The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Is Paul’s potter/clay analogy about freedom?

Hello all:

(PS - my actual question is down near the bottom!)

Had an interesting experience last weekend visiting my mom at my campus where I trained in Southern California. (LLU) There was an afternoon program called “Conversations with the Authors and the author interviewed was Richard Rice. You might know this name from the “Openness of God” discussion as he was one of the early men to expound this theology of God’s “limited” foreknowledge. He’s also written a book called “Believing, Behaving, Belonging”

in which he seeks to sustain the truth that our belonging (to the community of faith) necessarily comes before our behaving and our believing. (Often how we behave and what we believe have served as predicate for our belonging…) He suggest we have it entirely backwards and that behaving and believing come more easily and naturally if in the context of belonging.

After the presentation (all very interesting!) I got a chance to speak with Rice. I told him I admired his writing and thought and that they’d had an influence in helping me reach my convictions on Universal Reconciliation. (I guarantee you he did not expect his writings to have THIS effect on his readers!) I said that the truth that we all belong is crucial to the Christian faith given that we see all as created in the image of God. And given that Christ came and died to save all, this simply confirms that all belong. So this fit with my UR leanings big time. Then, given that God does not comprehensively see the future (as He sees the past) and yet seems so certain of the completeness of His Victory at the Cross and also in Revelation, this speaks to God’s intent – and yes promise! – to act unilaterally to save us until His purposes are realized. Which of course ALSO fits very well with the truth of Universal Reconciliation.

Well, he didn’t see this at all and preferred to go the “risk of human freedom” route. God respects our freedom to choose our own destruction kind of thing… And I blurted out that there are places in scripture where it seems God is not quite as concerned with what we view as “freedom” as we might imagine; for example Paul’s brief discourse on the unthinkability of the clay telling the potter what to do with him… Here’s the salient section of Romans 9 (longer context passage included below)

20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

Doesn’t this hint (I asked) a bit at the diminishment of what we commonly see as our “freedom”?? God doing as He pleases to effect our destiny and formation?

“Oh no!” Rice said (and this is what I’d like to ask the group about here) “This parable is about us being the right kind of clay.”

Here’s the rest of the relevant (well, the entire chapter and book are relevant here!!) passage…

So what do you think?? Is this passage about us “being the right kind of clay?”

I’m still skeptical: it seems to be about the fact that God does what He wants. Specifically v16 says it does NOT depend on our desire or effort or will – which presumably would be necessary for us to “be the right kind of clay”. And He does this to make His wrath and power and ultimately His Glory known! No hint here of “being the right kind of clay.”

Any thoughts??


“Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”

Verse 21 pretty much dispenses with the “right kind of clay” theory. :slight_smile:

Incidentally, one of the verses we’ll be debating tonight involves the vessels intended for destruction. The results should be posted throughout the week. I don’t want to spoil things, but I’ll be talking about that potter/clay analogy for most of my time on that topic. Human freedom isn’t denied (and is affirmed in some important ways); but no the analogy isn’t primarily about affirming human freedom, but about affirming God’s intentions and God’s competency to get done what He intends to do.

My Calv opponent will have no problem affirming the “God’s competency” part of course; but he has apparently missed the contextual point about God’s intentions. (Otherwise he’d be universalistic. :smiley:)

Heh. Sovereignty of God wins again! Things like this in scripture are precisely why I do not buy the free will argument.

In every case I have seen of someone arguing for man’s free will, it is (ultimately) to absolve God of a responsibility that He has already directly or indirectly claimed for Himself in scripture.

But neither am I advocating “Christian fatalism”. We do have a responsibility to play our part, and our level of cooperation makes the most difference to us. My experience has been that when I am not moldable, God simply reaches for the chisel. :laughing:

It appears to me that Paul is explaining what happens to the clay precisely in terms of God’s doing.

It never fails that when I ask people about scripture that seems to teach UR they always “add” words to the scripture. For instance Christ is potentially the savior of all men but actually only the savior of those that believe. If we were to add words to scripture we would be accused of being heretics. Oh wait, we are! :smiling_imp:

I HAD to answer this one, since I’m a potter myself :wink: , no matter how coherent my answer turns out to be . . .

The right kind of clay DOES make a difference, especially in the hands of an unskilled potter. Some clay is just really hard to work with. It may not be as malleable as desired and develop tiny cracks as I throw it on the wheel. I’ve been making pottery for nearly 20 years, mostly on the wheel, and the little cracks don’t make a lot of difference to me. I can make anything I want to from it.

If the clay is too soft, though, I’m limited by its ability to hold the form I give it. I may have to dry it out a bit and then re-wedge it if I want to make anything very large, or with a more extreme shape (such as a shallow bowl or a vase with a horizontal shoulder). If it’s too dry and resistant, I’ll definitely have to soften it up and re-wedge it. If it has rocks or other inclusions, I have to remove them, and practically speaking, if I wanted to use a clay with many impurities, I’d have to slake it down to a thin slurry and pour it through a sieve, then dry it up again to throwing consistency. If it was too sandy, I’d need to add more clay; too malleable, I may need to add more non-clay ingredients or more of a less plastic clay . . .

Ultimately, though, if I really want to turn that clay into a pot, I will turn it into a pot, and the KIND of a pot I want it to be. I’m not that committed to the clay, however – if my clay is too bad to work with, I’ll get some other clay. It’s not precious (most of it), and not worth the sometimes extensive work to make it useable. The first century potter would be stuck with whatever clay he had access to. He could hardly order a palette shipped across the country because he didn’t like the clay he could dig up in a riverbank near home.

God, unlike me with my clay, is unwilling that any should perish. He is willing to take the time and do the work. ALL of His clay will become vessels of honor, one way or another!

So . . . just my two cents on the clay. IMO, it’s better for the clay if it is willing and desirous of being good clay in the first place – if it has the power to make that choice.

Good post, Cindy. :slight_smile:

Until the pot goes through the fire, it’s virtually useless. It’s weak. It cannot hold water, and potential beauty of the glaze remains hidden.

so Cindy, if you had to make do with the clay you had, you could still make it “obey” you?
i think that’s pretty good for this analogy, as God is depicted as having that ability too, but only having the clay that we are to work from. so yes, He might have to do alot of work with us to make us work, but eventually he’ll fire us in the kiln and we’ll be done…work He can be proud of.

it’s a hard Scripture, but i don’t think Paul was negating his universalist leanings (which i realise are up for debate) with this. i think he was talking about how the Creator is in control, and He does harden and soften hearts.
but it still has to lead to the reconcilation promised in other Scriptures…a parable cannot over-ride what’s clearly stated elsewhere.
i do agree that the “objects of mercy” wording, in contrast to the “objects of wrath” is worded in such a way that i’d not want to just sweep this away, but treat it with respect.

Yes. I agree, but I did notice one translation which seems to contradict or at least introduce ambiguity to the text and I wonder if this is where the “right kind of clay” idea comes from:

I’m not familiar with ‘BBE’ and not impressed either. It seems to be a mistranslation??

With regards to fatalism, when I read:
Rom 9:19 Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?
Rom 9:20 Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?

I don’t see that Paul is suggesting that we have ANY freedom whatsoever or that God is not ENTIRELY responsible, but simply that we must accept that God is entitled to do what He wishes.

Finally, with regards to:

I remember sitting under just this sermon myself a while ago. I found it mildly interesting but definitely not convincing.

I suppose what Rice means when he says “be the right kind of clay” is that we are to be submissive to God’s will for us. That wouldn’t be too much of a stretch I guess. Willingness to submit to God is a good thing for sure.

However, in the context of our conversation I was suggesting that our freedom to resist the potter (or “chose” to be the right kind of clay) seems not to be under consideration at all. If it were, that might entail refusal to let the potter do His work on me at all – in which case perhaps the clay would be disposed of. Or, if I insisted on not “being the right kind of clay” that might cause me to desire to be pottery for “special purposes” for example – instead of be what the potter intended.

No matter; God not only has the right to do what He wants with the clay, He does it anyway! And my “participation” in the process seems unimportant. Besides, if I could choose to be the “right kind of clay” couldn’t I also just as easily choose to be the kind of vessel I wanted – and possibly relegate the maker to the sidelines?? Further, I’m not even sure if “being the right kind of clay” is possible given what Paul has just said: “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” My attempts to “be the right kind of clay” certainly would involve human desire or effort.

Though I wouldn’t say this is the best or most convincing passage in scripture conveying UR, I do think that it’s Universalistic overtones are deeply significant. This entire section of Romans seems to be in response to the complaint that God is being more generous with the Gentiles than expected (or than He has the right to be) given the presumed “superior” status of the Jews. Pauls response is that the Sovereign God works according to HIS will and goals; not ours. Further, as mentioned above, there is no hint of a second category of clay which, because of it’s inadequacies or difficulty working is disposed of. All clay is made into the bowls at the potters discretion. Freedom is not even on the radar screen! Plus, as Jason mentioned, we’re all part of the same lump of clay!

Ahhh the subtle interplay of freedom and sovereignty!


Good post, AllanS. :slight_smile: Both of you, I enjoyed your extensions of the metaphor.

This is an interesting topic Bob. It seems Rice’s open-theism theology is obscuring what Romans 9 actually teaches. But that said, I haven’t read his full argument (or any Open-theist literature, at that). But I do think the Calvinists (and the Calvinist-Universalists) obscure this passage just as much. I’ve heard many proudly gloat that Romans 9 is the Arminian’s archilles’ heel. But I think with a full reading it doesn’t teach soul predestination at all (in my humble opinion). I think we should take into account the whole narrative and argument of Paul’s epistle.

I’m not sure anyone can fully work out this dilemma. Yes, God is wholly sovereign. Yes, we are responsible for our actions. I like that Jacques Ellul, an immensely strong determinist (and a Calvinist-Universalist) could still write that he couldn’t reject a free will and that we should hold the paradox; like the ends of a rope we should hold free will in one hand, the complete transcendent and sovereign will of God in the other, without understanding how they link together behind our backs.


We were talking about this among our church (in my yard, around the picnic table :wink: ) a month or so ago. The picture came to my mind of an old-fashioned watch; the kind with springs. Have you ever taken one apart? The whole thing works on tension, and without that tension it won’t work. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in the Bible, it seems to me.

Blessings, Cindy

That said, I don’t like tension and am therefore an unrepentant Arminian (-hopeful-universalist) :laughing:

I’m not sure what you mean by this or why you would think this is so.

Open theism suggests (actually we do have our own Open Theism expert right here on this panel: Tom aka TGB!! Maybe he can wade in here??) that God cannot know the future with the same precision and specificity as He knows the past. However, God also expresses complete confidence in His TotalVictory because of what God (through/in Christ) accomplished at the Cross. (See as just one example, Rev 5:13) Given that God does know comprehensively all that can be known, He surely must have a firm basis for this confidence. That basis takes 2 broad forms; first, God surely knows the realities of His own creation, ie how He made us (for example He knows if it’s possible to be irrevocably solidified into evil – to borrow TGB’s term. Arminians say it is, Universalists say it isn’t possible…) and second, God surely knows the nature and extent of His own efforts to save in the future; ie He intends to be just as persistent as the Shepherd in Luke 15 who only ceased the saving actions (going out into the storm to find the one lost sheep) when the object of His mission was accomplished.

Thus it seems to me that Romans 9 is perfectly compatible with both Open Theism and with Universal Reconciliation…


I’m not criticizing Open Theism or Universalism or their compatibility; but I am a tad skeptical of a Romans 9 that teaches that we should be “the right kind of clay”. I just don’t understand how his interpretation could fit the Romans 9 text at all, but like I said, I’m not aware of his full argument, or aware of how this interpretation may be more obvious within an Open Theist theology (I’m pretty ignorant of Open Theism, though I’m familiar with the basic idea). I presumed Rice’s Open Theism necessitated this interpretation, though I’m probably wrong.

I would have thought that Arminians would prefer to claim this free-will interpretation also, but instead Arminians have insisted on a corporate election reading, because they/we feel nothing else does the passage more justice (that said I’m clearly not familiar with every interpretation). So in summary: yes, we agree that Romans 9 does not teach us to be the right kind of clay; but no, we do not agree that Romans 9 teaches that God diminishes our freedom.

If you have a link to an explanation of being “the right kind of clay”, I’d really love to read it!

:confused: Amateur Philosophy Alert :confused:

God cannot know the infinitieth digit of pi. By analogy, God cannot know the final state of any immortal being that has genuine free will. “Final state” and “freedom” seem to be mutually exclusive concepts. If a state is “final”, it’s no longer free to be different. In which case, God at best must be a hopeful universalist.

However, if freedom means “the will and the power to do good” and bondage means “doing evil”, then of course God can know the final state of every immortal being that has genuine freedom. It will be perfect conformity to the Good.

In this sense, our final state would be like one third (0.3 recurring) where the infinitieth digit must be 3. By analogy, God knows the final state of free, immortal beings, and that state must be good. This could be good news, but only if God himself has the freedom to save the good and destroy the evil in every one of us. If so, God can be a genuine universalist.

That would be true if God existed subordinate to this system of Nature (i.e. was a derivatively existent ‘god’ of perhaps the Mormon sort, instead of supernaturalistic theism being true), and so had to make guesses or else finalize in advance what was going to happen ‘later’ in time in order to certainly know what would happen ahead of time.

If God exists transcendent to time, however, and much moreso if all temporal reality exists because God continually acts to keep it in existence (i.e. if some type of supernaturalistic theism is true), then there is no contradiction in God certainly knowing what the free action will be of any individual in our future (from our perspective in the timeline), any more than there would be a contradiction in God certainly knowing what the free action is or was of any individual in our present or past. From God’s omnipresent omniscience He just sees omni, so to speak; and chooses to act (or not to act, or rather to act in various ways) accordingly in the temporal past, present and future of that free action, relevant to that action. (For God it’s all one continuous coherent action, at right angles to our natural history metaphorically speaking.)

Since my debate with TFan has been delayed in posting up its podcast (edited to add: now with 100% more podcast linkage! :mrgreen: ), I’ll spoil a bit of the debate by mentioning that the potter/clay analogy being referenced by Paul definitely involves the free will (and moral responsibility) of mankind, as well as the sovereign competency and purposes of God, in all four of the probable allusion sources from the OT which Paul was (or could have been) citing (based on their topical matching as well as phraseology with this saying. There is at least one more fifth place in Job that sort of matches the topic of the saying about the clay, but has no other topical connection–as TFan discovered when trying to deny my references had anything to do with interpreting this, and attempting to suggest an alternative reference instead. :wink: )

Isaiah 29:16 may be the most pertinent to our discussion: Jehovah is talking about a situation where, thanks to their insistence on sinning and on refusing to listen to correction and instruction (there’s the free will and moral responsibility part), God has confirmed Israel in her ignorance, and darkened her prophets, and reduced them to being virtually illiterate when it comes to understanding the scriptures (one of God’s sovereign acts in regard to their choices–which in this case removes their ability to do anything different for a while). This leads to Israel’s overthrow and destruction.

But most of this prophecy is about what happens afterward as a result of her destruction, after the ruthless have come to an end and the scorners are finished and all who are intent on evil are cut off. What happens, is that Jehovah deals “marvelously wonderful” with those people despite the acknowledged fact that their hearts are far from Him and they only worship with their lips not their hearts, revering Him only by rote tradition learned from men.

On that day, the people God has (sovereignly) deafened due to their (freely acted) sins will hear, and the people God has (sovereignly) blinded due to their (freely acted) sins will see (both thanks to God’s sovereign action to heal and save them after sovereignly acting to punish them in various ways); and Jacob (the righteous patriarch, standing here for righteous Israel as Rachel does elsewhere) will no longer be ashamed of his children, for they will sanctify God’s name and stand in awe of the God of Israel. “And those who err in spirit will know understanding, and those who murmur (or criticize) will learn instruction!”

So then, it is true that God hardens whom He desires (as with blind Israel in Isaiah 29), but it is also true that God has mercy on whom He desires (such as blind Israel in Isaiah 29!) God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endures with much patience the instruments of wrath that He has created to pour destruction: a patience the term of which (makrothemia) is everywhere else in the New Testament related to God’s intention to save sinners from their sins. But the free will of the sinners is also included in the larger contextual account being referenced in Romans 9, even though the result does not ultimately depend on he who wills or he who runs, but on God Who has mercy.

It seems clearer to me all the time that there is this strange dichotomy in scripture regarding our will and God’s; we have clear choices (which we are fond of calling “free” will), and those are influenced by factors beyond our control (including directly by God!) as well as influencing at least some outcomes, however temporary. Yet God’s will is ultimately sovereign, lasting and finally determinate. I guess that leaves us in the position of trying to figure out where to draw the line, which I think must only be able to be accurately accomplished by listening to the spirit of God and walking in that.