Thursday, February 12, 2015

All People

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1-4).
This passage is often wielded against a Calvinistic understanding of election and regeneration. So I figured it would be good to write out some thoughts on it. To my knowledge, this passage, and specifically God’s desire for “all people to be saved” has historically been understood in basically three ways.
1. “All people” refers to every individual human being. 
2. “All people” refers to all kinds of human beings. 
3. “God desires all people to be saved” means that everyone who is saved, is saved because God desires them to be so.
Which of these three views do I hold personally? For a long time now, I’ve vacillated between the first and second. I think the first view has the appeal of being the most natural reading. The second view, while not quite as natural, is still entirely reasonable, and makes for less theological tension. The third view is interesting (and Augustine held to it, just saying), but it’s contextually cumbersome.

Let’s start with the third view and work backwards. When Jesus healed a deaf man in Mark 7, the crowd responded by saying, “He has done all things well” (Mark 7:37). They did not mean that Jesus had actually done all things, period. The point was that everything Jesus did do, he did well. Consider a further example of another Greek writer, Clement of Rome, using a similar way of speaking:
“And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men.”
Clement does not intend to say that God has actually justified every human being. In context, what he’s saying is that everyone who has ever been justified was justified in the same way, namely by faith. So even though Clement says that “God has justified all men,” he’s actually only talking about the people that God has, in fact, justified.

A similar thing could be going on in 1 Timothy 2:4. It might be that the point is not to say that God desires the salvation of every human being in some potential sense, but rather that everyone who is actually saved is only saved because God desired it to be so. No one has ever been saved without God desiring them to be saved. He desires the salvation of all people – that is, all people who are actually saved.

Now, I don’t anticipate that this interpretation will gain much of a following. And while I do think it’s at least linguistically feasible, and thus not as absurd as some people might immediately think, I don’t think it fits well with the point Paul is making in the passage. But since this was the way Augustine interpreted the verse, I figured it was at least worth an honorable mention.

Let me now try and defend the reasonableness of the second view, that “all people” refers not to every single human being, but to all kinds of people. The Greek word for “all” is pas. Consider a few examples of this word being used in Scripture.

Jesus says to the apostles, “You will be hated by all [pas] for my name’s sake” (Matt. 10:22). Now, since Jesus used the word all, does that mean we’re supposed to think that every human being would hate the apostles? Of course not. There were thousands of people who did not hate the apostles and their message. The most sensible way to understand Jesus here is that he’s referring to all kinds of people. Whatever tribe, tongue, or nation that the apostles would come in contact with, they could count on facing opposition. They would be hated by all – which is to say, all kinds. And Jesus doesn’t have to specify the word “kinds” because it’s simply inherent to one of the ways pas can be used.

In Acts 22:15, Ananias says to Paul, “You will be God’s witness to all people of what you have seen and heard.” I don’t think Ananias was trying to say that Paul would be a witness to every human being. Here it’s far more natural to understand the word “all” in a general sense. Paul would be a witness to all kinds of people. He would be the apostle to all Gentile nations.

Consider also that in 1 Timothy 6:10 (“The love of money is the root of all [pas] evil”), many English translations render pas as “all kinds.” This is simply a reasonable way that the word pas can be faithfully translated.

So given these things, it’s very possible that this is the sense in which “all” should be understood in 1 Timothy 2:1-4. In which case, Paul is calling Timothy, in verse 1, to pray for all kinds of people. This would fit naturally with verse 2, where Paul goes on to specify particular classifications: “for kings and all who are in high positions.” And I see no reason not to assume that the “all people” of verse 1 is the same “all people” of verse 4. So likewise, the point of verse 4 would be that God desires the salvation of all kinds of people. People from every walk of life, every social class. Every tribe, tongue, and nation. God does not discriminate between Jew and Gentile, or between kings and commoners.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the first view is actually correct, that God desires the salvation of every individual human being. Would this undermine a strong Calvinistic understanding of election and regeneration? I don’t think so. John Piper has written a pretty careful article in which he argues that God’s choice of only some people for salvation is not inconsistent with his desire for all human beings to be saved. And he backs up his case with numerous lines of biblical evidence. I commend that article to you.

Moreover, consider a statement that Paul himself makes in his next letter to Timothy:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 2:24-25).
Here we see that the way in which people come to a knowledge of the truth is by God’s granting them repentance, which is being clearly presented as something that God may or may not choose to do. So even if we affirm that God desires every human being to come to a knowledge of the truth (as in 1 Tim. 2:4), we’ve still got to reckon with the fact that God does not always grant what is necessary in order for people to come to that knowledge. No one’s escaping this mystery.

No comments: