In “Whoever Reads John 3:16 Can Know that ‘Whoever’ Is Really There”, Brian Abasciano argues against four Calvinists: James Anderson, Guillaume Bignon, James Gibson, and James White. (I, Guillaume, apologize for not being named “James”. In my defense, my middle name is “Jacques”, which is the French title of the book of James; surely that must count.) Abasciano argues that all four Calvinists have made an embarrassing mistake by failing to understand the Greek text in John 3:16. If these Calvinists had consulted BDAG or even John Calvin’s own writings, they would have recognized that John 3:16 really does convey a generic sense of “whoever”. We, Bignon and Gibson, will let Anderson and White defend themselves since they actually spend some time discussing matters of translation.
But as for us, we just need to straighten out the context of our argument by making four simple remarks:
- Our argument does not depend on which translation of the verse one prefers.
- We endorsed neither a translation of the verse, nor White’s argument, nor Anderson’s argument.
- Davis himself agrees with us that the debate does not hang on the translation of the verse.
- Abasciano does not engage our argument.
Let’s begin by repeating an apparently overlooked but important line in our response to Davis:
We believe that the problems which beset Davis’ argument do not depend upon which rendering one prefers. But because the first rendering [the one with ‘whoever’] can be misleading to what the central issues are, we will continue with the second rendering in order to present the dilemma.
It should be apparent to the careful reader of our piece that we believe our response to Davis succeeds even given the translation Abasciano wants to push. We do not develop that point here, but given what we say about the narrow and wide interpretations, it is not difficult to see how that would go.
Abasciano writes that he is surprised we “approvingly reference White and his argument in [our] own response to Davis.” But is that what we do? No. White’s relevance in our piece is limited to three sentences in the short section where we summarize one of the several arguments White gives in his podcast. The reason we summarize that specific argument is its relevance to the move Davis makes in his response to White, which we summarize as well. Summarizing an argument is not the same as approvingly referencing it. Notice that White’s comments about “whoever” play no role whatsoever in the sections that constitute our response to Davis. Abasciano should not have made this attribution to us.
In addition, note that we do not endorse James Anderson’s argument even though we link to it. Anderson argues that the Calvinist view of the atonement is supported by John 3:16. But pay attention to what we are doing there. It is preceded by the line, “The proper way to settle which mode of presentation is more appropriate to accept about a term is to read the surrounding text.” Our point is that in order to settle the question of whether Calvinism is undercut or supported by John 3:16, one must perform an examination of the surrounding text. Davis does not do that and neither do we. That is why the point is “arguable”, as we say in the link to Anderson’s piece.We are noncommittal about whether Anderson is correct for the same reason we are noncommittal about whether White is correct: we do not have to commit to anything there in order to argue that Davis’ argument is unsuccessful.
Abasciano seems to have missed that Rich Davis himself takes the cogency of his argument to not depend on the presence of the word “whoever”. When Davis responds to James White, he reconstructs his own argument so that it does not depend on the presence of that word. What would Abasciano have us do in response to Davis? Should we have insisted that the success of Davis’ argument in fact depends on the translation White criticizes, even though Davis himself does not think that it does? Of course not. We agree with Davis that the premises of his argument do not depend on a commitment to the translation for which Abasciano argues. What good philosophers do – what anyone should do – when they construct an argument is present only as much as they must in order to support a conclusion.
With that in place, we wonder whether Abasciano does think that the presence of that word plays a necessary role in Davis’ argument for the conclusion that Calvinism renders John 3:16 either false or trivially true. If he does not think it plays a necessary role, then his dispute is with Anderson and White in particular, and he has wrongly named us in his response as having made an embarrassing mistake. But if he does think it is necessary to the success of Davis’ argument, then why doesn’t Abasciano include Davis in the list of those who make this embarrassing mistake in understanding the Greek? Is it because Davis has Arminian diplomatic immunity from the Society of Evangelical Arminians? Or is it because Abasciano mistakenly thinks we differ from Davis on this point?
We are clear that what is at stake in the matter of whether the Calvinist can plausibly understand John 3:16 are issues in the philosophy of language. Abasciano doesn’t address any of these issues, which constitute the core of our response to Davis. Davis intended to draw out implications for Calvinism based on one verse. We showed the implications do not follow. That is, Calvinist commitments neither imply something false nor something trivial is uttered by Jesus.
In conclusion, there are really two disputes. One is a dispute about the proper translation of John 3:16; that is between Anderson and White on the one hand and Abasciano on the other. And quite another debate is about what a Calvinist is committed to saying about what Jesus utters in John 3:16; that debate is between Bignon and Gibson on the one hand and Davis on the other. Nothing relevant has been critiqued in our contribution to this latter debate. For anyone who wishes to comment on what we actually say about Davis’ argument, we look forward to any future responses.
Guillaume Bignon and James A. Gibson