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

From: Rolf Furuli (furuli@online.no)
Date: Sat Sep 13 1997 - 10:29:06 EDT

Dale M. Wheeler wrote:

>>>>>>>>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.>>>>>>>

Dear Dale,

I always find your posts very instructive and because of your long
experience with biblical languages I always read your comments carefully.
Your explanation of 3:9 takes away much or all of the apparent
contradiction. In the Anchor Bible,however, R.E.Brown lists 7 different
viewpoints as to how the contradiction can be resolved, so how can we know
which is the correct one?

The central structure of the Greek verbal system is aspect, and I believe
that aspectual differences in the biblical text is much more important and
can solve many more problems than is appreciated. The problem is that only
after Porter and Fanning have the old erroneous Aktionsart-view of aspect
BEGUN to be cleared away. In my view aspect must always be the governing
factor in understanding and translation of the biblical text.

I therefore was surprised by your suggestion that Greek present need not be
imperfective. It seems that you by this view disagree with Porter, Fanning
and Mari. It is true that Fanning (p 202) lists "Instantaneous Present",
but he says that "there is such stress on the action occurring at exactly
at the moment of speaking that the "internal viewpoint" of the present is
compressed and any durative sense is thus reduced." He says "reduced", but
not "done away with". With my definition of the imperfective aspect as "a
closeup view from the outside" it is even easier to explain the
imperfective character also of "Instantaneous Present". I doubt if there is
any example in the whole NT which clearly shows an imperfective verb which
is "aoristic".

The basic difference between the perfective and imperfective aspect is
whether the end is included or not. The imperfective aspect of fientive
verbs (action verbs) never includes the end except in resultative instances
(the end is reached but the resulting state is open).All Fanning`s
"Instantaneous" examples readily lend themselves to a resultative
interpretation. (Josua 7:6 is a good Hebrew example: "Joshua (..) fell
(imperfective) on his face (..) until the evening." (compare Mari`s example
40, p 215) The aorist of LXX does not convey the force of the Hebrew).

I agree that we should not use "continually sinning" in 1:8 and 5:16, but
an imperfective view of Greek present does not require it, the only
requirement of an imperfective present is that the end of the action is not
reached, or in the cases where it is reached, that the resulting state is
open. "Continuing to", "practice", "carry on" and the like are allowed by
the aspect, but not required. What is important is whether the Aktionsart
of English conveys the imperfective force or not. Let me again stress the
view that aspects are subjective viewpoints on the same semantic level as
modality, thus not influencing the action.

Look at the modal examples:

"Let Mari sing at the reception tomorrow."
"Let Mari be singing at the reception tomorrow."
"Let Mari sing a song at the reception tomorrow."
"Had I let Mari sing at the reception yesterday."
"Had I let Mari be singing at the reception yesterday."
"Had I let Mary sing a song at the reception yesterday."

The subjective nature of modality prevents it from affecting Aktionsart or
tense or any part of the verbal action. It is an additional factor playing
together with the others. And similarly with aspect (except that some Greek
"tenses" may also signal time). Modality are a subjective viewpoints of an
irreal worl,. Aspect are subjective viewpoints of the real world.

Then what about sin? 1 Cor 6:9-10 lists acts excluding one from the kingdom
of God. However, the acts per se do not exclude anybody, but the opposition
is "WAS (doing)" and "IS (doing)". According to 6:11 the Corinthians HAD
done these things, but those who should be excluded from the church (5:13)
were those BEEING Hi fornicators (..). Applying the imperfective aspect to
1 John 1:8 we may read it as "If we should say that we don't have sin".
Because of the Aktionsart of "have" in English the imperfective force is
adequately conveyed. But this is not the case with the verb hAMARTANW
alone. It can refer to one sinful act, several acts or a perseverance in
sin. Just to translate this verb as "to sin" may therefore be misleading.

All agree that John`s words about sin seemingly are contradictory. But we
have an aspectual difference in 2:1 (aorist) and 3:9 (present), even a
difference which may be crucial, because the difference between the two is
the position of the end. The sin in 2:1 is seen as complete, the end is
included, the sin of 3:9 is seen as incomplete, the end of sin is not yet
reached. To convey the imperfective force of POIEI (present) and
hAMARTANEIN (present infinitive) of 3:9 we cannot just use ordinary English
present which is different from Greek present. So the reason why I suggest
a translation into English using words such as "keep on sinning" or
"practising sin" is that normal English present cannot convey the force of
the Greek imperfective aspect in this verse. By marking the contrast
between 2:1 and 3:9 this way, we get the same picture as in 1 Cor 5,6,,
namely a difference between past sins and a perseverance in sin. Is there
no contrast between 2:1 and 3:9?

The basic differences between us seems to be whether the context should be
interpreted in the light of the aspect or vice versa, and whether all Greek
presents are imperfective or not. I appreciate your references, but we must
keep in mind that the works written before 1990 did not make use of the new
aspectual insights given by Porter, Fanning and Mari. So they did not
discuss the aspectual side adequately.


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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