1 Timothy 2:4-6: Leighton Flowers, Charles Spurgeon and the Hermeneutical Divide

The Christian Standard Bible translates 1 Timothy 2:4-6 in the immediate context as follows:

               “First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

                    5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time.” (CSB)

            The English Standard Version translates these verses as follows:

               “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. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” (ESV)

            This passage presents a direct challenge to the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election.  That doctrine teaches that God, even before he created the world, predetermined salvation only for certain chosen individuals.  And their election to salvation is unconditional, that is, it has nothing to do with them or anything or anyone else.  It is solely based on God’s will and actions (i.e., “effectual call” and “irresistible grace”) as to who will be saved and who will not.  Only those elect persons can be saved.  All others cannot.  Therefore, unconditional election seems to contradict Paul’s words that God “wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  The inspired words of the text that clearly state that God “wants everyone” or “all people” to be saved and “to come to the knowledge of the truth” run contrary to the Calvinist doctrine that God has predestined only certain persons to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

            Now, in order to have 1 Tim. 2:4 be consistent with their doctrine of unconditional election, the Calvinist typically interprets the phrase “everyone” or “all people” as “all people without distinction.”  That is, that God desires “people of all nations, types or races” to be saved.  It is the difference between “all without exclusion” and “all without distinction.”  The former view states that no one is excluded from salvation.  Everyone is included in God’s salvation plan.  God desires everyone to be saved.  On the other hand, the latter view states that many are excluded from God’s salvation plan.  God desires to save only those people he has chosen, and he has chosen them apart from geographical, national, racial or economic distinctions.  The latter only includes certain individuals from everywhere.  The ESV attempts to represent this all-without-distinction exclusive view by translating with the words “all people” in the phrase “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved…”  Whereas the CSB has “everyone,” which is clearly all-inclusive.  Moreover, we have the further teaching of Paul in verse 6 that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all,” which certainly seems to support the all-inclusive view

            Leighton makes the important point that the Calvinist’s interpretation of verse 4 as meaning “all without distinction” is the same as if the verse read, “God does not desire all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  That is what the verse must mean according to the Calvinist’s interpretation of the phrase “all men” as “all men without distinction,” or, “all kinds or types of people.”  In their attempt to retain consistency with their doctrine of unconditional election the Calvinist makes this verse mean the opposite as to what Paul actually wrote!  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Calvinist’s doctrine of unconditional election is driving their interpretation of this verse rather than the plain, clear meaning of Paul’s words.

            The well-known Calvinist preacher Charles Spurgeon seems to agree.  As a Calvinist, Spurgeon found these verses to be a challenge to the typical Calvinist interpretation and his theological system of beliefs.  He makes the following comments that bear upon interpretive method and principles of hermeneutics. 

               “My love of consistency with my own doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me knowingly to alter a single text of Scripture.  I have great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater.  I would sooner, a hundred times over, appear to be inconsistent with myself [referring to his Calvinism] than be inconsistent with the word of God.  I never thought it to be any very great crime to seem inconsistent with myself, for who am I that I should everlastingly be consistent.  But I do think it a great crime to be so inconsistent with the word of God that I should want to lop away a bough or even a twig from so much as a single tree of the forest of Scripture.  God forbid that I should cut or shape, even in the least degree, any divine expression.  So runs the text, and so we must read it, “God our Savior; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.””[1]

            Spurgeon would like to be able to interpret 1 Tim. 2:4 in a way that is consistent with his Calvinist soteriological doctrines.  And typically that has been to read “all people” as “all without distinction” or “all types or kinds of people” rather than “all people without exception.”  Now, Spurgeon would prefer to maintain the consistency of his Calvinist doctrinal beliefs, but more importantly, he says he must not alter the Scripture to fit those doctrinal beliefs.  So Spurgeon understands that Scripture holds authority over his doctrinal system.

            Now he finds that he is compelled to interpret 1 Tim. 2:4 to mean “all men without exception or exclusion” or simply put – “everyone.” (CSB)  He has said that his Calvinist doctrinal beliefs should not be allowed to influence or dictate his interpretation of this text.  He thinks it a “great crime” that he “should want to lop away a bough or even a twig from so much as a single tree of the forest of Scripture.”  Spurgeon doesn’t accept the typical Calvinist interpretation of 1 Tim. 2:4 as “all without distinction.”  He is compelled to read that verse as meaning that God desires “all men without exception to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  Moreover, he understands that this is also therefore the inspired meaning of 1 Tim. 2:4.  But if that is the case, then Spurgeon has a serious hermeneutical problem on his hands.  This clear and inspired meaning of 1 Tim 2:4 is in contradiction with his Calvinist interpretations of other texts that he claims teach unconditional election.  This raises hermeneutical questions as to whether Scripture can contradict itself, and if not, when the Calvinist finds his theological interpretations and beliefs to be in contradiction with each other or with texts like 1 Tim. 2:4-6, whether they must conclude that they have wrongly interpreted the text at some point.

            Now, if “all men without exception” or “everyone” is the inspired meaning of 1 Tim. 2:4, and we can also add the clearly inclusive sense in verse 6 which states Jesus gave himself a “ransom for all,” then how can the Calvinist interpretations of other texts like Eph. 1, Rom. 9 and Jn. 6 also be the inspired meaning or the true intent of those texts if they contradict 1 Tim. 2:4-6?  How can the Calvinist interpretations of these texts be the inspired meaning if they teach that God desires that only select people be saved, that is, that many people are excluded from God’s salvation which is contrary to 1 Tim. 2:4-6?

            Spurgeon mentioned his “love of consistency.”  He also states that he “never thought it to be any very great crime to seem inconsistent with myself.”  I take this to mean that if he were in some way inconsistent in his in his own thinking, that would be a concern and would need to be dealt with, especially if the inconsistency stems from or impacts his interpretation of Scripture.  But then he states, “I do think it a great crime to be so inconsistent with the word of God that I should want to lop away a bough or even a twig from so much as a single tree of the forest of Scripture.”  Spurgeon is stating that if he finds that his present theological beliefs are inconsistent with what he sees the word of God teaching, he will alter his theology rather than alter the Scripture to fit his beliefs.  He insists that his theology be consistent with the word of God, and will revise his theology if need be.  But given his interpretation of 1 Tim. 2:4-6, is Spurgeon’s position now inconsistent with the word of God?

            Now, if it is the case that Spurgeon insists that his theology be consistent with the word of God, and if need be he will alter his theology and not the Scriptures if he finds himself to be inconsistent, then it seems that Spurgeon must also revisit the accuracy of his interpretations of passages like Eph. 1, Rom. 9 and Jn. 6.  He must revisit these texts because, as a Calvinist, he interprets them as inconsistent with his interpretation of 1 Tim. 2:4-6.  In fact, again, they are in contradiction with this passage.  Spurgeon may, after all, be lopping away boughs and twigs from the forest of Scripture in passages like Eph. 1, Rom. 9 and Jn. 6 if he believes 1 Tim. 2:4-6 teaches that God certainly desires “everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

            Spurgeon states, “I would sooner, a hundred times over, appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God.”  So in order to be true to the word of God at 1 Tim. 2:4-6 he causes an inconsistency within his own Calvinist interpretations of other texts of Scripture.  Therefore, as he presently interprets Scripture, he has Scripture contradicting itself.   But should a theology that claims to accurately reflect the meaning of these various Scriptures be marked by inconsistency or contradiction?  Has Spurgeon rightly understood the word of God if he has the word of God inconsistent with itself?  Can Spurgeon simply consider the inconsistency he has now created with his other Calvinist interpretations (e.g., unconditional election), as interpretively insignificant as to the accuracy and validity of those interpretations?  Other Calvinist interpretations and doctrines are now at odds with his inclusive interpretation of 1 Tim. 2:4-6.  Therefore, Spurgeon has Scripture contradicting Scripture.  Shouldn’t what he claims to be the truth from one portion of Scripture be coherent with how he interprets other portions of Scripture?

            I think Spurgeon is unwittingly revealing to us a sound hermeneutical principle here.  That is, that the interpreter of Scripture should not presume his interpretations are correct apart from the need for coherence, consistency and non-contradiction among those interpretations.  Interpretations do not stand on their own.  They stand in relation to other texts.  Therefore, the hermeneutical principle of context demands that they stand in coherent relation with those other texts.  Context is a sound hermeneutical principle.  And context, when properly understood and practiced, entails coherence.  But will Spurgeon, as a Calvinist, be able to carry through with his claims about consistency and altering his theology to be consistent with Scripture, or will he allow himself to retain interpretations of texts like Eph. 1, Rom. 9 and Jn. 6 that stand in contradiction with his interpretation of other inspired texts in “the word of God” like 1 Tim. 2:4-6?  Will he really rather alter his Calvinism, or will he actually end up lopping away boughs and twigs from the tree of the forest of Scripture?

            Of course Spurgeon ultimately retains his Calvinist theological doctrine of unconditional election which stands in contradiction to 1 Tim. 2:4-6.  Although Spurgeon talks about consistency, this ultimately holds no sway in his hermeneutic.  That is, coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are ultimately not necessary when it comes to interpreting the word of God.  These do not play a necessary and indispensable role in his hermeneutic.  They can be dismissed if need be while “explanations” are devised to justify his interpretive incoherence (e.g., compatibilism, mystery, incomprehensibility, antinomy, tension, etc.)  Another attempted “explanation” offered by Calvinists to get around the contradiction between God desiring everyone to be saved yet unconditionally electing only some to be saved, is the their “two wills in God” explanation.  I examine this idea elsewhere on this site and at Soteriology 101, but suffice it to say here that it suffers from the same problems of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction that we find here.

            So what Spurgeon is doing is transferring his theological inconsistency onto the biblical texts.  He determined that 1 Tim 2:4-6 means “all men without exception or exclusion” rather than the typical Calvinist interpretation of “all men without distinction” or “men of all kinds, types or races.”  But the “all men without exception” inclusive interpretation stands in contradiction with Spurgeon’s other exclusive Calvinist doctrines.  And those exclusive doctrines he will not alter.  He believes Eph. 1, Rom. 9, Jn. 6, etc. teach unconditional election despite the incoherence this creates with the myriad of passages like 1 Tim. 2:4-6 that teach the opposite of unconditional election.  Hence, given Spurgeon’s Calvinist interpretations he has Scripture contradicting itself.

            Now it would seem that although Spurgeon says he is willing to correct any inconsistency in his Calvinist system against the touchstone of the word of God, what he actually does is place the inconsistency among his interpretations upon Scripture itself.  He is aware that he has just interpreted one Scripture in a way that is inconsistent or in contradiction with other of his interpretations of Scripture, but note that he would rather offer additional rationalizations to justify holding to his inconsistency (e.g., “two wills in God”) rather than revisit his interpretations of the exclusionary texts like Eph. 1, Rom. 9 and Jn. 6.  He holds to the non-Calvinist inclusive salvific will of God interpretation of 1 Tim 2:4-6 and yet retains his Calvinist exclusive salvific will of God interpretations of Eph. 1, Rom. 9 and Jn. 6.  So, this raises an important question.  Can the Word of God correctly interpreted lead to a situation in which different texts are found to be inconsistent or in contradiction with each other?  If not, then Spurgeon has more interpretive work to do.  Given his doctrine of unconditional election, he has interpreted the Word of God in contradiction to his interpretation of 1 Tim. 2:4 which he sees as the inspired word of God.  But which is it?  Does God desire “all men without distinction” to be saved which entails that many are excluded from salvation by God himself, or does God desire “everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” which entails that no one is excluded by God himself?

            Now, 1 Timothy 2:4-6 presents a contradiction with Spurgeon’s interpretations of other passages that teach unconditional election which amount to God not desiring that “all people be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  In fact, God wills and determines that certain people will not be saved.  So, in one place Spurgeon interprets Scripture as saying God desires all people to be saved, and in other places he interprets the Scripture as saying God does not desire that all people be saved.  Spurgeon says he would correct any inconsistency present in his Calvinist beliefs with Scripture rather than alter Scripture to fit his Calvinist beliefs, yet he fails to consider that if 1 Tim. 2:4-6 is in contradiction with other of his Calvinist beliefs, then that must mean he has also misinterpreted or “altered” the Scriptures with respect to those other Calvinist beliefs – like gleaning unconditional election from Eph. 1, Rom. 9 and Jn. 6.  Spurgeon’s interpretations of the texts from which he gets a doctrine of unconditional election are and always will be in contradiction with 1 Tim. 2:4-6.   

            Now, here’s the crucial question, “Does this contradiction have hermeneutical implications?  Does it indicate that there is a misinterpretation somewhere in Spurgeon’s theology?  Does this contradiction require that Spurgeon go back to the other passages upon which he establishes his Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election that excludes some men from salvation and reconsider alternative interpretations of those texts so as to relieve the contradiction with 1 Tim. 2:4 -6?  I think the answer to this question is “Yes.”  Good interpretive practice and sound hermeneutical principles require that we interpret the word of God in a coherent, consistent and non-contradictory manner.  Therefore, Calvinists need to deal with these logical and moral problems within their interpretations by revisiting those interpretations.

            But if you have a hermeneutic of incoherence that allows for contradictions in Scripture then you can let your incoherent and inconsistent exegetical conclusions stand, but you would naturally feel some responsibility to “explain” how they can stand as valid interpretations of Scripture.  Hence, again, the Calvinists “explanations” of “mystery,” “apparent” contradiction, “antinomy,” “incomprehensibility,” etc.

            So, on a hermeneutic of coherence, we know a misinterpretation of the Word of God when we find incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction in particular interpretations and in the theological constructs that are built upon them.  So here is the crucial hermeneutical point to grasp.  If Spurgeon rightly states that he should not alter a single text of Scripture to fit his presupposed theology, but his theology should reflect what Scripture teaches, and yet his interpretations of Scripture produce incoherencies, inconsistency and contradictions, can’t we definitively say that he has still misinterpreted the Scripture at some point?  The answer must be yes if you take consistency and noncontradiction to be essential to your hermeneutic, that is, if you have a hermeneutic of coherence as opposed to a hermeneutic of incoherence.

            So, a fundamental problem here is that Spurgeon does not think that coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential elements in a sound hermeneutic.  He has, at this point, a hermeneutic of incoherence.  As a Calvinist, he does not think that the laws of logic, along with our moral intuitions, play a necessary role in determining the validity of one’s interpretations.  And this is the hermeneutical divide between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist that is at the root of this controversy.  The Calvinist ultimately dismisses the laws of logic and moral intuitions in the interpretive task.  Coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are ultimately not necessary considerations for determining the validity or invalidity of interpretative propositions.  In contrast, for the non-Calvinist, coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential elements in a sound hermeneutic and as such they are reliable indicators of the validity of interpretations.

            So where does the real problem lie?  Is it that Scripture contradicts itself, or that Spurgeon has a deficient hermeneutic that allows for incoherence?  I submit it is the latter.  If Scripture does not contradict itself (and I think we all agree on that point), and we know a contradiction when we see it (which Spurgeon has presupposed throughout), then Spurgeon needs to keep applying the hermeneutical principles of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction until he comes to the proper interpretations of Eph. 1, Rom. 9 and Jn. 6.

I think this hermeneutical divide is the cause of the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy.  And therefore, this is also where the solution to that controversy lies.


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[1] Leighton Flowers, “Calvinist Proof-Texting 101,” Aug. 28, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipqSa_ZnFbc  (1:21:33 – 1:23:21)

See also Chapter 7 – The Indispensability of Reason and Logic in Biblical Interpretation, the section titled “David Allen, Leighton Flowers, Exegesis and Contradiction: 1 Timothy 2:1-6”

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