Whole Counsel Theology

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Does "ALL" Really Mean "ALL" All the Time? Sermon Review part the third.

The original post in this series can be found here which contains the link to the original sermon my pastor preached. In it, he had this statement, and also cited all or part of 1 Timothy 2:3-4. However, before I deal with that passage (which needs a larger context), I wanted to address the aforementioned statement:
When does "all" mean "all"? All the time.

There are a lot of things that can be said about that statement, but I think I'll just agree with it. Yes, you read that right -- I'll agree with it.

You see, that statement is a tricky one. Of course "all" means "all." That's like saying 1 = 1 or 237 = 237 or red = red. It's simply giving the identity of the word, so in that sense, it is certainly true: all does indeed mean all at all times.

...yet, there are two things that we need to remember about the word "all."

First, the word "all" has a similarity with each of my previous examples. If I were to go up to you and start saying, "One! Two-hundred thirty seven! Red!" and keep repeating any of those words over and over again, what would your response be? Well, if someone were to do that to me, I'd have to say, "One WHAT? 237 WHAT? A red WHAT? What ARE you talking about?"

You see, every one of those previous words is an adjective. From www.webster.com (emphasis mine), an adjective is:
a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages and typically serving as a modifier of a noun to denote a quality of the thing named, to indicate its quantity or extent, or to specify a thing as distinct from something else

The above words, including "all," are adjectives. Therefore, they MUST modify nouns. You could say "red dog" or "one meal" or "237 people," for example. In the same way, when you say "all" you have to ask "all what?"

Numbers are quantifiers; that is, they tell you "how many" of something. They tell you the quantity of a particular noun or pronoun. "All" does the same thing; it tells you the quantity of a particular thing. The difference between a standard number and the word "all" is that a number is a limited quantifier and the word "all" is a universal quantifier. They both, however, have a referent. That is, numbers and the word "all" are referring to SOMETHING. Numbers are limited quantifiers with a variable referent (that is, what they can refer to changes; you could have 5 dogs, 5 cars, 5 people, 5 books, etc.). The word "all" is a universal quantifier, also with a variable referent. That is, you can have all the keys, or all classes, or all books, or all food, or whatever.[1]

Furthermore, normally when the word "all" is used, there is a further clarification as to what is meant. When I say "all books," do I mean "all books that have ever been, everywhere?" I could be meaning that, but if I am standing in a library, and I say "all the books are interesting," I'm referring to the books in that library, perhaps even one section, or even one of a particular genre. More information, more CONTEXT, would be needed to ascertain what it was I meant, what "all" I thought was "interesting."

I hope you as you read this you are beginning to see the point. Grammar is CRITICALLY important in determining the meaning of words and sentences. To make the statement, "all means 'all' all the time," is to oversimply. We MUST have a referent for the word at the very least, and it is often necessary to determine what limiting factors are present.

When theologians say that "all means 'all' all the time," what they are indicating is usually that when the word "all" is used, it means every person, everywhere, throughout history; that is, past, present, or future. The fact is, that is not usually true.

To be sure, the word can mean that, or better said, can REFER to that. However, in order to determine what the word is referring to, you absolutely MUST have context.

The reason this is important is because it changes our understanding of MANY texts of Scripture that use the word.

Ok, all of that was under my "first" point. :)

Second, the word can be used figuratively or as a hyperbole. Here is what I mean.
I go to school all the time during the week.

Now, is that a true statement? Well, yes and no. :)

If you take it literally, it is not. I only go 5 days, and not all day either. At the same time, if taken figuratively as I intended it to be taken, then yes -- it is true. I am there frequently, and not 24/7.

You see, we use words like "all" all the time -- no we don't. :) We use other words, such as that ones I'm using to type this post. Sometimes we are quiet. Sometimes we're even asleep and not talking (or typing) and therefore using no words at all! It is a figurative use of the word.

Words like this are everywhere...no they're not. They're here, there, and another place perhaps. :)

Do you see the point? In order to determine the extent of the referent of the word "all" you will need CONTEXT. Furthermore, in order to determine whether it is a figurative use or a literal use, you need (that's right! you guessed it!) CONTEXT. Scripture uses it both ways.

These are things your English/grammar teacher should have told you. :)

Next post (part the 4th) I'll review the verses I mentioned in the beginning of this post (that is, 1 Timothy 2:1-7) that my pastor referenced (though he mentioned just verses 3-4), and we'll see how important what I've just said is when it comes to biblical interpretation.



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1. Of course, adjectives, including "all", can stand alone without a noun in a sentence. It is grammatically correct to say "The five are here," or "All are present." This is called a substantive, and it is when an adjective serves as a noun. However, this doesn't change my argument, because there must be some referent being described by the substantival adjective in any given sentence. In other words, we still need to know what it refers to, and it MUST refer to something!

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