Yesterday I wrote about Bible Verses that Simply Can’t Mean What They Say, in response to Elder Eric’s satirical post on the same subject at Tominthebox News Network. I tried to keep what I wrote then in the same humorous vein. But the comment thread on Eric’s post has moved into a serious discussion of the issues I raised, and now I want to take this matter further.
In a comment on his own post Eric wrote concerning John 3:16:
it does not say anywhere in that verse that God loves every individual in this world. In the New Testament in particular, the word “world” often refers to God’s sphere of influence, not to every individual person in the world. … If Christ died for everyone, then everyone would be going to heaven.
It was of course with these words in mind that in a following comment I wrote:
Calvin would have had no truck with arbitrary redefinitions of “world” as “God’s sphere of influence” or the non sequitur pseudo-logic of statements like “If Christ died for everyone, then everyone would be going to heaven.”
Eric took me to task for this, and rightly so at least if a comment thread on a satirical blog is to be understood as a place for proper theological debate. He wrote:
It seems that your argument has degenerated into a sort of name calling. You use the terms “arbitrary” and “non sequitur pseudo-logic.” However, you don’t present any biblical evidence to make your point, and you also haven’t presented anything that would threaten the basic message of this post. If I have misinterpreted the straightforward meaning of these 72 verses, please show me how. If I am incorrect in biblical interpretation, I honestly do want to know why. Thank you.
Well, I don’t see any name calling in what I wrote. But I accept that I did not properly justify my accusations of “arbitrary redefinitions” and “non sequitur pseudo-logic”. I now want to put that omission right, although I will not attempt to give my understanding of the 72 verses.
Firstly, I accused Eric of
arbitrary redefinitions of “world” as “God’s sphere of influence”.
I justify this by looking at the usual definitions of the Greek word used here, kosmos. Now this word has a notoriously broad range of meanings in the New Testament, which can even include “adornment”, as in 1 Peter 3:3. Here is how the word is defined by Barclay Newman:
κόσμος, ου m world, world order, universe; world inhabitants, mankind (especially of men hostile to God); world, realm of existence, way of life (especially as opposed to the purpose of God); adornment (1PE.3:3)
Here are the definitions of Louw and Nida, reorganised into a continuous list, with the specific verse citations and notes omitted:
(a) 1.1 Geographical Objects and Features (1)
the universe as an ordered structure – ‘cosmos, universe.’
(b) 1.39 Geographical Objects and Features (1)
The Earth’s Surface
the surface of the earth as the dwelling place of mankind, in contrast with the heavens above and the world below – ‘earth, world.’
(c) 41.38 Behavior and Related States (41)
Particular Patterns of Behavior (41.29-41.43)
the system of practices and standards associated with secular society (that is, without reference to any demands or requirements of God) – ‘world system, worlds standards, world.’
(d) 9.23 People (9)
Human Beings (9.1-9.23)
(a figurative extension of meaning of κόσμος[a] cosmos, universe, 1.1) people associated with a world system and estranged from God – ‘people of the world.’
(e) 79.12 Features of Objects (79)
Beautiful, Ugly (79.9-79.17)
to cause something to be beautiful by decorating – ‘to beautify, to adorn, to decorate, adornment, adorning.’
(f) 6.188 Artifacts (6)
an object which serves to adorn or beautify – ‘adornment.’
(g) 59.55 Quantity (59)
Abundance, Excess, Sparing (59.48-59.61)
(a figurative extension of meaning of κόσμος[a] world, universe, 1.1) a great sum of something, implying an almost incredible totality – ‘a world of, a tremendous amount of.’
Where in any of these definitions is there anything about “God’s sphere of influence”? Many of the definitions are suggesting the exact opposite, defining the world with terms like “without reference to any demands or requirements of God” and “estranged from God”. And in case you want to allege that these definitions come from liberal scholars, here is an extract from the article “WORLD” in the New Bible Dictionary (IVP UK 1962), written by R.V.G. Tasker:
It is, however, an axiom of the Bible that this world of human beings … is now in rebellion against Him. … And so, very frequently in the New Testament, and particularly in the Johannine writings, the word kosmos has a sinister significance. It is not the world as God intended it to be, but ‘this world’ set over against God …
I cannot look at all the occurrences of kosmos in the New Testament, so I will just look at the ones in John’s gospel. Actually this is a high proportion of the total, 78 out of 186. Many of the verses where the word occurs, sometimes several times in a verse, link the world with Jesus’ mission to bring salvation: 1:9,29, 3:16,17,19, 4:42, 6:14,33,51, 8:12, 9:5,39, 10:36, 11:9,27, 12:46,47, 16:28, 17:18,21,23, 18:37, so I will leave these verses aside for the moment. But in most of the other verses “the world” is contrasted with Jesus or his disciples or associated with his enemies, 1:10, 7:4,7, 8:23,26, 12:25, 13:1, 14:19,22,27,31, 15:18,19, 16:8,20,33, 17:6,9,11,13,14,15,16,25, 18:20,36, or is explicitly opposed to God, 14:17, or used in the phrase “the prince of this world”, 12:31, 14:30, 16:11. There are a few neutral references like 12:19, 16:21, 17:5,24, 21:25, but none at all which clearly suggest a positive sense for the word. This includes the verses related to salvation, in which the only positive things that can be said about the world are that God loves it and Jesus came to it. I really don’t see how anyone, unless they are coming to the text with a predetermined theological agenda, can possibly hold that anywhere in John’s gospel kosmos refers to “God’s sphere of influence”.
As for what I called “non sequitur pseudo-logic”, that referred to Eric’s statement
If Christ died for everyone, then everyone would be going to heaven.
I’m sorry, Eric, but there is an elementary logical fallacy here. I understand the first half of the sentence to be equivalent to “If Christ died with the intention that everyone would go to heaven …”, which was more or less my meaning, although I agree with Bishop NT Wright that “go to heaven” is a very inadequate and misleading summary of the Christian hope. So let us recast the statement as follows:
If Christ died with the intention that everyone would go to heaven, then everyone would be going to heaven.
The non sequitur should now be clear, for the hidden assumption here has been uncovered, that everything which Christ intended to happen does in fact happen.
Now perhaps this assumption is so much a part of Eric’s philosophical presuppositions that he fails to recognise that it is not self-evidently true. Of course it would not be shared by non-Christians. More importantly, it is an assumption which many Christians, including myself, do not share with Eric. And we do not share it for a very good reason, that the biblical authors did not share it. This is clear from a number of verses, ones which I would have included in a fuller list of the verses of which the mythical Tominthebox Reformed Calvinist Theological Seminary would have to declare that they Simply Can’t Mean What They Say, for example:
This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 2:3-4 (TNIV)
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9 (TNIV)
Here we have things which God desires and wants but which do not happen. God desires everyone to repent and be saved. But he knows that in fact not everyone does repent, and so not everyone is saved. If there is such a thing as human free will, which I believe and Calvinists also claim to believe, it must include the possibility that some people will choose not to repent. This by no means implies that God in Christ did not make it possible for them to do so.
Some might argue that Jesus’ work must have been imperfect or incomplete if not all the people he died for were in fact saved. But that is by no means true. It is not Jesus’ fault that some people are not saved, but the fault of those people – and perhaps the fault of the Christians who have failed to bring the gospel message to them.
The situation is well illustrated by the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14:15-24. The master prepared the banquet and sent out the invitations, and there is no suggestion that there is anything lacking in the way that he did so. Indeed he provided more than enough for his invited guests. It was not because of any failure or inadequacy on his part that the first lot of guests did not come to the banquet, but because of their own selfish decisions to stay away. Similarly, many people in the world today are not saved, not because of any inadequacy or limitation in the atoning work of Jesus Christ (indeed it seems almost blasphemous to suggest that there was any limitation in it), but because of their own sinful refusal to accept the invitation of the gospel.
Calvin himself did not hold the doctrine of limited atonement. It is time for those who claim to be his followers to abandon this perversion of biblical teaching and accept the glorious truth that God loves the whole world, including every human being, and sent his Son to die an unlimited atoning death for it all, that the whole universe might be reconciled to him, Romans 8:21.