Readers Forum

Well-Traveled Issue

I have been an avid reader of Pulpit Helps for over 25 years and have had the pleasure of writing several articles that were printed. As a result of the printing of articles on Simplified Effective Evangelism (SEE) back in 2003, several pastors across the nation and the Philippines have requested information. In September, 2005, I received a letter from an man in Myanmar asking for a copy of SEE. A friend had given him a copy of Pulpit Helps (Volume 28, number 7 of 2003) that contained an article I had written that included my name and address. It was my pleasure to send him the information and then receive a very nice letter of appreciation.

It is amazing that a paper like Pulpit Helps survived for two years and ended up half way around the world in the hands of a man that wanted to teach evangelism. Do you think we might call this "amazing grace?"

Thanks again to all the staff of Pulpit Helps for a job well done.

Wayne Nix

Erring with the Aorist

Probably the second most common of all New Testament Greek exegetical errors has been an all too ubiquitous "myth" that circulates in the popular-level and devotional literature and one that appears in Pulpit Helps now and then. This Christian "urban legend" of a sort has marred several otherwise excellent articles. The latest example of erring with the aorist appeared in "It Might Have Been" (p.13, Nov. '05) where Jan Silvious tells us, "I have discovered something new. The word for "cleanse" is in the aorist tense in the Greek. That means a cleansing that begins immediately and had a continuing effect."  What she discovered was nothing new—but rather a very old interpretive error. While some particular instance of the aorist tense certainly can involve an action or condition that began immediately and had a continuous effect, there is nothing intrinsic about the aorist tense itself that indicates anything of the sort. Indeed, many grammarians quite bluntly—and correctly—describe the aorist in nearly opposite terms!

(Neither the sense of "immediately" nor the continuation aspect is required by the aorist, although it is easy to understand why immediacy is sometimes misconstrued. Grammarians have traditionally described the aorist as "punctiliar," such that the casual student of grammar may be forgiven for assuming an overly strict "point in time" connotation.) For example, Nunn's syntax handbook says: "The Aorist Indicative is most frequently used to describe a past event or series of events, viewed as a whole, without any reference to the progress of the action or the existence of the result." Indeed, if one is looking for a biblical Greek tense that was used to indicate an appropriately concluded action in the past that has results continuing into the present, you are probably describing something closer to the perfect tense, not the aorist! 

I remember first coming upon the alleged "always-continuing-and-once-and-for-all aorist" as a teenager sorting through the Calvin vs. Arminius debate and coming upon various Calvinists emphasizing that the biblical text authors chose the aorist tense in order to describe eternal security (as in "perseverance of the saints").  But once I began studying Greek, I quickly realized that the aorist tense in itself cannot carry the excessive interpretive load all too often placed upon it by so many popular commentators (but rarely by more scholarly interpreters who are fluent in biblical Greek, whether they are five-point Calvinists or not!)  Unfortunately, as with most any other "urban myths," the error is sustained simply by countless repetitions and by quotations from other popular speakers/writers even though this misunderstanding of the aorist got eliminated from credible academic texts many years ago. (And it is worth keeping in mind that commentaries written a century ago—which sometimes included equally serious kinds of errors—often came from scholars with little or no training in linguistics, even though they were relatively competent readers of biblical Greek and Hebrew per se. Plus, their world lacked the advantage of later generations' decades of study of the more recently discovered, extra-biblical Koine Greek texts of the first century, such as the fascinating papyri "wastebaskets" and accounting records of Egypt, which give us amazing insights into the casual language of everyday commerce and family life.)

But once again, I'm not saying that a particular aorist context cannot be one where there happens to be an "immediate action" which has continuing implications up to the present—nor am I saying that those making such errors with the aorist are necessarily incorrect in doctrine or in their application of particular Scriptures to daily living.  Rather, my point is simply that the presence of an aorist tense verb in a New Testament passage does nothing in and of itself to support the definitive immediacy of an action in the past with continuing implications and effects up to the present (for which the perfect tense might be more appropriate).

Paul A. Miller
director & professor emeritus,
The GRAMCORD Institute
(C) 2005.  Paul A. Miller

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