Re: Inceptive aorist: when is it really inceptive?

James H. Vellenga (
Tue, 31 Dec 96 09:45:46 EST

> From: Jonathan Robie <>
> This might also be useful in explaining the apparant contradiction between 1
> John 2:1 and 1 John 3:9. In 2:1, John says GRAFW hUMIN hINA MH AMARTHTE.
> Aorist, hence with perfective sense: "I write to you so that you will not
> commit sin". In 3:9, John says that someone born of God OU DUNATAI
> hAMARTANEIN. Present, hence with the imperfective sense: "can not habitually
> sin". He also says that someone born of God hAMARTIAN OU POIEI. Present,
> imperfective: "does not habitually sin".
Speaking not as an expert, but as one who has wrestled with similar
translation questions in a number of contexts -- I think that the
negative particle OU makes a difference here when trying to understand
these passages in English.

At least one elementary grammar that I have consulted says that the
negative particle with a non-aorist imperative means to "stop Xing"
-- i.e., "don't keep Xing" -- as opposed to "don't habitually X".
If we apply the same approach to 1 John 3.9, we get something like
"isn't able to keep sinning". If I heard this in English (given
my personal experience of struggling with sin), I wouldn't interpret
it as never sinning again, but that with any given sin, there comes
a point where I have to face up to the wrongness of it and do
something about it. My commitment -- my being "born of God" --
ultimately won't let me do otherwise. Seen in this way, the
use of OU with the imperfect could almost be described as
"anti-inceptive" (in computerese, we talk about "terminating"
a process).

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any purely mechanical
way, divorced from our own life experiences, of interpreting
a particular passage in either Greek or English. Using formal
or mechanical methods merely gets us to a better doorway into


James H. Vellenga |
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