1 John 3:9 (was: hINA, this time in 1 John 1:9)

From: Dale M. Wheeler (dalemw@teleport.com)
Date: Fri Sep 12 1997 - 13:36:43 EDT

Rolf Furuli wrote

>James H, Vallenga wrote:
>>> Furthermore, still amplifying here, 1 Jn 3:9 rules out the possibility
>>> that a child of God will ever or is even able to sin. Of course, this is
>>> present tense and can only be customary/habitual.
>>> Paul Dixon
>>Hmmm. This seems to raise the question of what the customary/habitual
>>tense means.
>>The NIV, for example, in 1 John 3.9, translates the present tense
>>POIEI as "will continue to" -- more of a persistence than a custom
>>or habit. I've often found it useful to translate the imperfect
>>or present subjunctive as "keeps Xing" (X representing the root
>>verb) -- this seems to indicate persistence rather than custom
>>or habit. Thus in 1.6, for example, one could read
>> Whenever we say that we're having a partnership with him
>> and [yet] keep going around in the darkness,
>Dear James,
>As a translation question 1:9 has been adequately discussed, but you bring
>up a very interesting question pertaining to aspect. In fact, the letter of
>John is an excellent place to test one`s view of aspect.
>If aspect is not taken into consideration, 3:9 which tells that everyone
>born from God hAMARTIAN OU POIEI, definitely contradicts 2:1 where we find
>EAN TIS hAMARTHi. In 3:9 we have the imperfective aspect, and in 2:1 the
>perfective. It is good to keep in mind that aspect does not contribute
>anything to the action - the action in both cases is the act(s) of sin -
>but a certain aspect is chosen to make visible a particular part of the
>Modern writers on aspect agree that the perfective aspect includes the end,
>and when John chose two aorists in 2:1, he would make visible the
>termination of the sin, either one act or a few acts. When a Christian
>ceases to sin and repents, he will get forgiveness when asking. In 3:9 the
>imperfective aspect is chosen, a part of the action is focussed upon,
>before the end is reached. I agree with Paul that the verse says that
>everyone born from God is not able hAMARTANEIN, but I disagree both with
>his use of "ever" and with his customary/habitual interpretation.
>First of all we must keep in mind that the imperfective aspect neither have
>durative, progressive or customary/habitual characteristics,as earlier
>grammarians seemed to imply, but these are characteristics of the real
>action (Aktionsart). But because the imperfective aspect focusses upon a
>part of the action before the end, this aspect is chosen to MAKE VISIBLE
>either durativity, progress or customs and habits. But which of these is
>signalled must exclusively be inferred from the context. Second, a
>customary/ habitual interpretation of the present in 3:9 is weaker than
>your suggestion "keeps on sinning". A custom or habit may change after
>doing it 50 times. Just think of the great sinner in 1 Corinthians 5 who
>were excluded from the congregation, and when he ceased with his sinfull
>habit was reinstated.
>I therefore agree with your suggestion "keeps on sinning" in 3:9, which
>accords with the imperfective aspect and which indicates that the sinner
>does not stop, the end of the sin is not in view, and this is much more
>serious than a habit. The view presented in former posts that christians
>sin, sometimes even making a habit of it, is empirical. My understanding of
>3:9 is therefore that one who is born from God will not just continue and
>continue and continue to break God`s stated laws (3:4. If he does so, and
>this happens, he looses his birthright and again becomes a child of

Let me suggest that there is a completely different way of dealing with
this problem in 1 John 3:9; I won't take the time to explain in detail
the interpretation (references later).

It seems to me that there is a basic flaw in the above discussion about
the present tense, which you all are referring to as "imperfective aspect".
While it seems clear to me that the Imperfect tense does always bear the
imperfective aspect, it seems equally clear to me that the present does
NOT always bear that aspect. The present tense (since there is only one
form, unlike the multiple forms in English, eg., "I go", "I am going", etc.)
has to be able to bear ALL the aspects in present time. Greek does this
generally by bowing to the Aktionsart of the verb, by adding helping words,
etc. Now if the present tense in 1 John 3:9 is imperfective in aspect,
then your discussion is on target; but if the present is bearing an
undefined (ala the Aorist) aspect, then something completely different is
going on in the passage altogether (which is the way I'm inclined to
read it). In addition, if you are going to make all the verbs in 3:4-10
imperfective in aspect just because they are present tense form, then
it seems to me that you run into big problems elsewhere in 1John. For
example, 1:8 has a present tense, but I don't think anyone would want
to read hAMARTIAN OUK EXOMEN as "If we should say that we don't
*continually* have sin, we deceive ourselves...", since that would
clearly contradict the imperfective translation "...whoever is born
of God does not *continually* sin." In other words, if I as a
Christian don't continually sin, then I ought to be able to say
without any self-deception that I don't continually (have) sin. The
same problem is encountered in 5:16; how can you see a brother
*continually* sinning if in fact Christians don't continually sin ??

>From the standpoint of Greek grammar, it seems to me that you've got
to do alot more than simply say that a verb is present therefore its
imperfective in aspect. One must be able to point to contextual clues
which point in that direction, which clues can include the grammatical
style of the author in the whole book, use of certain words (eg.,
check out John's use of POIEW with nouns; "from the beginning"), etc.

I think its important to keep in mind that John not only says: hAMARTIAN
OU POIEI, but goes on to say: OU DUNATAI hAMARTANEIN in the same verse.
That second statement, it seems to me, invalidates the NIV interpretation
of the verse; ie., you can't say both at the same time (and the NIV
translation of the second part seems to me very forced and unnatural).
One of the things that has to be considered in dealing with DUNAMAI is
whether the speaker is thinking objectively or subjectively (the
illustration I always use is that its two different things to say, on
the one hand, "I can't jump from here to the moon." and to say "I can't
drive faster than the speed limit." (assuming my car has the ability).
There is a serious question in 1John about the nature of the impossibility
being presented here: is it literally and objectively impossible for a
Christian to sin ? (if so, then John is contradicting himself !!), or is
it subjectively impossible for a Christian to sin ? In other words, from
John's persective, I take it that what he's getting at is that it simply
does make any sense to him that someone could be the child of a holy
father, have the nature of the holy father living in them, and then
turn around and live in an unholy manner...its psychological insanity.
And those who say that its okay (remember he is dealing with this type
of teaching) are simply misleading their hearers. Thus the passage has
a rhetorical force attempting to get people to think through the
nonsense position they have been confronted with.

For a much more detailed examination of the grammar and interpretation
of this passage, let me suggest: C.H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, pp.
78-81; I.H. Marshall, The Epistles of John, in New International Comm
on NT, p. 175ff; S. Kubo, "1John: Absolute or Habitual ?" Andrews Univ
Sem Studies 7(1969):47ff; B. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in the NT (I don't
have the page numbers at hand, but he has a lengthy discussion); Z.
Hodges, Gospel under Siege, pp. 47ff., and Bible Knowledge Comm: NTed,
p. 893ff. A theologically diverse group of writers, all of whom disagree
with the "continuing" interpretive approach.

I think I've said MORE than enough already...


Dale M. Wheeler, Ph.D.
Research Professor in Biblical Languages Multnomah Bible College
8435 NE Glisan Street Portland, OR 97220
Voice: 503-251-6416 FAX:503-254-1268 E-Mail: dalemw@teleport.com

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