Saturday, October 04, 2008

Hermeneutics of 2Peter 3:9 -- "Us all" or "you all"?

Introduction to 2Peter 3:9

(This is a repost of an article I wrote for a previous blog of mine. I like the analysis and wanted to put it here. This is over 2 years old ... so the dispute is dated; but the issue is still important.)

My friend Tony Byrne (whose most excellent blog, Theological Meditations, I highly recommend) recently posted some criticisms of Dr. James White, which garnered a response from White. The point in dispute is the proper interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9. White has objected to some aspects of Byrne’s logical analysis of the categories involved, (believers, unbelievers, elect, etc.) and Byrne is well able to defend himself on those points. In this post, I seek to analyze White’s approach to hermeneutics and the proper understanding of the context of the verse.

The verse in dispute is 2 Peter 3:9:

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

Or as it is translated by the NASB:

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.

White advocates the idea that “any” and “all” of 2 Peter 3:9 refers to “any elect person” and “all elect persons.” The process of thought that leads to this conclusion is suspect and most certainly has led many to bad ideas about the verse. I will respond to White’s two main arguments and make a positive case for seeing “any” and “all” as addressed to all men generally, believers and unbelievers, elect and non-elect.

Some passages are more equal than others

White’s first argument is that 2 Peter 3:9 occurs in a context that is primarily eschatological, not soteriological. Since the verse is not primarily soteriological, it is "illogical," he says, to "demand deep specificity and great depth of information" about salvation from the verse. That is, White believes it is illogical to make deep inquiries about soteriology in this passage that primarily teaches eschatology. I have always thought this concept to be destructive to good reading. In my opinion, it is illogical to impose restrictions on possible meanings -- provided the meanings are legitimately drawn from the text -- because of the topic of the context of the statement. Context may be king, but White’s rule makes context a wicked tyrant, depriving statements of their rights.

But even if we concede to White that we can’t make deep demands of a casual reference, White is himself demanding great specificity and depth of information from this verse. Whereas the common reading -- that God is not willing that any man should perish -- is plain on the face of it and requires no deep technical analysis, the reading advocated by White requires one to make highly technical and strained (if not completely fallacious) interpretations regarding categories of men. The simple reading of the verse on its face is much more in keeping with the idea that this is a passing thought in the mind of the apostle.

“Context” and Peter’s Audience

White’s second argument -- by far the more important one -- is that 2 Peter 3:9 should be understood in light of its context as an epistle from Peter to a group of believers. Understanding who is being addressed gives us the contextual setting. Quoting White,

he [Peter] 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.”

Let us concede that the epistle is addressed to believers. So far, so good. Now White says of 3:9, "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 there is no such rule. Why must the “any” and “all” refer to the antecedents of the pronoun “you”? I don’t know exactly why White says that “the interpreter ... must....” He doesn’t really say why and so we must guess. One thing we can say for sure: there is no rule that indefinite pronouns must be limited by the antecedents of other pronouns occurring in the immediate context. Antecedents to the indefinite pronouns may be implicit or understood from the context, and must be analyzed accordingly.

The word “any” in the phrase “not willing that any should perish” is the Greek word tinas and is a form of the word tis. The lexicons define this word as an “indefinite pronoun.” Indefinite pronouns do not refer to specific persons or things. This being the case, we do not need an explicit antecedent to make sense of the sentence. In 2 Peter 3:9, the Greek word tinas means “anyone.” The word needs no explicit antecedent. Obviously, “any” need not refer to the antecedents of “you” in the previous clause.

There are many examples where the indefinite pronoun tis (or one of its forms) is used without an explicit antecedent. Here’s one example:

1Cor. 9:22 - To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some [tinas].

No explicit reference to an antecedent is required. The antecedent may be understood from the context or from the very nature of the case (as in this example).

Another good example comes from the first occurrence of the word in 2 Peter 3:9. “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise as some [tines] men count slackness....” The word “some” in this clause is the same word in a different form. Here it means “certain people.” Does this instance of the indefinite pronoun require an explicit antecedent? Interpreting it according to White’s rule, we should read it this way: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise as some of you count slackness.” Is that the right way to read it? Some commentators think not. Jamieson, Faussett and Brown refers “some” to the scoffers. Matthew Henry refers this to ungodly men who “charge a culpable slackness on God....” John Gill refers this to “scoffers or mockers.” These commentators have referred “some” [tines] to the scoffers of verse 3, even though this is not explicit in the verse and despite the presence of the pronoun “you” in the immediate context.

Returning to the question: in 2 Peter 3:9, must “any” [tinas] refer to the same group as “you”? Many good interpreters did not believe so. Calvin certainly did not so interpret the verse.

“Not willing that any should perish. So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost.” (Calvin comment on 2Peter 3:9.)

The commentaries of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, and Albert Barnes are in substantial agreement with Calvin. The Geneva Bible translation (as well, I would argue, as Luther’s translation) reflects the idea that God’s will is that no man should perish.

The same concepts apply to the “all” of “that all should come to repentance.” Further examples could be multiplied (of either “any” or “all”), both from Peter’s writings and from the New Testament generally.

Thus it is not the case that the careful exegete must (as White insists) refer the “any” and “all” indefinite pronouns to “you” in verse 9. The careful exegete will decide the proper antecedent of the indefinite pronoun based on the subject matter and other contextual clues. The rule that White has proposed is inaccurately stated and will lead to inaccurate results.

White tries to establish his case for the close connection between “you” and “any/all” by asserting that the clause “patient toward you” (“longsuffering to us-ward”) is left dangling if the material following (including the “any” and “all” clauses) does not modify the “longsuffering” clause. (I note in passing that this is the only real argument given for the connection White insists on.) He says,

“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.”

I am willing to grant that the “longsuffering” clause relates to the following clauses. But does this mean that “you” limits the “any” and “all”? Certainly not. The longsuffering that God exhibits towards believers need not be limited to believers alone. That God is longsuffering to “you” is explained by the fact that he exhibits longsuffering to all men generally. We could read the verse this way: “God is longsuffering to you inasmuch as he is not willing that any man should perish but that all men should come to repentance.” That is, the “you” is included in the “any” and “all”; it is not a limitation of the “any” and the “all.” This is the normal way to read the verse; White's reading is a strain.

The Positive Case

What is the positive case for seeing the indefinite pronouns (“any” and “all”) as referring to a group larger than the audience of the epistle? White insists that the audience is believers. Agreed. But consider that while the epistle is addressed to believers, the “any” who risk perishing and the “all” who should come to repentance are clearly unbelievers. Thus by the simple reading of the verse, our minds are naturally drawn to a larger category than Peter’s immediate audience. These are saved, those are unsaved. White’s rule results in an interpretation that is 180 degrees opposite of the true reading.

This interpretation is buttressed by the mutually reinforcing nature of the final clauses. We have not just “no man” or “all men.” We have contrasting clauses that each serve to emphasize the other. On the one hand, God is not willing that any man should perish; that not one man should perish is explained by God’s desire that all men come to repentance. And the class who should come to repentance is not just a general class of men, but it is a class that has no exceptions – that none of them should perish. The two clauses taken together clearly speak of a universal desire of God that covers all men in general and every man in particular. Another way of putting this is, “God ... commandeth all men every where to repent.”

What of the elect?

Some high Calvinists insist that though this verse refers to unbelievers, it must refer to elect unbelievers. White argues this based on several contextual clues that he claims support this idea. But consider that in order to come to White’s interpretation, we must accept the following argument:

Major premise: all believers are elect;
Minor premise: all of Peter’s audience are believers;
Conclusion: All unbelievers referred to at the end of verse 9 are elect.

The argument requires no further refutation. To see it spelled out is to see its invalidity. (The proper conclusion is, of course, "all of Peter's audience are elect." But this says nothing of the unbelievers mentioned in the verse.)

White’s idea that the indefinite pronouns refer to elect unbelievers is unsupported by the text. The passage does not make any mention of elect unbelievers. Rather unbelievers in general are mentioned. As Calvin says of this verse, “no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known unto us in the gospel.”

The Uncontroversial Interpretation

Reading the verse as referring to God’s unwillingness that “any man” should perish and that “all men” should come to repentance is completely uncontroversial from a Biblical standpoint. The Bible elsewhere makes these same points. God is good to all men (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:16-17), which goodness – especially His longsuffering (cf. 1 Peter 3:20) – is designed to bring men to repentance (Rom. 2:4). God does not take delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11); rather God’s will is that all men everywhere come to repentance (Ezekiel 33:11, Acts 17:30). The ideas of God’s patience with all men and desire that all men come to repentance are brought together and emphasized here as nowhere else in scripture, but the ideas are not taught here alone. This fact supports the proposed interpretation.

The interpretation proposed here has a good Calvinistic history, as evidenced by the Geneva translation of the verse:

2 Peter 3:9 (Geneva Bible) “The Lord is not slacke concerning his promise (as some men count slackenesse) but is pacient toward vs, and would haue no man to perish, but would all men to come to repentance.”

The original Geneva notes reflect Calvin’s understanding of the verse:

He speaketh not here of the secret & eternal counsel of God, whereby he electeth whom it pleaseth him, but of the preaching of the Gospel, whereby all are bidden to the banquet.


Good theology, good hermeneutics, or good logic: any of these – and all of them together – lead us to see 2Peter 3:9 as expressing the will of God that no man (whosoever he may be) should perish, but that all men (“all mankind” as Calvin put it) should come to repentance.


(Regarding the textual issue: for myself, I think “us” (following Calvin, Luther, Geneva Bible, and KJV) makes more sense than “you.” “Us” is defined by the “any” and “all” clauses rather than limiting them, thus making the entire verse to have a universal reference. That is, “us” refers to the children of men.)


A friend of mine proposes an analysis to rescue the high Calvinist position on this verse. He proposes what I will call the eschatological context argument. The thought is this: because the book of 2 Peter warns of the ultimate judgment of the wicked (which judgment is assured even before they appear on the scene – see 2:1-3) and assures believers of the ultimate rewards of faith, the verse in 3:9 is out of place if taken as a statement of the general love of God for all mankind. “There is no John 3:16 in the immediate context here,” so my friend says. (“Touche’,” I say.) This being the case, interpreting 3:9 as representing assurance for the elect fits the theme of the book more appropriately.

It’s a good point and worth considering. I observe that this argument basically says that the verse, interpreted as I have suggested, does not really “fit” the theme of the rest of the book. This may be true, and interpreting the verse as I have suggested does seem to make the verse a bit of a parenthetical statement. (Perhaps we can see the verse as more of a pivot point or summary conclusion than a parenthetical.) Seen as such, the argument against my position is not a logical necessity, but more of an aesthetic necessity. Though my friend has made a better argument, I still find myself comfortable in posting the foregoing analysis without change. It seems to me that the pronoun “you” (or “us” of KJV) must be limited grammatically and logically or not at all. The grammar and logic don’t support the limitation and the eschatological context argument of my friend, while appealing, does not seem to change that.


Jeff said...

The patience is towards the “you”. In context, "you" = the “beloved” (v.8) = elect. The author creates a distinction between the false prophets and the elect via pronouns (2.1). So while you make some interesting observations, I'm not sure I see the force of them. Again, the "you" is qualified by early verses/the previous chapter.

You make a good point down below:

White insists that the audience is believers. Agreed. But consider that while the epistle is addressed to believers, the “any” who risk perishing and the “all” who should come to repentance are clearly unbelievers.

Right, they are unbelievers. However, they are *elect* unbelievers. They just haven't believed *yet*, hence God's patience.

Also, to say that they are "contrasting clauses" begs the question, because the Calvinist interpretation fits just as well.

Anyway, just my thoughts.

Steve said...

Thanks for posting your comment, Jeff. As I said in my post, that idea equating Peter's audience with "the elect" is unsupported by the text and logic. It's an artifice to get around a problematic passage.