Hermeneutics and common sense.
(First posted 16 December 2008)
by Phil Johnson
sually when someone wants to argue that the word all is inflexibly comprehensive, it's an Arminian who wants to put a universalist spin on biblical statements such as "one has died for all, therefore all have died" (2 Corinthians 5:14) or "[Christ] gave himself as a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:6).
The last conversation I had on that subject, however, was an e-mail dialogue with a radically pacifist anabaptist, who insisted that Jesus' command in Matthew 5:34 ("Do not swear at all") rules out all oaths of all kinds, including legal oaths, swearings-in, marriage vows, and formal covenants.
His argument was simple: "All" means all, full stop.
What follows is taken verbatim from the e-mail dialogue that ensued. (I've put my interlocutor's words in blue, to make it easier to follow the dialogue):
Me: The word "all" is not necessarily (or even usually) meant to be taken in an absolute sense. We understand this perfectly well in everyday speech:
- "He travels overseas all the time."
- "I have tried all kinds of shoes, but I like these the best."
- "Solving that puzzle was no trouble at all."
In each case, "all" plainly expresses something less than a sweeping, comprehensive, all-inclusive, woodenly literal "all."
Him: Phil, you know I can't let this one slide by, well-intentioned though it was. It is of course possible that the first man is always overseas, and the second has tried all kinds of shoes, and that the third instantly saw the entire solution to the puzzle (as God always would). Barring these, however, all three would be lying.
Me: Don't be ridiculous. In normal discourse, no one would imagine that the speaker means all in the exhaustive sense in any of those examples. If you tried to press that sort of woodenly literal meaning into the words of people you dialogue with, you would never be able to communicate sensibly. We all frequently employ the word all in all kinds of contexts where the meaning is clearly not meant to be exhaustive. See? I just did it twice.
Him: Like it or not, using the word figuratively like that is a form of lying, and we know that our God and His Prophets are/were not liars.
Me: Now you're being worse than ridiculous. None of those would be a lie. People use expressions like that all the time, and they are not lies. See? I just did it again.
And consider this: Jesus said, "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me" (John 12:8). If you insist on the absolute sense of "always," Jesus got it exactly backward! Because He is the one who is always with us in the absolute sense (Hebrews 13:5); the poor are "with us always" only in a non-absolute sense. He has existed from before the foundation of the world, and He will exist for all eternity, and he is omnipresent at (exhaustively) all times. By comparison, "the poor" aren't even a blip on the screen. They are here today, gone tomorrow. So if you insist parsing Jesus' statement with absolute meanings, you must conclude that He got it wrong—or else (by the standard you are insisting on) He lied.
Him: The statement "Do not swear at all" doesn't need a whole lot of parsing. Either all kinds of oaths are sinful, as I believe, or Jesus and James lied (or at least exaggerated), which I am disinclined to assume.
Me: You need to do some more careful thinking about what constitutes a "lie," and what words mean in their normal usage.
Him: It sounds to me like you are claiming "all" never means all at all.
Me: On the contrary, the word all always means "all." What I am actually claiming is that the word has all kinds of possible meanings. Look up "all" in an unabridged dictionary if you want to see the semantic range of the word.
Him: How then do we know that all (without exception) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God?
Me: Simple. The context makes that clear. Similarly, we know that the word in Matthew 5:34 is not an absolute "all" because of the contextual reasons I have already cited. Namely, we have biblical examples that prove this is not an exhaustive prohibition. Jesus Himself testified under oath. Paul included an oath in 2 Corinthians 1:23 under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In the context of Matthew 5, What Jesus forbade was the casual use of flippant oaths in everyday speech.
This is not complex hermeneutics. I'm guessing you make sense of the various ways people use words like all and always all the time in everyday speech. All you need to do is apply the same standards of common sense and context when you read Scripture, and it will all make better sense.