Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Testing Roger Olson's Depth of Exegesis: 1 Timothy 2:4
10/13/2011 - James WhiteRoger Olson's new book, Against Calvinism, became available in Kindle format the day before I left for Australia. Thankfully, I slept well on the trans-Pacific flight and hence did not get an opportunity to look at it until just now as I am settled in in Sydney. I have much to do in preparation for next week's ministry, including two debates, but I wanted to comment briefly on a quick examination I made of the text. I decided to see how Olson handled one of the key texts in the debate, that being 1 Timothy 2:4. The reason I chose this particular text is that it is one of the “big three,” and is one of the texts that I addressed rather fully in The Potter's Freedom. Of course, as we know, Dr. Olson has not read The Potter's Freedom out of “principle.” We still do not know what that principle is, and he does not seem willing to explain himself. In any case, is a good text to examine to see if the writer interacts meaningfully with the context, especially in light of the fact that first Timothy plainly addresses groups of individuals within the immediate context. Likewise, it is a good test to see if the author recognizes the importance of following the narrative of the text. That is, 1 Timothy 2:4 is followed by 1 Timothy 2:5-6, along with all the relevant issues of intercession and mediation. If the author cites this text without offering any evidence that he has actually thought deeply about how the entire text “hangs together,” then you have good reason to dismiss his comments and question the depth of his thinking on the topic (or, more likely, the depth of his commitment to a pre-existing tradition).
Needless to say, Olson's book does not fare well in light of such an examination. If one was looking for in-depth exegesis drawn from a knowledgeable Arminian who engages Calvinism on its home ground, you will be sorely disappointed. Let's look at everything Olson has to say about this text in the entirety of his work (at least as found in the electronic [Kindle] edition):
Above all Arminians insist that God is a good and loving God, who truly desires the salvation of all people. Note 1 Timothy 2:3–4: “This is good, and pleases God our savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”; and 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Arminians regard these and similar passages of Scripture as clearly and unequivocally pointing to God’s universal desire for salvation of every person. The Greek of 1 Timothy 2:4 cannot be interpreted any other way than as referring to every person without limit. Some Calvinists interpret 2 Peter 2:4 (sic: 3:9) as referring only to the elect, but in light of 1 Timothy 2:4, that hardly works. (p. 68)
This is the first reference to our text in Olson's book. It is also about as deep as the exegesis of this particular text is going to go. As you will notice, there isn't any exegesis at all. Nothing about the context is discussed, nothing about the flow of thought or argument. Instead, we are given an argument from authority, and nothing more. I am unaware of what Roger Olson's overwhelming expertise in the subject of Greek grammar is that would allow him to make such statements. I have never seen him cited as an expert in the field. And yet, he simply asserts that the Greek text “cannot be interpreted any other way than as referring to every person without limit.” Evidently, we must simply take his word for it!
Of course, it may just be his “principle" to not read any Reformed exegetes who contradict his position. If he had, he would know that his assertion is without basis. There is nothing in “the Greek” that in any way demands the conclusions that Olson presents. The preceding context had specifically referred to kinds or groups of men. Olson ignores this. It is actually absurd to think that Paul was exhorting Timothy to pray for “every person without limit” when he said that prayer should be made for “all men.” The Greek found here in verse 1 is directly parallel to that of verse 4. In verse 1 it is ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀνθρώπων, the genitive being used due to the preposition; in verse 4 it is πάντας ἀνθρώπους with the accusative plural being used as the direct object of "wills." If Paul expected Timothy to take “all men” in verse one as meaning “every person without limit,” then why did he immediately place a categorical limitation on his words? That is, he defines “all men” as classes or kinds of men by speaking of kings and those in authority. But if “all men” already had the meaning Olson demands that it has, why would Paul do this since Timothy would already understand that Paul is saying that prayers should be made for every single human being on the face of the earth? Indeed, are we to assume that not only where the prayer meetings in Ephesus to include, by name, every single individual in the city, but every single individual living on the planet at that time? No wonder folks fell asleep during those meetings! Of course, this only shows the absurdity of the position Olson tells us we must adopt. And, it follows naturally, that if the “all men” of verse one is to be taken categorically and not individually, then this is the immediate context of the use of “all men” in verse four as well.
But there is much more to the context that refutes Olson's false assertion. While I do not intend to repeat the entire exegesis that I provided in TPF, I will simply note that the vitally important aspect of the relationship of the atoning sacrifice of Christ and his high priestly mediation does not seem to figure in Olson's discussions on these topics. In fact, a scan of the text shows no use of the terms "mediator," "intercessor," "mediation," or "intercession," all terms that would appear in any meaningful interaction with the biblical data on this most important topic. As with most anti-reformed books, it seems Olson is doing little more than reviewing a particular list of reformed authors, cherry picking their quotes, and contrasting their terrible conclusions with his preconceived and shallow views of what the love of God must mean. To be honest, we already had plenty of these books in print. We didn't need any more. In this instance, Olson ignores the results of his demanded “Greek” interpretation in that it forces the apostle Paul to teach that the Lord Jesus is interceding for every single human being who has ever lived or ever will live. The necessary result of this view, that being the inability of Christ's intercession to save in and of itself, is not brought out with clarity by Olson, but it is there nonetheless.
The next citation is found on page 112:
How does Calvin interpret 1 Timothy 2:3–4, the clearest revelation that God desires the salvation of all men? “By this Paul surely means only that God has not closed the way unto salvation to any order of men; rather, he has so poured out his mercy that he would have none without it.” In other words, all 1 Timothy 2:3–4 (and no doubt 2 Peter 3:9) means is that God wants some people of every tribe and nation to be saved but not every individual person. That hardly fits the language of 1 Timothy 2:4, however, which specifically says “all men,” meaning “all people”—not all kinds of people.
We have seen this approach before. Olson has offered an unsubstantiated, surface level, simplistic interpretation of two important texts. He then repeats the conclusions that he has inserted into these texts repeatedly through the rest of his book. This is exactly what Norman Geisler did as well in Chosen But Free! Evidently, there is nothing new under the sun indeed!
A few pages later Olson is dealing with Lorraine Boettner:
What about 1 Timothy 2:4 that says God wants “all people” to be saved? Boettner explains: “Verses such as 1 Timothy 2:4, it seems, are best understood not to refer to men individually but as teaching the general truth that God is benevolent and that He does not delight in the sufferings and death of His creatures.” One can only ask how that is a possible interpretation of that verse? Also, how can God not delight in what he has himself foreordained and rendered certain for his glory? Doesn’t he delight in being glorified? This is a Calvinist conundrum, to be sure. But Boettner adds this: “It is true that some verses taken in themselves do seem to imply the Arminian position [i.e., that God really desires the salvation of everyone and makes it possible]. This, however, would reduce the Bible to a mass of contradictions.” One could just as easily turn that around and substitute “the Calvinist position” for “the Arminian position” and it would be truer. (116)
We can only comment that it is ironic to have Olson, who picks and chooses the works he will take into consideration in responding to Calvinism, making these kinds of comments. He moves on to deal with RC Sproul:
What does Sproul say about 1 Timothy 2:4? nothing. I have not been able to find any explanation of that important passage in Sproul’s writings, but he has written so much I may not have found it. However, in Chosen by God he does ask about 2 Peter 3:9, which says much the same but perhaps not as forcefully. Insofar as God does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” Sproul says “anyone” means “the elect.” That doesn’t work in light of 1 Timothy 2:4, however, which clearly refers to every person without exception. (Is that why Sproul passes over that passage without comment?) (117-118)
He who refuses to read exegetically based Reformed presentations “on principle” has little basis for complaining that Dr. Sproul has not provided him enough exegetical basis for a discussion of this text. Had Olson actually been looking for something to interact with, it would not have been difficult for him to find it. But note again the circular and eisegetical methodology used by Arminians in so many situations. When interpreting 2 Peter 3:9, you say it can't mean that because we know that 1 Timothy 2:4 means this. When interpreting 1 Timothy 2:4 you say it can't mean that because we know that 2 Peter 3:9 means this. And round and round you go, never having to offer anything of substance in your exegesis and argumentation.
Olson's argumentation based upon claims about the Greek text becomes quite convoluted in the next citation:
What about 1 Timothy 2:4, which says God wants “all people” to be saved and where the Greek cannot be interpreted any other way than every single person without exception? After all, the same Greek word for “all” is used in 2 Timothy 3:16 of inspired Scripture. If it doesn’t mean literally “all” in 1 Timothy 2:4, then it doesn’t mean “all” in 2 Timothy 3:16, but all Calvinists think it does mean literally “all” in 2 Timothy 3:16 (“all Scripture is God-breathed”). First Timothy 2:4 (which is not alone in universalizing God’s will for salvation but is least open to any other interpretation) stands alongside John 3:16 as a proof text against unconditional election, which, except in the case of universalism, necessarily includes reprobation. (134-135)
Note how Olson skips over the parallel that we documented above which is in the direct context at 1 Timothy 2:4! Instead, he moves to 2 Timothy to try to establish some kind of meaning for the word “all,” even though it is a completely different context and has a completely different referent! This is amazingly shallow and poor argumentation. “All Scripture” (πᾶσα γραφὴ) is in no way a meaningful grammatical or syntactical parallel two "all men" in either 1 Timothy 2:1 or 1 Timothy 2:4. There is a specific and well-known delimitation to what is “Scripture,” and Paul's statement is meant to assert that all of Scripture is properly described as “God breathed.” To make the assertion that because the word “all” is used in both texts that we must interpret the word in the exact same way in both texts demonstrates a shockingly poor grasp of meaningful hermeneutics and exegesis. I am hopeful that Roger Olson's fellow Arminians will not allow him to get away with this kind of truly disappointing and surprisingly simplistic argumentation.
Finally, we have the last reference in all of Olson's book:
While it may be true that everyone deserves hell, although even many Calvinists hesitate to say that about children, God is a God of love who genuinely desires all people to be saved, as the New Testament clearly testifies in 1 Timothy 2:4: “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” There is no way to get around the fact that “all people” means every single person without exception. The issue is not fairness but love. A God who could save everyone because he always saves unconditionally but chooses only some would not be a good or loving God. He would certainly not be the God of 1 Timothy 2:4 and similar passages. (190)
Here we see the unfounded and eisegetical assertion, made much earlier in the text and now taken as an established fact, combined with an incredibly weighty an important theological conclusion. We have already refuted the false assertion the Olson makes here regarding the actual text itself. But here we see what we had already recognize is the fundamental argument of Roger Olson: he refuses to believe in a God whose grace is free. Of course, what I mean by that is that God's grace is free in its origination and application in God himself. Most people hear the phrase “God's free grace” and think of what human beings can do to obtain this grace. It is part of the human condition to begin thinking with ourselves first and then reasoning outward to God. But we must resist doing this, and must realize that we need to begin with God and his revelation of himself. When I speak of the freedom of God's grace, I am speaking of God's freedom to act graciously and to demonstrate his mercy freely apart from any external compulsion. If God's grace can be demanded then it is no longer grace. If God must withhold judgment and wrath and the demonstration of his holiness on the basis of grace in every situation then his grace is not free and he is not free. For God to have any freedom in how he acts in his creation then grace and mercy can not be something that can be demanded. And yet, Roger Olson is telling us that he will not believe in a God who has the ability to save every single individual but who chooses, in his sovereign freedom, to save, and to judge, as he sees fit, all to his own glory. Roger Olson refuses to love and worship such a God. His claim is nothing new, and, at least as far as the exegesis offered on this one text is concerned, he has offered us nothing in the way of meaningful biblical argumentation that would compel us to follow him in his rejection of the freedom of God's grace.