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Rom 4:16-17:

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring — not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations" — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (ESV)

This last part reads, in NA-28:

καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡς ὄντα

I'm having a hard time arriving at the English given above (which is consistent with most translations [but see below]), which seems to entail a reference to creation ex nihilo. The phrase is literally something like:

calling that which is not being as being

Unclear to me are both the meaning of καλέω1 (to call) is this context and the meaning of the ὡς + participle construction, which seems most often to indicate "as [if] being/doing X".2 Interestingly, the KJV gives:

and calleth those things which be not as though they were.

While this English isn't exceptionally clear, I at least understand how it relates to the Greek.

Why did the RSV and most subsequent translations shift away from the KJV rendering? Is this grammatically justified and appropriate to the context?


1. In addition to the Greek background provided at the LSJ link, this word is often used in the LXX for the Hebrew qrʾ. The most potentially relevant instances are probably in the second part of Isaiah, e.g. 41:9, 42:6, 46:11, 48:12, 48:15, 50:2, 51:2, etc.

2. E.g. 1 Cor 5:3 ("as if being present"), 2 Cor 6:9ff ("as if unknown...as dying...as punished..as sorrowful..."), Col 2:20 ("as if living [in the world]")

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Rom. 4:17 in Context

The simple answer is yes, God called into being the seed of Abraham through the womb of Sarah, who was far beyond the age of childbearing. The means by which God chose to do so was by the faith of Abraham, who in Gen. 15:6(KJV),

And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

This passage is reiterated in Rom 4:3, and indeed it is the entire context of Rom. 4.

Therefore the καλέω(kaleó-to call) was a creative miracle of God, who called into being that which was not. The 'normal route' was not an option for them-in fact it became a hinderance as Ishmael had to be sent away(Gen. 21:12). God called the "was not"(Isaac), as though he was, and in the process called nations(peoples) which were not yet born as though they were. Abraham's belief in God made it possible for God to manifest His Promises to Abraham.

Use of καλοῦντος

Every variation of αλοῦντος

(καλέω καλ(ε)·ο[υ]ντ·ος), pres act ptcp mas gen sg or pres act ptcp neu gen sg while CALL-ing (gen): Rom 4:17, Rom 9:11, Gal 5:8, 1Thes 2:12

seems to be in harmony with this meaning. There appears no difference between the NA28 version of Rom.4:17 with the TR Stephanus 1550, from which the KJV takes it rendering. "Calleth those things that be not, as though they were"(KJV) doesn't seem as dogmatic as "calls into existence the things that do not exist"(ESV) but there is no essential difference in their meaning. The KJV appears more 'passive voice', but in fact is the same as the NA28.

This passage is another example of "With God, nothing shall be impossible".(Luke 1:37) God is above all His Creation, and He can dispense with the natural laws He created to bring something into existance. He does this through faith, the same as the faith of Abraham, who as Rom. 4:20 says,

He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God.(KJV)

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  • I would agree, I think it's a disservice to make this just a discussion of creation ex nihilo. The context could easily be referring to belief. God can create, call, faith out of a man's heart that was not there before. Just as he calls a people that were not his people.(Hos 2, Rom 9, Is 65:1) – Joshua Jun 11 '16 at 2:20
  • Nice bringing Luke 1:37 into the answer! – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Nov 10 '20 at 12:13
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I'm of the opinion that the KJV got this right and the subsequent departure is incorrect. I see no evidence that καλέω has the sense of "call into existence", as in BDAG, usage #4 though BDAG then, when expounding on Romans 4 creates a whole new meaning with which I disagree:

...④ From the mngs. ‘summon’ and ‘invite’ there develops the extended sense choose for receipt of a special benefit or experience, call (Paus. 10, 32, 13 οὓς ἂν ἡ ῏Ισις καλέσῃ διʼ ἐνυπνίων; Ael. Aristid. 30, 9 K.=10 p. 116 D.: ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ κληθείς) καλούμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ Hb 5:4. τινὰ εἴς τι someone to someth., in the usage of the NT, as well as that of the LXX, of the choice of pers. for salvation: God (much more rarely Christ) calls εἰς τὴν ἑαυτοῦ βασιλείαν καὶ δόξαν 1 Th 2:12; εἰς τὴν αἰώνιον αὐτοῦ δόξαν 1 Pt 5:10. εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον 1 Ti 6:12. εἰς κοινωνίαν τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ to fellowship with his son 1 Cor 1:9. ἐκ σκότους εἰς τὸ αὐτοῦ φῶς from darkness to his light 1 Pt 2:9. ἀπὸ σκότους εἰς φῶς 1 Cl 59:2. διὰ τ. χάριτος αὐτοῦ Gal 1:15. for this God called you through our proclamation, namely to obtain the glory 2 Th 2:14; cp. 1 Th 2:12. καλέσαντι … εἰς τὴν μερίδα τοῦ κλήρους τῶν ἁγίων Col 1:12 v.l. (for ἱκανώσαντι). Without further modification Ro 8:30; 9:24; 1 Cor 7:17f, 20–22, 24; Eph 1:11 v.l.; 2 Cl 9:5; 10:1.—κ. κλήσει ἁγίᾳ call with a holy calling 2 Ti 1:9. ἀξίως τῆς κλήσεως ἧς (attraction, instead of ἣν) ἐκλήθητε worthily of the calling by which you were called Eph 4:1 (on the constr. s. W-S. §24, 4b; Rob. 478). Of God: ὁ καλῶν τινά Gal 5:8; 1 Th 5:24. Abs. ὁ καλῶν Ro 9:12. ὁ καλέσας τινά Gal 1:6; 1 Pt 1:15; 2 Pt 1:3. Likew. of Christ ὁ καλέσας τινά 2 Cl 5:1 (Just., A I, 15, 7). Pass. οἱ κεκλημένοι those who are called Hb 9:15. κεκλημένοι ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ διʼ αὐτοῦ (=Ἰ. Χρ.) 1 Cl 65:2. οἱ κεκλημένοι ὑπʼ αὐτοῦ (=υἱοῦ τ. θεοῦ) Hs 9, 14, 5. οἱ κληθέντες Hm 4, 3, 4. S. also 1d.—More closely defined: ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ B 14:7 (Is 42:6). ἐπʼ ἐλευθερίᾳ (s. ἐλευθερία) Gal 5:13. οὐκ ἐπὶ ἀκαθαρσίᾳ ἀλλʼ ἐν ἁγιασμῷ not for impurity, but in consecration 1 Th 4:7. ἐν εἰρήνῃ in peace 1 Cor 7:15. ἐκλήθητε ἐν μιᾷ ἐλπίδι τῆς κλήσεως ὑμῶν you were called in the one hope that you share in your call Eph 4:4. ἡμεῖς διὰ θελήματος αὐτου (=θεοῦ) ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ κληθέντες 1 Cl 32:4. εἰς εἰρήνην τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐν ἐνὶ σώματι Col 3:15. ἐν τῇ σαρκί 2 Cl 9:4. ἐν Ἰσαάκ Hb 11:18 (=Ro 9:7). πόθεν ἐκλήθημεν καὶ ὑπὸ τίνος καὶ εἰς ὃν τόπον 2 Cl 1:2. εἰς τοῦτο ἵνα for this reason, that 1 Pt 3:9; cp. 2:21. Of Christ: οὐκ ἦλθον καλέσαι δικαίους ἀλλὰ ἁμαρτωλούς (+ εἰς μετάνοιαν v.l.) Mt 9:13; Mk 2:17 (on a prob. double sense in this pass. s. 2); 2 Cl 2:4; cp. vs. 7 (cp. Just., A I, 40, 7 εἰς μετάνοιαν καλεῖ πάντας ὁ θεός); Lk 5:32 (ἐλήλυθα … εἰς μετάνοιαν). Of God: ἐκάλεσεν ἡμᾶς οὐκ ὄντας he called us when we did not exist 2 Cl 1:8. ὁ καλῶν τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡς ὄντα the one who calls into being what does not exist Ro 4:17 (Philo, Spec. Leg. 4, 187 τὰ μὴ ὄντα ἐκάλεσεν εἰς τὸ εἶναι; cp. Is 41:4; 48:13).—Of the call to an office by God p 504 Hb 5:4.—JHempel, Berufung u. Bekehrung (also GBeer Festschr.) ’35; HWildberger, Jahwes Eigentumsvolk ’60.—B. 1276. DELG. EDNT. M-M. TW.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., pp. 503–504). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

A parallel might be the calling of Jeremiah:

Jer_1:5 Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.

I'm of the opinion that Jeremiah "opened the womb" of one of his father's wife and thus "belonged to the LORD":

Exo_13:2 Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.

This is not, to my mind evidence of a Calvinist style "election to salvation" in that Jeremiah was called to be a prophet before his birth but there is no guarantee provided that he would fulfill his duty faithfully:

Eze_33:6 But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand.

So perhaps it should be translated "...and calls upon people who don't yet exist as though they do".

Isa 41:4 Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he.

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  • I may end up agreeing with the gist of your conclusion, but I'm confused about how BDAG is being used in support of this. It translates, as you have it bolded: the one who calls into being what does not exist. – Susan Apr 11 '16 at 13:45
  • @Susan Yes, odd that he provides that translation given his parallel with the Clement quote. I'm chalking that up to a bad citation. – user10231 Apr 11 '16 at 16:34
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Why do contemporary scholars see an aspect of creation ex nihilo which the scholars of the King James did not? I believe the difference is based on the scientific knowledge at the time of translation.

All translations involve some measure of interpretation on the part of a translator; different languages have different word meanings and nuances within a meaning. Moreover, language changes over time and a translation may need to be "updated" to convey contemporary meanings:

*(As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were. (KJV)

(as it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations”) in the presence of Him whom he believed—God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did; (NKJV)

as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (ESV)

The New King James translation which was done to "update" the language preserves the original meaning; the ESV "updates" language and modifies meaning.

At the time of the King James translation, the scientific education and knowledge of a translator would include the physical nature of the universe. The discoveries of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, and others culminating in Newton’s theory of an infinite universe with no beginning or end, modified the Aristotelian concept of a universe finite in size yet infinite (with no beginning) in time. In both cases creation is seen in the context of an eternal place that lacked a clear moment of origin.

Today a translator would be taught that both Aristotle’s and Newton’s models were wrong and that the universe had a specific point of beginning called the big bang. The element of ex nihilo introduced in some modern translations is consistent with the modern natural explanation of the big bang.

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The NET Bible renders Romans 4:17 this way:

(as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed – the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do. (Romans 4:17 NET)

In a note on the verse a variant rendering is given:

“calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

The note goes on to discuss the basis for these two options:

The translation of ὡς ὄντα allows for two different interpretations.

If it has the force of result, then creatio ex nihilo is in view and the variant rendering is to be accepted (so C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans [ICC], 1:244). A problem with this view is the scarcity of ὡς plus participle to indicate result (though for the telic idea with ὡς plus participle, cf. Rom 15:15; 1 Thess 2:4).

If it has a comparative force, then the translation given in the text is to be accepted: “this interpretation fits the immediate context better than a reference to God’s creative power, for it explains the assurance with which God can speak of the ‘many nations’ that will be descended from Abraham” (D. Moo, Romans [NICNT], 282; so also W. Sanday and A. C. Headlam, Romans [ICC], 113). Further, this view is in line with a Pauline idiom, viz., verb followed by ὡς plus participle (of the same verb or, in certain contexts, its antonym) to compare present reality with what is not a present reality (cf. 1 Cor 4:7; 5:3; 7:29, 30 (three times), 31; Col 2:20 [similarly, 2 Cor 6:9, 10]).

Thus the various renderings mentioned in the question can be justified grammatically. The variation is due to how the translator interprets the force of ὡς.

However, I don't see how some sort of reference to creatio ex nihilo is avoidable, regardless of how it is translated, and there is no need to choose between a reference to God's creative power or the immediate context.

Paul seems to be telling the reader that God's activity in relation to Abraham is, in fact, just another expression of God's unique sovereign ability to raise the dead and create from nothing. Just as he "called" the heavens and earth into existence by his word, he declared him the father of many nations by his word of promise.

I would opt for a more literal translation, such as "calls the things that are not as if they are", as this would naturally lead the reader to put the immediate context in the greater context of God's creative work.

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