There is an untenable grammatical argument contending that John 3:16 supports limited atonement that has recently received some attention. James White has made the argument for some time. But his use of it in response to Arminian philosopher Rich Davis’ argument against limited atonement from John 3:161 has now surprisingly received some approval from two respectable Calvinist philosophers (Guillaume Bignon and James A. Gibson), who approvingly reference White and his argument in their own response to Davis.2 Interestingly, and again surprisingly, another respectable Calvinist philosopher, James Anderson, made the same argument just days earlier without referencing White.3 That argument is basically that in the Greek text of John 3:16 “the participial phrase, πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, is best rendered ‘everyone believing’” (Bignon and Gibson; emphasis original) rather than “whoever believes” or “whoever is believing,” meaning that there is no “whoever” in the text, and therefore, as Anderson argues, no note of indefiniteness or conditionality.
But this argument shows a misunderstanding of the Greek of John 3:16. There is a very slight kernel of truth in it in that there is no single word in John 3:16 that in itself means “whoever.” But this is wholly irrelevant. For there is a construction in John 3:16 that conveys the meaning of “whoever,” yielding the accompanying notions of indefiniteness and conditionality that Anderson notes it would have. The construction in question is the Greek phrase mentioned above, πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, which can be reasonably translated as “everyone who believes” or “whoever believes.” But even if one translates it as “everyone who believes” (or if one prefers, “everyone believing”), the sense of “whoever” is still there in the Greek text.
The meaning of “whoever” is actually quite strong in the construction used in John 3:16. First, it utilizes a substantival participle, which itself can convey conditionality.4 And this is the type of context in which substantival participles do typically convey conditionality—generic statements. The conditional sense it yields for the sentence carries a generic idea that conveys that if anyone believes, whoever it might be, then that person will not perish but have eternal life. Second, the addition of the adjective πᾶς (‘every, all’), which modifies the substantival participle, strengthens the generic conditional. As Daniel Wallace observes, “The πᾶς ὁ ἀκούων(or ἀγαπῶν, ποιῶν, etc.) formula is always or almost always generic. As such it is expected to involve agnomic idea. Most of these instances involve the present participle.”5 Wallace goes on to specifically identifyπᾶς ὁ πιστεύων in John 3:16 as gnomic6 and elsewhere notes that a substantival participle with πᾶς, which is what we have in John 3:16, is especially indicative of a generic subject.7
This is such an obvious aspect of the grammar that Greek scholar William Mounce declares that it is a fact that “whoever” is in John 3:16.8 When challenged on this in the comment section on his post by someone who seemed to be taking the same position as Bignon, Gibson, Anderson, and White, Mounce replied that the translation “whoever believes” “is a translation of πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, which is an indefinite contstruction [sic]. I think you are missing that the πᾶς means any and every. THat [sic] is the function of the indefinite use of the word.” And that is the simple statement of why John 3:16 really does include the sense of “whoever:” while there may not be one single word in the Greek text for “whoever,” the Greek construction used (πᾶς + ὁ + present participle) is an indefinite construction that conveys the meaning “whoever.”
Such an embarrassing mistake could have been avoided simply by checking the standard Greek lexicon for New Testament studies (abbreviated BDAG), which suggests in its entry on πᾶς that when the word is used as an adjective with the article and a participle, in the singular, as we have in John 3:16, πᾶς and the article together are properly translated as “whoever” (or equivalently, “every one who,” not as an alternative meaning, but as another way to express the same generic and indefinite idea).9 In fact, John 3:16 is among the texts BDAG lists as an example of this meaning.10 Even John Calvin recognized that John 3:16 uses the term “whoever;” commenting, “And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers.”11 Amen. Now we just have to get these Calvinist scholars to get on board with Calvin or at least Greek grammar!
The original article was published on the Society of Evangelical Arminians and used with permission.
1 James White, “Radio Free Geneva: Calvinism’s Gospel Tautology Refuted,” https://www.sermonaudio.com/saplayer/playpopup.asp?SID=327181313125 (this is an audio file); Rich Davis, “Calvinism’s Gospel Tautology,” https://tyndalephilosophy.com/2015/04/06/calvinisms-gospel-tautology/. For Davis’ response to White, see Rich Davis, “James White and John 3:16: Rhetoric and Red Herrings,” https://tyndalephilosophy.com/2018/03/29/james-white-and-john-316-rhetoric-and-red-herrings/.
2 Guillaume Bignon and James A. Gibson, “For God So Loved the World: A Calvinist Response to Richard Brian Davis,” https://www.jamesagibson.com/2018/04/07/for-god-so-loved-the-world-a-calvinist-response-to-richard-brian-davis/. Their response to Davis takes into account both of his pieces referenced in note 1 above.
3 James N. Anderson, “John 3:16 Teaches Limited Atonement,” http://www.proginosko.com/2018/04/john-316-teaches-limited-atonement/.
4 On the use of substantival participles or the participle with the definite article to convey conditionality, see together, Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 688 (cf. 523); Ernest De Witt Burton, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek (Chicago: University of Chicago, 3rd edn, 1900), § 428; W. Bauer, F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 3rd edn, 2000) [henceforth, BDAG], s.v. ὁ, 2.c.β. While Wallace notes that the future indicative is often used with the substantival participle for this, he does not limit the phenomenon to use with the future indicative.
5 Wallace, Greek Grammar, 615; emphasis original; see also 523.
6 Ibid., 620.
7 Ibid., 523. Cf. F. Blass, A. Debrunner, and R. W. Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: CUP , 1961), § 413.2.
8 William Mounce, “Does ‘Whoever’ Mean ‘Whoever’?” https://www.billmounce.com/the-path/does-whoever-mean-whoever.
9 BDAG, s.v. πᾶς, 1.b.α. Cf. BDAG, s.v. ὁ, 2.c.β.
11 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Vol. 1 (trans. W. Pringle; Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), s.v. John 3:16; emphasis original.