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Romans 9:18-19 ESV

"So then he has mercy on whomever he wills[thelei], and he hardens whomever he wills[thelei]. 19 You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will[boulemati]?" My brackets and my emphasis.

Whether a verb[thelei] or a noun[boulemati] both are given reference to God's will.

The Greek changes from thelei to boulemati; "wills" or "will" both refer to God's will.

Why does the Greek change in this way?

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  • Hermeneutic analyis very much includes vocabulary, syntax, semantics and idiom. All of which necessitate meticulous regard to translation. Translation and word 'definitions' ( I would rather say 'spectrums of usage') are very much a part of hermeneutic analysis. Up-voted +1. This one may well, I suggest, be a matter of concept : 'to will' has a scope that overlaps with 'the will'.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 16, 2023 at 19:27
  • Might that be simply because that's how Greek works? Whomever 'he wills[thelei]' is one thing. He hardens whomever 'he wills[thelei]' looks similar in Greek, though in English it seems largely incomprehensible. How is 'his will[boulemati]' comparable in English, Greek or any other language? Nov 17, 2023 at 0:56

2 Answers 2

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The verb thelo (θέλω Strong’s 2309) means to will or wish. The noun boulema (βούλημα, Strongs 1013) means the purpose or will and comes from the verb boulomai (βούλομαι, Strong’s 1014), which also means to will. Based on their basic definitions, the meaning of thelo pivots around the idea of wish/desire, while the semantic range of boulema and boulomai also includes the concept of purpose.

Discussions about the difference between thelo and boulemai can be found in the glosses for thelo on biblehub (Strong's Greek 2309):

HELPS Word-Studies – makes a distinction between intention/plan vs. desire/wish.

1014 /boúlomai ("resolutely plan") is a strong term that underlines the predetermined (and determined) intention driving the planning (wishing, resolving). In contrast, 2309 (thélō) focuses on the desire ("wishfulness") behind making an offer (cf. TDNT, 1, 629).

Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance – makes a rather obscure distinction between subjective impulse vs. objective considerations

apparently strengthened from the alternate form of haireomai; to determine (as an active option from subjective impulse; whereas boulomai properly denotes rather a passive acquiescence in objective considerations)

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon - distinguishes between the will that results from deliberation vs. that which is rooted in inclination. Provides an in depth discussion of some of the opposing scholarship regarding the differences between the two.

As respects the distinction between βούλομαι and θέλω, the former seems to designate the will which follows deliberation, the latter the will which proceeds from inclination. This appears not only from Matthew 1:19, but also from the fact that the Sept. express the idea of pleasure, delight, by the verb θέλειν (see just above).

While these resources are helpful, they do not coalesce to form a clear picture of the difference between thelo and boulomai. Setting these analyses aside, I looked at specific verses to see how the words are used in context. The first thing to note is the marked difference in the frequency of use. There are 209 occurrences of thelo, while only 37 of boulomai and 3 of boulema.

What this narrowing of usage suggests is a greater specificity of meaning. However, what that specificity may be is not obvious from the basic definitions alone. I therefore examined the occurrences of boulomai and boulema in search of nuances that can be gleaned from the contexts in which they are used.

What I found is a marked sense of absoluteness or completeness whenever boulema or boulomai is used in reference to God or where God is the subject. In these instances, the referenced purpose/will is complete in and of itself to such an extent that it precludes external influence or internal variance (see James 1:17-18, 2 Peter 3:9). Note that boulomai, unlike thelo, is a middle only verb, and the most common use of the Greek middle voice is to convey that the subject is “acting alone, of its own accord, or for its own benefit” (The Middle Voice, The Aorist Middle: The Most Common Middle Voice Usage).

In Hebrews 6:17, for instance, boulomai is used in a context where God makes an oath on none other than Himself:

Hebrews 6:16-17 BSB (emphasis added)

16 Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and their oath serves as a confirmation to end all argument. 17 So when God wanted (boulomai) to make the unchanging nature of His purpose (boule) very clear to the heirs of the promise, He guaranteed it with an oath.

And in Romans 9:19 boulema is used in a context where God’s will cannot be resisted, so that it is God’s will alone that determines who is hardened and who is shown mercy:

Romans 9:18-19 (emphasis added)

18 Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants (thelo) to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants (thelo) to harden. 19 One of you will say to me, “Then why does God still find fault? For who can resist His will (boulema)?”

Given the above discussion, the fact that thelo and boulema appear together in Rom 9:18-19 allows for a very precise statement. While the use of boulema is consistent with the idea that men cannot resist some things that God wills to be, His will over these matters being absolute, the use of thelo tells us that those things in and of themselves do not constitute God’s absolute purpose for men (cf Rom 11:25-26).

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  • @C. Stroud Another verse to consider is Lk 22:42. There, boulomai is paired with thelema, the noun form of thelo, though both are translated as "will" in English. Really fascinating stuff.
    – Nhi
    Nov 26, 2023 at 0:41
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Let's have a look at each word and then draw some conclusions.

θέλω

Here is BDAG's listing:

  1. to have someth. in mind for oneself, of purpose, resolve, will, wish, want, be ready (cp. Pla., Ap. 41a) to do τὶ someth. Ro 7:15f, 19f (Epict. 2, 26, 1 of one who errs ὃ μὲν θέλει οὐ ποιεῖ what he resolves he does not do; cp. also 2, 26, 2; 4 and s. on ποιέω 2e; Ar. 9, 1 εἰ θελήσομεν ἐπεξελθεῖν τῷ λόγῳ; Just., D. 2, 2 θέλω εἰπεῖν); 1 Cor 7:36; Gal 5:17. W. aor. inf. foll. (Judg 20:5) Mt 11:14; 20:14; 23:37; 26:15. ἤθελεν παρελθεῖν αὐτούς he was ready to pass by them Mk 6:48 (CTurner, JTS 28, 1927, 356). Ἡρῴδης θέλει σε ἀποκτεῖναι Herod wants to kill you Lk 13:31. Cp. J 1:43. ὑμεῖς δὲ ἠθελήσετε ἀγαλλιασθῆναι you were minded to rejoice 5:35; 6:21; 7:44; Ac 25:9a; Gal 4:9; Col 1:27; 1 Th 2:18; Rv 11:5. Also pres. inf. (2 Esdr 11:11) J 6:67; 7:17; 8:44; Ac 14:13; 17:18; Ro 7:21; 2 Cl 6:1; B 4:9. Abs., but w. the inf. supplied fr. the context Mt 8:2 (cp. what was said to the physician in Epict. 3, 10, 15 ἐὰν σὺ θέλῃς, κύριε, καλῶς ἕξω); Mk 3:13; 6:22; J 5:21; Ro 9:18

(BDAG, s.v. “θέλω,” 448.)

So also, here is the listing from the quite useful NIDNTTE:

NT 1 The vb. θέλω occurs almost 210x in the NT, esp. in Matthew (42x) and in the other Gospels (23–28x each). It is often used in an everyday sense, e.g., τί θέλεις, “What do you want?” (Matt 20:21; cf. 26:15; 27:17; et al.). Sometimes the meaning is merely “to like, take pleasure in” (Mark 12:38; note that the par. Matt 23:6–7 has φιλέω G5797, while Luke 20:43 uses ἀγαπάω G26), but in other passages the vb. has a strong volitional force (Matt 11:14; John 1:43).

2 In the Pauline writings the vb. θέλω is found freq. as a declaration of the will of the apostle to his congregations; e.g., “I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (Rom 16:19; cf. 1 Cor 7:7, 32; 11:3; et al.), and esp. the negative phrase οὐ θέλω ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, “I do not want you to be unaware/ignorant” (Rom 1:13; 1 Cor 10:1; et al.). Special theological significance, however, attaches to statements regarding (a) the divine will manifested in salvation and (b) the human will in its religious aspects.

More problematic is Rom 9:14–18, which raises the question about the relationship between human volition and the divine will. It is important to keep in mind, however, that here Paul is not attempting to explain the nature of human responsibility. When he says, οὐ τοῦ θέλοντος οὐδὲ τοῦ τρέχοντος ἀλλὰ τοῦ ἐλεῶντος θεοῦ, lit., “it is not of the one who wills nor of the one who runs but of God who has mercy” (9:16), he means that it is not human volition that is decisive for God’s action; quite the opp., God’s saving will is the precondition for all human volition. The freedom of divine compassion is not dependent on human exertion, and just as little dependent on human resistance. God accomplishes his will in history precisely in that he harnesses both the obedient and the obdurate into his saving plan: ὃν θέλει ἐλεεῖ ὃν δὲ θέλει σκληρύνει, lit., “on whom he wants he has mercy, and whom he wants he hardens” (9:18; cf. also v. 22, θέλων. . . ἐνδείξασθαι τὴν ὀργὴν. . . αὐτοῦ, “wanting to show his wrath”). Yet the ultimate intention of God’s will is the revelation of his glory in Christ (Col 1:27).

(The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, s.v. “θέλω θέλημα θέλησις,” 2:428.)

In drawing some conclusions about θέλω we observe that the basic starting point is the idea of "wanting." But very quickly in usage, when God is the subject of the verb it can often take on "strong volitional force."

βούλημα

intention τὸ ἀκέραιον αὐτῶν β. their pure purpose 1 Cl 21:7; τὸ β. τῶν ἐθνῶν what the gentiles desire to do 1 Pt 4:3 (v.l. θέλημα); κωλύειν τινὰ τοῦ β. hinder someone in an intention Ac 27:43. Of God’s will (Cornutus 16 p. 22, 2 β. τῶν θεῶν; Philo, Mos. 1, 287 τοῦ θεοῦ β.; Jos., Ant. 2, 304; Just., D. 103, 3; Tat. 7, 2) Ro 9:19;

(BDAG, s.v. “βούλημα,” 182.)

BDAG isn't as useful as we would like. But the NIDNTTE does offer some useful commentary:

NT 1 While the vb. θέλω is used by the NT writers over 200x, βούλομαι occurs only 37x, and fully 14 of these occurrences are found in Acts (which also has 14 instances of θέλω). These proportions reflect a trend seen in some secular authors roughly contemporary with the NT (e.g., the Diatribes of Epict. contain over 370 occurrences of θέλω and only about a dozen of βούλομαι). In any case, it is hardly poss. to prove a semantic distinction between the two terms, the choice of one or the other being motivated primarily by stylistic factors. Schrenk (TDNT 1:632) may be correct that the statistics in Acts reflect the fact that this book “is stylistically more akin to narrative prose such as that of Polyb., Diod. S. and Josephus, who still like βούλομαι even in the period of transition to ἐθέλω.” Be that as it may, the vb. in the NT, as in extrabib. Gk., can mean both “to wish, want” (e.g., 1 Tim 6:9; Jas 4:4) and “to will, intend, plan” (e.g., Matt 11:27; Acts 12:4); it is applied to both human and divine volition (see below). The statistics for the other terms in the word group may be summarized briefly. The vb. βουλεύω (mid.) occurs only 6x, once in the sense “to consider, deliberate” (Luke 14:31), and elsewhere with the meaning “to plan, resolve to do” (John 11:53; 12:10; Acts 27:39; 1 Cor 1:17 [2x]; also as a v.l. in Acts 5:33; 15:37); all the usages refer to human volition. The noun βουλή occurs a dozen times, with all but three of these being found in Luke-Acts (the exceptions are 1 Cor 4:5 [intentions/motives of the human heart]; Eph 1:11 [God’s purpose]; Heb 6:17 [God’s purpose/will]). The alternate noun, βούλημα, with no obvious semantic distinction, is found 3x (Acts 27:43 [soldiers’ plan]; Rom 9:19 [God’s will]; 1 Pet 4:3 [the will/preference of the Gentiles; NIV, “what pagans choose to do”]). Other derivatives include βουλευτής, an ancient form meaning “councilor, senator” (with ref. to Joseph of Arimathea, only Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50); ἐπιβουλή, “(treacherous) plan” (4x in Acts); συμβουλεύω, “to advise,” but also “to conspire” (4x in four different books); συμβούλιος, “purpose,” but also “deliberative body” (8x in Matthew, Mark, Acts); and σύμβουλος, “adviser, counselor” (only Rom 11:34).

2 Theological significance is found esp. in those passages where the words, esp. βουλή, speak of the divine counsel, intention, or will. It is always a case of an irrefragable determination.

(b) In the rest of the NT the word group is used only an additional 7x for the will and purpose of God (or Jesus or the Holy Spirit), and 3 of these are found in the Pauline corpus. In Rom 9:19 the apostle quotes an imaginary objector: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will [βούλημα]?” (cf. θέλω in the previous verse, and πρόθεσις G4606 in 8:28; 9:11). Some have thought that βούλημα, more so than βουλή, focuses on a person’s intent, which may be dark and impenetrable, and that therefore the word can take on the tone of arbitrary willfulness or caprice, as in the mouth of an opponent here; but the evidence for this understanding of the term is tenuous (contrast Jos. A.J. 2.304; Philo Leg. 3.239; Mos. 1.287). In Eph 1:11 βουλή is used with several other related terms to stress the divine purpose in salvation: “In him [Christ] we were also chosen [or we have obtained an inheritance.

(The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, s.v. “βούλομαι βουλή βούλημα βουλεύω βουλευτής ἐπιβουλή συμβουλεύω συμβούλιον σύμβουλος,” 1:528.)

What does βούλομαι mean? It, evidently, includes the basic meaning of θέλω (wanting). But it can also include the meaning of planning and counseling too.

Comparison and Conclusion

Is there a distinction in meaning between the two words specifically in the Romans 9:14-19 context? I agree with the author of the article in the NIDNTTE. It is exceedingly difficult to draw any distinctions between the usage of the two words. Even when we consider the "ⲙⲁ" ending on the end of ⲃⲟⲩⲗⲏ, showing us that this is an effect of God's planning, intention, will, we still are left wondering what effect is. Most likely, Paul uses these words as a varied way of speaking about the same topic: God's will.


As an aside, in the comments it was suggested that your question is not appropriate, since it is not a hermeneutical one. This comment is nonsense for two reasons: 1) The Hermeneutics SE has no boundaries and clear definitions as to what hermeneutics actually is and isn't. Until they actually provide some guidance, don't at all feel bad at asking a question like this. 2) Ironically, by the commentator's own definition, there are some of his own comments/postings/questions that would not be allowed in Hermeutics SE.

I'm providing these glosses and chunks from these lexicons not to give you an answer to the age-old question, 'cur alii præ aliis', but instead, to give you some tools to chip away at that question yourself.

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  • 1
    Thanks. +1. The idea that comes to me, rightly or wrongly, which is in line with your answer, is that God is not firstly wilful, but behind His will is a purpose/ rational/logos.
    – C. Stroud
    Nov 16, 2023 at 16:40

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