Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Present Tense Clarification (1 John 3:9, Etc)

Greetings all,

I want to post some thoughts here that clarify my stand on the Greek present tense.

Some have asked whether I deny that verses like Matthew 7:7 depict continuous (progressive) action or whether the present generally portrays continuous action. My previous remarks were not intended to deny that the present normally or does portray continuous action. However, I wanted to urge caution about too facilely reading the present tense as progressive action. That is the point I wanted to make.

Let's take 1 John 3:6-9 as an example.

S. M. Baugh writes:

"In my opinion, the fact that John chose to use the present infinitive hAMARTANEIN rather than the aorist hAMARTEIN, shows that he was thinking about 'sinning' in v. 9 as a characteristic action. Hence, John does not teach 'perfectionism'--that Christians can experience sinlessness in this life. Rather, when he says OU DUNATAI hAMARTANEIN he teaches that the genuine Christian cannot be characterized by a life of unrepentant sin" (1 John Reader, pp. 50-51).

Baugh believes that three factors buttress his interpretation of 3:9.

(1) The immediate context.

(2) The lexical significance of hAMARTANEIN.

(3) The influence of DUNAMAI upon the tense form of its complementary infinitive.

The idea expressed here by Baugh is that since the infinitival form of hAMARTANW does not appear elsewhere in the GNT, John must have used this verbal formation at 3:9 to signal an ongoing activity, not a state. He concludes:

"the phrase OU DUNATAI hAMARTANEIN in 1 John 3:9 expresses the fact that the Christian is prevented by the new birth and the abiding presence of God from falling into persistent sin" (52).

But the point I want to make is that it's not the present tense alone that signals continuous activity: other contextual factors affect the meaning of 1 John 3:6-9.

Contrast Baugh's treatment of 1 John 3:6-9 with Buist Fanning's approach. Regarding 1 John 2:1, Fanning argues (Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek) as follows:

"One solution to the problem [of the seeming contradiction between 1 John 2:1 and 3:9] is to note the difference in the tenses used to refer to the Christian's sin in 2:1 (aorists) vs. 3:4-10 (presents), and to trace a distinction in meaning along the line of 'occasional vs. habitual' sin or 'committing a single sin vs. being characterized by sin as a ruling principle'. Zerwick's phrasing of it is: 'commit sin in the concrete, commit some sin or other' as opposed to 'be a sinner, as a characteristic" (213).

Fanning goes on to demonstrate that while this view could well explain the apparent contradiction in the Johannine Epistles, other scholars take a different view. He himself opts for the approach that says 1 John 3:9 is likely not describing habitual sin. Nevertheless, Fanning acknowledges the possibility that 1 John 3:9 could be understood as referring to habitual sin. This is in harmony with what Greek professor Ralph Earle observes.

Commenting on 1 John 3:6ff, he explains: "The verb hAMARTANW in both cases is in the present tense of continuing action. This is brought out helpfully by 'keeps on sinning . . . continues to sin' (NIV). The same use of the present tense is found in 9. Here again it should be brought out: 'No one who is born of God will continue to sin . . . he cannot go on sinning"(Earle, 451).

This interpretation seems to make the most sense to me. But probably more than tense alone (i.e. morphology) leads us to the conclusion that habitual sin is the subject matter of 1 John 3:6-9.

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