Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Tense" Tensions

The New Testament is a Greek book written in the Greek language. The English New Testament is a translation from the Greek New Testament and therefore a secondary source for the New Testament. The importance of this distinction lies in the fact that the Greek and English languages do not communicate in the same manner. The different communication patterns come to the forefront when English tries to translate the Greek verbs. A. T. Robertson explains (The Minister and His Greek New Testament, pp.90-91).

The difficulty that modern men have with these [Greek] tenses is that they come to them from the standpoint of the translation into English . . . . Unfortunately the Greek tenses do not run parallel with our modern tenses. They correspond much more nearly to the tenses in the Sanskrit than to the Latin tenses, but they have their own genius and history. One must leave translation alone when he approaches Greek tense and understand it as Greek before he undertakes to translate it.


1 John 3:9 provides an example of the situation indicated by Robertson. It reads in three popular translations:

King James Version (KJV) - “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin. . . . he cannot sin.”
New American Standard Bible (NASB) - “No one who is born of God practices sin. . . . and he cannot sin.”
New International Version (NIV) - “No one who is born of God will continue to sin. . . . he cannot go on sinning.”


The problem here involves both language and theology. The doctrine of sinless perfection is spawned by the language of the KJV and the NASB in the bold font. The American Holiness Movement, for example, rigorously defends perfectionism (Dayton, “Perfectionism,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church). This theological aberration is countered in part by the broad tenor of Scripture and by specific passages that speak against the perfectionism doctrine, but ultimately the language issue must be addressed.

The language concern focuses on the Greek present aspect. (Instead of using the traditional label “tense” the term “aspect” is used for the Greek verb function.) Unlike English where the primary force of verb tense is time, the Greek verb primarily emphasizes the kind of action involved and time becomes a secondary matter. The Greek aspects are three: progressive, undefined and perfective. The present aspect found in 1 John 3:9 emphasizes the ongoing nature regarding sin. Therefore, the translations that best focus the progressive kind of action are the clearer and preferred translations.

To evaluate the above examples, the KJV does not emphasize progress in either of the two present aspect verbs (doth not commit sin. . . . he cannot sin); the NASB focuses the continuing nature of the first present aspect verb (practices sin) but not of the second (he cannot sin); the NIV happily reflects continuance in both instances of the present aspect verb (will continue to sin. . . . he cannot go on sinning).


Smalley (1, 2, 3 John, p. 171) explains the aspectual difference this way, “John concludes this section by reminding his readers that the true child of God is . . . opposed to sin . . . the spiritually reborn believer, being a member of God’s family, cannot as a settled policy act lawlessly” (italics mine).

In most sentences, the verbs highlight meaning and direction of thought. Therefore, supreme attention must be given to their interpretation and translation, and in that order. First, the interpretation of the Greek verb must be made. Then, and only then, can a translation into English be attempted.

To reemphasize, the New Testament is not English literature; it is Greek literature, and the conscientious Bible interpreter and expositor must not do his interpretive work apart from examining the Greek New Testament if for no other reason than to validate the translation of the English text under consideration. If he cannot read Greek, there are numerous helps available in the marketplace so that there is really no excuse for ignoring this vital interpretive issue.

“σπούδασον σεαυτὸν δόκιμον παραστῆσαι τῷ θεῷ, ἐργάτην ἀνεπαίσχυντον, ὀρθοτομοῦντα τὸν λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας.”

“Be conscientious to present yourself approved to God, an unashamed worker, rightly teaching the word of truth” (my translation).