A Response to James Anderson on John 3:16
by Brian Abasciano
James Anderson has responded to my article debunking the claim made by some Calvinists such as himself and James White concerning the term “whoever” in John 3:16. According to an earlier article by Anderson, including “whoever” in the translation of John 3:16 is “quite misleading because it suggests a note of indefiniteness and conditionality which isn’t in the text.” In responding to me, Anderson says he has little to add to responses to me from Guillaume Bignon and James A. Gibson, and from James White. I would point out that prior to the appearance of Anderson’s latest article in this discussion, I responded to Bignon and Gibson in writing (see here) and to White in audio form on a podcast (see here). In light of the clarifications provided by the exchange between myself and Bignon/Gibson (they did not mean to approve of the view of White or Anderson, but were remaining neutral for the purposes of their original article), both parties have agreed that the dispute is really between me vs. Anderson and White (though part of my podcast response to White could be applied to their original article to show why it fails to establish that Calvinism is consistent with John 3:16). The podcast response to White I gave prior to Anderson’s latest article could also serve as a broad, and in some ways, fuller response to Anderson’s latest comments. But I will provide an explicit response to Anderson here with encouragement for readers to listen to that podcast.
In response to my pointing out that πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων in John 3:16 coveys a generic subject, conditionality, and the meaning of “whoever believes,” Anderson responds, “I don’t disagree. I don’t deny that ‘whoever believes’ is a legitimate translation. Rather, what I suggested is that those English words can convey a sense of indefiniteness that Arminians commonly assume supports their position even though that kind of indefiniteness isn’t implied by the text itself” (emphasis original; so with all quotations of Anderson in this article). But that is not what he said in his article. Here is what he said: “The . . . phrase, pas ho pisteuōn eis auton, is sometimes translated ‘whosoever believes in him,’ but that’s quite misleading because it suggests a note of indefiniteness and conditionality which isn’t in the text.” There is no mention of there being generality, conditionality, or a legitimacy to translating with “whoever believes.” Indeed, Anderson explicitly says that translating with “whosoever believes” is “quite misleading.” Moreover, regarding what John 3:16 says, he later concludes, “There’s nothing hypothetical, conditional, or indefinite here.”
Now if Anderson is telling us that what he meant by what he said was that even though the Greek does use an indefinite construction, the English words can convey a sense of indefiniteness that the Greek does not, we should take him at his word. But it should be acknowledged that he did not communicate that in any intelligible way. Moreover, that position still gets the Greek grammar wrong. Just how is it that the English might convey a sense of indefiniteness that the Greek does not? The truth is, there is no discernible difference between the English in question and the Greek with regard to indefiniteness. I think it would be telling for Anderson to attempt to explain the nature of the indefiniteness that the English can convey and what it is about the English that does so and then do the same for the Greek.
Anderson admits that there is a conditionality in the text of John 3:16. He articulates it thus: “if one believes in the Son then one will not perish but have eternal life.” That is indeed the sense of the text, though “if anyone believes in the Son, then that one will not perish but have eternal life” would better capture its indefiniteness. Still, these renderings are essentially the same. But one wonders why Anderson ever appealed to the Greek. He only played down the conditionality in John 3:16 in his original article. And there is nothing in the Greek that weakens the conditionality of the English translation, “whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
Anderson claims that, “What the Arminian needs to make his case is the claim that everyone (whether elect or non-elect) is able to believe in the Son.” But why is that when the issue being discussed relative to John 3:16 is limited vs. unlimited atonement? I was only correcting an erroneous claim about the Greek of the verse against a natural generic, indefinite, conditional reading of it. Nevertheless, I do think that John 3:16 in context implies that God would enable everyone to believe if they were not able to do so on their own (an inability other passages establish) and make the argument for that in my podcast response to James White mentioned above. I will address the point briefly below after considering Anderson’s comments on the generic subject of John 3:16.
Anderson states, “I gladly concede that there’s a generic subject in John 3:16, but that generic subject is restricted to believers.” That is true as far as it goes. But in the context of Anderson’s article it betrays an overly restrictive view of the text (see below). Next, he says, “The point is that everyone who believes — regardless of ethnicity, age, sex, social class, etc. — will be saved.” This is totally correct. But Anderson begins to take a wrong turn in the very next sentence. “There’s a kind of universalism here (if we want to use that term) but it’s a universalism limited to believers.” It is not that salvation is not limited to believers. It is. Rather, the problem is that Anderson limits his attention to the last part of the sentence and so fails to take proper account of the context and to connect the generic subject “whoever believes” to the love of God for the world and to the sacrifice of Christ for the world, which issued forth in the condition for salvation of faith in Christ.
While John 3:16 limits salvation to believers, the universalism of the text is not limited to believers. For the divinely established condition that whoever believes in Christ will be saved is an expression of God’s love for the world, that is, sinful humanity, which amounts to all humanity. Moreover, the sacrifice of Christ was for the world. And the indefinite, generic construction bearing the sense of whoever refers to whoever from the world believes in Christ. All of this implies that God wants all people to believe and be saved since he loves them and sacrificed his son for them. And that further implies that God would enable everyone to believe who was not able to do so on their own since, again, he loves them and sacrificed his son for them so that they would be saved if they believe. The universalism of John 3:16 includes God’s love for all and the resulting provision to all of the condition for salvation, to believe and be saved, as well as the actual salvation of those who embrace the salvation offered to them in Christ.
John 3:16 indicates that Jesus died for sinful humanity, and that those who believe among that group will be saved. This strongly supports unlimited atonement and militates against limited atonement. It is natural to speak of an action taken for the benefit of a group that only benefits those who avail themselves of the benefit, that is, those who meet the condition for enjoying the benefit. If I say the teacher loved her class so much that she bought general money gift cards (which function like cash) for the class so that whoever asked for one could have one, it is obvious and natural to take that to mean that the gift cards were bought for the whole group, but their obtaining of the benefit of the cards was conditional on students asking for it. It was a provision made for the whole group out of the teacher’s good will toward the whole group, but only some from the group enjoy the benefit because they met the condition.
It would be bizarre to suggest that the teacher in our illustration bought the cards only for certain students or that the cards were not bought for all the students. Similarly, this same type of language in John 3:16 indicates that the death of Christ was for all, for the whole group of sinful humanity, providing a benefit for the whole group, but enjoyed only by those who take it. This is the natural way to take the language. Indeed, it can hardly be taken any other way. Think of any parallel type of statement in which some benefit is said to be given for a group and a condition is identified for receiving it, i.e., doing something for the benefit of a group so that whoever from the group accepts it receives the benefit.
It is difficult to match the intensity of John 3:16 with human examples because of the immensity of God’s love, the unlimited nature of his resources, the immensity of his sacrifice, his ability to regard each and every person in the world, and the eternal stakes in play. But perhaps we can match the intensity of John 3:16 a little better with a thought experiment employing an extreme human example. Imagine that there is a deadly disease that has infected a whole town that is geographically isolated from the rest of the world. A woman who is a doctor discovers that her only child, a son, has a special immunity from which the cure could be created (she has the immunity too, but the cure could not be created from her), but the procedure to make the medicine would kill him. Only she knows about it. She could say nothing and her son would live. In addition, the whole town, every single person in it, hates the doctor and her family and has treated them terribly. But we are told by an infallible source that at the doctor’s request, the doctor’s son was willing to give his life, and that the doctor loved the town by giving her only son in order that whoever takes the medicine would not die but live. Would this statement be compatible with the suggestion that the mother/doctor did not sacrifice her son for the whole town or that she did not want everyone in the town to be saved from the disease? And does it not imply that she would do anything she could to help someone take the medicine who could not do so on his own? Would she sacrifice her son for the town, but then do nothing to help people take the medicine if she could help them?
Anderson says, “I have no problem at all with saying ‘whoever believes will be saved,’ but the emphasis has to land on believes.” And I have no problem with seeing the emphasis on “believes.” John is surely emphasizing the condition for salvation. However, the other aspects of the text must remain in view too, and “believes” must be properly related to them. It is not as if an emphasis on the condition for salvation erases other indications of the text. And it is not as if God’s love for the world and his sacrifice of his son and the indefinite, generic sense of “whoever” is unrelated to “believes.” While John’s emphasis is on the condition for salvation — believing — he nonetheless indicates that the provision that saves was made for sinful humanity and that the very condition that whoever believes will be saved is an expression of God’s love for the world, implying that God wants all to believe and be saved and that he would surely help anyone unable to believe to be able to do so — he sacrificed his son for them after all. The condition that whoever believes will be saved could not be an expression of God’s love for the world if most (or at least much) of the world cannot meet the condition when God can easily enable them to do so yet will not.
Anderson well states that, “The force of John 3:16 is this: no matter who you are — whoever you are — if you believe in the Son then you will be saved.” That is exactly right. But he goes on to approvingly quote a misguided comment from a blog that claims that, “The sense of pas ho pisteuon is both definite and indefinite, depending on where your semantic emphasis is. It is definite in that it concretely portrays a whole group receiving a particular reward (the believing). It is indefinite in the sense that it says nothing about the number or identity of those who are believing.” The last sentence of this quote is true and is what is meant by saying that the construction is indefinite. But the claim that the construction is also definite (in another way) is confused.
It is true that John 3:16 indicates that believers as a class will be saved. But I addressed the grammar of the construction πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, and it is not normal grammatical language to speak of a construction being definite based on it portraying something as taking place concretely (by which the quote seems to mean in actuality; if it means the type of action in view, then ironically grammatical terminology would indicate this as an indefinite construction). It is almost as if Anderson wants to be able to use the language of definiteness because he sees some support for limited/definite atonement in doing so. But if so, grammatical terminology does not accommodate him.
Anderson points out that the purpose clause of John 3:16 “indicates that the Father’s plan in sending the Son was directed specifically at the salvation of believers.” From what we have said above, this is misleading. While it is true that the sending of the Son was to save only believers, it also established, as an act of love for the world, the condition of faith in Christ for salvation by which anyone could be saved such that if anyone from the world, no matter who it might be, believes, then that person will be saved. Thus, the sending of the Son was directed at the salvation of all in that the condition was provided to all to believe and be saved. This is akin to someone with the antidote to a deadly poison telling a group of people dying from that poison that he came with the antidote out of good will for the group in order that whoever takes the antidote will be saved. Clearly in such a statement, the coming of the person with the antidote is aimed at the salvation of all dying from the poison.
Anderson adds, “Within that group [believers], salvation is indiscriminate. But there’s a definite group in view in that purpose clause, rather than the entire human race.”
It is true that John 3:16 entails that salvation is indiscriminate within the group of believers. The conditional sense of the construction used makes that clear. If someone believes, whoever it is, whatever else might be true of him, he will be saved. Everyone who believes will be saved.
However, since Anderson refers to James White’s comments in response to my article as excellent, one wonders if Anderson’s statement about salvation being indiscriminate within the group of believers takes its lead from White’s bizarre and impossible position that the sense of “whoever” in the text of John 3:16 refers to “whoever among the group of believers” and so emphasizes that there is no difference between one believer and another with respect to salvation.* The text does convey that indiscriminacy, but it does not come from the sense of “whoever” somehow referring to “whoever among the group of believers.” The sense of “whoever” actually applies among the group for whom the benefit was given—the world, that is, the entire human race. And the indiscriminacy of salvation among the group of believers comes in part from the generic, indefinite, and as mentioned above, conditional nature of the construction that is used. While it is certainly true that salvation is indiscriminate within the group of believers, the sense of “whoever” in context means that availability of the condition for salvation is indiscriminate within the entire human race, an act of God’s love for the world.
I did not intend to get into the entirety of the debate about whether John 3:16 is compatible with limited atonement or Calvinism. My original aim was to correct a grammatical error being used by some Calvinist scholars to support their position on John 3:16. I thought I could effectively address that specific aspect of the debate in a succinct way, leaving broader issues to be debated by others for the time being. With my podcast response to White and this article, I have now been drawn into the debate more broadly. But as much as I can, for time sake I would like to keep my involvement at present limited to the grammatical question. On that score, there was no valid reason for Anderson to appeal to the Greek of John 3:16. It does not convey any appreciably less indefiniteness or conditionality than the English, “whoever believes in him.” Part of my concern is that a scholar such as Anderson asserting that the Greek supports his position gives his claims an air of authority in the perception of the average believer, who does not know Greek. “The Greek says . . .” in support of a position can carry a lot of weight. But in this case, the Greek does not support the position being advocated, and that should be made clear.
* In my podcast response to White, I misspoke in part of my explanation of the problem with his position that the sense of “whoever” in John 3:16 refers to “whoever of this defined group of believers.” White makes much of the idea that John 3:16 speaks of the group of believers. Part of my response mentioned that John 3:16 does not refer to the group of believers, but uses the singular, demanding that White’s position of “whoever among the group of believers” would really have to be “whoever among the believer,” which is nonsensical. However, the verse uses the generic singular, which, in the view of most Greek grammarians, treats the individual as representative of a class, in this case, the class of believers. In this way, John 3:16 does speak about what is true of believers as a class. This is not something I meant to deny in my comments. I was pointing out that the individual phrasing used in the verse does not fit with White’s odd phrasing of the sense of “whoever” in the verse. Let me add that there is plenty more reason for finding White’s position impossible. More fundamentally, it does not fit with the conditional sense of the construction used or the related fact that the construction, which gives the sense of “whoever” to the verse, also carries the meaning of a relative clause. Greek scholar William Mounce (who is Reformed, counter to White’s confident claim that he is Arminian), has now addressed the notion White holds (“whoever among the group of believers”), confirming that it is not supported by the Greek text, but is rather reading a theology into the verse.