One of the big blockbusters of the 80’s was the movie “Footloose.” I’m sure you’re familiar with it. We might think it should have won an award for worst use of the Bible in a movie ever, but if you’ve ever seen any horror or apocalyptic movie, you’d rank it as second tier to these. However, the scene where Kevin Bacon walks in and reads about David dancing, in order to somehow justify putting on a modern dance, is just too funny, as though a minister would actually have been stumped by that. Obviously, David is dancing to and for the Lord. He dances in celebration of victory and in thanksgiving. He’s not dancing as foreplay to sexual immorality, as modern dancing usually is. What is so funny about it is that any minister worth his two cents would immediately know that context determines what kind of dancing is being talked about. The context is everything, as it lets us know if we’ve interpreted a word or phrase correctly in terms of its referents (i.e., to what type of dance or whatever the text is talking about). This brings me to another word that is misused by many people due to lack of considering context: the word “all.”
“All means all and that’s all that it means.” Ever hear this from the pulpit of a fundamentalist church? It’s a common rebuttal in fundamentalist circles against the Calvinistic claim that God does not seek to save all people. And there are a few passages, if just read with the assumption that “all” means “all,” where it seems that God does want to save all people. Here are a few examples:
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. (1 Tim 2:3)
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. (2 Pet 3:9)
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men. (Titus 2:11)
Read very superficially, and without any knowledge of the original language (or frankly, just any knowledge concerning how language works, period), one simply concludes, based upon these texts, that God wants to save everyone without exception. “All” means “all” and that’s all that it means.
The problem with this, however, is that “all” doesn’t just mean “all” in the sense that the fundamentalist is using it. In fact, it almost always doesn’t mean everything without exception, or in linguistic terms, it’s quantification is not always, and indeed only rarely, unlimited. In other words, “all” means all sorts of things.
This is because words work in a context. They don’t carry meanings that transcend the context in such a way as to ignore or determine the meaning of what is being said as a whole. Hence, when the word “all” is applied to something unlimited, it carries an unlimited connotation with it, but when in a context of something limited, it does not. Ergo, context is king. It rules the words within it. It fashions them and gives nuance to them, so that communication is possible. To ignore the context is to ignore what is being said. It’s just that plain and simple. Let me give you some examples before I explain these passages in context:
If I say to a group of three people, after a fun-filled outing, “A good time was had by all,” the “all” there does not mean everyone in the entire world went out with us and had fun. It is limited by the context to refer to the three people that were included in the outing. “All” does not just mean all. Now, in walks the fundamentalist who accuses his wife as going out with us when she was supposed to stay home and watch the kids. She swears to him that she did, but he doesn’t believe her, because I just said, “A good time was had by all.” In his logic, this means that a good time was had by everyone in the world (including his wife—and himself, even though he wasn’t there). Of course, this is absurd. He would never conclude this, because he too knows that “all” has a context and does not refer to everyone in the world. But what if someone tried to convince him that I had just said that his wife did go because I used the word “all”? Would anyone take this seriously? No, and neither should you when you hear this from the pulpit.
Again, let’s suppose that I hand out an assignment to write a paper on the theological diversity of the Old Testament, and say, “I expect everyone to be done by next week.” Should the class conclude that everyone in the world is now assigned the paper and needs to get it done by next week? Should they go home and tell their sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, to get crackin’ on the paper? Again, we understand that context is important.
Context is made up of the other words used in a text, the historical setting, and the audience being addressed. To ignore any of these in one’s study of the word “all” is just irresponsible and will lead to a misunderstanding of what is being said.
Now, second to this is a difference in language. In our language, we express quantification in different ways, and usually we add words to express different kinds of quantification. So instead of using just the word “all,” we use “all of you,” “all of them,” “every,” “everyone,” “all kinds of,” “all sorts of,” “entire,” “whole,” “a large portion of,” “a good amount of,” “the bulk of,” etc. We do this because these words provide context to what we mean.
In Hebrew and Greek, however, this is not usually the case. The words lk and pa~v are used to refer to all of the above. The context must determine what exactly is meant by them.
Hence, when the Bible says that God killed off kôl “all” the livestock (Exod 9:6). Well, all means all, right? The only problem is that in vv. 19-21 the Egyptians still have livestock that are living. What “all” actually means here is “all kinds of,” referring to the fact that all species of livestock were affected, not just some species.
Again, the Israelites kill off “all” of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua (24:18—“drove out” likely means “to destroy” in these war contexts), but in the book of Judges, numerous Canaanite groups are walking around just fine and dandy (in fact, they’re oppressing the Israelite tribes because they’re so numerous). What happened to “all” there? “All” obviously refers to a larger portion of, or even the representative powers of, not everyone without exception.
So what do we make of the three passages cited above?
In First Timothy 2:1, Paul says that he wants the Christians he is instructing through Timothy to pray for everyone (“all men”). He clarifies what he means by “all” here as including kings and those in authority. Apparently, the issue was that many Christians began to think that the gospel was just for the poor and oppressed, and not for those who have power. Those in power were seen as evil (and there is much support for such an idea when one views the types of activities rulers were involved in at the time). But Paul here is saying that people within all classes or positions should be prayed for, not just people within lower social groups. This provides context for what he means by saying that God wishes for “all” men to be saved. In other words, “all” refers to people from all ranks in life, not just a certain kind of person. This is the “all” of classification or kind (species) again. It refers to the fact that all social classes are represented in Christianity and out of all of them, Christians are made. To put it plainly, God desires that people from every class be saved, not just people from one class. This is talking, then, about quantification in terms of social groups, not every person in the world.
In Second Peter 3, Peter is arguing against the idea that Christ will not return. Instead, he says that Christians should consider it as God’s patience toward the “all” He does not desire to perish. But to whom does the “all” refer here? This is even made explicit by additional words to pas in the context. The all is “all of you” (3:9). When referring to people who are not saved, Peter speaks of “they” or “their” and talks about them as ungodly men for whom the coming destruction is being reserved (vv. 5-7). God is patient, not toward the entire world, as though time has something to do with people repenting. All time does is make sinners harder and worse sinners than they were before. Time does nothing. But if God has decided to elect Christians from all places and times, having set the time of their birth and repentance in the future, then He awaits for them to come to Him, and His patience, therefore, is toward “you,” i.e., the people of the Christian community, i.e., the elect. Hence, it is none of “you” that He wishes to lose, but wants all of “you” (i.e., those of your group as opposed to the ungodly who will not believe and are being reserved for the coming judgment) to come to repentance. The “all” here, then, refers to the elect, present and future, not everyone in the world. Again, pas is almost never used this way, especially when it refers to groups of people or distinguishes between one group and another.
Finally, in Titus 2, Paul says this as a conclusion to what he just said in verses 1-10 concerning how Christians in different age groups and stations in life should conduct themselves toward one another. His point is that salvation has appeared to “all sorts of men,” or “all kinds of people,” not just people within one particular age group or social class. It doesn’t mean that salvation has been shown to all people on the planet (that’s not true within any system but a universalist one).
Context is important. Words are determined by them, rather than determining them; but I fear, after even making it clear, that many will not allow their traditions, built upon the sand of a bad understanding of the word “all,” gained from an absurd lexicography that doesn’t allow context to nuance the word, will simply go on to believe otherwise. What has always baffled me, of course, is how they can ignore all of the verses that indicate God’s election and desire to withhold salvation and repentance from certain people without seeing themselves as being biblically unfaithful. The Calvinist can explain the passages above with a robust lexicography that exegetes the passage from what it says. Can the Arminian do the same with passages such as John 12:37-40:
But though He had performed so many signs before them, [yet] they were not believing in Him. [This was] to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet which he spoke: "Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, "He has blinded their eyes and He hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them."
Notice, “for this reason they could not believe.” For what reason? Because God was fulfilling His Word/decree concerning them. They were not going to be given the power to believe. In fact, when it says “they could not believe,” the Greek literally says, “they did not have the power/ability to believe.” This is reminiscent of Christ’s words earlier in 6:44-45: "No one can [lit. “has the power/ability to”] come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. "It is written in the prophets, `And they shall all be taught of God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.
It is not only important that the immediate context be considered, but the biblical context as well. Hence, the Calvinist can exegete these passages faithfully without distorting them, but the Arminian must ignore or rearrange them in some way in order to get them to say something else. The great irony, of course, is that using the other texts to undermine texts like the one above, because of the linguistically naïve notion that “all” just means “all” ends up denying what “all” really means within its respective contexts.
(As an aside, what got me thinking about this again was this post by Dan Wallace concerning 1 Thes 5:21 http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2011/10/avoid-every-appearance-of-evil-2/). Obviously, I don’t care for Dan’s shout out to Piper’s Christian hedonism and the claim that the Pharisees are the ones who restrict people [I can’t think of something more restricting than the Sermon on the Mount that is spoken in contradiction to the less restrictive, and excuse-oriented, practices of the Pharisees]—I find his interpretation of them to be superficial—but I do agree with the main thrust of his exegesis and what he says there in general. I'll likely discuss the New Testament view of Christian freedom and contrast with the modern evangelical view--which are not the same thing-- in a later post)