Friday, August 21, 2009

...but what about 1 Timothy 2:4?


…[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:4

1 Timothy 2:4 is one of the two most common prooftexts used to deny the doctrine of unconditional election. (The other is 2 Pet 3:9, already covered in this series.) Admittedly, on first glance it seems formidable.

But before we discuss that, let's take a quick theology refresher. The doctrine of unconditional election teaches that God has chosen some for salvation and that His choice is uninfluenced by any factor outside of His own person. He chooses according to His own good pleasure.

The related doctrine of predestination goes further teaching that God sets into motion the events that will inevitably lead to the salvation of those He has elected to save. In other words, not only does God choose to save certain individuals (election), He actually accomplishes it (predestination). And therein lies the conflict with 1 Timothy 2:4, so say those who would deny these doctrines. Their argument follows that if God chooses to save certain individuals to the exclusion of others, then how could Paul write in 1 Tim 2:4 that God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth? The two are incompatible, they say, therefore God does not unconditionally elect some, but truly desires to save all equally.

Open and shut case, right? Not exactly. In fact, like the case of 2 Peter 3:9, there is no possible interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:4 that turns out to help the Arminian’s argument. This is true because of the range of meaning of two words in the verse, “desires” and “all”.

The concept of God’s desire or will in the Bible can refer to two different ideas. First, there is God’s sovereign will, which refers to His eternal plan that includes literally everything that ever happens. It always succeeds, it cannot be thwarted, and it is meticulous in nature (Ps 33:11, 115:3; Isa 14:24-27, 46:9-10, 55:10-11; Dan 4:35; Eph 1:11). Second, there is God’s moral or revealed will. It includes all of the moral commands in Scripture, from the moral law in the Pentateuch to the imperative sections of the epistles. God "desires" that these commands be kept. So, in 1 Tim 2:4, “desires” must refer to one of these two concepts, either God’s sovereign will or His moral will.

The second word “all” can mean “all things or people without exception” (Eph 1:11), and “all kinds” (Exo 1:14). In order for the Arminian argument to ring true, the first definition must hold – “all” must mean “all people without exception.”

If we take the two possible meanings for “desire” and the two possible meanings of “all”, and look at each of the possible combinations, we end up with four ways to view this verse. We'll look at them one at a time. In the end, we’ll see that none of the four supports the Arminian’s case denying unconditional election.

The first interpretation holds that “all” means “all people without exception” and “desires” refers to God’s sovereign will. An expanded translation would be, “[God] sovereignly wills all people without exception to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

The second of the four interpretations holds that “all” means “all kinds,” and “desires” refers to God’s sovereign will. An expanded translation would then be, “[God] sovereignly wills all kinds of people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

The third interpretation holds that “all” means “all people without exception,” and “desires” refers to God’s moral will. An expanded translation for this interpretation would be, “[God] calls all people without exception to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

The fourth interpretation holds that “all” means “all kinds of people” and “desires” refers to God’s moral will. An expanded translation for this interpretation would be, “[God] calls all kinds of people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Before looking at the context, let me eliminate one of the above, the first interpretation that God sovereignly wills all people without exception to be saved. This one cannot be considered a viable interpretation since it would amount to universal salvation. Even though there are people who believe in such a concept, this does not work biblically due to the voluminous references in Scripture to the damnation of some sinners (John 3:36, Rom 2:5-8, Matt 13:41-42, 2 Pet 2:1-3, and Jude 7 to name a few). Eliminating this option now will tidy up the coming discussion.

That leaves us with options 2, 3, and 4. Let’s start with option 2, “[God] sovereignly wills all kinds of people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” How can we say that “all” means “all kinds” here? Vv1-2 are the key: 1 “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

“all people” at the end of v1 are the same Greek words we find in v4. This is why vv1-2 are so helpful – they define “all people” for us so that when we see the same words in v4, we know what the author means. How does he define “all people”? The beginning of v2 tells us: kings and all who are in high positions. This kind of phrase is referred to by grammarians as an appositional phrase. This simply means that it functions to define the noun or noun phrase that precedes it. That this is the case is supported by the fact that the same Greek preposition hyper – “for” – precedes both “all people” and “for kings and all who are in high positions,” without the conjunction “and” between them. For this reason, we know that the two phrases do not refer to two different groups, as if it read, “for all people and for kings…” Rather, the grammar itself dictates that we understand the two phrases to refer to the same group: “for all people, namely, kings and all who are in high positions.”

To say then that God sovereignly wills all kinds of people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth does nothing but strengthen the doctrine of election. This is a sound interpretation and the one held by many strong reformed apologists. If this is the correct interpretation, the Arminian argument is destroyed. That’s now two interpretations out of four that do not help a synergistic attempt to deny unconditional election.

I will tell you now that I do not hold this second view. I do not see anything in the context that indicates “desires” is referring to God’s sovereign will. I think a much more natural reading takes this to be a reference to God’s moral will. So that this post doesn’t go too long, I’ll save the third and fourth options for next time. I believe the correct interpretation is one of these two. I encourage you to take a look at this passage yourself and see which view you believe is correct.

8 comments:

Charles said...

Hi Greg,

Thanks for your post. So you read “desires” (thelo, #2309) in I Tim. 2:4 as God’s moral will, and “wishing” (boulomai, #1014) in II Peter 3:9 as God’s sovereign will?

-chuck

Herman Groenewald said...

If I look at scripture and the meaning of the words outlined in several scripture translations then I can only come to one conclusion as set out in the underlined note below, that God make the INVITATION and WANTS everyone to be saved.
But moreover John 3:16 is very clear and sets only on condition, in the end God looks at the heart and Jesus is the one who judges..

2Pe 1:10 So, friends, confirm God's invitation to you (MSG)
2Pe 1:10 Therefore, brothers and sisters, use more effort to make God's calling and choosing of you secure. (GW)

1Ti 2:4
(ASV) who would have all men to be saved
(GNB) who wants everyone to be saved
(GW) He wants all people to be saved
(ISV) who wants all people to be saved
(KJV+) Who will have all men to be saved
(MSG) He wants not only us but everyone saved

Will = resolve ,desire, wish
God Resolved/decided/wish/desire/wants to have

Joh 3:16 (GW) God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life.

Greg Birdwell said...

Chuck,
Yes, but not just because they are two different Greek words. They both have a range of meaning and the context determines the meaning each time it is used.

Greg Birdwell said...

Herman,
Forgive me, but I'm not sure I understand your point. I think maybe you're disagreeing with me?

Regarding the concept that God makes an invitation to all people to be saved, I couldn't agree more. I also agree that God "wants" all people to be saved. The question that I'm addressing in these posts is "in what sense does God want all people to be saved?"

I would caution you against basing any Scriptural interpretation on the definition of an English word in an English translation. These texts were written in Greek, so we need to look at the range of meaning for the Greek words.

Also, when you defined "will" at the bottom of your comment and then used each of the possible meanings with the subject "God" ("God Resolved/decided/wish/desire/wants to have"), you committed an exegetical fallacy that some refer to as illegitimate totality transfer. That simply means that you took each of the possible meanings of a word and transfered all of them into the text. Resolved, decided, wished, desired, and wants don't mean the same thing. They are possible meanings of the word "will". The proper objective is to determine which one of those is the intended meaning in these verses.

Charles said...

Hi Greg,

Can you comment some on your interpretations of these words in their contexts? I struggle to see a meaningful difference between them, but I'm willing to be convinced.

-chuck

Greg Birdwell said...

Chuck, are you struggling to see a difference between the two words or the two contexts?

The two words are virtually synonymous with very similar ranges of meaning. So my interpreting one as God's sovereign will and another as God's moral will is not based on the fact that they are different words, but rather that they are found in two different contexts.

The two contexts are quite different. In 2 Pet 3:9, God's will to save is being given as the reason why Christ has not returned. If this was a reference to His moral will, it would make no sense as a reason for Christ's tarrying - His moral will that all people repent and believe will never change. If it is a reference to His sovereign will, then it makes sense as the reason for Christ's tarrying, since His sovereign will for the salvation of the elect will at some point be fulfilled and there will be no more need to tarry.

I don't see anything in the context of 1 Tim 2:4 that would point toward God's sovereign will. That doesn't mean it can't be a reference to sovereignty and I would never want to be dogmatic about it. I just think that His moral will is a more natural reading there.

vizaviz said...

2 Timothy 2:25 seems to have a bearing on this. The language is precisely the same in Greek ("come to the knowledge of the truth"). Here there's "some" that are brought to the knowledge of the truth sovereignly via God's granting, compared to God's desire that "all" come to the knowledge of the truth.

Seems to me like a display of the "two wills" of God.

Greg Birdwell said...

Exactly right.

sitemeter