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prov·o·ca·tion - something that provokes, arouses, or stimulates. pant - to long eagerly; yearn. a collection of thoughts intended to provoke and inspire. these posts are hoping to encourage people to think, especially Christians, and pant even harder for the waterbrooks of the Lord. If you are not a believer in Christ Jesus, I welcome your perspective and encourage your investigation on these matters.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Addressing "Omnibenevolence"

A couple of weeks ago, James White announced that the debate thesis proposed by the Caner brothers was the following:

Resolved: That God is an Omnibenevolent God to all of humanity through salvation and opportunity.

James White said, “The Caners are insisting upon using a thesis statement that has no meaning. It is not even written in proper English. It could be used and defended by a Unitarian Universalist. They refuse to use a thesis statement I have proposed that is clear and unambiguous.” Tom Ascol also replied thus, “Now, if you can explain exactly what is being asserted here, please let me know.” White and Ascol are no unlearned men, so when I heard that they were unaware of the term of “omnibenevolence” and its usage, I thought I would do some investigation and research on the subject.

Interestingly enough, not a single evangelical theologian has addressed the doctrine of omnibenevolence nor can you find it in any theological dictionary. This is precisely because it has not been considered historically a theological term. Rather, its basis is philosophically grounded. A brief description is provided by Wikipedia, although its weak definitions and descriptions show just how vague and nondescript this term really is. So where does the Caner’s get the idea of “an omnibenevolent God?” Here you must delve into the Arminian playbook (i.e. Geisler’s Chosen but Free and Hunt’s What Love Is This?) which I reveal in the days ahead.

It just so happens that a great deal of my personal research and studies is in the area of religious pluralism, inclusivism, and open theism. I don’t claim to have exhausted all the resources available, but I can say that the only folks who have argued for an omnibenevolent God besides contemporary Arminianism are Open Theists/Inclusivists and Universalists. This puts the Caners in a peculiar predicament. Their premise is not even considered orthodox to begin with (to a large degree). Furthermore, whatever basis is given for omnibenevolence in current writing is mere synthesis of philosophical assertions. I personally don’t know if I want to make a thesis statement that is unfounded in church history, unwritten by evangelical scholars, defended by heretical teachings, and supported by mere philosophical assertions. But then again, I am not the dean of theology either. I am just a seminary student trying to do my homework.

I have laid out a lengthy outline for the purpose of providing a sustained research and investigation into the idea of an omnibenevolent God. I also will be ask leading evangelical scholars about this idea and trying to ascertain some contemporary analysis and input from them as well. At this point, I am not planning on providing a critique publicly because of the upcoming debate and the possibility of this thesis being upheld (at least by the silent treatment). I will, however, provide quotes and annotations that I think are related to this issue. If you have any sources or input dealing with the topic of omnibenevolence, please let me know.


Blogger Gavin Brown said...


I have been following this story from afar, having read the the exchange between White/Ascol and the Caners and reading quite a few comment threads. Omnibenevolence seems to imply an abscence of wrath and justice...seems very EC.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject.

5/24/2006 10:23:00 AM

Blogger Timmy said...


Thanks for the comment. I don't know if it can be EC or not, given that the EC movement is so undefined and multi-faceted. For instance, there is a conservative theological end of the EC which would not hold the omnibenevolence as understood by Open Theists or Universalists. Then again, in the same camp there are those who have an anti-doctrinal doctrinal statement. Some feel like you need to embrace postmodernism, others don't. Thirdly, they don't really define themselves in orthodoxy as much as they do in orthopraxy. Therefore, theology is not a front-burner issue (unfortunately); rather, living your life like Jesus, reaching your world and culture with the gospel, and engaging other Christians to love their neighbor as theirselves is the predominant focus (IMO). I am not in the EC, so my take may not be the "insiders" position, but that's how I see it nonetheless.

I can't help but chuckle a little bit when I study omnibenevolence. The Caners I think chose this because they thought they could pin Ascol and White down with their position on the "love of God" while they have pitted themselves with those outside the bounds of orthodoxy. How ironic!

This thesis is obviously crafted to be slam Calvinists by saying that we don't believe John 3:16 and that God loves everyone. However, the charge is superficial, and if it has any substance, it is with hyper-Calvinism and not Calvinism. But then again, any form of true Calvinism in the eyes of Arminians today is hyper-Calvinism.

5/24/2006 01:36:00 PM

Blogger Gavin Brown said...

I think you are right about the Caners. They most likely will argue that God is omnibenevolent, and therefore anyone who believes the doctrines of grace believes that God sends infants to hell or some other ridiculous (and erronious) line of logic.

Their proof texts will likely be few and far between and will only get louder as the debate unfolds.

5/24/2006 02:03:00 PM

Blogger R. Mansfield said...

I did a search for "omnibenevolence" through all my tools in Accordance. This is what I found:

"omnibenevolence. The quality of being completely good. Omnibenevolence is one of the traditional attributes of God and is thought to be necessarily possessed by a God who is perfect."
--from the IPV Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics and Philosophy of Religion, ed. by Stephen B. Evans.

In the Spring 1978 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, there's an article by Michael Peterson entitled, "Christian Theism and the Problem of Evil." In the article Peterson uses the term as part of the overall discussion. He doesn't define it, but he does state, "omni-benevolence is opposed to evil and always seeks to eliminate it completely" (p. 39).

In the Trinity Journal (Fall 1980), Paul Feinberg wrote an article entitled "And the Atheist Shall Lie Down with the Calvinist: Atheism, Calvinism and the Free Will Defense." In the article, a reference is made to "theistic systems that hold to omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and evil" (p. 144), but there's no elaboration on the term itself.

In the Dec. 2003 issue of the Conservative Theological Journal, Tony Hines refers to omnibenevolence as "a key characteristic of the theistic God" (p. 323).

The fact that omnibenevolence is used in the three journal articles without definition says to me to me that it is an accepted term. Further, the reality of omnibenevolence as an attribute of God does not discount the reality of God's wrath and judgment any more than to say God is merciful would also exlude his wrath or judgment.

And do I even need to point out that two of the three journal articles quoted above were written before the advent of either the Emergent Church movement or Open Theism, and thus the term cannot be attributed to either of these lines of thought.

Does Scripture not recognize God's omnibenevolence, that is his goodness shown forth to all whether they belong to him or not?

“Are not you Israelites
the same to me as the Cushites?”
declares the Lord.
“Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt,
the Philistines from Caphtor
and the Arameans from Kir?”
(Amos 9:7, TNIV)

“For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:45, HCSB)

And is it fair for you to call Geisler an Arminian when he does not claim that title for himself (he calls himself a moderate Calvinist)? Well, maybe you didn't call HIM that, but you referred to his book as part of the "Arminian playbook." Pardon me, but I just hate labels because people tend to use labels in perjorative ways to write off people and positions instead of truly interacting with them.

And does the term "omnibenevolence" get written off by you if it is "philosophically grounded" as you say? As someone who was teaching a class in Philosophy and Christian Thought last night at IWU, I would remind you that philosophy and systematic theology are fraternal sisters, both under the umbrella of Christian thought. This is why I'm a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

My point is this. Take your issue with the Caners if you will, but be careful about throwing out valid descriptions of God, especially descriptions that may not have been properly defined.

5/24/2006 02:15:00 PM

Blogger Timmy said...


Thanks for your thoughts. I will take them into consideration. However, I have to respectfully disagree. Omnibenevolence is not grounded in historical or systematic theology. You will not find it addressed in other attributes such as the omnipotence, omniscience, or omnisapience of God. It is simply not there.

Futhermore, your assertions about the omnibenevolence of God is addressing the providential love of God (if I may borrow that term from Carson) whereas the Caners which to make this God's salvific love toward everyone. They are not the same. The text you used about the rain falling on the just and the unjust is about God's providence in creation which connotes God's general love for what he has created. It cannot be assumed to have an salvific content therein.

As far as philosophy goes, I have great respect for that school of thought as I have much invested study and time into it. I make this point precisely because of how Arminians like the Caners say that Calvinism is the "doctrines of man" and are not biblical. They say we have "put God in a box" and limited him to five points or whatever. This is simply bogus. God busts every box when they are drawn not according to Scripture. And that is my point about omnibenevolence. It is philosophically grounded, not biblically grounded, and to make this the central thesis of your debate without any definitive proof text or exegesis is simply implausible.

Saying that three journal articles scantily mention omnibenevolence cannot assume that the term is accepted. Where is it defined or exposited? Furthermore, in the articles you mentioned, none of them refer to salvation (one to theodociy, and the other two to theology proper). The Caners are specifically mentioning the omnibenevolence of God with salvation in its context.

Geisler is no "moderate Calvinist." This is semantical play. Anyone who is a Calvinist in his terminology is an "extreme" Calvinist. This is simply to bias his argument in his favor. His labels are simply unfounded. Take his content and you will find him an Arminian plain and simple. If you don't like labels and consider them pejorative, then you might want to check with Mr. Geisler on that one. :)

You say that I have not interacted with Geisler. How do you know this?

Finally, I am not throwing out "valid descriptions of God." I have not thrown out anything to this point. I am stating that their usage of this "doctrine" (though still undefined) is being used in the same way Open Theists and Universalists do. Who has not properly defined this doctrine. Or, even still, who has properly defined it?

One quick correction: It was *John* Feinberg, not Paul who wrote that journal article in 1980.

5/24/2006 03:31:00 PM

Blogger R. Mansfield said...

The distinction I would make is that omnibenevolence when generally used as a term is not referring to salvation, but in regard to God's goodness and mercy toward all. And the term usually seems to come up in discussions of theodicy.

In my comments, I was not responding to the Caners' use of the word (we'd have to ask them about that), but rather I was responding to what seemed like a quick dismissal of the idea of omnibenevolence on your part.

The idea is that a God who is good is perfectly good, thus omnibenevolence.

The syllogism would thus read:
1. God is perfect.
2. God is good.
3. God is perfectly good (omnibenevolence).

That doesn't mean that he saves all. Again, I would not use this word in terms of salvation, but more along the lines of the perfect providential love of God (I'm borrowing the phrase from you) for all as described in the two verses that I quoted.

Thanks for the Feinberg correction. How did I do that?

5/24/2006 03:43:00 PM

Blogger Timmy said...

Concerning your quote,

“Are not you Israelites
the same to me as the Cushites?”
declares the Lord.
“Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt,
the Philistines from Caphtor
and the Arameans from Kir?”
(Amos 9:7, TNIV)

What is the argument here? "The same to me" in what sense? If to "bring up" is saying that God's love in bringing the Israelites to himself is the same as the Philistines and Arameans, then God is not a God of covenant. Rather, he is the universal God which has accepted everyone because of His love. Is this the argument here?

Let me refer you to another passage in Amos which I believe clarifies this:

"You only have I known of all the families of the earth" (Amos 3:2 - ESV).

So how does God know Israel only? Does He not know of the other countries and peoples of the earth? Absolutely. But he does not know them because he has "set His affection on them." His knowledge is experiential, covenantal, and loving to His elect in a way that is not with the rest of mankind. This is also true for the Church in the new covenant. Therefore, the argument of omnibenevolence or universal love works in the sense that God knows all the people and loves all that he has made (in that it was good), but he does not love everyone the same way or in the same sense.

5/24/2006 04:01:00 PM

Blogger Timmy said...

I agree that the term omnibenevolence can mean God's universal love for mankind in a general sense. However, we cannot overlook the reality that mankind in sinful rebellion is under the wrath of God and awaiting His judgment unless God set His affection on them in choosing them out of his lovingkindess and purpose to save them. The love of God is thus so strikingly demonstrated that the one offended chooses to love the offender and take his place in judgment and condemnation by dying in their place. This amazing love that Jesus would die for sinners, not because they are worthy or merited such love, but because of God's unfathomable mercies manifested in Christ Jesus.

The question is multi-faceted, then, regarding the atonement and God's love. This is what I will address mostly, but I really do not want to go into detail now as I have more study to do, and for the sake of the debate, I am going to keep critique of this position with reserve to those in the debate. In other words, I don't want them to find the work and try to come up with a defense for it. :)

5/24/2006 04:09:00 PM

Blogger Timmy said...

So I guess my question then would be,
"If God loves everyone the same, and not everyone is saved, then *why* are some saved and others not?"

This is where the debate, I think, will take place. Arminians will say because they chose not to be saved, but they had the opportunity nonetheless. So their salvation is ultimately and deterministically left in the hands of the sinner who is in rebellion against God, not God who is love and manifests His love to His people.

What is more loving? Making salvation possible, or saving people who cannot save themselves? Herein is God's electing love in predestining sinners which Arminians refuse to believe. Jesus made it clear that all that the Father gave to him will come to him, and it is the Father's will that he lose none of them. So in question here is not only God's love, but also God's omnipotence and Christ's obedience to the will of the Father. God has given (i.e. chosen for salvation) some to believe. Christ dies for them, and the Spirit applies this salvation to the sinner. This is a Trinitarian work of love. On the other hand, the Arminians hold that a loving God only makes salvation possible for a sinner. One is Trinitarian with the full expression of God's love; the other is Unitarian with a general expression of God's love. There is a striking difference here. But this is just touching the surface . . .

5/24/2006 04:18:00 PM

Blogger R. Mansfield said...


I want to be careful that you and I don't argue over things that we don't actually disagree on. My only point in quoting the passage from Amos was to create an OT parallel to Matt 5:45. God in his perfect goodness performs acts of goodness on the righteous and the unrighteous, the penitent and the unrepentant, his people and those who are not his people.

As for the Cushites, the Philistines, and the Arameans, the fact that they rejected God in light of his goodness to them will show on the day of judgment that they are without excuse.

Going back to the issue of God's omnibenevolence (that is, God's perfect goodness or God's perfect love), I think if you dig a bit further, you will find this to be a classical category of God's attributes reflected not just in the Bible, but in the Church Fathers (especially Augustine) in the Reformers and in modern theology. One can hold to the idea of omnibenevelence without resorting to universalism or anything akin to it.

5/24/2006 04:20:00 PM

Blogger Timmy said...


You said:
"As for the Cushites, the Philistines, and the Arameans, the fact that they rejected God in light of his goodness to them will show on the day of judgment that they are without excuse."

Amen. I agree.

When referring to omnibenevolence, one way of thinking about it is God's pefection in love, similar to God's perfection in his goodness (as you have stated). However, my question is how this love is applied and expressed in creation, humanity, and in particular salvation.

Evangelicals and orthodoxy teaching simply has not addressed omnibenevolence outside theology proper. This is where I believe the Caners have followed the path of those outside the bounds of orthodoxy. Tomorrow I will provide a quote where I believe the Caners might have developed their thesis.

You are correct that one can hold to omnibenevolence and not resort to universalism or Open Theism, yet the fact remains that those who stake a claim to it today are those outside orthodox teaching and seek to apply it beyond theology proper. All I am saying is that the Caners' have positioned themselves in their thesis to use the same argumentation and reasoning as those in the universalist camp and Open Theism camp. I don't think they fully realized the implications of such a thesis.

5/24/2006 04:28:00 PM

Blogger Philip S Taylor said...

Manual of Theology by JL Dagg. Book Second - Doctrine Concerning God, Section VII: Goodness.

God Is Infinitely Benevolent
Dagg then provides Exodus 34:6, Psalm 103:2-8, Zecheriah 9:17, Matthew 7:11, Luke 2:14, Luke 12:32, Romans 5:8 and 1 John 4:8.

He says "Benevolence is love in intention or disposition".

5/25/2006 02:55:00 AM

Blogger Timmy said...

Thank you Phillip! I just read the passage you referred to in Dagg. Intriguing how he described God's goodness in terms of his love as distinguished in "benevolence, beneficence, or complacence." These terms are rarely used today, as I think the "love of God" has taken wholesale interpretation. Thanks again for contributing to this research.

5/25/2006 04:43:00 AM

Blogger Gavin Brown said...

It should be pointed out that White and Ascol were just as baffled about how 'omnibenevolence' would be defined in the context of the upcoming debate on Calvinism.

5/25/2006 08:29:00 AM


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