Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
2 Peter 3:9 and the "Letterhead Argument"
06/11/2006 - James WhiteThis is surely the most popular passage cited (almost never with any reference to the context) to prove that God could not possibly desire to save a specific people but instead desires to save every single individual person, thereby denying election and predestination. The text seems inarguably clear. But it is always good to see a text in its own context:
Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, "Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation." For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.Immediately one sees that unlike such passages as Ephesians 1, Romans 8-9, or John 6, this passage is not speaking about salvation as its topic. The reference to "coming to repentance" in 3:9 is made in passing. The topic is the coming of Christ. In the last days mockers will question the validity of His promise. Peter is explaining the reason why the coming of Christ has been delayed as long as it has. The day of the Lord, he says, will come like a thief, and it will come at God’s own time.
This fact needs to be emphasized. The context is clearly eschatological, not primarily soteriological. Though men like Ergun Caner dismiss this observation, they do not bother providing a rationale for their dismissal, nor, evidently, do they think they need to. A basic rule of sound exegesis involves recognizing context first and foremost. Passages that are specifically addressing a topic are given priority over passing comments made in contexts that are not specifically addressing a given subject. A comment made "in passing" may be relevant and important, but the fact that it is, in fact, made in passing, and not in a context specifically on a given subject, must always be kept in mind.
This is also an important observation regarding those who seek to ask in-depth questions of passing comments rather than allowing them to be what they are by nature: passing comments. Demanding deep specificity and great depth of information from a phrase or even just a few words that are not even the subject or focus of a text is illogical. We will see how this is important when looking at some "Calvinistic" interpretations of the text as well.
But the next thing that stands out upon the reading of the passage is the identification of the audience to which Peter is speaking. When speaking of the mockers he refers to them in the third person, as 'them." But everywhere else he speaks directly to his audience as the "beloved" and "you." He speaks of how his audience should behave "in holy conduct and godliness," and says that they look for the day of the Lord. He includes himself in this group in verse 13, where "we are looking for a new heavens and a new earth." This is vitally important, for the assumption made by many is that when verse 9 says the Lord is "patient toward you" that this "you" refers to everyone, every person then living, or who has ever lived or ever will live. Likewise, then, when it says "not wishing for any to perish" but "all to come to repentance," it is assumed that the "any" and "all" either has no referent in the context at all, or, that these terms refer to anyone at all of the human race. Yet, the context indicates that the audience is quite specific. In any other passage of Scripture the interpreter would realize that we must decide who the "you" refers to and use this to limit the "any" and "all" of verse 9. But in this case there is a lot of tradition that comes flying through the door, deeply impacting the resultant interpretation.
2 Peter 1:1-3 tells us the specific identity of the audience to which Peter is writing:
Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ: Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.Peter writes to a specific group, not to all of mankind. "To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours." This not only refers to faith as a gift, but it surely limits the context to the saved, for they have received this faith "by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ” There is nothing in chapter three that indicates a change in audience, and much to tell us the audience remains exactly the same.
Since this is so, it becomes quite clear that the Arminian is badly misusing this passage by ignoring what Peter is really saying. The patience of the Lord is displayed toward His elect people (the "you" of verse 9). Therefore, the "not wishing any to perish" is logically and contextually limited to the same group already in view: the elect. In the same way, the "all to come to repentance" must be the very same group. In essence Peter is saying the coming of the Lord has been delayed so that all the elect of God can be gathered in. Any modern Christian lives and knows Christ solely because God’s purpose has been to gather in His elect down through the ages to this present day. There is no reason to expand the context of the passage into a universal proclamation of a desire on God’s part that every single person come to repentance. Instead, it is clearly His plan and His will that all the elect come to repentance, and they most assuredly will do so.
Further, it should be noted that if one suggests that there is no referential connection between "you" and "any/all," the text is left making no sense. Consider it. The phrase "but is patient toward you" is left hanging in mid-air, disconnected and undefined. Obviously, what follows is modifying and explaining how this patience is expressed. And if this is the case, then how can God's patience toward "you" (in the context, the elect) be exemplified by simply stating some kind of universal salvific will? How is God's patience to the elect demonstrated by stating God wishes every person, elect or non-elect, to come to repentance? An Arminian might say that since election is based upon foreknowledge God's patience gives men with free-will a chance to repent, but the Arminian is not making the non-referential argument to begin with. We will see this is the argument of certain modified Calvinists.
Recently in a thread on the Founder's blog an article was referenced that argues against the interpretation I have offered above. The author calls this argument the "Letterhead Argument." Since the author elsewhere references my work, he clearly has access to the contextual arguments noted above (which appear in The Potter's Freedom). But it has been my experience that those who identify themselves as Calvinists but who press certain philosophically-based positions rarely approach these texts on a grammatical/syntactical/lexical level, and that is the case here as well. I have said many times, I am a Calvinist because I believe to hear God speaking in His Word you must show it the honor it is due by exegeting it consistently and accurately. But when you seek to establish a Calvinistic position without that foundation, the results are as unstable as any Arminian conglomeration.
Rather than seeking to provide a positive exegetical presentation of the text itself, our would-be-Calvinist author seeks instead to just offer "a few defeaters to the very common letterhead argument." Immediately I have to observe that if all you are doing is offering objections without providing first a positive exegetical reading of your own, you cannot possibly be adding to the discussion of the text in the first place. Such an approach can only add confusion; it can never edify the saints.
That our writer is not first and foremost an exegete comes out in his first statements about the text. He indicates that if "us" refers to the elect, then we are forced into one of three logical options:
1) All of the elect who will ever exist, whether born or not yet born
2) All of the unbelieving elect presently existing on earth, or
3) All of the believing elect presently existing on earth
But immediately I have to stop our writer and say, "Excuse me, but you are engaging in a very common form of false argumentation. Tell us first, please, who you believe the "us" refers to, contextually, grammatically, and how God's patience is displayed to them in the delay of the parousia, so we can test your interpretation by the same arguments you are putting forward now."
And immediately after lodging this objection I would have to point out that this is demanding of a passing comment far more "bandwidth" than it is fair to demand of such a comment in a non-soteriological context. Can you imagine if this kind of query were to be lodged of every pronoun used in passing in the New Testament? What a complete mass of confusion could be produced! We will see this more clearly in a moment. Our author goes on to argue that identifying "us" as the elect is "exegetically and theologically absurd." He argues that those who present this interpretation (as I have) seek to hide behind the term "context" when they are only "importing systematic assumptions into the interpretation of scripture." In fact, he later speaks of "pulling off the contextual mask." Surely, any term, including context, can be misused. The question is, who proves the contextual import through fair handling of the text and who does not? And if our writer fails to provide a clearer, more compelling exegetical interpretation of the text, his position collapses.
How does our writer go about trying to make his case? Is it by direct interpretation of the text, dealing with grammar and the like? No, none of that is actually offered. Instead, theoretical questions seem to be the modus operandi of our writer. However, for most serious minded readers, he blunders so badly at the start that he can never truly recover. He suggests that instead of the "imprecise" term "elect" we should substitute another word, "believers." He then inserts "believers" into 2 Peter 3:9 and demonstrates that this is silly, and of course it is. It is silly to think that "elect" is an imprecise term. It is sillier to think "believers" is a proper substitute. It is even sillier still to ignore the fact that God's work of gathering the elect takes place over time, and that Scripture itself is written so as to communicate divine truths to many generations of believers, so it must be read with its on-going purpose in mind. His argument at this point would preclude any references whatsoever to the elect-as-yet-converted in all of Scripture, or any references to the elect that would speak of that body in universal terms. For example, follow this reasoning here in Paul's statement:
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. (2 Tim. 2:10, ESV)It's easy to play around with the text like this:
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of believers, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
Haha! How silly! Believers already have obtained the salvation that is in Christ Jesus! How silly! Surely that means the elect are not in view here! And this is, indeed, absurd in the highest, and in fact, vitiates any further credibility in the discussion. But since bad arguments normally go on and on and on, we shall point out the rest of the errors too.
Next our writer goes to the first option he lists, i.e., that "us" refers to all the elect who will ever exist, whether born or not yet born. He notes this is an "abstract" way of thinking of the elect, but then again, given that he is forcing a passing comment to answer his hypotheticals, that is hardly relevant. He asks if Peter had this "theological abstraction" in mind, and once again I must point out that it is our writer who has introduced such language into a passing comment that is focused upon explaining the delay of the parousia. We are told that "Peter is clearly writing to people who exist." I am thankful for this cogent observation. We are then told that God is longsuffering toward this existing group, that He is demonstrating patience towards the ill-deserving. Once again, we are thankful for this commentary on the obvious, but what relevance does it have? Then we have the only semi-meaningful comment, "Is God being provoked by non-existent entities?" This really illustrates the vacuous nature of this kind of argumentation. Any and all references to the elect outside of the immediate time frame of the writer would be precluded by such reasoning. From a simple temporal perspective, none of the elect existed when God chose them before time began. And yet their future existence was certain to God. This kind of reasoning would "freeze" the relevance of all Scriptural statements in time. Nothing could be relevant to future generations that was not specifically put into a future tense. And when have Christians taken this kind of viewpoint of the Bible? They haven't. Our writer credits "David P." with pointing this out to him. I assume he means David Ponter, a well known Internet writer whose single topic, it seems, is the promotion of an Amyraldian view of the atonement and God's purposes therein. In any case, upon making these observations our writer congratulates himself, "I believe options 1 and 3 are defeated and shown to be absurd positions." In reality, we have yet to see any serious argumentation or exegesis, so it is a bit early for the victory celebration.
So the last "option" to be examined is the idea that "us" "refers to all of the unbelieving elect presently existing on earth" (a position that I must point out is likewise ridiculous, as it continues to ignore the fact that there are elect on earth who have already been regenerated; there are elect on earth who have not---which is why we do evangelism---and there certainly in Peter's day were elect who were not yet born at all; the entire "examination" is based upon an errant refusal to allow the categories forced upon a passing statement to reflect the biblical realities themselves). At this point our writer, as is so often the case, impresses his readers with his grasp of the laws of logic. He explains what an equivocation argument is and then follows with this:
The letterhead argument of some Calvinists looks this way:
1) Peter is writing to the elect
2) The "us" in 3:9 refers to those written to
3) Therefore, the "us" are the elect.
This is a reductionistic presentation. There is more to the argument than this. Yes, Peter is writing to the elect, he says so. The "us" is plainly contrasted with the third person "them" in the context, and Peter joins the second person group himself, as noted above. If our writer wishes to challenge the identity of the "us" then some kind of meaningful argumentation from the text itself needs to be presented. As we have seen, none has been offered. Instead of positive, edifying exegesis, we get this kind of philosophical double-talk: "Does the term “elect” have the same sense in proposition #1 as it does in proposition #3 (the conclusion)? Or is there a subtle change in meaning? Proposition #1 would be more accurate if it stated that Peter is writing to believers." It is ironic to find someone discussing equivocation who likewise cannot seem to differentiate between the terms "elect" and "believers." Be that as it may, the difference between the terms "elect" and "believers" is directly relevant to the comment under examination, since the delay in the parousia is being explained in light of the on-going conversion of the not-as-yet regenerate elect. So the text itself contains the recognition of the fact that God is bringing the elect unto salvation and He is doing so through the use of means (preaching) and over time. To deny the very essence of the process God uses to bring His people to Himself while pretending to actually be handling the text aright is to engage in empty argumentation.
Eventually our writer comes out and makes it plain: "Even though he calls them 'chosen according to the foreknowledge of God,' he’s not writing to the elect as such, but to those elect who have come to believe by the Spirit." Once again the special pleading and actual equivocation is plainly seen. "Peter cannot be referring to the elect here because I refuse to acknowledge the distinction between the elect who have already experienced regeneration and the elect who will do so through the means of the evangelism of the church." And so a passing comment that explains the delay of the parousia (the gathering of the elect over time) is left without any meaning at all, and for what reason? Evidently, the promotion of a particular minority viewpoint regarding the relationship of the atonement and the will of God.
In closing I would like to note one other item. This same author in another article refers to my commentary on Matthew 23:37, and makes the statement, "He was using James White’s argument (and White got it from John Gill's hyper-Calvinistic book The Cause of God and Truth--he cites some of Gill's "exegesis" on this verse favorably in The Potters Freedom) that there is a distinction between "Jerusalem" (the leaders) and the "children"." Two quick items: 1) I did not "get it" from John Gill, and I would like to know how this gentleman knows otherwise, and 2) Gill's work addresses a wide variety of topics. If Gill defends the fact that there is one true God, does this mean it is "hyper-Calvinistic" to believe in one true God? Are "hyper-Calvinists" precluded from accurately handling the text? For someone who emphasizes how often others allegedly use false forms of argumentation, this kind of poisoning of the well should be obvious. Given the swill that fills the bookshelves of most "Christian bookstores" today, I would much rather have someone reading The Cause of God and Truth with balanced discernment than 99% of what is being put out today.