“All” is an adjective. As anyone who’s been homeschooled, and as 2.6% of publicly educated people know, an adjective modifies a noun (or anything else that functions as a noun, such as a pronoun); a noun is a person, place, or thing.
This means that whenever you read the word “all” in a sentence, you have to ask the immediate question, “What is the adjective ‘all’ modifying?” In other words, you read “all” and you find the person, place, or thing that it could modify: “All who? All where? All what?”
So let’s look at a verse like 2 Peter 3:9.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.Now there are two key adjectives in this sentence that cause a dispute between Calvinists and Arminians. Obviously, the “all” in “all should reach repentance”, but also the “any” in “not wishing that any should perish.” “Any”, like “all”, is an adjective that modifies a noun (“Any who? Any where? Any what?”). The Arminian claims that “any” and “all” are universals; that is, they apply to every single person. In other words, they read the above passage in this way:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any person ever made should perish, but that all persons ever made should reach repentance.Now, obviously an Arminian might use “man” or “human” or “mankind” instead of “person” there. That’s not really relevant. The point is that the Arminian is inserting into the text a noun that is not found in the sentence itself (which also explains why it could be a different word).
The Calvinist, on the other hand, looks at the passage and says, “There is a noun already in that sentence which functions perfectly well as the noun being modified by ‘any’ and ‘all’; namely, the noun ‘you’.” We read the passage:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any of you should perish, but that all of you should reach repentance.Naturally, this itself will not settle every dispute, even if the Arminian grants that “you” is the better noun here. After all, the next question we must ask is “What is the extent of the noun being modified?” In the above example, it would be to ask, “Who make up the ‘you’ in the sentence.” In 2 Peter, the “you” is the “you” in verse 1 (“…I am writing to you, beloved”). However, I don’t want to delve into that too much, since it would make it easy to miss the point I’m trying to make.
When we see adjectives in Scripture, where do we get the nouns that the adjective modifies? Do we get them from the sentence as it has been written, or do we inject into the sentence whatever noun we need in order for the sentence to make the theological point we want to make? Which method can more rightly be called “exegesis”?
An argument Arminians often use is to say, “If God meant only the Elect when He used the word ‘all’ then why didn’t He have the word ‘Elect’ added there too?” But that argument cuts both ways, as you see in the example from 2 Peter—the word “man” is not there after the “all” either. But what is in the sentence is the noun “you.” If we are to ignore the noun actually provided in the sentence to insert a new noun, we better have an airtight reason to do so.