Simply Israel: Romans 11:26 Part IV

Derek Ouellette —  July 18, 2011

The arguments put forth in favor of interpreting “Israel” in Romans 11:26 as having a national ethnic fulfillment are quite compelling. What possible serious arguments could be mustered to the contrary? As I looked into these other arguments I discovered that there remains good reason to suppose that Paul had “all the people of God” in mind when he wrote Romans 11:26.

Here are what I believe to be the five most compelling reasons to interpret Romans 11:26 as meaning “all the people of God”.

Argument #1: “Until” and “And so” means “Up to” and “In this way”

The phrase “and so” (of verse 26) does not mean, “And then”. It is not a temporal designation. Rather it means, “And in this way”[1] or “and in this manner”. And the word “until” (in verse 25)

“brings matters “up to” a certain point or “until” a certain goal is reached. It does not itself determine the state of affairs after the termination.”[2]

So the passage should be understood as reading thus: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel,[3] until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way[4]all Israel will be saved”. A couple of points need to be observed here:

  1. A hardening has happened to “part” of Israel. When read as suggested above nothing in the text suggests that “part” of Israel will be unhardened.[5] Only that a hardening of part of Israel will remain “until” the end when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.[6]
  2. In what manner does “in this manner” refer? It refers to the full number of the Gentiles coming in. To paraphrase, “this is how all of Israel will be saved: when the full number of the Gentiles have been grafted into the vine we can speak of “all Israel” being completely saved.”[7]

Argument #2: A program of two Israel’s

It is not true that when Paul speaks of Israel in Romans 9-11 he has in mind specifically the nation of Israel as an ethnic people group consistently as R.C. Sproul and others have suggested.[8] In fact in response an observation made in the last post where I observed, “It seems unfathomable that Paul would change his use of “Israel” without warning in the span of only two verses”, N.T. Wright rebuttles,

“it is impermissible to argue that ‘Israel’ cannot change its referent within the space of two verses, so that ‘Israel’ in v.25 must mean the same as ‘Israel’ in v.26: Paul actually began the whole section (9.6) with just such a programmatic distinction of two ‘Israels’, and throughout the letter (e.g. 2:25-9) as well as elsewhere (e.g. Philippians 3:2-11) he has systematically transferred the privileges and attributes of ‘Israel’ to the Messiah and his people.”[9]

Argument #3: Be cautious with a lone passage

Craig Keener is being generous when he writes that “this is one of the few New Testament passages that [Paul] had occasion to address [the national restoration of Israel].[10] Paul had strong hopes for the salvation of his kin[11] and it seems to me that given the subject matter of Galatians-Romans, if Paul truly believed that in the end there would be a great ingathering of the nation of Israel, he had many occasions to make that claim. Yet this is the only verse in Paul’s writings where Paul supposedly says as much. Would not a wiser approach be to take everything else Paul has said on the subject of Israel and the Church and then apply it to this passage rather than to suppose that here alone Paul is saying something else, especially since the passage clearly reads that “the way” all Israel is saved is by the full inclusion of the Gentiles being grafted in? (See argument #1 above)

Argument #4: Paul assumes the covenant throughout

While it’s true that Paul only uses the word “covenant” twice in Romans (and amazingly only ten times total in all of his writings), Larry Helyer observes,

“This should not, however, lead to the inference that the idea of a new covenant community is of little or no importance to him. On the contrary, there are numerous indications that Paul’s theology assumes this concept as a fundamental substructure.”[12]

The covenants are so foundational to Paul’s thinking that when he uses terms like “blessing”, “cursing”, “Abraham”, “Seed”, “law”, “faith” and so on, he is explicitly working within a covenantal construct. James Dunn points out the Paul’s use of “covenant” in relation to Israel is not to speak of two covenants – one for Christians and one for the nation of Israel – but to affirm the one covenant given to “Israel” of which believers, “Jew first but also Gentile, [are] being given share in the covenant relationship of God with Israel”.[13]

Argument #5: “All” means “all”, not “most”

Every scholar I consulted who comes from a covenantal perspective and yet interprets Romans 11:26 to be a referent to national ethnic Israel have said that “all” does not mean all, but rather “all” means most.[14] In Romans 9:26 I don’t see any exegetical reason to think that “all” means “most” and good exegetical reason to suppose that “all” means all.

In v.25, rather than saying that “Israel” has been blinded Paul uses the adjective that only “part” of Israel has been blinded. He does this because many Israelites are being saved – using himself as an example – he does not want to give his readers the impression that no Jews are being saved. Now if “most” of Israel will be saved in the end, shouldn’t we suppose that Paul would for the precise same reason specify that “most” of Israel will be saved? I think that you have to conclude either a) that every last Jew living at the end times will be saved or b) “all Israel” is a reference to all the people of God. It does not seem that c) – that “all” means “most” – is an exegetical option for the reason just given.[15]

Now the point is often made to back up the statement that “all” means “most” by citing first century Jewish literature where it was commonly held among the various Jewish sects that “Israel” is typically qualified to not include every single Jew. For example, the Qumran community believed that they were true “Israel” and in the rabbinic tradition someone was not true Israelite if they did not believe in the resurrection from the dead. But this argument actually works to my favor because in Paul we see that a true Israelite is qualified as someone who believed in Jesus the Messiah, i.e. the ecclesia made up of Jews and Gentiles, the “Israel of God”. It follows then that when Paul says that “all Israel will be saved” he has a qualified understanding of “Israel” in mind to mean “those who are in the Messiah”. In this way he thus say “all Israel will be saved” while holding to his conviction that “not all Israel are Israel” (Romans 9:6).

Conclusions: I’m honestly taken back by some of these arguments because they are stronger than I first supposed. Still there are other arguments in favor of the view that “all Israel” means national Israel which are lingering in the back of my mind, and other arguments still in favor of the view that “all Israel” means “all the people of God”. I’m going to have to let this one linger for a while as I weigh the arguments, and not be overly dogmatic about it one way or another, but in the next post I’m just going to conclude with a few thoughts about what I have learned through this study.

[1] See the ESV rendering, “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved”.

[2] O. Palmer Roberson, The Israel of God, p.179

[3] NRSV rendering: “upon part of Israel”

[4] ESV rendering: “and in this way”

[5] This is the very point that Roberson makes.

[6] If this rendering is correct than this is exactly opposite to what many people are saying about this passage today, for this passage explicitly states that not all Israel will be saved.

[7] Note, this is not replacement theology. When the full number of Gentiles are grafted into the vine, I assume that the vine includes believing Jews already. Since v.25 makes the point that only “part of Israel” has been hardened, the other part must be a part of the vine, and when the full number of Gentiles joins them we can then speak of “all Israel being saved”.

[8] R.C. Sproul: “If Paul is referring to spiritual Israel, he is departing from the way he uses the term Israel here and in the preceding three chapters. Ever since chapter 8 Paul has been talking about ethnic Israel.” See his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p.379. This is obviously not true, Romans 9:6.

[9] N.T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, p.250

[10] Craig Keener in the IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament, p.438

[11] In fact, Paul says as much in the very portion of Romans we are discussing (Romans 9:3). One wonders why Paul would be willing to “cut [himself] off from Christ” for the sake of a people he believes will be saved in the end anyways?

[12] Larry R. Helyer, The Witness of Jesus, Paul and John: An Exploration in Biblical Theology, p.394

[13] James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, ©2005, p.444; unfortunately Dunn is mistaken in my mind when he writes, “the theme ‘covenant’ was not a central or major category within [Paul’s] own theologizing”. I don’t think Paul’s use of the word “covenant” should be determinative as to whether or not a covenant ‘theme’ is a central issue in Paul’s theologizing. When speaking of ‘themes’ one must look for elements within a subject – like ‘covenant’ – that is repeated thematically. Certainly covenantal themes are repeated thematically throughout Paul.

[14] Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, p.193. Here Riddlebarger interprets “all” to mean “vast majority”, but still believes that it is a reference to the nation of Israel, though it might not apply to some within that nation.

[15] That doesn’t mean one cannot argue that “all” means “most”, only that when considering Paul’s parallel use of an adjective in v.25 it seems exegetically preferred to assume that if “all” meant “most” that Paul would have used an appropriate adjective here as well.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Kyle Pitts

    Total agreement with your conclusion.

  • Brian MacArevey


    This was another really good post. There is really so much here for everyone to consider as we think about this text, and how we are to understand it. You make some real solid points against the reading of 11:26 as national Israel. One thing that the post made me see though is that I have some different beliefs about the text than those whom you were primarily concerned to critique. For example, I would agree with you that all means all, and I would also agree that there is no reason (in the text) to assume that there will be a large number of national Israelites who will come to Christ immediately preceding the second coming.

    The reasons that I agree with you though are two-fold. First, I think that this text is working on a corporate level, as opposed to an individual level. “All Israel”, then, would be a reference to Israel’s salvation as a national entity; not being concerned with the post-mortem destiny of individual Israelites. This brings me to my second reason. I actually do not see any reason in this text for presuming that the salvation to which Paul is referring has reference to a post-mortem judgment that is more or less simultaneous with the second coming; a final judgment, after which there is no further opportunity for un-hardening.

    The main place where I disagree with you (and even with N.T. Wright, who I respect very highly) appears to be with regard to the way that Paul speaks of the two communities of “Israel”. It is certainly true that Paul could have changed his referent, I just wonder if he actually did. It appears to me that Paul felt the need to go on and immediately explain his comment about the salvation of “all Israel” because, from the perspective of the gospel, they were “enemies”. It would seem strange to me if he were jumping right back to speaking of national Israel in this verse, after using the term Israel to refer to the church (as he does at other times). Does he then jump right back to referring to the church when he says that “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable”?

    I guess I’m wondering how you see the remainder of the chapter, especially how Paul can refer to national Israel as enemies, chosen, and beloved, all in verse 27. Or, do you think this refers to the church? But then, I wonder, in what sense are they enemies? I hope you know that I am honestly thinking along with you, and that you are giving me much to think about :)

    • Derek Ouellette

      Hey Brian, when in my conclusion I commented that “there are other arguments in favor of the view that “all Israel” means national Israel which are lingering in the back of my mind” I had exactly vss. 27f. in mind. So far I feel compelled to think that this passage refers to all the people of God, but I need to find time to study vss. 27f., and I continue to be open to change my mind. Stay tuned, I’ll probably implicitly refer back to your comment here when I address those passages, because they certainly do seem to refer back to the nation of Israel.

  • Alan Hawkins

    “All Israel” in the whole context means the natural and the grafted in branches. It really can mean nothing else. “In this way ALL Israel..” and with that simple understanding ALL really does mean ALL. It is certain to anyone who embraces covenantal theology that no Israelite who breaks the covenant by disbelieving in the Messiah(King) of the kingdom could possibly inherit the blessings of that covenant.

    This issue is made far too hard by conscience smitten Christian zionists who wish to atone for the history of others.

    I will come back and more thoroughly read the rest of these posts but I have looked at this issue for a very long time and only a little play on words makes any sense of it whatsoever.

    All Israel is all the branches in the Jesus tree. Yes all my Jewish roots are Jesus.

    Peace to all.

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