Errant Aorist Interpreters -- By: Charles R. Smith

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 02:2 (Fall 1981)
Article: Errant Aorist Interpreters
Author: Charles R. Smith

Errant Aorist Interpreters

Charles R. Smith

The thesis of this essay is that exegesis and theology have been plagued by the tendency of Greek scholars and students to make their field of knowledge more esoteric, recondite, and occult than is actually the case. There is an innate human inclination to attempt to impress people with the hidden secrets which only the truly initiated can rightly understand or explain. Nowhere is this more evident than in the plethora of arcane labels assigned to the aorist tense in its supposed classifications and significations. Important theological distinctions are often based on the tense and presented with all the authority that voice or pen can muster. It is here proposed that the aorist tense (like many other grammatical features) should be “demythologized” and simply recognized for what it is—the standard verbal aspect employed for naming or labeling an act or event. As such, apart from its indications of time relationships, it is exegetically insignificant: (1) It does not necessarily refer to past time; (2) It neither identifies nor views action as punctiliar; (3) It does not indicate once-for-all action; (4) It does not designate the kind of action; (5) It is not the opposite of a present, imperfect, or perfect; (6) It does not occur in classes or kinds; and, (7) It may describe any action or event.

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The Abused Aorist

In 1972 Frank Stagg performed yeoman service in publishing an article titled “The Abused Aorist.”1 A number of the illustrations referred to in the following discussion are taken from his article. His was not the first voice, however, nor the last, to be raised in objection to the disservice rendered to this most useful servant in the Greek tense system. But the warnings have largely gone unheeded.

During a recent automobile trip the author listened to two successive sermons (one on tape and one on radio) in which an aorist

tense was grossly perverted in “proving” a point of theological contention. In the first case, a well-known and gifted pastor argued that the use of an aorist form of the verb νίπτω (“wash”) in John 13:8 proves that the footwashing by Jesus symbolized the once-for-all washing of salvation rather than the subsequent daily cleansing! This was in spite of the unmentioned fact that the same logic would require that people who have bathed need never to wash their feet but once thereafter (aorist in v 10). The second message argued that Jesus did not die spiritually for our sins because the aoris...

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