“Communication Breakdown over John 3:16: A Reply to Guillaume Bignon and James A. Gibson”
by Brian Abasciano
I recently responded to the use of an untenable grammatical argument regarding John 3:16 that contends that the Greek text does not include the meaning of “whoever” used by various translations (e.g., NASB; NIV; ESV; RSV; NKJV). In that response, I indicated that Guillaume Bignon and James A. Gibson gave some approval to that claim by James White in their post, “For God So Loved the World: A Calvinist Response to Richard Brian Davis.” They now claim in a response to me that they did not approve of that claim by White and are actually non-committal on it. I question that this was communicated clearly in their previous post and will address that below. But they have more to say than just that in response to my article, and I would like to respond systematically to their comments. They make four basic points of clarification in relation to their post and mine. I will address each in turn.
(1) First, Bignon and Gibson clarify: “Our argument does not depend on which translation of the verse one prefers.”
My reply: I knew that and did not give any indication to the contrary. I was focused on the grammatical claim they seemed to make. That is what I was addressing in my article. Whoever reads my article (or I could say with the same basic meaning, everyone who reads my article) should see that I only addressed the grammatical claims about conditionality, definiteness, translation, etc.
(2) Second, Bignon and Gibson clarify: “We endorsed neither a translation of the verse, nor White’s argument, nor Anderson’s argument.”
My reply: This is puzzling on more than one count. First, something inconsequential: They mention that they did not specifically endorse James Anderson’s argument (which is basically the same as White’s) even though they linked to it. But as far as I can tell, they never mentioned or linked to Anderson at all. I brought Anderson into the discussion by mentioning him and his argument. As I said, this is inconsequential. But I wonder if I am missing something. As far as I can tell, they never mentioned Anderson until their most recent post, after I brought him up in mine.
Second, and substantially, re-reading their comments, they do seem to approve of White’s argument. Here is the relevant section of their post:
James White has responded that the participial phrase, πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, is best rendered “everyone believing”. There is no universal quantifier “whoever” in the text. So it appears that Davis’ argument depends on the presence of a word that is not there. But Davis points out in a subsequent piece that his argument does not depend on that word. [From Bignon and Gibson’s original post; emphasis original]
To me, this looks like Bignon and Gibson’s summary of White’s argument: “James White has responded that the participial phrase, πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, is best rendered ‘everyone believing’. There is no universal quantifier ‘whoever” in the text.’” And then this looks like their inference from that summary (note the inferential conjunction ‘so’ beginning the sentence): “So it appears that Davis’ argument depends on the presence of a word that is not there.” And that is what appears to approve of White’s view. Now it could be taken as part of their summary of White’s argument, that he infers that Davis’ argument “depends on the presence of a word that is not there.” But that does not sound like White. That is not the way he made his argument. Moreover, the very next and final sentence continues to talk about Davis in a way that seems to be in continuity with the perspective just employed (it appears Davis’ argument depends on a word that is not there . . . but Davis points out . . .), but that sentence is clearly Bignon and Gibson’s own view (it could not be characterizing White’s response to Davis since it speaks of a subsequent development).
Now, it is certainly possible that Bignon and Gibson were still summarizing White’s view in that third sentence. Indeed, they say that is what they were doing. I take them at their word. But surely they can excuse me for thinking they were approving White’s position. It would behoove them to take responsibility for not communicating clearly there rather than chide me for thinking they approved White’s view. That could have been accomplished by something as simple as adding “to White” to the third sentence in the paragraph at issue, like so: “So it appears to White that Davis’ argument depends on the presence of a word that is not there.”
(3) Bignon and Gibson clarify: “Davis himself agrees with us that the debate does not hang on the translation of the verse.”
My Reply: I also knew that and did not give any indication to the contrary. As I mentioned above, I was focused on the grammatical claim that “whoever” is not in the text of John 3:16. Bignon and Gibson assert that, “Abasciano seems to have missed that Rich Davis himself takes the cogency of his argument to not depend on the presence of the word ‘whoever’.” But that is not the case. I saw a fallacious claim regarding the Greek grammar of John 3:16 and wanted to correct that, because it is an egregiously baseless claim and can be misleading to those who do not know Greek, and it gets used substantially by some, even if not Bignon and Gibson. There appeared to be several Calvinist scholars using the argument in different ways. It was not very important to Bignon and Gibson’s argument, but they still seemed to me to be propagating the error in their post. I was also concerned that their approval of it could give it some respectability. So it seemed that it was worth drawing attention to. Moreover, I did not know if Rich Davis would make use of the fact (as Greek scholar William Mounce calls it) that “whoever” really is in the text of John 3:16 for the discussion. Perhaps he would add argumentation for his case given that it is not seriously questionable whether that meaning is present.
Bignon and Gibson wonder whether I “think that the presence of that word [whoever] plays a necessary role in Davis’ argument for the conclusion that Calvinism renders John 3:16 either false or trivially true.” I do not think so, in which case Bignon and Gibson maintain, “then his dispute is with Anderson and White in particular, and he has wrongly named us in his response as having made an embarrassing mistake.” It does appear that my dispute is with Anderson and White, but in accordance with my comments under # 2 above, I do not think I was unreasonable to think that Bignon and Gibson made the same embarrassing mistake. In fact, I think they bear responsibility for my getting their position wrong.
(4) Bignon and Gibson clarify: “Abasciano does not engage our argument.”
My reply: That is true. As I have stated in this response, my focus was on the grammatical claim that John 3:16 does not include the generic meaning “whoever.” I do believe that John 3:16 militates against Calvinism, but have not chosen to get into the debate between Bignon and Gibson vs. Davis on those additional matters at this time. I was letting Davis take care of that. Frankly, I do not have time at present to do so. But I would love to! But when I saw a relatively simple grammatical error being made, I thought I could address it in an effective way that would not take too much time. I look forward to Davis’ response to Bignon and Gibson.