Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Swordfight: "all" in 1 Timothy 2:4

Is White Right?

Under discussion is a critique of Dr. James White’s comments made on his Blog (see here) regarding Dr. Roger Olson’s book with particular and sole reference to 1 Tim 2:4.

Preliminary Remarks

Before I engage White’s Blog to Dr. Olson’s interpretation of 1 Tim 2:4 in his book, Against Calvinism, allow me to say:

1.  The Bible is not some sort of Gnostic literature whereby only the initiated are able to comprehend it's meaning.

2.  Biblical revelation speaks plainly of things that pertain to salvation and everyone is given the ability to understand it.  I do not deny there are certain subjects “hard to understand.” Nevertheless, with respect to salvation, divine revelation is sufficient and plain.

3.  While, admittedly, I am no scholar, it should be observed that being a scholar is no guarantee of freedom from error.  Even “experts in the field” may arrive at wrong conclusions.

4.  White’s Blog and the section on 1 Tim 2:4 in his book (The Potters Freedom), seems to argue on the basis of what he sees is the logic of the text in context as opposed to what he consider is the logical absurdity of the opposing view (e.g., p.140 on an “Ephesian phone book”).  He does not appear to provide a thorough and in-depth exegesis.

My observations are not to prove that White’s conclusion is erred but only that there are valid and serious challenges even from an non-scholarly point of view.

The Text

"...rightly dividing the word of truth."  - 2 Timothy 2:15
"First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgiving, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.  This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.  For this [reason] I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.  Therefore, I want men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” (NASB Updated Edition).

White’s Contention
White argues in his blog that the “context [of 1 Timothy 2:4] had specifically referred to kinds or groups of men.  Olson ignores this. It is actually absurd to think that Paul was exhorting Timothy to pray for “every person without limit” when he said that prayer should be made for ‘all men’.”  After making comparing verses 1 and 4 in the Greek, White continues, “If Paul expected Timothy to take ‘all men’ in verse one as meaning ‘every person without limit, then why did he immediately place a categorical limitation on his words?  That is, he defines ‘all men as classes or kinds of men by speaking of kings and those in authority. But if ‘all men already had the meaning Olson demands that it has, why would Paul do this since Timothy would already understand that Paul is saying that prayers should be made for every single human being on the face of the earth?  Indeed, are we to assume that not only where the prayer meetings in Ephesus to include, by name, every single individual in the city, but every single individual living on the planet at that time?  No wonder folks fell asleep during those meetings! Of course, this only shows the absurdity of the position Olson tells us we must adopt. And, it follows naturally, that if the ‘all men of verse one is to be taken categorically and not individually, then this is the immediate context of the use of ‘all men, in verse four as well” (emphasis mine).

My Statement of Disagreement

I take the plain meaning of 1 Tim 2:1,4,5-6 as it is translated in English to refer to all men, none excluded.  My reasons are as follows:

A Broad Look at 1 Tim 2:4

1.   If White’s interpretation that “all” in 1 Tim 2:4 refers to all classes, kinds, or groups of men, then how are we to understand the "all” in verse 2: “all in authority”?  If White is to be consistent, then “all” here cannot mean every individual who has governmental authority but those kinds, classes, or groups of authority, which obviously makes no sense.  However, if White states that “all” in verse 2 means all individual persons of authority, on what basis can he change the meaning of “all” here to mean something different from the same Greek word translated “all” in verse 4?

2.  If “kinds or groups of men” are meant, nevertheless, it can still be understood to refer to all men without limit within each group rendering White’s argument moot.  For example, as Mounce’s Dictionary, p.12, under “all”, states when “pas in the plural” is used, its stress is “not so much on each individual within the group as on the group as a whole.  For example, in 1 Cor. 15:22 Paul writes, ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.’  His emphasis here is on two ‘all’ groups: the ‘all’ group that dies because of Adam’s sin (i.e., every single human being) and the ‘all’ group that lives in Christ (those who believe in him)” (emphasis his).  The point here is that in each group, no person is excluded.  Therefore, even if the emphasis is on classes, kinds, or groups in 1 Tim 2, nevertheless, every single person within that group is to be included; no one is excluded; no limitation is implied (see also Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol.17, p.41-44).

3.   Within the context, Paul mentions only one or two classes or kinds of men, “kings and all who are in authority.” Unless one wants to place a “categorical limitation” to Paul’s reference in vs. 2 and 4 to “kings and all those in authority” as the only objects of prayer (v.1) and salvation (in the parallel v.4), Paul intends to include all men without limit or exception.

White seems to suggest that prayer should not be for individuals but for classes and kinds, limiting for whom prayer ought to be made as individuals.  For example, White seems to say that the apostle invites us to pray not for Congresswoman Pelosi but for all Congress men and women in general, something like, “Dear Lord, please save our U.S. congressional leaders (of course, only those whom you have chosen and in your predetermined time).” I agree we may not, for all practical purposes, be able to pray for each of them by name in one prayer meeting, let alone every living person on earth by name. However, what is to stop us from praying for as many individuals as practically possible by name and to include all men in general?

If classes or kinds of men and not all men individually are meant in verse 1, then are our prayers to be rendered under such a "categorical limitation", for only all classes or kinds of men and not “on behalf of all men” as individuals? That seems to be what White suggests when he asks, “Indeed, are we to assume that not only where (sic) the prayer meetings in Ephesus to include, by name, every single individual in the city, but every single individual living on the planet at that time?"

Obviously there are limitations to how far we can practically exercise prayers for all men. Nevertheless, the intended universal nature of the apostle’s injunction cannot be minimized to assume the exclusion of any individual and, thereby, understand its practice in a way that assumes limitations on the objects of prayer. Whether the apostle had or had not on his mind every person in the known world of his time who existed, excluding or including those beyond the borders of the known world, is irrelevant. The fact is that his injunction to pray was meant to exclude no one. As the RSV translates, “prayers…be made for everyone.”

4.  White asks if Paul meant “every person without limit, then why did he immediately place a categorical limitation on his words?  That is, he defines ‘all men’ as classes or kinds of men by speaking of kings and those in authority”.  If that’s the case, Paul must be placing a “categorical limitation” on the phrase “all” (same Greek word as in v.4) who are in authority” (v.2); he must then be referring to kinds, groups, and classes of authority.  If not, White is arbitrarily defining “all” according to and in support of his theological presuppositions.  Otherwise, why would “all” in v.2 be defined differently from “all” in v.4 and 6, and the parallel, v.1?

Paul is not making a “categorical limitation” but is simply and appropriately listing examples – specifically kings and, in general, those in authority – of those for whom the Church ought to especially pray given the political climate at his time (cf. IVP Bible Background Commentary, p.610).  As Martin Glynn, a member of the Society of Evangelical Arminians noted, “Paul is talking about authority in terms of saving a larger number of persons by converting leaders. So, if we pray for the emperor to be saved, and then he is, it will allow the gospel to spread easier.” 

Engaging the Context of 1 Timothy 2:1-6

1.  In 1 Tim 4:10, we read of Paul’s affirmation of God as the “Savior of all men, especially believers.”  He is not limiting God’s role as Savior of “all men” by inserting, “especially believers”.  He is merely noting the fact Christ died for all men (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 2:2) in order that they might obtain salvation but the effects of His saving work are applied only on the condition of “whosoever believes”.

2.   1 Tim 1:15 – “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”  Cf. 1 Tim 4:10; Rom 3:10-23; 5:12, “all [men] sinned”; 2 Cor 5:14-15.

3.  Again, in 1 Tim 1:15, “sinners” cannot refer only to certain classes or kinds of men or have a “categorical limit”.  If all men are affirmed as sinners or all men in every group and kind are sinners, then all men “without limit” are contemplated as those for whom Christ came into the world to save, whether it is every individual or every individual within every group and kind.  That only believers are effected is besides the point here made, which is that Christ died for all men as sinners (cp. 2:4,6; 4:10).  The atonement rendered by Christ has universal intention.

4.  In 2:5-6, Paul reaffirms Jesus’ role as the Savior of all men as sinners.  In verse 5, he asserts Christ as mediator between “God and men” (RSV: “between God and humankind”), and that mediation is between God and men as sinners, or “all men” for “all have sinned”.  No “categorical limitation” is suggested; no individuals are excluded.  In verse 6, Christ is viewed as the “ransom for all”, namely men as sinners (v.5), that is, all men without limit (if all men without limit are sinners).  Of course, the word “men” is omitted from v.6, however, it is assumed that “all” refers to “men” mentioned in v.5.

5.  In 2 Tim 2:24, the Church is exhorted to “be gentle to all (same Greek word use in 1 Tim 2:4)”, by implication, men whether believer or unbeliever.  Are we to be gentle only to certain groups, classes, or kinds of men (e.g. kings and those in authority) or all men without exception?

Challenges from Theological Study Resources

White also attempts to support his argument on the basis of the Greek language.  However, looking to theological study resources to determine the validity of White’s argument, I find it unconvincing.

If his argument and conclusions are correct, why are there so many competent scholars who challenge his interpretation of 1 Tim 2:4 as “all men without limit”, that is, the human race, rather than "all classes of men"?  I would think that many scholars, especially of the Calvinistic persuasion, would agree with White’s assessment of the text.  However, such is not the case, for example:

1.   “…God wants all men to know the truth and that Christ gave his life for all mankind” (J.N.D Kelly, Black’s NT Commentary, p.60; emphasis his).

2.   God “is willing that all should be saved by believing…Our prayers ought to include all, as God’s grace includes all” (Jamieson, Faussett, Brown, A Commentary, vol.3, part 3, p.484; his emphasis).

3.   “We must also pray for all men, for the world of mankind in general” because “God will have all men to be saved…he has a good will to the salvation of all” (Matthew Henry Commentary, vol.6, p.811f; emphasis his).

4.   “This statement is in accord with John 3:16 and with the declaration in 2 Corinthians 5:14,15 that Christ died for all.  Salvation has been provided for all…” (Ralph Earle, Expositors Bible Commentary, vol.11, p.358).

5.   “This passage cannot mean, as many have supposed, that God wills that all kinds of men should be saved, or that some sinners of every rank and class may be saved…” (Barnes’ Notes on the NT, 1 vol., p.1134).

6.   “From hence our Savior’s commission and command is universal…he excludes no people, no person…” (Matthew Poole’s Commentary, vol.3, p.777).

7.    “The scope of the prayer is universal including all kinds of sinners (and saints)” (Robertson Word Pictures, vol.4, p.567).

8.   “Prayer to God for all is acceptable to him, because he wills the salvation of all…willeth, marking a determinate purpose” (Vincent Word Studies, 4:218).

9.   “The universality of the grace is grounded in the unity of God…One divine purpose for all implies one God who purposes…As the one God, so the one mediator implies the extension of the saving purpose to all” (Ibid,. vs.5, p.218).

10.   “The literal Greek is, ‘who willeth all men’...marks a determinate purpose…It is possible for all men to be saved, because over them are not many Gods…but one only” (Wuest Word Studies, p. 40f).

11.   Finally, to my knowledge, no Bible versions support White’s interpretation, e.g., NRSV, NASB, NIV, NET, TEV, CSB, ESV, NEB, Tyndale, Moffat, Fenton, Lamsa, Cassirer, Schonfield, etc.

None of the above Bibles or theological resources suggest there is a “categorical limitation on [Paul’s] words” that would require a meaning that does not apply universally to mankind.  However, they do affirm that “all men” means exactly how it reads, “all men”, that is, “all men without limit”; none excluded.  Furthermore, “all men” is meant whether or not one understands the text to speak of all men as individuals or as individuals within kinds, groups, or classes.

Challenges from the Church Fathers

The Church Fathers also challenge White when they contemplate Biblical revelation as demonstrating God’s intent in salvation to be for “all men without limit” as follows:

1.   “For God is a lover of mankind ‘and will have all men to be saved…’.” (Ignatius to the Philadelphians, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.1, p.80).

2.   “…the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all…in order that by His stripes the human race might be healed…” (Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, ibid., p.247).

3.   “He destroys no one but grants salvation to all” (Clement of Alexandria, Fathers, vol.2, p. 575).

4.   “…the blood of Christ…has set the grace of repentance before the whole world” (Clement of Rome, ibid., vol.1, p.7).

Although more might be said, I must end here with a couple of brief comments.

Concluding Remarks

White’s comments regarding the mediation of Christ seems (a) based upon his own eisegetical presuppositions; (b) to betray an erroneous understanding of the Biblical view regarding Jesus’ mediation; and (c) a misunderstanding of the Arminian view of the atonement.

Dr. Olson’s “simplistic interpretation” of the text might be simply because he follows the plain meaning of the text, which seems to require no interpretive gymnastics to understand it.

Appendix: Further Resources

"O Lord, teach me..."  - Psalm 119:11


  1. No gymnastics at all...clearly "all" has to be read in its context and here we find Paul using "all" to mean types as indicated by vss. 5-6 (referring to Christ's mediatorial role for "all" men). Unless you are a universalist, the all here must be limited to those who have been predestined and elected for salvation. To give another example of Paul's use of a limited "all" in this same epistle is in ch. 6:10 (where the NIV gets it right and translates the Gk. 'pas' as "all kinds."

  2. Bruce, from my perspective, it seems your understanding of "all" has a theological position as it's basis and not the Bible as it reveals divine truth.

    It also seems that your objection is based on Calvinist presuppositions, which I do not hold. Also, that you would suggest one must be a universalist who opposes your opinion just shows how you do not understand what truly is my position.

    In any case, you did not pose any objections to my specific arguments except to add one verse (1 Tm 6:10) and argue your position from there, so there is not much else I can say.