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Romans 8:28 (NA28) reads:

Οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν πάντα συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν, τοῖς κατὰ πρόθεσιν κλητοῖς οὖσιν.

There is also a textual variant that explicitly makes 'God' the subject of συνεργεῖ.

Here are some popular English translations of the verse:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (NRSV).

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (NIV).

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (NASB).

Each of these three translations differs in a significant way, especially when using this verse to comfort grieving families. The NIV sits best with me on this verse, but is this the best reading of the Greek text?

πάντα ("all [things]") is neuter plural and can be either nominative or accusative, and could thus be either the subject or the direct object of συνεργεῖ, but if 'God' is the subject then πάντα can't be.

However, συνεργεῖ is usually intransitive, which means πάντα could be an adverbial accusative ("in all [things]"), which would coincide with the NIV reading.

Which reading is best given the Greek syntax of this passage and it's surrounding context?

Please consider internal and external evidence (i.e. the textual variants, other early translations or expositions by early commentators, etc.).

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Wouldn't it be odd for a plural subject to take a singular verb? – fumanchu May 24 '14 at 15:23
Does every verb needs a visible subject? "Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις..." ~= "and it happened in those days..." The "it" is implied. – fumanchu May 24 '14 at 15:28
it's not odd at all for a singular verb to take a neuter plural noun as the subject (it happens all the time, cf. BDF § 133: "Perhaps no syntactical peculiarity of Greek is more striking to us than the use of the singular verb with a neuter plural subject"). And no, not all verbs need a visible subject, hence why some use 'God' as the subject which would be implied (or they are using the textual variant). – Dan Nov 26 '14 at 8:28

I have been looking at this same verse the past few days. There are three important questions in my opinion for understanding this verse: (1) what is the subject of συνεργεῖ, (2) what is the syntax of the dative τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν, and (3) what is the syntax of πάντα?

The evidence indicates to me that the subject of the verb συνεργεῖ is the Holy Spirit and that the syntax of τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν is a dative of accompaniment (since συνεργεῖ is a συν- verb). This means that πάντα would be either a form of adverb or the direct object of συνεργεῖ.

If this is correct, a translation would be something like this, "Now we know that the Holy Spirit works together in all things with those who love God, who are called according to His purpose."

Let me give a few brief thoughts on why I translate it this way:

  • In every use of συνεργεῖ in the NT, it is used as two subjects working together for a common goal. It usually takes a dative of accompaniment to indicate the second partner working together towards that goal (see Mark 16:20 and James 2:22 - and yes I know that Mark 16:20 is not a great reference for serious exegesis, but this verb s only used 5x in the NT, including the Mark 16 reference).
  • As a result of the usage of συνεργεῖ above, it seems preferable to consider τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν as a dative of accompaniment rather than a dative of advantage, which is the chosen syntax in major translations (KJV, NIV, etc.).
  • The concept of πάντα working together independently for our good seems theologically strange (i.e. if πάντα is the subject of συνεργεῖ). It could imply God working together behind the scenes, but on the surface this statement seems at odds with biblical theology.
  • A stickier point is why "the Holy Spirit" would be preferred over "God" as the subject of συνεργεῖ. I am taking this from context. The preceding context of Romans 8 is discussing the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Romans 8:26-27 are discussing how the Holy Spirit helps us in our prayer life. Therefore, when we reach Romans 8:28 the context is a discussion about the Holy Spirit and the believer working together. It seems natural that if the matter of Romans 8:28 is about us working with God or the Holy Spirit that the Holy Spirit would be preferred based upon context.
  • I know that there is a textual variant that includes "God" as the subject of συνεργεῖ, but it is a non-preferred variant (that the NIV translators chose to use).

You asked above that someone consider internal and external evidence (textual variants, early commentators, etc.). I apologize. I do not have the necessary tools at my disposal. I live in a developing country with only a Greek New Testament and a few grammars. Someone else will have to address those other issues. What I have shared is what I see when I look at the Greek text.

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Your observations at the very least have me pondering an option I had never considered before on this verse, particularly your note about two subjects used for συνεργεῖ, one indicated by the dative. I'll need to investigate that further in non-NT contextual uses. – ScottS May 24 '14 at 11:53
@David there is no need to update your answer (unless you want to); I just wanted to share some free tools that are available online that you may find helpful for future studies. First, there are tons of free books including commentaries at (e.g. Denney's Romans Greek commentary on this passage). Second, you can find TONS of free Christian works including the Church Fathers at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL). Just sharing some resources you might find helpful! – Dan May 24 '14 at 22:35
In CCEL, if you go to the 'Study' a Scripture passage selection and select 'References' then go under Phillip Schaff you will find the Church Fathers on specific verses you search for - VERY helpful. For instance, here's John Chrysostom's homily on this passage. – Dan May 24 '14 at 22:38
David, wanted to comment on your answer but don't have sufficient reputation points, the story of my life;) Anyway... The New NIV has in its notes a similar option: "NIV note: (NIV) 9 ... or that in all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good—with those who" Which fits the context of the previous two verses betterwhen correctly interpreted as: the believer searches his heart so that he can know the mind of the spirit and pray according to the will of God. Goyo Marquez El Centro California – user5791 Aug 26 '14 at 17:29

You must define "things" in v. 28 to correctly understand it. You must not seperate it from verse 27. Things must be the conclusion of what was uttered in verse 27. Prayed with the help of the Holy Ghost for when we don't know what to pray He assist us in praying according to God's Will. This is the conclusion of what "things" are. "Things" does not address all circumstances but the "things" breathed with utterances in prayer according to verse 27. This verse has been used to justify all of life's disasters when things don't make sense.

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