Re: Prohibitions in the Imperative Mood

From: James P. Ware (
Date: Thu Oct 08 1998 - 09:57:35 EDT

> >Bret A. Hicks wrote:

> >>
> >> I was studying 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 this morning and came across
> >> the negative imperatives:
> >>
> >> MH SBENNUTE - do not extinguish (vs 19)
> >> ME EXOUTHENEITE - do not despise (vs 20)
> >>
> >> As I was researching this, I remebered the discussion on whether

> >> prohibiions on present imperatives (especially as contrasted with aorist
> >> subjunctives) signify that one is supposed to stop doing what they are
> >> presently doing ("Stop extinguishing the Spirit"; "Stop despising
> >> prophecies") or whether they are really merely prohibitions ("Do not
> >> extinguish the Spirit"; "Do not despise prophecies").

Carlton replied:
> One of the early books I studied (indeed consumed) was E.D. Burton, Syntax
> of Moods and Tenses in NT Greek. I have read the more recent treatments
> and books on aspect and except for a certain looseness in Hellenistic
> Greek, I am unconvinced that Burton was not close to the general functions
> in most of what he did (without a computer).
> He says;
> >>>164. (a) The Aorist Subjunctive forbids the action as a simple event
> >>>with reference to the action as a whole or to its inception, and is most
> >>>frequently used when the action has not been begun. Acts 18:9 and Rev.
> >>>7:3.
> 165. (b) The Present Imperative (180-184) forbids the continuance of the
> action, most frequently when it is already in progress; in this case, it is
> a demand to desist from the action. Mk. 6:50 and Jn 5:14.
> When the action is not yet begun, it enjoins continued abstinence
> from it. Mk 13:21 and Mt. 24:23.<<<
> Now citing Burton does not "prove anything," but my reading of the GNT
> seems to support what he says.

One thing that more recent research on the aspects has conclusively shown,
something at essence firmly grasped by the older grammarians such as Blass
and Robertson (bow, scrape) as well, is that aspect does not operate
independently, but in combination with the action-type inherent in the
verb (which in turn is a combination of the type of action inherent in the
verbal stem and contextual factors). The upshot is that an author's
choice of tense, and the meaning of that tense, in an
imperative utterance may be heavily determined by the action-type of the
verb employed (whether stative, or activity, performance, or
accomplishment type verbs, etc. or whatever lingo one might use). The
aorist imperative very naturally can have an "ingressive" sense when
combined with verbs signifying states or ongoing activities (e.g James
4:9 TALAIPWRHSATE?). However, even with these types of verbs, the aorist
imperative (as in the other moods) may have its "constative" or
"complexive" sense (e.g James 5:7 MAKROTHUMHSATE). And the
ingressive sense would hardly be possible when the aorist is used with
verbs highlighting the accomplishment of an action, where the "effective"
sense of the aorist would be the norm. The situation is similar with the
present aspect, which regularly indicates action in progress when used
with "accomplishment" type verbs, but elsewhere may denote continued,
repeated, or customary action, etc., depending on the action type of the
verb in its context.

So I think Mounce et al. are right that to take ingressive action as the
main idea in aorist imperatives, and by extension action already in
progress as the main idea in present imperatives, is to read too much
into, or, really, to misread the function of tense in the imperatives.
If this were true, we would have to assume that almost all of the
prohibitions made by Paul (since they are almost all in the present
tense) imply that his congregations were at the time engaging in the
activities prohibited!

I think a more useful general rule concerning the
author's choice of present or aorist imperative (applicable only within
the limitations of the verbal and contexual factors noted above) is that
the present imperative is frequently used in general precepts, to be done
at all times and places, or whenever the occasion calls for it (e.g.
Romans 12:14 EULOGEITE TOUS DIWKONTAS). This is how I would understand
Paul's choice of the present imperative in 1 Thessalonians 5:5:19-20. The
aorist imperative, by contrast, tends to be used for specific commands to
be carried out in a specific situation (e.g. Colossians 4:10 DEXASQE
AUTON). The aorist imperative is used in general precepts when the more
forceful tone of the specific command is desired for emphasis (e.g. 1
Corinthians 6:20 DOXASATE DH).

This rough-and-ready distinction seems to accord with the basic
significance of the aspects, i.e. the present signifying ongoing action
and the aorist, punctiliar or summary action. But even this general
distinction between the aorist and present imperative, which I think
normally holds, may be overridden by verb-stem and contextual factors, so
that another idea, such as ingressive action, may be in the foreground in
a particular instance.

And, finally, it should be noted that the significance of tense in the
imperative is one of the most bedeviled issues in Greek syntax, on which
many good minds and many great grammarians disagree. The one thing that
everybody can agree on is that there are many instances, both in the NT
and elsewhere, where we are simply at a loss as to know precisely why a
writer chooses one tense rather than another in giving an imperative.

Jim Ware

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