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John 11:51-52 and 1 John 2:2

October 18, 2008

There is an old argument that seeks to correlate John 11:51-52 with 1 John 2:2. John Owen is probably one of the first to make this connection;


1)  Hence are those terms of the world, all men, all nations, every creature, and the like, used in the business of redemption and preaching of the gospel; these things being not restrained, according as they supposed, to one certain nation and family, but extended to the universality of God’s people scattered abroad in every region under heaven. Especially are these expressions used by John, who, living to see the first coming of the Lord, in that fearful judgment and vengeance which he executed upon the Jewish nation some forty years after his death, is very frequent in the asserting of the benefit of the world by Christ, in opposition, as I said before, to the Jewish nation, — giving us a rule how to understand such phrases and locutions: John 11:51, 52,

“He signified that Jesus should die for that nation; and not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad;” conformably whereunto he tells the believing Jews that Christ is not a propitiation for them only, “but for the sins of the whole world,” 1 John 2:2, or the people of God scattered throughout the whole world, not tied to any one nation, as they sometime vainly imagined. And this may and doth give much light into the sense and meaning of those places where the words world and all are used in the business of redemption. They do not hold out a collective universality, but a general distribution into men of all sorts, in opposition to the before-recounted erroneous persuasion. Works, 10:302.

2) How, this being thus cleared, if withal ye will remind what was said before concerning the inveterate hatred of that people towards the Gentiles, and the engrafted opinion they had concerning their own sole interest in the redemption procured and purchased by their Messiah, it will be no difficult thing for any to discern the aim of the apostle in this place, in the expression so much stuck at. “He,” saith he, “is the propitiation for our sins,” — that is, our sins who are believers of the Jews; and lest by this assertion they should take occasion to confirm themselves in their former error, he adds, “And not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world,” or, “The children of God scattered abroad,” as John xi. 51, 52, of what nation, kindred, tongue, or language soever they were. So that we have not here an opposition between the effectual salvation of all believers and the ineffectual redemption of all others, but an extending of the same effectual redemption which belonged to the Jewish believers to all other believers, or children of God throughout the whole world. Works, 10:332.

This argument has been developed by others. Phil Johnson has posted using it, and so have these folk, Understanding 1 John 2:2 by Pastor John Samson

A few years back I decided to work through some of the assumptions in this argument, which I nick-named “parallel/overlay argument” just as a tag.

Normally when we look for parallel ideas we look for parallel contexts. For example, the synoptics may discuss the same event in different ways, with different words. But the grounds for the connection is the event. Or a writer may have a common pattern of speech, a favoured idiom which he may use many times, all with some differences. We can put these together and get a picture. But here, now, there is nothing. There is only the hinge structure of the semantics, ‘not only this, but this also.’ even that does not exactly match both for in one its third person, the other its second person.

The structure of the overlay would look something like this:

“Die for the nation” not only for the nation, but also for “The Children scattered abroad “

compared with:

Christ is the expiation our our sins, not only our sins but for the sins of the whole world

The argument, then, is that structure of j11:51-52 is overlayed on top of 1j2:2 such that the overlay DELIMITS the meanings of the terms in 1j2:2. Children scattered abroad delimits the meaning of holos kosmos. That is, the latter (holos kosmos) is reduced to mean only the elect scattered abroad. (Here we assume children is equivalent to elect for the sake of the argument.)

1), The whole thing looks parallel in ENGLISH, but the Greek is very different. The principal terms changed: ethnos and laos (in J11), becomes “our” (1j2), but also its children tekna (j11), becomes holos kosmos (1jn2).

We can see that John does not even use the same terms, which one would reasonably expect IF he was intending to make a parallel overlay.

What is more, the prepositions and particles are also very different. In j11:51-2 you have Jesus dying for (huper) the nation, not (ouk), for (huper), the nation (ethnos), alone, but (alla), for (huper) the children of God scattered…

The object is people, and its Christ dying in behalf of (huper) these people.

However, in 1j2:2, we have:

He is the expiatory sacrifice (hilasmos), with regard to (peri), our sins, but (de), not (ou), with regard to (peri), ours only, but (alla), with regard to (peri), [the sins] of the whole world.

Huper is not used, but peri is. The object is sins, as peri denotes with regard to, concerning, with reference to. The structure of the sentence is actually very different, at the word/preposition level with only a superficial similarity. Btw, words like alla and de and ou are used billions of times in the NT. The only common word is but (alla). The only similarity is a basic dysjunctive pattern in English of: “not ours only, but also.” But this similarity is very superficial.

2), Next, the other problem is that one has to pre-assume that in John, kosmos means Gentiles, and that John uses kosmos to denote a contrast between the Jews and the Gentiles. Kosmos for John can’t denote all nations (Jews included) for then the overlay does not work, for then holos kosmos would include the readers, and the parallel between ethnic Jews and the scattered children voided. Its inconsistent to try and move back and forth, asserting that kosmos now means, Gentiles, now all nations. And there is no evidence that John in the epistle uses kosmos to make such an ethnic distinction or contrast. In the epistle of John, kosmos is used for the dark apostate world, which includes all sinners without racial distinction.

Dabney, for example, spotted this problematic:

In 1 John 2:2, it is at least doubtful whether the express phrase, “whole world,” can be restrained to the world of elect as including other than Jews. For it is indisputable, that the Apostle extends the propitiation of Christ beyond those whom he speaks of as “we,” in verse first. The interpretation described obviously proceeds on the assumption that these are only Jewish believers. Can this be substantiated? Is this catholic epistle addressed only to Jews? This is more than doubtful. It would seem then, that the Apostle’s scope is to console and encourage sinning believers with the thought that since Christ made expiation for every man, there is no danger that He will not be found a propitiation for them who, having already believed, now sincerely turn to him from recent sins. Dabney, Lectures, p., 525.

The other problem is, it does appear that John’s goal is to include the Jews as part of the world. This was the scandal of the cross: the Jews were part of the world’s opposition to Jesus. We can see this in John’s frequent references to Christ coming into the world, as light and life, but the world rejects Christ. These predications are attributed to the Jews, as much as to any apostate, in John’s Gospel. In John’s first epistle, the world is all that which is outside of the church.

So, if John never meant to intend kosmos to denote Gentiles, then he never intended an overlay parallel, nor should we read one into these verses. You need this prior assumption for it to work. It becomes a case of a parallel overlay purely in the eye of the beholder.

3), You have to impose the idea that in j11:51-2, John redefines the meaning of people (laos) and nation (ethnos). The Priest meant the physical nation, as he and his hearers understood it accordingly. Is there any evidence that John meant us to read his paraphrase of the Priest’s remarks as the elect ethnic Jews? No, there is none. However, only if you make this assumption before-hand does the overlay argument work.

And so, another problematic is that in j11 would disprove limited expiation, as John structure is like this, “not just that, but this also.” That is, not just for the nation, but also for the children scattered abroad. The nation is not used to denote the “elect” in John that I know of. Peter uses it to denote the church, so that cant be used. The nation is used to denote just that, the nation of Israel.

4) Contrary to Owen, his hermeneutics are difficult to prove. Hermeneutics works on a context-usage hinge. We define meanings normally be recoursing to like statements by the same author. Holos kosmos’ nearest like-statement is 1j5:19, which clearly cannot denote the church scattered throughout the world. Its very arbitrary to just impose a different meaning for holos kosmos in 1j2:2 than the obvious meaning in 1j5:19.

5) Lastly, lets for the moment assume that there is an intended structural parallel here in the authorial intention. Here is the rub. Why on earth should we assume that j11:51-2 was intended to delimit 1j2:2?

Why are we not allowed to imagine that John, using the same basic structure of ‘not only, but this also’ to expand J11:51-52? 1 Jn was written later than the Gospel of John. It seems counter-intuitive that I should say the earlier delimits the later, when the latter was not even existent at the time and written some years later.

It strikes me as arbitrary that Owen asserted that Jn 11 delimits and contains 1 Jn 2, forbidding the possibility that 1j2, may in fact be expansive of j11. Thus one could use the same argument to prove the opposite point. And this is sustained by John’s patterned usage of kosmos in 1j and his reference to holos kosmos in 1j5:19.

To conclude, the parallel overlay argument is not compelling. You have to see it beforehand before you can see it in the text. It is in the eye of the ENGLISH beholder only. It seems to me, that the alleged parallel overlay is not an argument to limited imputation unless you are already predisposed to limited imputation. It reminds me of Locke’s tabular raza, the script has to be pre-written, for unless you first have the argument assumed, the argument from alleged parallel would never be discerned in the first place.

Challenges and comments welcome.


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