Rich Davis, “‘Whoever’ (of the Elect) Believes: A Reply to Bignon and Gibson”

, posted by SEA


3:16 (a) God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that (b) whoeverbelieves in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

On his Dividing Line podcast of March 27, 2018, James White, Director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, suggested that my Calvinist renderings of the underlined expressions in 3:16 engender such “fundamental errors” that there was no need for him to examine (the details of) the actual dilemma I posed in “Calvinism’s Gospel Tautology.” Here I am indebted to my friend Guillaume Bignon and to James Gibson (hereafter, B&G) for having descended into those details (see here). I think they push the discussion forward admirably.The dilemma, in brief, is this. On Calvinism of the standard variety (say, Sproul’s brand), “the world” doesn’t refer, ultimately, to each and every member of fallen humanity, but only a part thereof: the elect. But then given that there are at least two ways to read the quantifier “whoever” in 3:16, we have at least two Calvinist readings of the verse:

(WIDE) (a) God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that (b) whoever (of the elect and non-elect) believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

(NARROW) (a) God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that (b) whoever (of the elect) believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

WIDE, I argued, has Jesus asserting something pointless and absurd; NARROW has him uttering a tautology. Neither befits the Saviour.

The Narrow Focus

In this post, I want to focus solely on the narrow reading of 3:16. I have said it embodies a tautology. Well, how so? My argument here was premised on NARROW(b), which can be semi-formalized as:

(ELECT) For any x, if x is elect and x believes in Jesus, then x will not perish and x will have eternal life

which together with

(BELIEF) For any x, if x is elect, then x believes in Jesus


(TRIVIAL) For any x, if x is elect, then x will not perish and x will have eternal life.

Moreover, I noted that TRIVAL and BELIEF also entail ELECT. In the presence of BELIEF, therefore, ELECT and TRIVAL are equivalent propositions. But TRIVIAL is an analytic tautology. To say, e.g., that God has elected Mary (in the sense that the elect are elected), but Mary subsequently perishes or lacks eternal life is a contradiction in terms. Thus, the proposition Jesus expresses in uttering NARROW(b) is materially equivalent to an empty tautology.

Is TRIVIAL Pointless?

Now if I understand B&G correctly, they want to say that even if TRIVIAL is an analytic tautology, it’s still not pointless to have asserted it because it’s not pointless for Nicodemus. And it’s not pointless for him because it’s not analytic for him. For it “convey(s) information [one way or another] to Nicodemus.” Thus B&G:

What he [Nicodemus] apparently did not know…were the relations between belief in Jesus, election, and eternal life. That by itself does not prove that the statement is synthetic. But it is an indication that TRIVAL is not analytic so far as we consider what Nicodemus understands but does not believe (link).

Now this way of putting the matter is perhaps a bit misleading. For it is not as if analytic truths are analytic for some but not others. TRIVIAL is analytic or it is not. No doubt what B&G mean to say is merely that if TRIVIAL is analytic, Nicodemus didn’t see that it was. So he learned something.

A related example. At first I didn’t know a jot about geometry. But then Mrs. Hesby, my 2nd grade teacher, introduced me to the world of triangles. Thus in my case at least

(a)  I was informed that <Triangles are 3-sided>.

Nonetheless, having been thus informed, there wasn’t the slightest hint from Mrs. Hesby (or anyone thereafter) that I had permission to go on to infer

(b)  <Triangles are 3-sided> is informative.

The same thing goes in the present case. To be sure, on Calvinism, we can say that Nicodemus was informed that being elect includes not perishing and having eternal life. Fair enough. But my point lies in a different direction, namely, that the truth he was informed of is devoid of factual content:

TRIVIAL is about as informative as the analytic truth ‘All bachelors are unmarried and male’. It tells us nothing we didn’t already know by definition (“Calvinism’s Gospel Tautology” [link]).

This is not to say, of course, that we all do know this by definition (and thus that it was utterly pointless to have drawn this to Nicodemus’ attention). What I mean, rather (as the context suggests) is that TRIVIAL tells us nothing new–nothing beyond what is already included in the concept of its subject:  being elect. But then as far as its content goes, TRIVIAL isn’t news. And if not news, then not good news.

It seems to me that B&G have taken my critique of WIDE(b)–i.e., that it is “pointless and absurd” to assert it–and have applied it to NARROW(b), and then based their critique on that. It’s just a misunderstanding–no doubt due to a lack of clarity on my part than any expository inadequacy on theirs.

Alas, however, B&G may have a deeper point here. For they deny that NARROW(b) embodies a tautology.1 In that case, however, it could count as good news. It’s not a tautology because it’s not even an analytic truth. They have four points to press.2

Is TRIVIAL Analytic?

Point 1:

Although it is true that the elect will have eternal life, it is not an analytic truth. For if it were, then the debate between Sadducees and Pharisees would not be a substantive dispute at all, but a merely verbal dispute due to confusion over “elect”.

I have two comments. First, this line of reasoning is inconclusive. My argument, you’ll recall, is that TRIVIAL is analytic given certain Calvinist premises. What B&G note is that if this were so, the Pharisee-Sadducee debate wouldn’t be “substantive”; it would be “merely verbal.” That’s right. Now B&G take this to be a reason for thinking TRIVIAL is non-analytic. But if so, then (given my argument) it’s also a reason for questioning those Calvinist premises. So this first point from B&G (just on its own) doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, and actually supports the case I was making.

Second, it isn’t clear to me what B&G mean when they tell us “it is not an analytic truth” that “the elect will have eternal life.” Do they mean to assert

(1) The proposition The elect will have eternal life could have been false;

or perhaps

(2) The persons who (as things in fact stand) are elect could have been non-elect?

Looking at my original post (see here), I think we can safely conclude that (on Calvinist premises) I take the concepts not perishing and having eternal life to be included in the concept of being elect. That is to say, you can impute to me the view that the proposition anyone who is elect has eternal life is an analytic truth on Calvinism. For all those who are elect (on the system) receive irresistible grace, and thus cannot help believing in Jesus (or perhaps, on B&G’s startling proposal, the incarnate Holy Spirit who dies for our sins). On either scheme of salvation, the elect won’t perish but have eternal life.

Thus if B&G want to affirm (1), what they are affirming is contradictory. If, on the other hand, they are only claiming that (2) is true, that wouldn’t call into question anything I’ve said. For there are no doubt other possible worlds in which those who are elect as a matter of fact (i.e., elect in the actual world) are non-elect. That is perfectly possible; so (2) is true. It in no way follows that (1) is also true. You might as well argue that since George, a bachelor, could have been married, it follow that all bachelors are unmarried could have been false.

Point 2:

For most analytic statements (or all those we can think of), if someone knows the meaning of the terms of the statement, then probably not much argumentation would be required to convince such a person of its truth…

A few small points. First, like Point 1, what B&G say here isn’t meant to be conclusive; it doesn’t purport to prove that TRIVIAL isn’t analytic. Their point is simply that this is the way things “normally” go with analytic statement, but there “may be counterexamples.”

Second, just to be clear: my argument from ELECT and BELIEF to TRIVIAL isn’t designed to show that TRIVIAL is analytic. Otherwise, I grant you, it would seem that “much argumentation” had gone into proving an analytic truth. The argumentation is designed for a different purpose, namely, to show that in the presence of BELIEF, ELECT and TRIVIAL are materially equivalent propositions.

Third, I actually do think that “not much argumentation” is required to see that TRIVIAL is analytic. See my comments under ‘Point 1’ above.

Point 3:

We can go further with this line by considering a common criterion of analyticity, that analytic statements are necessarily true. One might doubt that it is a necessary truth that the elect believe in Jesus. Perhaps there is a possible world in which the divine persons, Son and the Spirit, have switched roles with respect to the incarnation… TRIVIAL’s analytic-like character is doubtful.

This is a non sequitur. If this ‘incarnate Holy Spirit’ example works, what B&G are entitled to conclude (at most) is that BELIEF isn’t analytic since it’s not necessary. That is, one of the premises I use to show that ELECT is equivalent to TRIVIAL isn’t itself an analytic truth. It by no means follows that it is “doubtful” that TRIVIAL is analytic.

Here it is important to see that BELIEF doesn’t have to be a necessary truth, in order to show that ELECT is equivalent to TRIVIAL. It only needs to be true–in B&G’s terms: true in the actual world. So perhaps there are these ‘incarnate Holy Spirit’ worlds. (I say “perhaps” because I’m not entirely sure, on Calvinism, whether this is a possibility.) If so, then BELIEF won’t be an analytic truth, since it is possibly false. But that is no matter; it can perform its function perfectly well as long as it is true.

Point 4:

It may be thought a necessary truth that the elect believes in whichever divine person becomes incarnate. But even here someone might doubt that this is a necessary truth. So again TRIVIAL’s analytic-like character is doubtful.

Now we’ve already noted that BELIEF doesn’t have to be a necessary truth in order for (i) TRIVIAL to be analytic, or (ii) ELECT to be equivalent to TRIVIAL. But let’s suppose it does have to be necessary. Suppose further that B&G are right and the members of the Godhead can ‘switch roles’. Then presumably something like the following proposition would be a necessary truth:

(BELIEF*)  For any x, if x is elect, then x believes in Jesus or x believes in the incarnate Holy Spirit or x believes in the incarnate Father

According to B&G, however, “someone might doubt” that BELIEF* is necessary. Well, perhaps someone might. But wouldn’t the salient question be whether the Calvinist (given his system constraints) was in a position to do so?

The justification given for doubting that BELIEF* is necessary is a hyperlink to an abstractfor Daniel Speak’s 2007 paper “Salvation without belief” (Religious Studies 43: 229-236). (You have to have a subscription to the journal to read the full article.) As far as I can tell, and with just the abstract to go on, it looks as though Speak proposes to deny “that a person can receive salvation only if she believes that certain crucial and relevant propositions are true.” I think this is problematic.

First, I don’t know what to make of this suggestion that a person can be saved apart from holding such “crucial and relevant” propositional beliefs as, e.g., that I myself have sinned (Romans 3:23) or that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for my sins (1 John 2:2). I’m inclined to think you can’t be saved apart from holding these beliefs–at least not in our present dispensation. But that’s not presently relevant. The question is whether the Calvinist is in a position (given Calvinism) to hold that there can be “salvation without belief.” I strongly suspect not, but I might be wrong about that. I’d have to hear more.

Second, I cannot see that Speak’s proposal is relevant here. What he wants to deny, I take it, is that propositional belief (i.e., belief that) is necessary for salvation. However, BELIEF* isn’t framed in those terms. It speaks only of belief in (i.e., a faith or trust in) an incarnate divine person. So even if Speak is right, his proposal wouldn’t show that BELIEF* is possibly false–not unless belief in an incarnate Father, Son, or Holy Spirit for salvation somehow implied belief that certain “crucial and relevant” theological propositions were true. But that seems to be precisely what Speak wants to deny.

In sum, I want to thank Guillaume and James for their excellent comments on my post. I learned a lot from them. At some point, time permitting (and if it is the Lord’s will), I hope to offer some further reflections on John 3:16 to nudge things forward.


[1] It might be that NARROW(b) is actually acceptable to B&G. For example, they write (link):

A more appropriate rendering of John 3:16 would be

(C) God so loved Jews and Gentiles, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone (of the elect) believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

[2] Actually, B&G have a fifth point to make in connection with NARROW. This has to do with how to take “the world” in NARROW(a). For present purposes, I’m going to temporarily set that discussion aside, since my tautology argument is premised on NARROW(b).

[Link to original post, which was taken from the blog of the Tyndale UC Philosophy Department]