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For God so loved the world: A Calvinist Response to Richard Brian Davis

This piece is co-authored by Guillaume Bignon and James A. Gibson. Order is alphabetical. 

In “Calvinism’s Gospel Tautology,” Richard Brian Davis argues that John 3:16 is evidence against the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. According to that doctrine, the death and resurrection of Christ is intended for only a subset of humanity, the elect. How, then, is a Calvinist to understand “world” in this passage? Davis considers one possibility suggested by R.C. Sproul.  “The world for whom Christ died cannot mean the entire human family. It must refer to the universality of the elect (people from every tribe and nation) or to the inclusion of Gentiles in addition to the world of the Jews” (Sproul, cited in Davis). Davis argues that it is a fundamental mistake to take the meaning of “world” to be the elect. By understanding “world” in that way, Davis argues, the Calvinist is faced with the dilemma of either Jesus saying something false or Jesus saying something trivially true. We argue that the Calvinist can resist the dilemma.

The Dilemma Presented

Assume that “world” does not refer to every individual that exists. Next, assume limited atonement is true. Then, Davis says, the following is a plausible Calvinist rendering of John 3:16:

  • (R1) God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

He goes on to argue that the domain of the universal quantifier in the passage, “whoever”, may take either a wide or narrow interpretation. On the wide interpretation, the domain ranges over both the elect and non-elect. On the narrow interpretation, it ranges only over the elect. Before jumping into why both interpretations are problematic, it is useful to tidy up this argument a bit.

James White has responded that the participial phrase, πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, is best rendered “everyone believing”. There is no universal quantifier “whoever” in the text. So it appears that Davis’ argument depends on the presence of a word that is not there. But Davis points out in a subsequent piece that his argument does not depend on that word. Let the rendering be:

  • (R2) God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

It is still an open question what the domain of “everyone” is given the interpretation Sproul provides, and he cites the quote from Sproul (above) again. Davis’ argument remains mostly the same, only packaged slightly differently. We believe that the problems which beset Davis’ argument do not depend upon which rendering one prefers. But because the first rendering can be misleading to what the central issues are, we will continue with the second rendering in order to present the dilemma.

The dilemma arises from a disambiguation of the domain of “everyone”, which is implicitly of persons. The question about the domain is explicitly over whether this covers the elect only or both the elect and non-elect. This yields two precisifications:

  • (WIDE) God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone (of both elect and non-elect) believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
  • (NARROW)  God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone (of the elect) believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

We will first discuss the narrow interpretation and the problems that Davis believes affect it. Then we will turn to the wide interpretation, and finally close with some final remarks.  

The Narrow Horn of the Dilemma

Suppose the Calvinist opts for the narrow interpretation, such that it covers only the elect. Then the Calvinist is committed to:

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

Davis discusses NARROW with predicate logic. We, however, do not believe that formalization adds to the clarity of this discussion. We will grant all of the entailments that Davis identifies between the following three principles:

  • (ELECT) For any x such that x is elect and x believes in Jesus, then x will not perish but will have eternal life.
  • (BELIEF) For any x such that x is elect, then x will believe in Jesus.
  • (TRIVIAL) For any x such that x is elect, x will not perish and will have eternal life

ELECT is supposed to represent the that clause – that everyone of the elect believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life. ELECT and BELIEF entail TRIVIAL. And TRIVIAL and BELIEF entail ELECT. This is bad according to Davis because it requires attributing a kind of semantic performance error to Jesus. It is worth quoting Davis in full:

This proposition [i.e. TRIVIAL], on Calvinism, is an empty tautology; it is utterly trivial. It is logically impossible that one be elect and yet perish and be lost. These predicates are included in the concept of being elect. Accordingly, 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. Obviously, the good news Jesus came to preach isn’t anything like this. After all, nothing can be good news if it’s not news at all (and analytic truths aren’t news).

But there is something else. It turns out that TRIVIAL and BELIEF also entail ELECT. (I shall leave the proof as homework for the reader.) In the presence of BELIEF, therefore, ELECT and TRIVIAL are equivalent propositions. But then, curiously, what Jesus is telling Nicodemus is that God loved the elect and gave his Son to bring about TRIVIAL: that the elect have eternal life and won’t perish. But that scarcely makes sense. You might as well argue that God needed to enter human history to ensure that whoever is a bachelor and male is also unmarried. This is wrong headed. Bachelors would be unmarried and male even if there were no bachelors, no persons, and no world that God created.

The same thing goes mutatis mutandis for TRIVIAL. Even if the elect didn’t exist, and the Son wasn’t thereby given for them, it would still be true—and indeed necessarily so—that the elect believe, have eternal life, and don’t perish. To put (3:16b) into the mouth of Jesus either has him teaching falsehoods or empty tautologies, neither of which is befitting to the Savior.

We take this to strongly suggest that Davis regards TRIVIAL to be analytic. It is not clear how else it can be that the predicates of “not perishing” and “having eternal life” are “included in” the concept <elect>, and that TRIVIAL is necessarily true. We proceed by taking the sense of triviality used in the argument to be analyticity.

The central questions to ask, as we see them, are:

  1. On the assumption that TRIVIAL is trivial, would Jesus’ assertion of TRIVIAL thereby undermine the Calvinist interpretation?
  2. On the assumption that Jesus asserts NARROW and that TRIVIAL is part of NARROW, does Jesus thereby assert something trivial?
  3. Should we assume that NARROW is an appropriate interpretation of what Sproul says about how to understand John 3:16?

Our answers will be No, No, and No.

Infelicitous Trivial Assertions?

Two distinct problems Davis identifies, given that TRIVIAL is analytic, are that (i) the truth of the Gospel is not at all like an analytic statement; and (ii) it would be pointless for Jesus to tell “us nothing we didn’t already know by definition.” The former problem is more closely related to the question of whether Jesus asserts something trivial, and so we will return to that. Here we address the second issue regarding whether it would be pointless for Jesus to assert TRIVIAL if indeed it is analytic. To this, we say, it does not follow merely from the fact that Jesus makes a trivial assertion (which we do not grant), in the sense of being analytic, that what he asserts is thereby pointless. There are two reasons to doubt that they would be pointless.

The first reason concerns whether the audience understands the trivial assertion. Consider the fact that TRIVIAL is derived from two other principles: ELECT and BELIEF. Neither ELECT nor BELIEF is trivial for Nicodemus, since from his perspective, there is no known connection between election, belief in Jesus, and what follows from those pertaining to not perishing but having eternal life. Moreover, Jesus is giving a theology lesson to a Pharisee. The Pharisees had a theological dispute with another Jewish sect called the Sadducees. They disagreed over whether there would be a resurrection. In this context, you can see Jesus as taking sides in that debate. Thus Jesus’ assertion, even if it were trivial, would at least convey information to Nicodemus about how Jesus sees things. So even if Calvinists treated <belief in Jesus> as part of the concept of <election>, it would be irrelevant to Jesus’ assertion to Nicodemus. For it is he, not us, who counts as the primary standard by which we judge whether Jesus’ assertion in the text is pointless.

The second reason to be skeptical about the pointlessness of making an analytic assertion has to do with the pragmatics of our utterances. Suppose, for instance, that Millian descriptivism is true. That is the view that sentences involving names often pragmatically convey descriptively enriched propositions. For example, “Hesperus is a planet” might convey “Hesperus, the brightest object in the morning sky, is a planet.” (This view is advocated, for instance, by Scott Soames.) Then one will find plausible the suggestion that we may ignore what is semantically expressed by a sentence and focus instead upon what is pragmatically conveyed. Using an example from Jeff Speaks (“Millian Descriptivism Defended”, Philosophical Studies, 149 (2010):201-208), someone might have uttered during a conversation about the Clinton / Dole race in 1996, “Bill Clinton was a real politician.” Uninformative, yet what we would understand this to convey is something else, e.g. that Clinton is more capable than Dole, or that Dole is a fraud, or perhaps that Clinton is a fraud. It is a difficult question, in general, how to settle which proposition is conveyed. The upshot is that the mere fact that Jesus says something uninformative (which we do not grant) does not by itself make what Jesus says pointless.

TRIVIAL without Triviality

We deny that TRIVIAL is analytic. 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”.

There is a further reason to doubt that TRIVAL is about as informative as an analytic statement. 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. In general, that a statement’s truth would require much argumentation for such a person signifies that such statements are not analytic. The use of “signifies”, that such is a sign of not being analytic, does not amount to a necessary or sufficient criterion of analyticity. There may be counterexamples; but again, this is not a comment about all analytic statements. It is about what is normally true of analytic statements.

With that in mind, consider the terms in TRIVIAL. Nicodemus may understand that “elect” denotes the group of persons God chose before the foundation of the world to save. He may understand to some extent what “belief in Jesus” means, even if he does not believe in Jesus in John 3. He may also understand the meaning of “eternal life” and “not perish”. What he apparently did not know, however, 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.

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. Then which divine person the elect believes in has a different singular object. We grant that this is speculative, but it is enough to question whether one is in a position to assert that there is a necessary connection between election and the object of belief-in. 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.

The Narrow Interpretation and Frege’s Puzzle

Whereas the above objections discussed John 3:16b, our discussion will now focus upon the rendering in NARROW of John 3:16a, which we do not think is appropriate. We challenge the move by Davis of replacing “the world” by “the elect”, even if the elect is what ultimately is referred to by “the world”. Recall the narrow interpretation again:

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

Davis alleges 3:16a as rendered is problematic: “suppose for reductio that Sproul is right: this principle [John 3:16] (taken at face value) is potentially misleading. Although (3:16) says God loved ‘the world’ and gave his Son for it, that is actually false. God didn’t (and doesn’t) love everyone; he loves only the elect.”

Does NARROW capture the information that Sproul intends? We do not believe so. Assume for the sake of argument that Sproul is correct, that in John 3:16, “world” refers to the elect. Still, it is appropriate to wonder why all his talk about Jews and Gentiles and different nations does not make it into the rendering Davis presents as the propositional content of Jesus’ utterance. Again, here is Sproul:

The biggest problem with definite or limited atonement is found in the passages that the Scriptures use concerning Christ’s death “for all” or for the “whole world.” The world for whom Christ died cannot mean the entire human family. It must refer to the universality of the elect (people from every tribe and nation) or to the inclusion of Gentiles in addition to the world of the Jews. It was a Jew who wrote that Jesus did not die merely for our sins but for the sins of the whole world. [1 John 2:2.]

Consider a well-known issue in the philosophy of language, Frege’s Puzzle.  In the case of identity statements involving singular terms, Frege wondered how it could be that two co-referring terms (e.g., proper names) might make one sentence trivially true and the other informative.

  • (A) Hesperus = Hesperus
  • (B) Hesperus = Phosphorus

Both terms refer to the same object, Venus. Only the second sentence appears to be informative. How can this be so? Frege’s answer was that names carried a sense, which was Frege’s term for a mode of presentation. The propositions expressed by A and B, on the Fregean view, are distinct propositions.

Assuming that Frege is correct about how referring terms contribute to a proposition’s content, then it straightaway follows that NARROW is not a proper rendering for John 3:16 because it ignores the sense of the definite plural term “the world” by substituting a term with a different sense. 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.

C is perfectly intelligible. C conveys that of the different ethnic groups, the persons (of those groups) believing in him will have eternal life. It happens to be true that all and only those who believe in him are elect. Because limited atonement is about God’s intended scope for and efficacy of the death and resurrection of Jesus, Sproul also accepts:

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

But while on Sproul’s interpretation, “the elect” and “the Jews and Gentiles” ultimately refer to the same persons (the objects of God’s love), Jesus utters proposition C and not proposition D. 

Our defense of Calvinism pertaining to John 3:16a does not hang upon the truth of descriptivism (at least one of us denies it). In order to see why, a brief explanation of direct reference views is in order. Direct reference views hold that the semantic contribution of some singular terms is nothing more than the reference. Assuming that “the world” is directly referring and so is “the elect”, it is not available to the direct reference theorist to insist that C and D express different propositions. After all, given Sproul’s view, they both refer to the same persons. What is the direct reference Calvinist to say?

The Calvinist can say what other direct reference theorists have said. Propositions expressed are not the complete content of our attitudes. According to Francois Recanati, a direct reference defender, a proposition expressed is apprehended up a mode of presentation (“Direct Reference, Meaning, and Thought,” Nous 24(1990): 697-722).  The singular terms that refer directly can still be terms that have senses. For example, the singular term, “I”, in the sentence, “I am a software engineer” has a shared meaning whether said by James or said by Guillaume. Its meaning has something to do with the attribute of being a person. But which proposition is expressed or to whom “I” refers in an utterance depends upon which person speaks. Second, co-referential terms may be assented to, thought of, or apprehended under different modes of presentation. “Tully is bald” and “Cicero is bald” express the same proposition, but have different modes of presentation. 

With this background, one can see how the reductio against Sproul fails. That reductio, again, is that taking John 3:16a at “face value” results in Jesus saying something potentially misleading, or what is worse, something false. “Although (3:16) says God loved ‘the world’ and gave his Son for it, that is actually false. God didn’t (and doesn’t) love everyone; he loves only the elect.” Davis thinks Sproul is incorrect about the referent of “the world” because he (Davis) apprehends Jesus’ statement under a certain mode of presentation that is incompatible with “the world” having the reference Sproul identifies. But of course, one might wonder why “world” taken at face value means “every person, whether elect or non-elect” and not the mode of presentation found in C, and which is stressed in the Sproul quote above. The proper way to settle which mode of presentation is more appropriate to accept about a term is to read the surrounding text. Arguably, Davis’ view is incorrect on those grounds.

By attending to Frege’s puzzle, we have been able to show that Calvinist understandings of John 3:16a do not result in Jesus saying something false or misleading.

The Wide Horn of the Dilemma

Davis’ dilemma aimed to corner the Calvinist between a rock and a hard place. We have shown above there was no rock on the one side, and that’s where we feel like escaping. But let’s take another moment to show there was no hard place on the other side anyway. What is supposed to be the problem if a Calvinist grants a wide scope for the quantifier in John 3:16?

Davis tells us that:

On this reading of the quantifier, (3:16a) turns out to be false.

We disagree that it turns out to be false. With an explicit wide scope for the quantifier (and with the previously mentioned reformulation of “whoever” to avoid controversy), that statement which Davis called (3:16a) is what we called WIDE:

  • (WIDE) God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone (of both elect and non-elect) believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

If we thus suppose that the “everyone” is ranging over both elect and non-elect, it does not make the WIDE statement false. Rather, it just makes it a bit strange that God’s love in the antecedent would be affirmed of just the elect, and that the “everyone” in the consequent would still range over everybody. But that strangeness will be removed by the Calvinist who opts for a wide reading of the quantifier, by also adopting a wide reading of “the world” in the antecedent, thereby agreeing with Davis that it’s not just the elect this verse has in view here. If Calvinists do that, they do not need to find fault with much of anything that Davis presses them to say. Davis’ final, preferred rendering of John 3:16, that which he calls his “desiderata”, is something that such Calvinists can just as well affirm:

  • (3:16c)  God so loved the fallen world, that he gave his one and only Son, that any fallen human being who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Calvinists can affirm this, and they can do so even if they disagree that it is what John is saying!

First, it is clear that: “any fallen human being who believes in Jesus shall not perish but have eternal life” is consistent with Calvinism, and that it is true in virtue of the death of Jesus. So it’s not the conditional “if one believes, he shall not perish” that Davis must be saying Calvinists cannot affirm. Rather, Davis must be pressing Calvinists on the stated connection with God’s love. The verse would be saying God loved all these people (now supposed to be elect and non-elect) so much that he did something for them (all). And Davis says that on Calvinism, God either didn’t do anything for the non-elect, or whatever he did for them isn’t very significant:

To be sure, God’s loving and giving his Son for the elect is sufficient for their believing and having eternal life. But this has no bearing whatsoever on the non-elect. For abandoned to their fallen desires, they cannot believe in Christ. Surely, it would be a strange and pointless thing for Jesus to be at pains to tell Nicodemus that “whoever (of those who cannot believe) does believe: these persons won’t perish but have eternal life.”

But even on Calvinism, the giving of Jesus has a “bearing whatsoever” on the non-elect. It’s in virtue of the death of Jesus that “if they believe they will not perish”. It is true that they won’t believe (because on Calvinist premises they can’t: as the Bible puts it, they’re in the flesh and cannot please God, they cannot discern the things of the Spirit, they’re dead in sin and cannot raise themselves to spiritual life, they cannot believe). But the counterfactual “if they believed they would not perish” is still true, and is true in virtue of the death of Jesus. So it would not be false for John to make the affirmation about everyone (elect or not). We understand that the mere truth of this counterfactual in the case of the non-elect won’t get the libertarian very excited, but it is not nothing, and it is not a “strange and pointless thing” for Jesus to tell Nicodemus. Why? Because Jesus (on this reading) is saying it in one single statement, of both the elect and the non-elect. So for Jesus’ statement to be true and very significant (which it is), it only needs to be true of the non-elect (which it is), while true and very significant of the elect (which it is).

Given all this, we do not believe there is a problem for a Calvinist who (unlike us) feels inclined to read a wide scope in the quantifier of John 3:16. But let us finish the job with a tu quoque response as we believe Davis is a Molinist.

If Molinism is true, God knew in his middle-knowledge that the non-elect would not freely believe in the circumstances in which God is actually going to place them. Then what is the Molinist to say that John 3:16 is affirming about the non-elect? That God loved them so much that he sent Jesus to die for them, a thing which he knew full-well would not save any of them unless he placed them in different circumstances? If the alleged absurdity of saying of the non-elect “Because God loves the world, he goes ahead and does something that won’t save them anyway” takes down Calvinism, it takes down Molinism too.

The Molinist might reply that God is at least trying his best to save them. This point is not satisfactory, because God would be trying to do something that he knows cannot happen – that they be saved – given which world God decrees to actualize. To the extent that the Molinist is willing to accept this is something meaningful, the Calvinist can point to the general call of the Gospel as something equally meaningful.

The bottom line is that Calvinists and Molinists, if they opt for a wide reading of the quantifier in John 3:16, must affirm the same thing about the non-elect, whom God (on this reading) is said to love: for them, God gives Jesus, so that if they believed, they would be saved, but God knows they won’t believe, which means the net result for them in terms of actual salvation is exactly as if God hadn’t done anything for them.


We have argued that the dilemma argument from John 3:16 fails. Calvinists attracted to Sproul’s view that “the world” refers to the elect do not face even a prima facie problem with understanding the meaning of this text. The verse is not trivial, but even if it were, that feature would not by itself make Jesus’ assertion absurd. Furthermore, if it were true that the Calvinist were forced into accepting the wider interpretation of “everyone believing”, the Calvinist need not concede that Jesus would be asserting something false or insignificant. Finally, if we Calvinists faced a problem here, then so would the Molinists. But they do not, and so we do not. Both parties can agree that John 3:16 is true, and that its truth is significant. For the Son not only came with the intention to give eternal life to the world, but the Son succeeds in taking away their sin. (John 1:29)

2018-06-07T21:23:19+00:00 April 7th, 2018|13 Comments


  1. Rich Davis April 8, 2018 at 9:41 am

    This is an excellent piece of philosophical analysis, guys!

  2. James A. Gibson April 8, 2018 at 11:54 am

    Thanks, Rich!

  3. James A. Gibson April 25, 2018 at 8:47 am

    It is important to see that my site is not a propaganda machine. I’ll let you link to articles like this, even if SEA has the habit of presenting only the parts that are safe for its readers.

  4. David Leal April 26, 2018 at 3:51 am

    James, I’m sorry for the off-topic, but let me make a confession, and I don’t mean this to insult you or any Calvinist:

    I find Calvinism absolutely horrible, utterly repugnant, and I’m amazed at the lengths to which Calvinists go to defend it. I’m absolutely terrified with the possibility of Calvinism being true, and if I was convinced it is true, I’d probably spend my time trying to find ways to prove myself wrong.

    So, I’m wondering, what is it that you, and for example, Guillaume, find in Calvinism that leads you to want to prove it to be true?

    Because, unless I’m understanding things wrong (and I hope I do), here’s only a few of the problems that I find with it:

    * God designs a system where the failure of a couple will dictate the fall of an entire race. Each of their descendants, *through no fault of their own*, will be born with a corrupt nature that will make them incapable to turn to the source of all good.
    * God then decrees the fall.
    * From that pool of lost human beings, God, a god of infinite resources, able, I’m assuming, to save every single person of this fallen race, unilaterally decides to save some, leaving the others to die.
    * Those that are left by God to die will face punishment that will go from end of existence (if you’re an Annihilationist) to eternal conscious torment (if you’re… er, an Eternal Conscious Tormentist?).
    * About the latter possibility, I’d like to suggest an hypothetical experiment: cover yourself with gasoline, then set yourself on fire. Note how much it hurts. Then multiply this pain by infinity (which is the amount of time the lost will live in this condition). Now, I’m obviously not suggesting you do this, nor do I think you or any Calvinist deserve it. I’m simply trying to point out the unimaginable amount of torment facing the lost.
    * As a personal note, consider that among these that are lost will be many people you know and care about, including maybe your children, if you have children, or maybe mine (I do have children). I’m assuming that, in the case where you have children, you would be able, like Paul, to choose an eternity away from Christ if that meant the salvation of your children (I know Paul is saying this about his fellow Jews, but the same principle applies). So I believe I would be willing to give up my salvation for my children, but my God potentially isn’t willing to save them.
    * But hey, who am I to question God, right?

    So, given the above, and to repeat my question — if you are willing to help a fellow desperate believer who finds himself unable to like (much less love or trust) this God of Calvinism — what is it about Calvinism that merits all this effort to defend it? Am I wrong in the observations I made above?

    I’d appreciate any help that you can offer that can bring me some peace.

  5. James A. Gibson April 26, 2018 at 7:06 am

    I totally get that Calvinism is a pretty shocking view. Berkelian Idealism strikes me the same way, although I suppose without the ethical connotations. But then again, even the Rev’d thought his view was common sense. Anyway, I have encountered this sense of repulsion many times. The only time I didn’t see repulsion but more fascination was by colleagues in graduate school, who considered it an epistemic possibility as much as Christianity was an epistemic possibility.

    I think that I’ll address the question that you ask at the beginning and repeat at the end: why bother defending Calvinism? The second question, “Am I wrong in the observations I made above,” I think that the answer is “Yes”. However, I hope you can forgive me for saying that it is too difficult to answer why in a comment and so I am not even going to attempt it.

    So why expend the effort defending Calvinism?

    First, there is the reason that its truth is significant with respect to so many other things we might hold beliefs about, and which are also important. As you just intimated, Calvinism has massive implications, although we disagree about what those implications are. Among those implications are *how* we evangelize (not *that* we evangelize), how we understand what work is done exactly when God saves someone, how we understand Biblical texts, whether we can plausibly defend various doctrines you and I both will defend (e.g., I’m assuming you go in for inerrancy of Scripture, for God’s infallible foreknowledge, etc.). Are you familiar with the concept of consilience? Just like Molinists see God’s middle-knowledge as having so much relevance for so many topics, so I do for Calvinism.

    Let me give you an example of one of these implications. I was a Calvinist when I was a Biola undegrad. Perhaps it is surprising to you that I joined an evangelism college group. Shocking, right? Anyway, during that time, the group president confronted me after a few weeks. She insisted that unless I tried to talk to people about Christianity using their specific method and lines of persuasion, I would not be allowed to return to the group or go with them to witness to people. One of the things that I had to say was, “Jesus came and died for you.” But as a Calvinist, how could I be in a position to assert that is true of someone who showed no evidence of that being so? (Even if it were true, is truth really the one and only norm of assertion?) Well, I settled for trusting that if God were to save those people, he hardly needed me, and I would settle for not asserting what I thought were, so far as I knew, just as much falsehoods as they might be truths. But she settled for a priority over a methodology for witnessing than another Christian to speak about the gospel.

    A second reason I have defended Calvinism so much is that the people I encounter hold very strong opinions against it, and in large numbers. I’ve found that their ability to represent Calvinism is below standard, even if the standard is what Calvinist popularizers are saying. Again, when I was at Biola as an undergraduate, I was one of the few Calvinists in the philosophy department. My main area of interest was epistemology. But Calvinism was a hot topic then (~20 yrs ago) just as much as it is today. So although I wanted to focus on epistemological questions, I was forced into thinking more deeply about this topic. What I found was that I was able to put up a pretty good defense of a position so many people thought was so wrong. Josh Rasmussen and Luke van Horne once had an “infamous” (on the scale of an ant) debate with myself and Christopher Evan Franklin, which had an fairly large audience. (Chris has since been convinced of Bob Kane’s view and he has done a great job defending him.) Andrew Bailey was there; it would be fascinating to see if he still had notes from that. Anyway, my defense of Calvinism has been partly because so many Christians care about this topic, even going out of their way to jump all over it, even as blatant mischaracterizations, as a form of virtue signaling. (For the record, Josh, Luke, Chris, Andrew: none of them do that. They are all very good philosophers. The majority of the time – not all the time – I find that the virtue signaling comes from less than capable philosophers, typically apologists.) The mischaracterizations would be funny provided it was coming from people who could at at least describe the view properly and, dare I say, “play devil’s advocate” (!) by being able to present the reasons given in its favor. Some of us do make fun of our own positions from time to time, but that’s because we know that we are making oversimplifications. That’s what makes them humorous when we do it. Anyway, I was more or less forced into thinking about the view, and not just at Biola, but also at Talbot Seminary and at Western Michigan University because there were plenty of Christian colleagues at the time. Tim McGrew, in case you are wondering, was not among those who took an interest in discussing this. That is a span of 10 years of engaging smart people on this topic.

    The third reason I have expended so much energy on this is that Calvinists have not been good at defending Calvinism from a philosophical point of view. When I was at Biola, who was there to represent Calvinism at the level required? Paul Helm. Some of Bill Wainwright’s work. Maybe John Frame had something, but not much at the time. Atheist John Martin Fischer sometimes said things in defense of Calvinism in his work. That’s it! It was slim pickings! Things are a little different now. But for so long, there were theologians who by and large cared about exegesis but nothing about philosophy, maybe a handful of Calvinist philosophers (and that’s a hand missing some fingers), and then the various literatures that were related, e.g., the free will literature. There were the three or four Calvinist undergraduate friends I had in the department, which was the size of ~100 at the time. They were in the same boat as me. The only other sources I knew of were other graduate students at the time who were also thinking about this (Sean Choi, Greg Welty, James Anderson). I take it what I have been doing, along with now a decent size of other Calvinist philosophers (yet still a very tiny group), is show that there can be a philosophically interesting and rich understanding of these issues, at least so I have tried. So you can think of my motivation as picking up the slack for a crowd that has let the philosophical issues go entirely to different theological traditions. It was not always like that. I am not sure why that change happened. But it is a good thing for anyone who is attempting to develop a deep faith that wants the truth, whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly.

    Let me just say one more thing. Like Guillaume, I am an adult convert to Christianity. I have a wife and child. I come from a family of non-Christians. I live in an area that is massively unchurched. I work in an industry that thinks Christian are “F-ing stupid.” (Yes, I think the expletive is how they would say it.) The majority of my friends have been non-Christians. Calvinists, even by their own lights, are not emotionless robots. We hope for their conversion just like any Arminian would. The difference is that we think that if the person is converted, it is because God changed them (this is all very inexact in how I am speaking, but details don’t matter right now); and if God does not change them, then God has a good reason for not doing so. I make myself available to talk about these issues with them; unfortunately, the hardest ones to convince are one’s family. I trust that whatever God’s reasons, if his reasons support their conversion, he will do whatever is needed for that in his timing. I do not have to debate with myself: can I watch this HBO series or should I spend this moment or that moment trying to convince them but just not too much so that I do not push them away? (Peter Unger and Peter Singer have analogous worries about our use of money.)

    So that is my answer to your question, “why do I expend effort defending Calvinism.” Now you can see partly why I didn’t even bother to address your other question.

    Why did I address this here? There is a nagging sense I get from non-Calvinists that Calvinists are subhuman. That we are morally defunct. I have plenty of anecdotes to support that. If this doesn’t make any change in their mind about that, about what motivations they want to impugn to Calvinists like Guillaume or myself, God help us.

  6. Ashwin Sasidharan May 16, 2018 at 4:50 am

    With respect to your argument that Jesus meant the elect when he said “the world”, the rest of John 3 creates problems.

    1) John 3:19 : 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
    Here, ” the world” has to be a community of people consisting of those who reject the gospel as well as accept it.Any hearer including Nicodemus, would find it rationally very hard to interpret the “world” in John 3:16 as ” a group consisting only of those who will accept the gospel” and then shift to a wider understanding of “world” in verse 19.
    This is even more true considering how verse 19 parallels, verse 16. In verse 16 , the son of God enters the world.. In verse 19, Light enters the world. In verse 16, people who believe in the son will not perish. In verse 19, people who “loved” the darkness rather than the light, perish.

    Its a big stretch to consider the world in John 3:16 to refer to the “elect”, and an even bigger stretch to maintain the same interpretation of the word “world” for John 3:19. This is a bit of a schizophrenic understanding in my opinion.

    With respect to the wider Horn Argument you stated,

    First, it is clear that: “any fallen human being who believes in Jesus shall not perish but have eternal life” is consistent with Calvinism, and that it is true in virtue of the death of Jesus.

    I would like to qualify that the above statement is valid for Calvinists who don’t hold to limited Atonement.However, there are others who believe that the act of atonement is valid only for the elect and as such there is no sacrifice by which the non-elect can be saved as only the sins of the elect were imputed to Christ.So the counter factual is true only among those who believe, Jesus atoned for every fallen man’s Sins.
    If you believe that only the Elect’s Sins were atoned for, then the non-elect will perish even if by some miracle they come to believe in Jesus.


  7. James A. Gibson May 16, 2018 at 5:18 am

    We denied that “world” means elect. So we also reject that it means “a group consisting only of those who will accept the gospel.” The entire first paragraph assumes we think it means elect, or something about belief. So the argument from 3:19 against “our view” doesn’t succeed.

    When it comes to the question of whether “world” refers only to the elect, all that you say is this is a big stretch. I can’t say I am persuaded by that.

  8. Ashwin May 16, 2018 at 6:19 am

    Let me try and understand your answer.

    In the article, you defended Calvinism based on two interpretations of John3:16 which you described as below

    (WIDE) God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone (of both elect and non-elect) believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
    (NARROW) God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone (of the elect) believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

    You have stated explicitly in your argument that you don’t hold to the wide interpretation.
    Now, you claim, you don’t believe world means elect, or refers to only those who will believe…
    This leaves me wondering what you actually believe world means… I am left with the below three options..
    a) Everybody (ALL jews, and ALL gentiles) irrespective whether they will believe in Jesus or not.
    b) Only some people(Some News and Gentiles) irrespective of whether they will believe in Jesus or not.
    c)Whatever is convenient at the particular point of time.

    You have left me bewildered.

  9. James A. Gibson May 16, 2018 at 6:50 am

    We say it means, following Sproul, “Jews and Gentiles.” The meaning of the word does not contain an implicit quantifier. You might think that it did if you thought, wrongly, that “world” meant everyone.

  10. Ashwin May 16, 2018 at 7:31 am


    What I am assuming with input from the context of John 3:16 and 3:19 is not a quantifier. It’s a qualifier… I.e w.r.t the person’s belief.
    The context makes it explicit that both people who will believe as well as people won’t believe are part of the world.

    This is in direct opposition to what Calvinists claim. I hope you understood the argument. The quantity is secondary to the composition of the group w.r.t whether they will believe or not.

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