This note will briefly examine Paul’s use of the word gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”) in Romans 11:33.
This verse begins the doxology (vv. 33-36) that concludes the famous section of Romans spanning chapters 9-11. I have discussed the theme and structure of this section in an earlier article, along with a special note on Rom 11:26 in context. This analysis may be summarized in the following outline:
- Chapter 9—Paul’s confession (Rom 9:1-5)
- Chapter 10—Paul’s confession (Rom 10:1-4)
- Chapter 11—Paul’s appeal (Rom 11:1-6ff)
The opening verses of each section, with their personal and moving tone, lead into a presentation of arguments. The main issue at hand is how the Israelite/Jewish people relate to the new Christian identity.
9:1-5—Paul’s personal address: Israel (“they are Israelites…”, vv. 4-5)
9:6-13—Argument: Not all Israel is the true Israel.
9:14-33—Exposition: Three arguments, each beginning with a rhetorical question:
10:1-4—Paul’s personal address: The Law and justice/righteousness (vv. 3-4)
10:5-13—Argument: Justice/righteousness is realized in Christ.
10:14-21—Exposition: The Proclamation of the Gospel, and Israel’s response to it, in three parts:
11:1-12—Paul’s address (and argument): The People of God (“His people”, vv. 1ff)
11:13-32—Exposition: A Two-fold address to Gentile believers:
11:33-36—Doxology on the wisdom and knowledge of God
An important theme running through these chapters is the election of the people of God, which takes place according to God’s own sovereign but mysterious will. This is one aspect of knowledge (i.e. God’s knowledge of his People, etc) here in this section, and it is emphasized in chapters 9 and 11. The second aspect—the people’s knowledge of God and his truth, the promises made, etc.—is addressed primarily in chapter 10, and expounded again in the second half of chap. 11. Note the structure in this regard:
- Chap. 9: God’s knowledge of his people (Israel)—their election
- Chap. 11: God’s knowledge of his people (the true Israel, all Israel)—the election of Jews and Gentiles both
For many of the non-Jewish Christians in Paul’s audience—as for many today—the main difficulty lay in the idea that Israelites and Jews would eventually accept Christ, though they may refuse (or be unable) to do so at the present. Though some had ‘fallen away’, a large percentage, presumably, in Paul’s mind, would (soon) respond to the Gospel, as the end drew near. This point is made reasonably clear in verses 11-16, followed by his famous illustration of the olive tree, in which Jews and Gentiles both come to be “grafted in” to the holy tree of the People of God—the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ, being a principal theme of the entire letter, is given dramatic and climactic expression here. In verses 25-32 Paul powerfully states again two great points:
- Israelites and Jews, collectively, will come to faith, and the current “hardening” of their hearts and minds will be removed
- They will be united (in Christ) with the Gentile believers who have come to faith before them
This two-fold dynamic is expressed in the declaration: “and so all Israel will be saved” (v. 26). Paul refers to this as a secret (musth/rion), which he is making known to believers in his letter; and there can be no doubt that he also has this in mind when he opens the concluding doxology in v. 33:
“O the deep(ness) of the wealth and wisdom and knowledge of God!—how unsearchable (are) his judgments, and (how) untrackable (are) his ways!”
A citation of Isaiah 40:13 follows in vv. 34-35; it is a passage which Paul also quotes in 1 Cor 2:16 (cf. my note on this verse), specifically as part of his argument contrasting human wisdom with the wisdom of God. As Paul uses the Scripture, it is meant to show how far the “mind of God” surpasses and transcends our limited human understanding. In 1 Corinthians, the quotation is followed by the positive statement which applies to believers, somewhat paradoxically: “and (yet) we (do) hold the mind of Christ“. This last point is not emphasized in Romans, except perhaps implicitly, based on Paul’s line of discussion in the prior chapters, as well as in the basic idea that the “secret(s)” of God, hidden away from the world, are now made known to believers through: (a) the proclamation of the Gospel, and (b) the presence and work of the Spirit.
For the purpose of this series of articles, Romans 11:33 is especially instructive, within the context of Rom 9-11, in that it ties together several significant themes which will be discussed in some detail as we proceed:
- The connection between the knowledge of God and salvation
- That the (secret) will and knowledge of God is revealed, at least in part, to believers, and
- That the knowledge of God is closely connected with the idea of the predestined/predetermined election of believers (i.e the people of God)