Example 1 – David Allen and John Owen on John 3:16


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


Calvinists often state that the non-Calvinist objections to their theology are mainly philosophical and moral and not exegetical.  I provide this example, and others in this chapter, to show that this Calvinist statement falsely dichotomizes philosophical and moral reflection from exegesis and that their claim that non-Calvinists lack exegetical support is simply not true.

Calvinists argue that no one can or would be saved if God did not act in an electing or predestinating manner, that is, choosing certain individuals for salvation, regenerating only these elect, and granting them faith and repentance.  But are these conclusions properly derived from the biblical text?  Are they legitimate interpretive conclusions or are they imposed upon the text by the Reformed theological presuppositions to make the text confirm their theology?  How would we know when such eisegesis is occurring whether by Calvinists or non-Calvinists alike?

A very stark example of this can be found in the different interpretive conclusions regarding verses in John’s gospel that mention God’s love for “the world” and “whosoever believes,” along with those that state that Jesus died for “all” or “many” and for the “church,” his “sheep” or his “friends.”

Non-Calvinist Dr. David Allen identifies several problems in Calvinist John Owen’s position which include the interpretive error of eisegesis and the logical errors of begging the question and category mistake.  But these logical or “philosophical” observations and critiques are just as much a part of good exegesis as any other technical aspects that are required in good interpretation.

Dr. Allen, in an informative essay titled “The Atonement: Limited or Universal,” identifies the interpretive flaws in Calvinist thought.  He writes,

               “Three key sets of texts in the New Testament affirm unlimited atonement: the “all” texts, the “world” texts, and the “many” texts.  Other texts state that Jesus died for His “church,” His “sheep,” and His “friends.”  How are we to reconcile these two sets of texts?  The high-Calvinist interprets the universal texts in light of the limited texts.  Non-Calvinists and moderate Calvinists interpret the limited texts as a subset of the universal texts.

Some Calvinists argue that biblical authors such as John or Paul believed in limited atonement because they made statements affirming Christ died for the Church, even though biblical writers do not say that Christ died only for the Church or that He did not die for the non-elect.  Calvinists usually exegete the relevant portions of Scripture in that manner.  For example, John Owen denied the death of Jesus has any reference to the non-elect.  According to Owen, the death of Christ is in absolutely no sense for them and is in no sense an expression of God’s love to them.[1]  When Owen said the use of the word kosmos in John 3:16-17 must designate “they whom he intended to save, and none else, or he faileth of his purpose,”[2] it is clear his theology precedes and determines his exegesis.  His argument proceeds in this fashion: since “world” is used elsewhere in senses other than “all humanity,” it cannot be used in that sense in John 3:16.  He also argued the same for the use of the word “all.”  Since “all” sometimes means “all of some sorts” or “some of all sorts,” it can never mean, according to Owen, that all humanity includes each and every person.  The logical fallacy of such an approach is evident.

Owen asserted that “we deny that by a supply of the word elect into the text any absurdity or untruth will justly follow…So that the sense is, ‘God so loved his elect throughout the world, that he gave his Son with this intention, that by him believers might be saved!’[3]  I submit that this does, indeed, inject both absurdity and untruth!  For Owen, “world” in John 3:16-17 cannot mean each and every person because by his preconceived theology only the elect are “loved” in this way (note the circular argument here).  Owen read his conclusion into his reasons for his conclusion and preempts any alternative, as Neil Chambers has noted in his thesis on Owen.[4]  Owen continued his argument that the use of “world” in John 3:17 is a statement of God’s intention and hence must refer only to the elect.  The same is true of 3:16.  Again, Owen read his conclusion into his reasons to prove his conclusion…Owen’s arguments are not linguistic or exegetical but a priori theological arguments.  He has committed the fallacy of begging the question…

No linguistic, exegetical, or theological grounds exist for reducing the meaning of “world” to “the elect.”  In fact, in John 17:6, the elect are defined over against the world.  Owen made John 3:16 read, “God so loved those he chose out of the world,” which changes the sense of the verse into the opposite of its intended meaning.  To make the meaning of “world” here “the elect” is to commit a logical and linguistic mistake of confusing categories.” [5] / [6]

Let’s make some observations on Dr. Allen’s exegetical assessment of Owen’s position.

1) Already having determined that “the church,” “sheep,” “friends,” et al. (the “limited texts”) refer to the unconditionally elect and thus establishes a limited atonement, Owen interprets “the world,” “all,” “many,” et al. (the “universal texts”) in light of these former meanings.  Owen’s meaning of the limited texts is placed upon the universal texts, but in doing this it seems to run contrary to the plain meaning of the universal texts and thus seems like the imposition of a foreign concept upon them.  An incoherence is created.  Whereas Allen lets the universal texts stand as universal and the “limited texts” stand as descriptive of a subset of the universal texts.  “The church,” “sheep,” “friends,” et al. can refer to believers without being incoherent with the unlimited scope of God’s love and Christ’s atoning death which accord with the plain meaning of the universal texts.  These descriptive texts can coherently be understood as subsets of the universal texts.  No a priori theological paradigm need be imposed upon the universal texts, and the nature of the limitations of the limited texts as descriptive of a subset of the universal texts can coherently be placed in the context of the universal statements.  So the coherence works with both types of texts on Dr. Allen’s view.

But this is not the case on Owen’s view because his view certainly seems to impose his a priori presupposition of a limited atonement upon these texts that naturally and plainly communicate universality.  On Calvinism the universal texts must be reinterpreted according to what the Calvinist believes the limited texts mean.  But this does seem forced.  Owen is reading his Calvinist doctrines into the text thus committing eisegesis.  As Allen states, “It is clear his theology precedes and determines his exegesis.”

2) “His [Owen’s] argument proceeds in this fashion: since “world” is used elsewhere in senses other than “all humanity,” it cannot be used in that sense in John 3:16.”  Why not?  Why must “world” mean “the elect” here?  Qwen provides this one “transfer of meaning” justification for this conclusion, but the following observations speak against Owen’s interpretation.

a. The context of Jn. 3:16 mitigates against it.  John 3:17 speaks about God’s purpose in sending Jesus was not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.  This disposition of God seems incoherent with an interpretation of limited atonement and unconditional election.  We should remind ourselves that the hermeneutical principle of context is nothing less that the search for the coherence, consistency and non-contradiction of the author’s flow of thought and ideas expressed by his words in the immediate and broader textual vicinity.

b. John could have used the word “elect” if that is what he meant to communicate.

c. Verse 18 clearly states “whoever believes is not condemned.”  This would have to be construed as mere news from John about the elect rather than a real dynamic of decision of will to believe that confronts the sinner in light of God’s saving work in Jesus on their behalf by which they may be saved.

d. Verse 18 also provides the reason someone remains in condemnation – it is “because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”  Again, on Calvinism John would merely be “reporting” or informing the reader about how things are given limited atonement and unconditional election. 

3) “Since “all” sometimes means “all of some sorts” or “some of all sorts,” it can never mean, according to Owen, that all humanity includes each and every person.  The logical fallacy of such an approach is evident.”  “…Owen read his conclusion into his reasons to prove his conclusion…Owen’s arguments are not linguistic or exegetical but a priori theological arguments.  He has committed the fallacy of begging the question…”

4) According to Allen, Owen commits a logical and linguistic mistake of “confusing categories.”  “…in John 17:6, the elect are defined over against the world.”  Here we have an instance that disconfirms Owen on his point.  In that that instance is from the same author [John] and in the same written document [John’s gospel], this is weighty evidence against Owen’s interpretation.

5) Allen concludes, “No linguistic, exegetical, or theological grounds exist for reducing the meaning of “world” to “the elect.””

It is also important for my thesis here to note that Allen’s disagreement is not only based on exegetical grounds but logical grounds and the two are not in conflict. The logical or philosophical thinking helps to identify mistakes in Owens’ interpretative thought process.  Logical reasoning refutes Owen’s claim that in John 3:16 “the world” may be equated with “the elect.”  This is eisegesis and distorts the text.  Allen protests that, “… this does, indeed, inject both absurdity and untruth!”

The point is that Allen’s thought process and intellectual frame of reference is obviously quite different than Owens’.  Allen detects that Owen is interpreting upon his “preconceived theology” and engages in the logical fallacies of begging the question and confusing categories.  If Allen is right, my contention is that this is something the Calvinist should not, but does cavalierly dismiss.  I submit that when they do dismiss these logical and moral critiques, the Calvinist is not remaining exegetically responsible or intellectually honest.

If Owen is engaging in a priori circular theological argument, and it appears that he is, then the issue before us is to determine why this does not matter to Owen and whether it should.  If it should, then we are admitting to its importance for indicating valid from invalid interpretations.  If we conclude that it does not matter, then Owen can maintain his interpretation and Allen his and the two shall never meet.  But if we deem it essential to incorporate a criterion of rational coherence into our hermeneutic, then Owens’ interpretation would lack plausibility and that would be an indication that his is not the correct interpretation of the relevant passages.


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[1] J. Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, in The Works of John Owen (ed. W. H. Goold; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 10:219.  “The fountain and cause of God’s sending Christ is his eternal love to his elect, and to them alone.” (Owen, Death of Death, 231.  See also 324.)

[2] Ibid. 306.

[3] Ibid. 326.

[4] N. Chambers, “A Critical Examination of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in ‘The Death of Death in the Death of Christ’” (master’s thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998), 122.  This thesis can be obtained at http://www.Tren.com.

[5] See the excellent discussion in Chambers’ “Critical Examination,” 116-25.  See also E. Hulse, “John 3:16 and Hyper-Calvinism,” Reformation Today 135 (September/October 1993): 30: “We note well that John 3:16 does not say, for God s loved the elect.  The Holy Spirit did not write the text that way.  Are we to understand that ‘the world’ here means both Jews and Gentiles?  The word ‘world’ must be interpreted in the way it is used throughout the Gospel, namely, all people without exception not all people without distinction.”

[6] David L. Allen, “The Atonement: Limited or Universal?” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five Point Calvinism, ed. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 78-80.

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