16 December 2008

"All" Always Means ALL. Right?

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 red, 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.

Phil's signature


pastorharold said...

All of that made perfect sense.
Take that which ever way you want.

DJP said...

Goodness, if he's going to be that bone-headed about the normal canons of communication, just start with his own first words:

"Phil, you know I can't let this one slide by, well-intentioned though it was."

"Can't"? Really? Total inability? A non-Calvinist, denying his own free will?

Or is he "lying"?

W. Ian Hall said...

It is amazing just how many believers take that verse to mean prohibiting oaths of any kind.
Although this guy took stupidity to an entirely new level. I admire your patience in answering him.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to have seen John Piper's fiery rebuttal to this the other day:


DJP said...

Then there's also the fact that the word normally translated "all" doesn't even occur in the Greek text of Matthew 5:34 anyway.

At all.

Chris H said...

Bad Officer! You just lost the game.

His clip is not a John Piper rebuttal, but a well-placed rickrolling.

Douglas Kofi Adu-Boahen said...


Mature - supermature. KMT.

Boerseuntjie said...


I like what James Dobson expounds about 6 minutes into this section of Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinsim:

It is available form:



hymns that preach said...

ALL I know is that ALL doesn't ALways mean ALL; that's not ALL ALL means at ALL.

Doulos said...

I would have lost it when he said that saying all without meaning ALL was lying... I only experienced such insanity with KJV only folks.

"Reading the NIV will cause you to go to hell. People who don't speak english must learn english in order to read the Bible. Any other language is uninspired."

I am amazed with your patience, Godbless you brother.

Whenever I get into discussions with arminians, they normally chant. ALL means ALL. It doesn't matter which text I cite, or how well I exegete a passage, all means all. Thus I lose ALL of the time...


Penn Tomassetti said...

When does 2 Timothy 2:23 apply to this discussion?

Mike Riccardi said...


Great link. That's James Kennedy, though, not James Dobson. I actually have that DVD, have watched all of it, and it's great. Serious plug for those who would like a resource for defending Calvinism.

It's great even for Bible study groups or for folks just hanging out on a Friday night. A couple of friends of mine (about 10 of us) watched the first 2 hours one Friday night and it was an awesome time. The discussion on what message "all" is sending in different occurrences is an especially helpful and worthy of meditation.

Penn Tomassetti said...

my reason for asking that question, was because I was thinking about the gospel of grace vs. every other way of salvation by human efforts. I was thinking there is an argument that probably is more urgent, so I asked that question. (There now I made myself clear, I think. Sometimes I don't say all that I imagine I'm saying).

Jim Kirby said...

This, in my opinion, is where Bullinger's volume, "Figures of Speech in the Bible" is most helpful and authoritative. He lists those usages of "all" under the figure of speech called, "Synecdoche of the Genus" (pp. 613ff.). This guy needs to do some more homework, as well as a whole host of Arminian armchair Bible students.

Mike Westfall said...

I think he took an oath of pedantry.

archshrk said...

Every now and then, I'm amazed at what qualifies for theological debate. I would never had guessed that this was an issue someone would argue so passionately about.

Titus said...


unfortunately this line of thinking exegetical is common with a lot of Anabaptist. At lest the ones i know and work with out here in the heart of Mennonite country...

Anonymous said...

You know, I used to be an ALL means ALL kinda guy myself when it came to Scripture. That was until God looked at me and said, "Dude, seriously." The next day I woke up a five-point Calvinist.

Chad V. said...

I always read the Pyromaniacs all the time.

hymns that preach said...


No you don't

danny2 said...

an interesting part of your illustration phil.

if ALL meant ALL as him implies in the possible illustrations then a man who truly is overseas ALL the time is actually never over seas.

think about it. if i was in england ALL the time, it would be that i live in england, not america. i doubt londoners consider themselves "overseas."

in reality, his claim of ALL is actually defined NOT AT ALL.

(same could be said of each of them. if the puzzle truly caused zero trouble then it wouldn't be a puzzle. etc)

Chad V. said...

Exactly my point

Chad V. said...

Hasn't yon person is said post ever noticed that Paul swore at least 3 oaths and called God to bear witness to their truth in his epistles?

Rom 1:9

Rom 9:1

Phil 1:8

Gov98 said...

I'm with you on this one, but let me say, I've NEVER liked the "the world means the world of the elect."

Vaughan Smith said...

Uh... what does he say about 1 Corinthians 15:27?

For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "all things are put in subjection," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him.

Does he accuse Paul of grammatical dishonesty?

Matthew Carroll said...

While all ya'll are all arguing your finer points of theology, I'm at a loss for words over the picture of the Ferrari parked under the F150.

No. Words.

Steve said...

Weird. We studied this in Sunday School two days ago out of Sproul's "Essential Truths of the Christian Faith". I almost skipped the chapter because it seemed like a non-issue to me, but it turned out to be worthwhile. I think what Jesus and James were teaching is simply robust honesty; no finger crossing allowed and no oaths required.

FX Turk said...

You can tell how busy my day was in that I missed this post entirely.

Any figurative sense is a "lie"?

"I am the bread of life" anyone?

And we wonder why people think Christians are, well, like this. It's because we are.

May God have mercy on us for it.

James Scott Bell said...

Little "all" is not "always" used in the same way, either. Noun, pronoun, adjective etc...it's a frisky little fella.

When used as "at all" it's an idiomatic phrase. When used to refer to persons, it's a personal pronoun.

So Matt. 5:34 (in some translations) is inapposite alongside, e.g., 1 Tim. 2:6. Using the former to club the latter should not be tried. At all.

Anonymous said...

Buddy seems to have forgotten that there is a reason we say "every single" instead of "all".

Sure, all means all, it just doesn't mean "every single", else we'd say that.

James Joyce said...

Frank, You don't mean all people all think that about all Christians because we are all that way, do you?

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Goodness Gracious! No wonder some Catholics/Orthodox think that Protestants are wooden literalists and backwards fundamentalists. This anabaptist gives them fuel for their caricatured understanding of Protestants.


Boerseuntjie said...

Mike Riccardi - Brother THANK you for correcting my error. Being in the UK I have a slight disconnect with my memory and brethren in the USA...
Actually no that is just me and my memory fullstop!

Back to you ALL
(I am certain this is the ABSOLUTE!), just because not ALL people will read here.

So God works ALL (ABSOLUTELY - Like the evil of Joseph's brothers) things together for good, to....those that love Him (PARTICULAR and EXCLUSIVE; as not ALL mankind love Him).

ALL (ABSOLUTE) who are weary and heavy laden; do they ALL really go to Him for rest? OR do those who ACTUALLY go to Him EXCLUSIVELY and PARTICULARLY Alone go?

I believe that EXPERIENCE and natural revelation supports our understanding here somewhat Scientifically, for ALL time.

Solameanie said...

Arguments like this give me sick headaches of the worst kind. You know, the kind where it feels like someone is rubbing your retina with the business end of a blowtorch. The kind that make your hands involuntarily seize up into the "choke" position.

I do indeed admire your patience, Phil. More than I can say!

David Rudd said...

i don't know phil... next thing you know you're going to be arguing that words don't mean the same to everyone, and that's just one small step to out-and-out relativim!

actually, this was a good post which demonstrates the importance of understanding "literal" reading of the Scriptures. thanks.

Mike Westfall said...

OK, so now that we mostly agree that "all" doesn't necessarily mean "everyone without exception," how do we know when it does?

For example, in 2 Cor. 5:14, how do we know that Paul is only referring to a subset of everyone-without-exception? What justifies our interpretation of "all doesn't mean all" in this case?

Stuart Wood said...

While preaching on John 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”, Martin Luther powerfully states the necessity of the universal Gospel. He says, “This is an extraordinarily fine and comforting sermon on Christ our Savior. Neither our thoughts nor our words can do the subject full justice, but in the life beyond it will redound to our eternal joy and bliss that the Son of God abased himself so and burdened himself with my sins. Yes, he assumes not only my sins but also those of the whole world, from Adam down to the very last mortal. These sins he takes upon himself; for these he is willing to suffer and die that our sins may be expunged and we may attain eternal life and blessedness… THIS IS THE BASIS OF ALL CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE. WHOEVER BELIEVES IT IS A CHRISTIAN; WHOEVER DOES NOT IS NO CHRISTIAN, and will get what he has coming to him. The statement is clear enough: “This is the Lamb of God who bears the sins of the world.” Moreover, this text is the Word of God, not our word. Nor is it our invention that the Lamb was sacrificed by God and that, in obedience to the Father, this Lamb took upon himself the sin of the whole world.”

The earliest church father, Ignatius (c. 35 - c. 107), the Bishop of Antioch:
“Our God is a lover of mankind, and ‘will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth’.”

Justin Martyr (c. 100 - c. 165) of the early second century:
“The Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all.”

“His Father wished Him to suffer this, in order that by His stripes the human race might be healed.”

Irenaeus (c. 130 - c. 200), the disciple of Polycarp who in turn was the disciple of the Apostle John:
“It was He who should die and be buried for the mortal human race”.

“He removed the yoke and bondage of the old law, so that mankind, being now set free, might serve God.”

Tertullian (c. 160 - c. 225):
“…the Scripture teaching one full and entire satisfaction for the sins of the whole human race, once for all presented by our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Origen (c. 185 - c. 254):
“But He did come, because He was willing to come, and because it was manifest beforehand that His dying upon behalf of men would be of advantage to the whole human race”.

The ancient Church historian, Eusebius (c. 260 - c. 340):
“He was the victim offered to the Supreme Sovereign of the universe for the whole human race”.

Athanasius (c. 296 - 373), the champion of Christian orthodoxy, author of the Nicene Creed, and rescuer of the faith from Arianism:
“For whatever is written concerning our Saviour in His human nature, ought to be considered as applying to the whole race of mankind”.

“In Him the human race is perfectly and wholly delivered from sin and quickened from the dead, and given access to the kingdom of the heavens.”

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330 - c. 395):
“And the wood of the Cross is of saving efficacy for all men.”

Basil (c. 330 - 379):
“The Lord was bound to taste of death for every man–to become a propitiation for the world and to justify all men by His own blood.”

Gregory Nazianzen (329 - 389):
“[Christ’s sacrificial death was] not for a part of the world, nor for a short time, but for the whole world and for all time”.

Hilary (c. 315 - 367):
“Since the humanity of Christ is universal, His death was on behalf of all mankind, to buy the salvation of the whole human race.”

The greatest Eastern Church preacher, Chrysostom (c. 347 - 407):
“’That by the grace of God He should taste death for every man’, not for the faithful only, but even for the whole world: for He indeed died for all.”

St. Augustine (354 - 430):
“When the angel, then, stretched out his staff and touched the rock, and fire rose out of it, this was a sign that our Lord’s flesh, filled with the Spirit of God, should burn up all the sins of the human race.”

“And so it was at that time declared in a mystery that the Lord Jesus, when crucified, should abolish in His flesh the sins of the whole world, and not their guilty acts merely, but the evil lusts of their hearts.”

Doug Hibbard said...

Mataikhan said...

While all ya'll are all arguing your finer points of theology, I'm at a loss for words over the picture of the Ferrari parked under the F150.

No. Words.

Does it reveal anything about me that I was more concerned about the truck, and didn't even realize it was a Ferrari?

Mike B. said...

All very true, and I agree with everything you said except for one thing (And I realize that this is really nitpicky). You say that context makes it clear that "all" in the cases of 2 Cor 1:23 and Matthew 5:35 is definitely not absolute. I understand that what you mean by this is the broader context of the books in question and the Bible in general, but from a purely linguistic standpoint, the context of those verses does not make the meaning clear. What you have argued is that the word "all" in English has a certain amount of built-in lexical ambiguity, and you have demonstrated this quite well. But one could theoretically argue that Paul does mean "all" in 1 Corinthians 1:23 and just contradicts himself later. Similarly, Jesus words about oaths in Matthew 5 can and often have been taken to mean a sweeping prohibition of oath taking. This is entirely within the realm of possibility for the meaning of that sentence. It is just the context of scripture and plain sense that makes such conclusions unlikely.

Anyway, this is all rather beside the point since I agree with you about the meaning of these passages, but this is all just in case someone who does disagree with you decides to nitpick on these kinds of things. Have a great day.

Willie Mann said...

This is ALL very timely, or maybe untimely. I just taught on Romans 5 two weeks ago. If "all" means "all," then "all" must be saved; right? Vs 18 "So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to ALL men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to ALL men." Therefore, "all" men must be saved. Acts 24:5 "For we have found this man [a] pestilent [fellow], and a mover of sedition among ALL the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes:" Does that really mean "all" the Jews throughout the world? Is that the whole world, or only part of the world? Was he a mover of sedition to Jews in Ethiopia or Persia? Mark 15:16 "And He said to them, "Go into ALL the world and preach the gospel to ALL creation." Did they do this, or did they fail in their mission to go into ALL the world?
Romans 1:8 "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you ALL, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout THE WHOLE WORLD." If "all" means "all," then surely "whole world" means "whole world." Was the gospel preached in Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Greenland, Scotland? Hmmm, maybe Paul was wrong. Romans 10:18 But I say, surely they have never heard, have they? Indeed they have; "THEIR VOICE HAS GONE OUT INTO ALL THE EARTH, AND THEIR WORDS TO THE ENDS OF THE WORLD." Now wait a minute! If the gospel has gone out into ALL the earth then the end should have come because Matt 24:14 says: "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. 1 John 5:19 "We know that we are of God, and that the WHOLE WORLD lies in {the power of} the evil one." Do Christians lie in the power of the evil one? Wow! Maybe nobody is saved. We are all doomed to Hell by this guys reasoning.

W. Ian Hall said...

Willie : That guy's reasoning just proves an old adage namely that there is one born every minute (fool that is)

Andy said...

while i don't agree with the man in this post, i do have to think that the discussion could have went the way of the different ways words are in/misinterpreted in the Bible. I know in my own faith journey there have been times i have been at a loss for the understanding of words or word choice. it can be a daunting task. however, that does not excuse the goofy circles of the poster. keep up the good work all!

The Seeking Disciple said...

I agree as an Arminian that all must be viewed in context. Luke 2:1 comes to mind. However, the use of all in context of say passages such as John 3:16 or 1 Timothy 2:1-6 seems pretty clear that all means all in the context.

Phil Johnson said...

The Seeking Disciple: "However, the use of all in context of say passages such as John 3:16 or 1 Timothy 2:1-6 seems pretty clear that all means all in the context."

Hmmm. I can't seem to find the word "all" at all in John 3:16. And 1 Timothy 2:1-6 itself seems to define very clearly what it means by "all": all kinds of people, from rulers to peasants.

Help me out, here.

Aaron Snell said...

Well, pas is in John 3:16 ("pas ho pisteuo"), but it is limited by the very phrase in which it appears ("all the believing ones"), so I don't think this "all" helps our Arminian friends at all (haha).

James Scott Bell said...

But Phil, I don't find the word "kinds" in 1 Tim 2:1-6, either.

Nor do I find using "Kings" as a back door into the "kinds" interpretation convincing.

Respectfully submitted.

GeneMBridges said...

I should think it's rather obvious...

Paul is exhorting Timothy to pray for all kinds of persons...from rulers to peasants.

If we were to apply "all" in the way you would have us do so there, would you also say that money is the root of each and every evil ever conceived?