Prioritizing a System
A few months ago, I participated in a class at a local church on different views of hell in which universal salvation, eternal conscious torment, and a version of conditional immortality (annihilationism) were discussed. It was a good class that allowed participants to consider each of these views, which is hopefully something that churches will continue to do. One of the resources given to participants by the presenter of eternal conscious torment was an article by Thomas R. Schreiner entitled “Problematic Texts” for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles . In this essay, Schreiner attempts to defend the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, which contends that Jesus’ sacrifice only atoned for some people (the elect), and that it was only intended to atone for those people, not for the rest of the world. In other words, God chose to save the elect and to condemn the rest to hell prior to any actions on their parts. Your eternal destiny, and the eternal destinies of all people, were pre-determined by God before the foundation of the world. This deterministic view, of course, inevitably means that God chose to damn most of humanity to eternal conscious suffering before anyone was even born and only chose to save relatively few. This view is fundamental to the theological system of thought known as Calvinism, which is often summarized with the acronym TULIP (in which the “L” stands for limited atonement).
In order to defend this system, Schreiner has to deal with what he calls “problematic texts” (i.e. texts that don’t fit the system because they contradict it). The way he goes about doing this is very interesting and telling. We will not go into every “problematic” text that he addresses for the sake of time. Instead we will focus on how he deals with 1 Timothy 4:10, which states that “we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” Since this verse claims that God is the Savior of all people it is clearly “problematic” for the limited atonement camp. Interestingly, Schreiner’s approach is not to directly explain his view, but rather to give a survey of two of the different ways that Calvinists have attempted to get around the clear meaning of the text. He then, with good reason, rejects both of these, before proposing his own view. Here are the “workarounds” he discusses:
1. Especially does not mean especially
He begins like this:
“One aspect of the debate centers on the meaning of the word μάλιστα [malista]. The ESV translates the word “especially,” as do virtually all English translations. In 1979, however, T. C. Skeat argued that μάλιστα should be translated “namely,” or “that is.” Skeat defended his case by citing some examples from Greek papyrus letters, and then with a few NT examples.”
After spending a short time mentioning some of this “evidence,” he honestly admits that “the notion that μάλιστα means “that is” or “namely” should be rejected.” He decides, in agreement with another scholar, that “Skeat’s readings are either ambiguous and therefore not proven, or they are mistaken” and “in every instance that Skeat’s rendering is unpersuasive.” He decides, in other words, that translating the verse differently would be a major mistake and cannot be justified. He concludes as follows:
In conclusion, then, there is little doubt that μάλιστα means “especially” instead of “that is” or “namely” in 1 Timothy 4:10. Naturally the translation “that is” would appear to fit nicely with definite atonement, for then the verse would teach that God is the Savior of all people, that is, believers. The “all people” would be defined as believers, and thus there would be no sense that God universally saves all people. Lexically, however, this interpretation is quite implausible and hence it should be rejected. The ESV translates the verse well: God “is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”
In short, malista really does mean “especially” and attempting to deny this fact is futile. So, even though this would solve the “problem” that God is “the Savior of all people” for a Calvinist, Schreiner honestly admits that it is unsupportable, and for that honesty he should be commended. Of course, the idea should have never been proposed in the first place since it is clearly ridiculous to say “all people, that is only some people.”
2. Savior does not mean Savior
Next, Schreiner discusses an attempt to redefine what it means for God to be Savior:
Steven Baugh proposes an interpretation that appears to solve any dilemma for a Reformed position on definite atonement. He argues that the word “Savior” here does not refer to spiritual salvation, “but to God’s gracious benefactions to all of humanity,” or, “to God’s care for all of humanity during our time upon earth.” Baugh notes many examples in Greco-Roman literature, and especially in Ephesian inscriptions, where Savior refers to the protection and preservation granted by kings, emperors, patrons, and other leaders.
So, in this view, God is the Savior of all people, not spiritually, but in terms of “common grace.” He let’s us live on earth, provides people in general with the necessities of life (although for many this would be debatable) and has not destroyed us yet. Schreiner spends some time explaining how this would solve the problem for his camp, since then it would be possible to still have most people go to hell while calling God their “Savior.” He is, however, to be commended once again for rejecting this superficial false explanation. He does quite a thorough job refuting it, so I will quote him at length (removing his Greek references for readability):
Nevertheless, it is quite unlikely that Baugh’s interpretation is correct, for there is a crucial problem with his interpretation. One of the major themes in the Pastoral Epistles is salvation. Paul refers to both God and Christ as “Savior” and uses the verb “save” seven times (1 Tim. 1:15; 2:4, 15; 4:16; 2 Tim. 1:9; 4:18; Titus 3:5). God is identified as “Savior” six times in the Pastorals (1 Tim. 1:1; 2:3 4:10; Titus 1:3; 2:10; 3:4) and Christ four times (2 Tim. 1:10; Titus 1:4; 2:13; 3:6). The noun “salvation” is used twice (2 Tim. 2:10; 3:15), and the adjective “bringing salvation” once (Titus 2:11). What is striking is that there is not a single instance in the Pastorals where the salvation word group refers to anything besides spiritual salvation. In other words, the term never means preservation, nor does it focus on material blessings. A survey of some examples will confirm this judgment.
In 1 Timothy 1:1, God as Savior is connected with the hope that belongs to believers in Christ, which makes it clear that spiritual salvation is in view. It is even clearer that spiritual salvation is intended in 1 Timothy 2:3–4, for God “our Savior” is the one “who desires all people to be saved.” Then Paul proceeds to speak of Christ as the “Mediator”, so there is no doubt that salvation from sin is the subject. A reference to spiritual salvation is evident in 1 Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Similarly, in 2 Timothy 1:10, Christ is identified as Savior, as the one “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” The references to conquering death and the dawn of life through the gospel confirm a reference to spiritual salvation. In 2 Timothy 2:10, “salvation” is linked with obtaining “eternal glory.” The Scriptures lead to “salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). So too, the Lord will “save” Paul “into his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:18). God and Christ are both identified as Savior in the introduction of Titus (1:3–4), and spiritual salvation is clearly in view, since in the context Paul refers to “God’s elect”, “knowledge of the truth” (v. 1), “eternal life” (v. 2), his “preaching” (v. 3), and “common faith” (v. 4). In Titus 2:10, God as “Savior” is linked with his bringing “salvation for all people” (v. 11) and “waiting for our blessed hope” (v. 13) of the coming of Christ as “God and Savior.” Both God and Christ are identified as Savior in Titus 3:4–6, and this is linked with the truth that God “saved us” (v. 5).
Lexically, then, there is little doubt that Paul refers to spiritual salvation in 1 Timothy 4:10. Surprisingly, Baugh does not consider how “salvation” and “Savior” are used elsewhere in the Pastorals, and he wrongly resorts to how the word is used in inscriptions in Ephesus instead of relying on the nearer and more important context—the Pauline usage in the Pastoral Epistles . A reference to spiritual salvation is confirmed by the context in which verse 10 appears. Paul explicitly contrasts spiritual and physical training (vv. 7–8), prizing the former over the latter. Indeed, spiritual training is paramount, for it provides benefit both “for the present life and also for the life to come” (v. 9). The reference to “the life to come” indicates that spiritual salvation is intended.
In conclusion, Baugh’s interpretation is creative and solves the problem before us, but it fails lexically and does not account well for the meaning of “salvation” and “Savior” in the Pastoral Epistles, and therefore should be rejected .
In summary, Baugh’s “creative” solution completely ignores the biblical context of the word Savior. Instead, he resorts to using pagan inscriptions to redefine the biblical concept in a way that is completely inconsistent with both the immediate and broader biblical context. Paul’s discussion of salvation in the Pastoral Epistles is always in reference to spiritual salvation and never means what Baugh is claiming. It is doubtful that it would be possible to find a single instance of the word “Savior” in the entire New Testament that could be used to support Baugh’s idea. In short, his interpretation is simply a failed attempt to evade the clear meaning of the text in context through the use of extraneous information from a different, unrelated context. It is simply unreasonable.
Schreiner’s Honest Assessments
Before we go on to consider Schreiner’s own interpretation of 1 Timothy 4:10, it is critical to notice that he, as a Calvinist himself, is refuting other Calvinists quite decisively, even though he admits that their interpretations would allow him to hold to his doctrine. The explanations proposed by these other men are so clearly wrong that he cannot, in good conscience, promote them, even though it would be in his interest to do so. Again, this is commendable, but it goes to show the incredible lengths that some of his fellow Calvinists have gone to in order to promote their views.
3. Schreiner’s “Explanation”
We will now analyze and dissect Schreiner’s own interpretation of 1 Timothy 4:10 and we will see that he does not really do any better than his predecessors at defending limited atonement. His attempt is rather convoluted and requires one to accept multiple contradictory statements. I will first quote his entire explanation, and then break it down to show its inconsistency:
The phrase “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved” (2:3b–4a) shares the same conceptual horizon with “the living God, who is the Savior of all people” (4:10b–c) and refers to God’s salvific desire toward all kinds of people—in this sense God avails himself as Savior to all kinds of individuals from diverse people groups. The phrase “to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:4b) mirrors “especially . . . those who believe” (4:10d), showing that salvation is a reality only for those who come to the knowledge of the truth through faith. It seems, then, that Paul is saying here that God is potentially the Savior of all kinds of people—in that, as the living God there is no other Savior available to people—but that he is actually the Savior of only believers. The additional comment, “especially of believers,” intensifies the meaning of salvation. The possibility of God being a Savior for all kinds of people exists because there is only one living God (4:10b) and one Mediator available to people (2:5–6), but this possibility becomes a reality for those who believe. The phrase clarifies that believers are a subset of all people; they are a special category because they are actually saved.
But does such an interpretation disprove definite atonement? In the first place, this interpretation should not be confused with one that suggests two levels to the atonement: Christ dies for everyone to make them redeemable, and he dies for the elect to actually redeem them. This introduces an unwarranted split-level into the atonement. The issue in 1 Timothy 4:10 is not two levels to the atonement, but rather the twin truths that God (the Father) is the available Savior for all kinds of people—God’s salvific stance—while at the same time being the actual Savior for only those who believe (in Christ).
Secondly, 1 Timothy 4:10 illustrates that definite atonement may be affirmed alongside other biblical truths, such as God’s salvific stance to the world and the possibility for people to be saved if they believe in Christ. Those who hold to a definite intention in the atonement to save only the elect also believe that God desires people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:3–4; cf. Ezek. 18:32), that he is available as Savior to all people (1 Tim. 4:10), that Christ’s death is sufficient for the salvation of every person, and that all are invited to be saved on the basis of Christ’s death for sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). But it is a non sequitur to suggest that affirming any of these biblical truths somehow negates the truth that Christ intended to die only for his elect, actually paying for their sins alone. In biblical soteriology, these theological elements sit side by side.
Perhaps you read that quote and thought “what is this guy talking about?” Don’t worry, it isn’t you; it’s him. The reason why the passage seems confusing is because it is confusing. But rather than simply assume that he must be smarter than the rest of us and therefore understands some deeper mystery that we can’t, we will now proceed to dissect his claims.
Claim 1: The connection between 1 Timothy 2:3-4 and 1 Timothy 4:10 negates the statement that God is the “Savior of all people.”
The claim that the two verses are related is reasonable. What is unreasonable is his interpretation that this therefore means that only those who have a knowledge of the truth presently will be saved. He is saying that those who “have the knowledge of the truth” in 1 Timothy 2:4 are “those who believe” in 1 Timothy 4:10. This, however, does nothing to change the fact that 1 Timothy 4:10 is saying that God is “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” or especially of those who “have the knowledge of the truth.” In essence, he is making the exact same error as the one by Skeat that he refutes: he is redefining “especially” to mean “that is” by saying that God is really only the actual Savior of those who believe and have a knowledge of the truth, not of all people (i.e. God is the Savior of all people, that is those who believe). This is clear because he is denying that God is actually the Savior of all people; instead his salvation only counts for those who believe, so he is redefining “all people” as those who believe (making the same error he refutes in Skeats’ work).
Claim 2: God is only potentially the Savior of all kinds of people.
There are two glaring problems with this claim. The first is that it changes God from an actual Savior to only a potential Savior. Paul does not say “potential Savior” for a reason: that is not what he means. If the title of “Savior” really means “potential Savior” then we have no assurance that God will actually save anyone, not even believers. The verse does not say “potential Savior” and there is no contextual reason to assume this meaning. To do so opens the door to interpreting any reference to Jesus as Savior in this way, in which case he does not necessarily save anyone. Besides being exegetically absurd and denying God’s sovereignty, such a view is deeply contrary to the Calvinist ideology that Schreiner is purporting to defend.
The second problem with his claim is that he just inserts, without any clear justification, the idea that God only saves all “kinds” of people. Again, the text does not say this, and there is no contextual reason to assume it. If we can just insert random words into the biblical text whenever we like, we can make it say whatever we want! If Paul wanted to say “all kinds of people” he certainly could have done so. There are several words in Greek that mean type or kind. He could have used genos (γένος), or eidos (εἶδος), or he could have said that God was the Savior of all ethnicities or races (ethnos/ἔθνος) instead of all people/mankind. He did not, however, say any of those things. Why do we arrive at Paul’s writings with the preconceived notion that he could not possibly mean what he said (because they don’t fit a particular theological system developed in the 16th century!), and therefore assume that he meant to say something else? We should not assume him to be so incompetent a writer as to repeatedly make the mistake of saying “all” but really meaning “all kinds of.”
Claim 3: The additional comment, “especially of believers,” intensifies the meaning of salvation.
This is a very odd claim. Here’s why:
1. The phrasing used in 1 Timothy 4:10 is that God is the “Savior of all people”
2. Schreiner is claiming that only believers will be saved, not all people, so he is simply denying that God will save all people, not intensifying the meaning of salvation.
Put another way, he is saying that God is “not the Savior of all people” but that adding the phrase “especially of believers” causes the word Savior to actually mean Savior (whereas before it did not since he does not save all people). This is really just a nonsensical claim. The meaning of the word “Savior” is not intensified by denying what it means in the first place, and then saying that it regains its meaning.
Claim 4: “God (the Father) is the available Savior for all kinds of people—God’s salvific stance—while at the same time being the actual Savior for only those who believe (in Christ).” There is the “possibility” of God being the Savior for all “kinds” of people.
This claim is deeply problematic and logically incoherent. It must be remembered that the doctrine of limited atonement that Schreiner is defending says that God chose to atone for and save only the elect. God did not, in this view, atone for anyone else. There is therefore no possibility that anyone else could be saved or atoned for. God, in His sovereign will decided not to save them. He is not “available” precisely because He predestined some to be saved and others not to be. It is certainly a non sequitur to claim that God’s salvific stance is to save all people, but he actually chose before time began to only save a small minority. If He deliberately chose not to save all people, it is not possible to rationally argue that his salvific stance is to save all people; it clearly is not.
Claim 5: You can hold to definite atonement and a bunch of other contradictory ideas at the same time.
While people do attempt to do this, it is logically incoherent. It requires you to affirm the following clearly contradictory ideas at the same time:
1. It is possible for anyone to be saved but at the same time it is only possible for the elect to be saved.
2. God desires all people to be saved but at the same time His intent in the atonement was only to save the elect.
3. Christ is available as Savior to all, but at the same time actually only available to the elect (who were chosen before the world began).
4. Christ’s death is sufficient to save everyone, but at the same time is not actually sufficient to save everyone (since it fails to do so and is only intended for the “elect.”).
5. All are invited to be saved, but actually only the elect are invited to be saved (since they are irresistibly drawn to salvation and others are not).
No matter how much he claims otherwise, these views cannot actually be held side by side with intellectual integrity. They are contradictory. Psalm 115:3 tells us that “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” This verse (and many other verses) tell us that God accomplishes his desires. It is contradictory to say that He desires to save all people, but refuses to do so even though it is within his power. If I told you that I really want to give you $10,000 and I have full power to do so, but I decided long ago that I will never, ever give it to you, you would rightly call me a liar. You would say that I don’t really want to give you $10,000; if I did, I would give it to you since nothing is stopping me. My claim to “want” to give you the money is obviously disingenuous. In the same way we cannot say that God wants to save all people, but only wants to save some whom He chose. He has the power and He does as he pleases.
This is why 1 Timothy 2:6 says that Christ gave himself “as a ransom for all.” His desire and purpose was to buy all people back from sin and death, not “all kinds of people.” The fact that this is the case is actually indisputable and the many efforts made by Calvinists to deny it are futile. All of the desperate evasions of the clear meaning of so many texts are pointless since the doctrine of limited atonement is directly and specifically refuted by the Bible. Rather tellingly, the verse that does so most plainly is not addressed at all in Schreiner’s article, or in any that I’ve seen so far that purport to defend limited atonement:
1 John 2:2
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world .
I think the reason why Calvinists tend to avoid this verse is because it explicitly and unambiguously contradicts the doctrine of limited atonement in such a way that evasion is impossible. It is clear that John is saying that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice not just for believers but also for the whole world. Of necessity, this is telling us that his atonement was not limited to believers but rather pertains to every person, including those who are not believers.
Now some may attempt to claim that John was only referring to believers in one geographic location and that the whole world could mean believers in other places. This claim, however is pure sophistry and cannot be supported. 1 John is not addressed to a specific geographic location or church. It “was a circular letter sent to Christians in a number of places” ("Intro to 1 John" 2016). So, John was clearly referring to Christians generally when he says that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and clearly referring to the whole world (including non-Christians) when he says this sacrifice extends to atone for sins of the whole world. Everyone is atoned for by Jesus. He truly ransomed us all. 1 John 2:2 is a proverbial thermonuclear bomb that utterly obliterates the leaky sinking dinghy of limited atonement. With so many other passages of Scripture clearly describing God’s intent and desire to save all people, it is a wonder that people still so tightly cling to such a doctrine.
Prioritizing the system
The fact that there are so many intellectually inconsistent, evidence-deficient attempts to defend the doctrine of limited atonement tells me that its defenders are prioritizing their system of thought above biblical truth. They are attempting to force the Bible to fit their theology, rather than allowing the Bible to shape their theology. They are holding fast to tradition that has been handed down to them and thereby nullifying the word of God (Mark 7:13). Denying that “all” means “all” or that the “whole world” means the “whole world,” or attempting to retranslate “especially” as “that is,” or redefining Savior as not meaning spiritual Savior are all deceptive tactics that attempt to eviscerate Scripture of its clear meaning. And all of this is done to defend the ugly doctrine that God only loves some people enough to atone for them and the rest he predestined to eternal hell before they were even born!
Prioritizing a system of thought is dangerous precisely for this reason. It causes us to create a box to stuff God into, whether He fits in it or not. Jim Elliot, the famous missionary who was killed by the Huaorani people of Ecuador while trying to share the gospel with them, recognized this threat:
Systematic theology - be careful how you tie down the Word to fit your set and final creeds, systems, dogmas, and organized theistic philosophies! The Word of God is not bound! It's free to say what it will to the individual, and no one can outline it into dispensations which cannot be broken.
We would be wise to heed his words and begin to look at the Bible clearly without the blinders of a failed systematic theology. Let’s allow the Bible to re-write our theology, not our theology to re-write the Bible.
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Citations and Notes
Elliot, Jim. “Jim Elliot Quotes.” BrainyQuote, Xplore, www.brainyquote.com/quotes/jim_elliot_821797 . Retrieved 7/8/2018
“Intro to 1 John.” The International Bible Society, The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. © Zondervan. From the Zondervan NIV Study Bible., 24 Oct. 2016, www.biblica.com/resources/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/intro-to-1-john/ . Retrieved 7/8/2018
Schreiner, Thomas R. “‘Problematic Texts’ for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles.” Monergismcom Blog, www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/problematictexts.html#footnote-1368-1109 . Last retrieved 7/8/2018