Brian Abasciano on John 3:16

Dr. Brian Abasciano recently posted an article on the Society of Evangelical Arminians website in response to an “untenable grammatical argument” offered by (so he claims) James White, Guillaume Bignon, James A. Gibson, and yours truly. Dr. Abasciano generously describes me as a “respectable Calvinist philosopher” (who are the disreputable ones, I wonder?) even though he thinks I committed an “embarrassing mistake” (if so, at least I’m in good company).

Drs. Bignon and Gibson have replied here. Dr. White made some excellent comments in response on The Dividing Line (April 24 episode). I don’t have much to add to these, but I’ll make a few observations of my own.

Regarding the interpretation of John 3:16, there are two distinct questions in view in these discussions:

  1. Does this verse support the Arminian position (conditional election and universal/indefinite atonement)?
  2. Does this verse support the Calvinist position (unconditional election and particular/definite atonement)?

Obviously one cannot consistently answer yes to both questions. But one could answer yes to one and no to the other, or one could answer no to both (taking the position that John 3:16 has nothing to say on the issues that divide Calvinists and Arminians).

Bignon and Gibson have argued at some length that the first question should be answered no, and they take no position on the second question. White adopted the same stance in his recent DL discussion. (I recall him saying some things in the past that at least suggested an affirmative answer to the second question, but I could be mistaken. In any event, he’s clearly not committed to the claim that John 3:16 offers positive support for Calvinism.)

I, on the other hand, have argued yes in answer to the second question. That said, I should make clear that I rest very little weight on my argument that John 3:16 points toward a particular/definite atonement. The biblical case for Calvinism doesn’t depend on it one jot. Chapters 6, 10, and 17 of John’s Gospel are sufficient to establish all of the doctrines of grace. If it can be shown that John 3:16 leans Calvinistically, that’s just a bonus.

Appealing to Daniel Wallace and William Mounce as authorities (not to mention that notorious Calvinist John Calvin), Abasciano argues that pas ho pisteuōn can indeed be translated “whoever believes” and that grammatically it conveys conditionality and indicates a generic subject. But here’s the thing: 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.

Yes, there’s a conditionality in the text, but it’s a conditionality that’s entirely consistent with Calvinism. The implicit conditional is this: if one believes in the Son then one will not perish but have eternal life. Both Arminians and Calvinists happily affirm that conditional, so it gives no support to either side. 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 that simply isn’t in the text. There’s nothing in John 3:16 about the ability to believe. (There’s quite a bit in John 6 and 10 about that issue, but it doesn’t help the Arminian.)

Likewise, I gladly concede that there’s a generic subject in John 3:16, but that generic subject is restricted to believers. The point is that everyone who believes — regardless of ethnicity, age, sex, social class, etc. — will be saved. There’s a kind of universalism here (if we want to use that term) but it’s a universalism limited to believers. Believers universally will be saved, but only believers.

So I have no problem at all with saying “whoever believes will be saved,” but the emphasis has to land on believes. 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.

A comment by JeremiahZ on Triablogue puts the point well:

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 indefiniteness cannot be used to build a philosophical argument for libertarian freedom. The indefiniteness says nothing about the ability of all people everywhere.

Exactly. But note that this leaves my original argument intact. I observed that there’s a purpose (hina) clause in John 3:16 which indicates that the Father’s plan in sending the Son was directed specifically at the salvation of believers. Within that group, salvation is indiscriminate. But there’s a definite group in view in that purpose clause, rather than the entire human race.

Since Abasciano’s article focuses entirely on the grammar of pas ho pisteuōn and the validity of rendering it “whoever believes” (none of which I dispute) but doesn’t interact with the specific theological argument I made (regarding the intent of the atonement) I don’t have anything more to say in response.