea 2:23 to “I will call” in Romans 9:25) suggest that he is adapting Hosea for his own purposes rather than simply reinterpreting the meaning found in the original context of Hosea.
Romans 9:25-26 cannot be used as a proof text for covenant theology.