Present Tense

From: Dale M. Wheeler (
Date: Tue Oct 19 1999 - 13:43:32 EDT

Fellow B-Greekers...

There have been several recent discussions about various and sundry
passages (eg., 1John 3, Matt 19) where the author's use of the present
tense has figured prominently in the discussion. I'd like to suggest for
your consideration a theory about the present tense (that I've been
wrestling with for the past 15+ years).

In general. grammars have talked about the present tense as being
inherently progressive, or linear, or, as Fanning and Wallace have it,
"internal" in its nuance/perspective (I suspect that grammarians have come
to that conclusion because any use of the Present Indicative is portrayed
as present time, and thus has the feeling of being open ended). The same
concept is applied to the Imperfect, distinct from the Aorist's compressive
nature or "external" perspective. There has also been talk about the
Aorist being "undefined", as if it is a "zero" tense, ie., it has no force
at all; and while Aorist means "undefined" in Greek, I don't think the
ancient Greek grammarians meant "zero" by that; "undefined" means what
Fanning means by it, namely that the Aorist asks no questions about the
internal makeup of the event being portrayed, it just tells you that it
happened, regardless of the lexical meaning of the word.

What I'd like to suggest is that the Present Tense really is a ZERO tense;
it is neither linear or compressed or combined or anything. All it tells
us is that the action is being *portrayed* as occurring in a present time
frame (in the indicative). Whatever "aspect" (technically, since its not in
the tense its the Aktionsart, but I hope you get my meaning) any particular
use of a verb in the present tense has comes first of all from the word's
lexical meaning (lexis); viz., "to run" is inherently linear; "to hit" is
inherently punctiliar; "to shut" is inherently a combined/climax; etc. (for
this in detail see Fanning, Verbal Aspect). Secondly, contextual factors
are used to further indicate the ultimate Aktionsart in any given passage,
esp., when the author wishes to convey a different Aktionsart than the
verb's Lexis; viz., in English to make the linear "to run" into a
compressed Aktionsart we use the simple present "He runs" instead of the
progressive "He is running"; in Greek, since there is only ONE Present
form, they must use other contextual clues to indicate a reversal to the
Lexis, unless its prefectly obvious.

In English we have all of these nice present forms (I run, I am running, I
do run, etc.), but in Greek (like German !) there is only ONE form for
present time (which is why I suspect that German speakers will understand
this better than English speakers, nicht wahr!). Consequently, the Greek
Present, it seems to me, CAN'T have an aspectual preference, it must be
absolutely zero and neutral, and thus the "aspectual" part of the
communication must come from somewhere else, ie., Lexis and Context. This
is why, if you look in a Greek syntax book, you'll find, "Progressive
Present", "Aoristic Present", and "Perfective Present"; ie., the Present
tense has nothing to do with these "aspects" --> Aktionsarts, these nuances
come from the Lexis and the Context.

If this is the case, then, for example per a recent discussion, the fact
that the verbs in 1John 3:4ff. are present is not conclusive to demonstrate
the "habitual" nature of the person's behavior. The behavior *may* be
habitual, as the NASB and many commentators suggest, but that would need to
be demonstrated on other grounds (cf., Marshall, IJohn, New International
Commentary; or Fanning, Verbal Aspect, for a non-habitual approach).

We've gotten rid of the "once for all, point action" Aorist; might I humbly
suggest that we similarly dispense with the "progressive/linear" Present ?


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:503-251-6478 E-Mail:

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