You may remember my blog post series on logical fallacies way back in 2016 when this website was still on a Blogspot platform. There were 28 posts each examining a formal or informal fallacy that often come up in the kinds of discussions I have with atheists and even other Christians. But did you know that there are fallacies unique to biblical studies? Yep. They’re called “Lexical Fallacies”. Luke Geraty of ThinkTheology.org explains that “The lexical fallacy is quite popular amongst those who do ‘word studies.’ Since there are an assortment of lexicons and bible dictionaries available to most Christians, it’s easy to understand why this fallacy happens consistently in many of our small group bible studies. ….If you pick up a lexicon and look up a word, you’ll find that most words have a number of possible definitions, which means that the way those words are translated might be different from verse to verse.”1
The Bible Teaches That Jesus Died For All People
When I debate Calvinists and try to prove that Limited Atonement is false, 2 I will appeal to passages like 1 Timothy 2:4-6 which says that God “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.” (ESV) or 2 Corinthians 5:15 which says “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again.” or John 3:16 which says “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” or Hebrews 2:9 which says “But we see Jesus who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” 0r John 1:21 where John The Baptist calls Jesus The Lamb Of God who “takes away the sins of the world.”
Sounds like Jesus died to atone for all people’s sins rather than just a select few, doesn’t it? Well, Calvinists have a variety of strategies to try to explain away these passages, however I have responded to those in other articles. In this blog post, I will focus on one argument that is common to them that tries to restrict this universal language.
The Fallacy Of Illegitimate Totality Transfer
This response they employ commits a lexical fallacy that James Barr called, “illegitimate totality transfer”.3 Now? What is that? Glenn Peoples explains that “This is the error of assuming that whenever a word appears, it carries with it its complete semantic range in a way warrants us picking from any of its possible meanings, as though all of those meanings were equally likely in any given context. An obvious example of this fallacy in English would be to say something like: ‘The interrogating officer said he was going to grill the suspect. In this cookbook, grilling is defined as cooking something with direct heat, so that poor suspect is about to be cooked!’ Obviously this is not what the interrogator meant.”4
How Calvinists Commit This Fallacy When Trying To Defend Limited Atonement
Calvinists commit this fallacy when they take instances of universal language like “All people” or “The world” which do no mean literally every individual who ever was, is, or will exist, but only a large number of people. For example, let’s say you quote John 3:16 and say “See? It Jesus died for THE WORLD. Who’s a part of the world? Well, you are, Osama Bin Ladin, Adolph Hitler, Billy Graham, some tribe in an undiscovered land, and every person you’ve ever met. So these are the people God loved and sacrificed His Son to save”.5 In response to this argument, I’ve had Calvinists appeal to verses like John 12:19 which says “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!'” My interlocutor argued that obviously not every single human individual on the face of the planet was rushing to see Jesus of Nazareth. This was hyperbole, so “the world” (kosmos in Greek) doesn’t have to always mean every human individual.
Or say you quote 1 Timothy 2:4-6 and say “It says here that God wants ALL people to be saved and that’s why He gave Himself as a ransom for ALL.” You might have a Calvinist, like Edward Dingess of ReformedReasons.org, say “…in Colossians 1:28: ‘We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.’ Every one Paul taught, he taught these things. But it is obvious that Paul did not teach every man without exception in the entire world.”6
Or they might appeal to Acts 2 which is the historical account of the very first instance of speaking in tongues at Pentecost. When people said the apostles were drunk, Peter told them that they weren’t drunk because it was only nine in the morning (Acts 2:1-15). Then Peter said “No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says,I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.'” (Acts 2:16-17). No one thinks that at Penecost, The Holy Spirit was poured out on every single individual around the globe. Obviously, “All flesh” in Joel and Acts means people of every race.
So in Colossians 2:28, “every man” is severely limited to just Christians (perhaps even Christians of the church in Colossia). In John 12:19, we have a use of “whole world” which is very limited in scope, and in Acts and Joel, “all flesh” really means all people groups rather than all people in every people group. So I guess we should interpret John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:4-6, 2 Corinthians 5:15, and John 1:21 to also mean fewer than every human individual….right?
WRONG! To argue that the universal language in John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:4-6, 2 Corinthians 5:15, and John 1:21 should be interpreted as non-universal simply because the universal language is employed that way in other verses commits the fallacy of illegitimate totality transfer. Yes, “world”, “whole world”, “all”, “all people”, “everyone”, “every man” can and was employed in The New Testament to not refer to every human individual in existence, but that does not mean that it never was used that way. The mere fact that there are instances of restriction does not justify restrictive instances in every case those phrases appear. That is lexically fallacious.
But How Can We Determine If Universal Language Should Be Restricted Or Not?
Even though it’s clearly fallacious to say “Well, John 12:19 uses ‘world’ and doesn’t mean all humans, so John 3:16 and 1 John 2:2 must mean that as well”, nevertheless some Arminians feel uncomfortable by the fact that the terms in those verses could possibly not be universal. In other words, it seems to take the force out of the argument if the universal language doesn’t always necessarily have to be universal. How can we know for sure whether universal language really should be taken that way?
There are two methods we should employ: (1) Look at The Context and (2) use your common sense.
1: Look At The Context
Sometimes looking at a verse in its immediate context will completely change how you interpret a word. This happens all the time in English. If you see a sentence that says “I am against people of that race.” That could mean any number of things out of context. The word “race” could mean fast-moving humans, animals, or automobiles who try to get to the finish line before their competitors. So maybe the sentence means that this person dislikes the competitors in NASCAR or The Kentucky Derby. But suppose the entire statement is “I hate black people. I’m against people of that race.” Here, the context clarifies what “race” mean. This person doesn’t have a distaste for the specific race car drivers taking place in the Daytona 500. He’s a bigot! He means not a competition with a starting line and finish line. He means an ethnic group. And in response, we would condemn him for his racial bigotry rather than ask him what Jeff Gordon ever did to him.
Likewise, “world” and other universalistic terms need to be examined in their context. Some passages have “restrictive qualifiers”. Context is king. I will gladly concede that “all” does not mean “All without exception” in passage X if passage X has some restrictive qualifier N. If passage X has restrictive qualifier N, then I will interpret X as not referring to the entire human race. However, the mere fact that Passage Y has a restrictive qualifier cannot be used to restrict passage X, especially if passage X lacks such restrictive qualifiers. To do so would be the fallacy of illegitimate totality transfer.
What if there’s no restrictive qualifier? Well, in that case, I think we’d be justified in inferring that it’s not meant to be restricted at all; it really means the entire human race like it appears to. Such is the case in John 3:16 and the other aforementioned unlimited atonement verses.
2: Use Your Common Sense
While there may not be anything grammatically untenable about interpreting a phrase as meaning the entire human race, nevertheless, a universalistic interpretation may appear so absurd that we’re justified in restricting it. For example, in John 12:19, it would be physically impossible for every human being on planet Earth to go see Jesus. At that time, people outside of Israel hadn’t even heard of him, much less would want to go listen to him teach or watch Him perform a miracle. However, no absurdities like this exist in John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:4-6, 1 John 2:2, etc. Why couldn’t Jesus die to atone for the sins of the entire human race?
So I will interpret “world”, “whole world”, “all”, “all people”, “everyone”, “every man” as referring to the entire human race if there’s no restrictive qualifier in the immediate context and if there’s nothing absurd with an entire-human-race interpretation.
Trying To Demonstrate A Restrictive Qualifier
In response, some of the more exegetically responsible Calvinists try to argue that the unlimited atonement verses do have restrictive qualifiers. In 1 Timothy 2:4’s case, here’s the context
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.” – 1 Timothy 2:1-7 (NIV)
Once on The Cerebral Faith Facebook page, one man argued “You would need to interpret the first Timothy passage in its context. All can mean multiple things and to deny that it can is disingenuous. We maintain the context in Timothy requires all to mean all kinds of men not every man including the pharaoh and the Amorite high priest.”
to which I responded
“I’ve read 1 Timothy 2:4 in context. I can’t find anything in the chapter or in the larger context of the epistle would that restricts ‘all men’ to less than every human individual. As I said, sometimes all does not mean all, but in those circumstances, there’s something in the context which qualifies it. We don’t have that in Romans 3:23 or 1 Timothy 2:4. We have an unqualified universal in both cases. To deny that all means all in 1 Timothy 2:4 when there’s nothing to restrict it is just a choice to opt for an interpretation compatible with T.U.L.I.P. It’s a decision to preserve a theological tradition, not a text-driven decision.”
to which he responded
“Kings and those in authority are kinds of men. Verses 1 to 8 form one coherent thought that is not addressing the extent of the atonement or the doctrine of election, but rather that we should pray for all kinds of men even those who persecute the Church because of the nature of Gods call and Christ’s Redemption as pertaining to all kinds of men.”
So the argument here is that “kings and those in authority” are “kinds” of men. This mention of “kings and authorities” comes right on the heels of Paul’s saying that prayers be made for “all people”. And since this is the same context in which Paul says God wants “all people” to be saved, and since “kings and those in authority” are “kinds” of people, that justifies reading this verse as “God wants all kinds of people to be saved”.
Here’s how I responded:
I have never found that to be a persuasive argument. That he mentions kings and people in authority in no way restrict the meaning of verse 4. Paul could, and I think he is, saying “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, this includes but is not limited to kings and all who are in high positions. Pray for kings and people in high positions so that we can live peaceful lives. It’s good for you to pray for kings and people in high positions. It’s pleasing in God’s sight. After all, He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”7
He’s saying “First of all, I urge that prayers, supplications, etc. be made for all people. That includes kings and people in high positions. One reason is so that we’ll live a peaceful life. This is pleasing to God because he wants all people, which includes kings and people in high positions, to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
The only way you get “some individuals within all people groups” or “all kinds of people” from 1 Timothy is if you force a T.U.L.I.P understanding onto the text. An unbiased reader would not come to that conclusion just letting the text speak for itself.
It is a terrible argument to say “Well, passage X uses a universal language and it doesn’t mean all of humanity. Passages Y and Z should be read that way too.” That is the fallacy of illegitimate totality transfer. We should interpret universal language as truly universal unless the immediate context of the verse has a restrictive qualifier or if interpreting it universally leads to a ridiculous conclusion. Some Calvinists try to argue that 1 Timothy 2:4 has such a restrictive qualifier, but they are clearly grasping at straws.
1: “Fallacy Fridays: The Lexical Fallacy”, by Luke Geraty, December 2nd 2011, — http://thinktheology.org/2011/12/02/fallacy-fridays-the-lexical-fallacy/
2: In case you didn’t know, Limited Atonement is the belief that Jesus died only for certain individuals God chose for salvation, and no one else. On Limited Atonement, Jesus’ blood isn’t limited merely in who it applies to, but God never intended for it to be applied to anyone but the elect!
3: Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language, Page 218
4: Glenn Peoples, “The Meaning Of ‘Apollumi’ In The Synoptic Gospels” — http://rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/27/the-meaning-of-apollumi-in-the-synoptic-gospels/
5: This is essentially what I said in my blog post “What Evidence Is There For Prevenient Grace” –> https://cerebralfaith.net/what-biblical-evidence-is-there-for/and in my blog post “Does God Love Everyone?” –> https://cerebralfaith.net/does-god-love-everyone/
6: “Evan Minton’s Evidence for Prevenient Grace” by Edward Dingess, April 30, 2020 — https://reformedreasons.com/2020/04/30/evan-mintons-evidence-for-prevenient-grace/
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Question: How is the fallacy of illegitimate totality transfer distinct from the fallacy of equivocation? It seems to me that the fallacy of equivocation could take the form of: “in this passage, ‘all men’ doesn’t mean literally every single human being, therefore it doesn’t mean it in this other passage, either.”
Equivocation would be using the same word in two different ways to prove a point via an argument. Such as
1: The world is a blue and green planet.
2: Jesus died for the sins of the world.
3: Therefore, Jesus died for the sins of a blue and green planet.
Equivocation is similar to illegitimate totality transfer in that both fallacies have to do with not understanding the definitions of words in the context they’re used, but the former is a fallacy of logic and the latter is a fallacy of hermeneutics. One isn’t necessarily using a word in two different ways in the same context in the latter example. Words can have different meanings. One only equivocates when one switches back and forth between those different meanings when giving an argument.