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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.).

  • 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
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    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
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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 archive.org (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
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In New Testament theology, "God works all things" and "all things working together for the good" are synonymous in their meaning anyway, number 1. Number 2, on the textual-critical side, "συνεργεῖ" is absolutely awkward if used as an active verb applied to God: how do you "together-work" all things? On the other hand, "to work together" is commonplace and understandable with reference to "all things."

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I’m not sure what references you have already consulted but I figured I would share this nonetheless on the off chance it will be of use

I would direct your attention to the exegetical work of Frank Yon-Chao Lin, in this excerpt from pages 296-297. The Thesis is obviously much longer and Lin constructs his arguments in a greater context. However this portion may be of interest to you.

Based on the discussion above, the interpretation of Rom 8:28 must be provided in the light of Rom 8:18-27 semantically, though lexically it is more closely related to Rom 8:29-30. As Cranfield observes, “the purpose of vv. 28-30 was to underline the certainty of that hope of which vv. 17-27 had spoken. This certainty is indicated by the first part of v. 28.”795 Put otherwise, Rom 8:28b (πάντα συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν) functions as a hinge, connecting Rom 8:18-27 with 8:28-30; the phrase (τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν, “those who love God,” in Rom 8:28a) is a summarized designation of God’s children, who are the beneficiary of Rom 8:28b (“all things work together for good,” NRSV); Rom 8:28c (τοῖς κατὰ πρόθεσιν κλητοῖς οὖσιν, “to those who are called according to His purpose”) is a further clarification of Rom 8:28a. Finally, the unit Rom 8:29-30 extends the interpretation of Rom 8:28 (especially v. 28c) and makes a conclusion of the whole passage of Rom 8:18-30 (cf. Diagram 4-9 Text analysis of Romans 8:28-30). Like Rom 2:2 and 3:19, Rom 8:28 begins with οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι (“now we know that”), not only does the combination of οἴδαμεν and ὅτι imply that a widely familiar reality is acknowledged as true,796 but also the coordinating conjunction δέ indicates a close reasoning linkage of the following statements to the preceding texts.797 In particular, the well-known and accepted fact starts with τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεόν (“for those who love God”); the forward position of this phrase displays its prominence in Paul’s mind. Paul uses the verb ἀγαπάω, which expresses most fully the relationship between family members, to describe the relationship between the believers and God. Such a loving relation not only summarizes the God-pleasing response of the believers to God, but also reveals the reason why the believers become the recipient of πάντα συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν. Besides, owing to the believers’ love to God, which man- ifests the earlier love of God (cf. Rom 5:5), Paul is paving the way for his final con- clusion of the first eight chapters of Romans, in which God’s all-surpassing love is the focus (cf. Rom 8:31-39). Cranfield lists and compares eight possibilities of the interpretation of πάντα συνεργεῖ.798 Other scholars mostly divide all alternatives into three main catego- ries.799 The first category is to see πάντα as the subject, then Rom 8:28b can be translated as “all things work together for good” (e.g., ASV, NKJV, NRSV, KJV, Bar- rett,800 Cranfield,801 and Moo802). The second category is to adopt the long reading803 or view God as the real subject behind the action of συνεργεῖ. Under these circumstances, there are two options: one is to read συνεργεῖ as transitive, thereby Rom 8:28b can be rendered as “God causes all things to work together for good” (e.g., NASB); the other is to take Rom 8:28a as an associative dative, συνεργεῖ as transitive, πάντα as an accusative of respect, resulting in the following rendering of Rom 28b: “in all things God works for good with those who love him” (e.g., JB, NJB, NIV, TEV, RSV, Dodd,804 Gieniusz805).

And obviously given the references provided in the footnotes you may want to follow those leads.

An Exegetical Study of Romans 8:12-30

Hopefully there is something that will help clarify the subject being God, personally I still think it’s unclear in the immediate verse but there are compelling arguments to be made.

———————————————————————————

Religious Hermeneutics

When I read this verse, the emphasis doesn’t fall where you placed the emphasis, namely, is God doing the causing or do things work together “as a consequence”.

I personally don’t think using only this verse you can difinitely attribute God to be the subject of συνεργεῖ. You are correct to point this out. It’s not obvious in the Greek at all. As for why it was translated to make God the subject, it’s a Christian author to a Christian audience and the translators have an obligation toward their own audience to make the text clear without causing more confusion for the non Greek speaking reader. Translators sometimes use transliteration because they can’t find a more appropriate word but if the whole text were transliterated then it would serve no purpose. Take God out as the subject in the English and you have the NRSV as the closest translation. But translators also have the obligation of interpretation. Interpreting the text doesn’t only draw from the immediate passage in question as you well know.

(As a general rule when there is an obscure text I look for clear text elsewhere in Scripture so that the context is strictly from Scripture and not outside in the realm of abstract philosophical thought and probability. That way Scripture can speak for itself without external input. It helps against heresy.)

The emphasis in my mind falls on what qualifies someone for all things to work together for good.

Qualifiers

Firstly it’s not open to every human, it’s only open to those who love God. That immediately cancels out the obvious,

  • those who live in sin
  • have not accepted His imputed righteousness
  • and therefore have not been born again.

It also further qualifies amount those born again (those who love God)

“If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” 1 John‬ ‭4:20 ESV

So Romans 8:28 is not even for all Christians, to use modern phrasing ‭‭ But there is a further qualifier

Those that are in His will. You can be called but if you are not in His will, it doesn’t matter how much you love all your brothers and sisters, all things will not work together for your good, (whether that be caused by God or it takes place by some “natural law”).

In a sense the ambiguity in the Greek in my eyes is less relevant as the conditions that are necessary to qualify for the promise in the first portion of the verse.

If someone

  • a) loves God
  • b) is called
  • c) is in God’s will

Then it’s hard to divorce God’s will from God’s actions.

Mirroring Passage

Consider the passage in Matthew 6.

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these (good) things will be added to you.” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭6:33‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Who does the adding?

“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭6:30‬ ‭ESV‬‬

This chapter in Matthew also addresses the issue of loving God as does Romans 8:28 as well as servitude and being in His will (or purpose).

“"No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭6:24‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Also there is a priority and a condition for God’s will (purpose)

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭6:33‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Summary

In light of a greater context, including the Matthew 6 illustrated above I would reason that Romans 8:28 should read God causes all things to work together for good,

...limited to those who love Him, are therefore born again, live in obedience, love their brethren and are in the will of God for which they were called.

God has no obligation to work anything for good to those who do not qualify. He may do it but He has not placed Himself under the obligation.

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    While this would be a great answer on a Christian religious site, this site focuses on the text and not adherence to any orthodoxy. This doesn’t answer the question, which would require both addressing the Greek syntax and the context of this specific passage (not other texts written later). – Dan Jan 31 '19 at 16:34
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    I would fully agree with you, if this stack was labeled textual criticism. But Hermeneutics can draw on multiple levels to reach the understanding of a text, including from its larger context - “Hermeneutics is the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts. Modern hermeneutics includes both verbal and non-verbal communication as well as semiotics, presuppositions, and pre-understandings”. I may be completely wrong and if so I can delete my post voluntarily. – Nihil Sine Deo Jan 31 '19 at 16:51
  • Thank you for explaining why you downvoted. I respect that and appreciate it. – Nihil Sine Deo Jan 31 '19 at 16:53
  • @Dan I personally don’t think using only this verse you can difinitely attribute God to be the subject of συνεργεῖ. You are correct to point this out. It’s not obvious in the Greek at all. As for why it was translated to make God the subject, it’s a Christian author to a Christian audience and the translators have an obligation toward their own audience to make the text clear without causing more confusion for the non Greek speaking reader. Take God out as the subject in the English and you have the NRSV as the closest translation. But translators also have the obligation of interpretation. – Nihil Sine Deo Jan 31 '19 at 17:31
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    No problem. This might be a helpful introduction to site distinctives. – Dan Jan 31 '19 at 22:30
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We know for those who love God, all work together for good, for those called according to purpose. The word sunergio (Strongs #4903) on all 4 other uses in the New Testament ( Mk 16:20, 1cir 16:16, 2Cor 6:1, and James 2:22) has to do with united in work in fellowship with those who love God . Considering that the subject is those who love God and God working within us who are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Aslo contextually it may also be God working within us to bring us to the conformity of Himself I believe when you study out the uses of sunergio you will realize a more proper meaning of this verse. Prisoners use this verse to justify their actions claiming it was God who was in control. To add "things" after all (pas) is wrong, especially considering it's not In the Greek scripture. Question: Does God cause us to sin? Of course not. We chose to. Does he cause or just allow? .

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