Sunday, March 22, 2009

John 3:16

Over in Leeds on the fourth Sunday in Advent, Doorman Priest preached on "what is probably the most famous Gospel text known to Christians."
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that all who believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life.
D-P writes "Taken literally this passage from John suggests that those who do not believe in the son will perish," and then proceeds to argue against taking the passage literally. Now I liked D-P's sermon, but I have to say "Sorry, D-P, but that is not correct. Taken literally, this passage (unlike John 14:6) asserts nothing at all about those who do not believe in the son."

A 2004 paper by Samuele Antonini points out that for students of mathematics, the false equivalence of a statement and its inverse is intuitive and the true equivalence of a statement and its contrapositive is not intuitve. The same is true for most people who are not trained in mathematics or formal logic. But what do the terms inverse and contrapositive mean? Taking the statement in John 3:16 as an example (and restating the may as will):

1. Statement: Those who believe in the son will not perish.
2. Inverse: Those who don't believe in the son will perish.
3. Contrapositive: Those who perish don't believe in the son.
There is a fourth possibility, the converse:
4. Converse: Those who do not perish, believe in the son.

Now we take 1, the statement, as true, based on our view of scripture. For most people, it is not intuitive that 3, the contrapositive, says exactly the same thing as 1, and so is also true.
2, the inverse, and 3, the converse, also say the same thing as each other, but, despite our intuition, their truth value cannot be deduced from the truth of 1.

But to leave the realm of logic and return to the substance of the sermon, D-P points out a corrective to those whose intuition tells them that statements 1 and 2 are equivalent. In the passage before this, Nicodemus mistakenly takes Jesus literally (John 3:4). In a 2006 sermon entitled No One Comes to the Father But By Me, John Thatamanil makes the same point about John 14:6.

I'll say more about this topic in my next post.

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