Pete asked what a person who believes God is omnibenevolent does with “God hated Esau” (Malachi 1:3; Romans 9:13).
There are a number of complexities in these passages. To begin with, there is the fact that the specific individuals Jacob and Esau serve as symbols representing people groups (Israel and Edom, or more broadly, insider and outsider). Second, there is the potential for the hyperbolic use of language. Third, insofar as “election” is in view there is the distinction between election for a particular task and election for an eternal destiny. In addition, insofar as one accepts the appropriateness of the “scripture interprets scripture” principle there is the question of whether texts which seem to teach divine omnibenevolence (e.g. John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:4) should function as interpretive controls of those texts that seem not to. If that is a defensible move then we might reasonably conclude “I don’t know what those ‘God hated Esau’ texts are teaching but I do know what they aren’t teaching.”
With all that in the background I can now turn to my main point: the “God hated Esau” passages, so beloved of the Calvinist, actually contradict Calvinism.
How so? To see how this is the case we should first distinguish two different kinds of Calvinism.
Omnibenevolent Calvinism (OBC): God loves all people but has a special love for the elect.
Non-Omnibenevolent Calvinism (NOBC): God loves the elect and hates the reprobate.
If you support OBC then the “God hated Esau” texts are not supportive of your position because God in fact loved Esau. In other words, the popular Calvinist interpretation contradicts your theology. Of course you can always then retreat to the position that the text uses hyperbolic language. But then the Arminian can as well.
What about NOBC? If you bite the bullet and adopt this position then can’t you at least say these texts support your theology?
I don’t think so. To see the problem we need to understand the nature of the hatred that God has for individuals according to NOBC.
According to NOBC the hatred God has for a specific individual cannot be tied in any way to the (sinful) actions, behaviors or dispositions of that individual. The reason is simple: if NOBC did make the hatred of God for individuals contingent upon their sinful actions, behaviors or dispositions then NOBC would have collapsed into a type of Pelagianism. So the explanation for God’s hatred for an individual, according to NOBC, cannot in anyway be connected to the actions of that individual. Rather it is the unconditional ground of their election to reprobation. In other words:
NOBC hatred = unconditional hatred (that is, unconditioned by action, behavior or disposition)
However, granting for the sake of argument that God is described as literally hating individuals in scripture, that hatred is always conditioned, at least in part, by the actions behavior and disposition of that individual:
Biblical hatred = conditional hatred (that is, conditioned by action, behavior and/or disposition)
To see that this is the case for Esau, consider the following passage from Hebrews 12:
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17 Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.
The entire passage describes a divine disapproval that is conditional. We must live lives of holiness in order to see the Lord. We must keep ourselves and each other from falling into godlessness. We should not be like Esau, the failure, who sold his inheritance and therefore was rejected. Thus, rejection, divine disaproval, and divine hatred (insofar as such exists) is presented as being conditional, at least in part.
Since NOBC requires that God’s hatred of individuals is unconditional and scripture presents God’s hatred of individuals, insofar as it exists, as being at least in part conditional upon actions, behaviors and/or dispositions, the “God hated Esau” passage does not in fact support NOBC.
So to sum up, to interpret the “God hated Esau” passages as teaching that God actually hated Esau contradicts both the OBC position that God really loves Esau and the NOBC position that God hated Esau unconditionally, irrespective of any of his actions, behaviors or dispositions.