Bad Greek Made Easy

The following is a post by Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, which I share here for the benefit of the readers:

If you listen to any substantial amount of popular preaching, sooner or later you’re going to run into claims about “what the Greek says” in a particular New Testament passage. Often—too often, in fact—such claims are also made in apologetic discussions as well.

These explanations are offered in an attempt to shed additional light on a Greek passage, to point out to the hearer things that are not obvious from whatever translation is being used. Unfortunately, long experience with such claims shows that they very often are gratuitous, misleading, or flat-out wrong.

Both Catholics and Protestants are inclined to get into Greek waters that are too deep for them. It’s unavoidable, whether you’re going to engage in apologetics or even listen to much preaching. Taking a course in New Testament Greek is one way to prepare yourself to meet such claims (and is well worth your time). But even those who have not had such instruction should be on the lookout for gratuitous, misleading, and erroneous claims about Greek.

Gratuitous Claims

Appeals to the Greek are gratuitous when, in the course of making his argument, someone inserts a claim about Greek but fails to draw any conclusions from it.

For example, when listening to a discussing the doctrine of justification you might run across a speaker who casually mentions that the Greek word for justification is dikaiosis and then moves on to something else. That tells you nothing. 

Mentioning the Greek word for justification without explaining or drawing some inference doesn’t advance a discussion any more than mentioning the parallel word in any other language. If, in a theological discussion, someone casually inserted the fact that the German word for justification is Rechtfertigung but did not elaborate, his listeners would be within their rights to ask, “So what? Why are you telling us this? Are you just trying to show off your knowledge of German?”

There may be another reason it’s there: To cover up a weak argument. Sometimes it seems that gratuitous Greek claims are made in a semiconscious attempt to “psyche out” the hearer—either by getting him to unwittingly buy into one or both of two ideas: (a) “This position is supported by the Greek, therefore it must be right” and (b) “This discussion is getting into the Greek, and since I don’t know Greek I should keep quiet and not advocate a contrary position.” Either way, if the Greek is truly irrelevant, it is likely present to distract attention from the weakness of the argument being advanced.

In any case, whenever you encounter a Greek claim that you suspect is gratuitous, it is a fair question to ask its relevance. If the person making the argument is sending a needed warning to other Greek speakers, he’ll be able to say so. But if he can’t articulate a coherent reason why the Greek needs to be introduced, it’s probably gratuitous.

Misleading Claims

Appeals to Greek are misleading when someone makes a claim about Greek that, of itself, is true yet it leads the reader toward a conclusion that is false.

A famous example of this is the tendency among many Protestant preachers with a shaky g.asp on Greek (and, it would seem, on logic) to try to convey to their audiences a sense of the greatness of God’s power by pointing out that in Romans 1:16 the word Paul uses for power is dunamis, the Greek word from which the word dynamite is derived.

As stated, all of this is true. The problem is, unless the audience is paying attention they are likely to be misled into thinking that the word dynamite somehow sheds light on Romans 1:16. In other words, either that they should think of dynamite when they read this verse or that Paul was thinking of dynamite (which wasn’t invented yet) when he wrote this verse.

Sometimes the preacher actively encourages these misapprehensions. I have actually heard preachers suggest to their congregations that they mentally splice in the word “dynamite” when they read the passage. Thus they are encouraged, when Paul speaks of the gospel as “the power of God for salvation,” to mentally refer to it as “the dynamite of God for salvation”!

Erroneous Claims

Sometimes claims about the Greek are flat out erroneous—that is, they assert something that simply is not true. A well-known example of this is the assertion that in Greek the aorist tense indicates a punctiliar event or even a once for all event.

For those not familiar with this terminology, the aorist is one of the major tenses in biblical Greek. It occurs more frequently than any other tense in the New Testament (though the present tense is a close second). The word aorist means undefined or indefinite, and the tense tells you about an action (usually in the past) without telling you whether the action was just begun or is ongoing or finished. Since it leaves the latter topics undefined, it is called the undefined or aorist tense. 

(Other Greek tenses are more definite on this topic; the imperfect tense, for example, usually indicates a past action that was ongoing, while the perfect tense usually indicates a past action that was finished.)

With that as background, it is ironic that some preachers—and even some Greek textbooks!—describe the aorist as indicating a “punctiliar” action—that is, an action that occurs at a point in time. For example, in the sentence “Bob’s fist hit Bill face,” the verb hit describes a punctiliar action, something that occurred in a single moment. (For comparison, the action would be described as continuous or ongoing if it read, “Bob’s fist was hitting Bill’s face.”)

Matters are even worse when some preachers say that the aorist not only describes a punctiliar action but that it describes a “once for all” action—something done once, never to be undone and never to be repeated.

Why would anyone claim such things? The aorist, of all the past tenses in Greek, means the least. Why would such definite meanings be ascribed to the indefinite tense?

Much light is shed on this mystery when you look at the doctrines in conjunction with which such claims are often made—in particular, the doctrine of justification.

Modern Protestant theology very much wants to portray justification as an event that occurs to us at a definite point in time—one that is not ongoing—and that happens only once in the life of the believer. It would service Protestant confessional interests if direct support for these claims could be found in the Greek itself.

And so, since the aorist tense gets used in the New Testament to refer to our justification, we find many Protestant preachers and commentators front-loading Protestant theology into the grammar itself. The aorist thus gets portrayed as a tense which indicates a punctiliar or even once-for-all action when in fact it is the tense of all the Greek tenses that tells us the least about the kind of action under discussion.

Of course, when the theological cart gets put behind the grammatical horse, it can cause problems, and this particular one has come back to haunt many traditional, confessional Protestants. You see, it turns out that the New Testament uses the aorist when it talks about sanctification as well as justification. This helped lead the Protestant Wesleyan and his holiness movement to claim that not only is justification an instantaneous, once-for-all act but that sanctification is as well.

This irks non-Wesleyan, non-holiness Protestant theology, which wishes to hold that sanctification is a process rather than an instantaneous event. 

In fact, the portrayal of sanctification as a process plays an important role in much Protestant theology, because it is the means by which Evangelical theologians are able to take account of the fact God continues to work in the life of the believer after justification. It is clear that God does continue to work in our lives even after conversion and initial justification. Catholics have often used the word “justification” to refer to this continuing work of God, as well as to his initial work, but Protestant theology has not wanted to do this. It has wanted to portray justification as something all done in an instant, and so it needs another term to refer to God’s ongoing work in our lives. The term it chose was sanctification.

It begins to get dicey, then, when Wesleyans begin saying to non-Wesleyans, “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If the aorist describes a punctiliar, once-for-all action, and if the aorist is used for both justification and sanctification, then both of these must be point-action events in the life of the believer.”

This underscores the need to be careful in what one says regarding Greek. Not only apologetics but also doctrine itself can be seriously skewed if one is not cautious in these matters.

When I took Greek (from a Protestant, incidentally), he passed on to the class a saying that he had learned in his own student days—”There’s nothing more dangerous than a first-year Greek student.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, while that’s true everywhere, it’s more true in Protestant circles than in Catholic ones. Catholics have Tradition and the Magisterium to keep them within the bounds of sound theology. Those who pride themselves on operating sola scriptura, and who then try an encounter with the Greek scriptura alone, do not have these boundaries and are more likely to get an odd idea about the Greek and start a new, false theology based on it.

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