The Abused Present -- By: David L. Mathewson

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 23:3 (NA 2013)
Article: The Abused Present
Author: David L. Mathewson

The Abused Present

David L. Mathewson

Denver Seminary

Forty years after the publication of Frank Stagg’s warning against abuse of the aorist tense, it is time that we examine whether similar warnings need to be sounded regarding the other major tense form—the present tense. Scholars and commentators have frequently understood the present tense form as indicating action that is continuous, durative, or habitual. However, recent research into verbal aspect has suggested that the Greek tense system is an aspectual one, that is, it pertains to how the author chooses to view the action, rather than how the action actually took place. In light of this, the present tense should be understood semantically as the internal viewpoint, looking at the action as in progress, as developing or unfolding. This can be seen from the numerous examples of present tenses in the NT that do not indicate action that is continuous, habitual, or ongoing. The article then surveys representative grammars and commentaries, demonstrating that this notion of continuous and durative action is widespread, but inadequate. It is suggested that commentators and students of the NT rely on the more recent grammatical tools that implement insights from verbal aspect. The article concludes with a summary of implications for interpreting the present tense form. One of the possible functions is to indicate prominence in discourse, to foreground various characters, scenes, or events. Outside of this, the interpreter should be cautious of the conclusions that he/she draws from the present tense form and should avoid reading into it notions of “continuous,” “durative,” “ongoing,” or “habitual” action.

Key Words: verbal aspect, present tense, tense, linguistics

Forty years ago, Frank Stagg produced a pioneering article entitled “The Abused Aorist” for the Journal of Biblical Literature (1972). In this article, Stagg sounded an important warning against common abuses of the aorist tense in the NT by grammarians and commentators.1 He argued that the aorist tense had been misunderstood (as punctiliar, instantaneous, once-for-all, past action) by students of the NT and was being used (abused!) to draw all kinds of illegitimate exegetical and theological conclusions. Though there are still plenty of exceptions and much room for improvement, we are finally learning to avoid the abuses pointed out by Stagg.2

However, it seems that the time is ripe to ask whether similar warnings need to be sounded regarding the other major Greek tense form in the NT: the present tense.

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