Grace Theological Journal 2.2 (Fall 1981) 205-26.
[Copyright © 1981 Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission;
prepared for use at
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 dis-
tinctions 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 "de-
mythologized" 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.
* * *
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
1 Frank Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," JBL (1972) 222-31.
206 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
tense was grossly perverted in "proving" a point of theological conten-
tion. In the first case, a well-known and gifted pastor argued that the
use of an aorist form of the verb ni<ptw ("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 aorist tense of the verb
a]poqnh<skw ("died") in 1 Cor 15:3 refers only to a single act of dying!
Such abuses would be humorous were it not for the fact that they
are presented and received with such sincere conviction as the basis
for significant theological assertions. Greek grammarians would
instantly recognize the fallacies of the illustrations cited and have
often spoken out against errors of this type. It is therefore quite
surprising to find genuine scholars who may in one place legitimately
describe the aorist tense, yet in another place misuse it in a manner
not greatly different from the illustrations just cited. It is not sur-
prising that student term papers, theses, and dissertations are often
influenced by confusion in the grammars and commentaries.
The following discussion will briefly define the aorist tense and
then respond to a number of the most common misrepresentations of
MEANING OF THE TERM
Unlike other grammatical terms, which are often ambiguous, the
term aorist is an explicit and ideal grammatical term. A Greek
'present' tense does not always indicate present time--we have futur-
istic presents, historic presents, customary presents, and others. Like-
wise, the terms 'imperfect' and 'perfect' are not perfect. But like the
term 'future,' the term 'aorist' is perfectly descriptive. No single aspect
of the present tense is inviolable. Just as it does not always indicate
present time, so it does not always indicate process. But the aorist
tense is invariable--all aorists are aoristic!
In the matter of 'aspect' the purpose of the aorist is to be
invisible. The term means "no boundary," "without horizon," "non-
specific," "noncommittal," "indefinite," etc. The whole point of the
aorist is to refrain from saying anything about the nature of the
action. As Chamberlain said, the word means "I do not define.2
Grammarians generally agree that the aorist represents the most
basic form of the Greek verb, employing the oldest and simplest stem
Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1960) 67.
SMITH: ERRANT AORIST INTERPRETERS 207
form. Due to contemporary lexicographical methodology it would be
impracticable but one could almost wish that Greek students could
learn the aorist form of verbs first in order to entrench the basic
concept of the verbal idea apart from an emphasis on time or aspect.
Other tenses should be recognized as for the purpose of adding time
or aspect considerations. As it relates to the matter of aspect, the
aorist is transparent, it leaves the verbal idea 'naked' by adding
nothing to the basic vocabulary concept. It merely labels or titles the
Since, in the familiar words of Broadus, Greek is "an aorist
loving language,"3 it is essential that the tense be stripped of its
THE AORIST DOES NOT NECESSARILY REFER TO PAST TIME
The aorist is essentially, though not entirely, timeless. This is, of
course, obvious in all but the indicative. Except for the participles it
is mostly futuristic in its unaugmented forms. It hardly seems neces-
sary to belabor this point, but on the part of some who do not use
Greek regularly there is still a tendency to overemphasize the time
aspect, and on the part of some scholars there is a tendency to
overstate the case and remove all time considerations from the aorist.
Examples of accuracy
A. T. Robertson averred that "If one gets it into his head that the
root idea of tense is time, he may never get it out and he will therefore
never understand the beauty of the Greek tense, the most wonderful
development in the history of language.4
Chamberlain states that "The student should disabuse his mind at
once of the notion that the primary idea of tense in the Greek verb is
3 Quoted in A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light
of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934) 831.
4 In his Introduction to
Grammar of the Greek New
remark suggesting that the Greek tense system is the "most wonderful development in
the history of language" was included in the above quotation to provide me with an
opportunity to respond briefly to this unrealistic adoration of the Greek language.
Greek teachers have often described Greek as "more expressive," especially in its
tenses, than other languages. But the fact that God has revealed himself via this
language does not make it a holy language, or a perfect language. God also revealed
himself, infallibly, by means of Hebrew and Aramaic. Any well-developed modern
language such as English, French, German, Spanish, etc., can express anything that
Greek has expressed, though not by the same grammatical and semantic devices. Greek
should not be worshipped.
5 Chamberlain, Grammar, 67.
208 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Examples of inaccuracy
All Greek grammarians adequately warn against viewing the
aorist as primarily tense-related, but it is not uncommon to find
overstatements of this matter. Dana and Mantey affirm, for example,
that "it has no essential temporal significance, its time relations being
found only in the indicative" (emphasis added).6 In the definition
given above it was clearly noted that it is in the area of aspect that the
aorist adds nothing to the vocabulary concept. The aorist does
commonly add time considerations in the indicative and also in its
participial forms. Though aorist participles do not indicate tense in
themselves, they do have special time relationships with the leading
verb or the time of the context. The majority of aorist participles
indicate time antecedent to the leading verb.
Even in the indicative, time is not intrinsic to the aorist tense.
The following are examples of biblical texts which employ aorist
indicatives in ways that do not designate past events--they are
"In you I am well pleased" (eu]do<khsa, Mark ).
"Now is the Son of Man glorified" (e]doca<sqh, John ).
"In this is my Father glorified" (e]doca<sqh, John 15:8).
"Wisdom is justified by all her children" (e]dikai<wqh, Luke ).
"The grass withers" (e]chra<nqh, I Pet ).
All of these examples appear to be timeless in their connotations
and they adequately demonstrate that the aorist, even in its indicative
forms, need not refer to past time.
THE AORIST DOES NOT INDICATE COMPLETED ACTION
The examples just cited under the previous heading should also
adequately refute this misconception, but a few additional comments
may prove helpful.
Examples of accuracy
Stagg has succinctly noted that the aorist views the action
"without reference to duration, interruption, completion, or anything
else. . . . The aorist can be properly used to cover any kind of action:
single or multiple, momentary or extended, broken or unbroken,
completed or open-ended" (emphasis added).7
6 H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New
Testament (Toronto: Macmillan, 1927) 193.
7 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 223.
SMITH: ERRANT AORIST INTERPRETERS 209
Dana and Mantey object to Blass' identification of the aorist as
the tense "which denotes completion," and observe that "the aorist
signifies nothing as to completeness." Unfortunately they add the
unedifying comment that it "simply presents the action as attained."8
Examples of inaccuracy
Summers states that "the aorist indicates finished action in past
time."10 Though he is referring to the aorist indicative, a point which
many grammarians are not always careful to note, it is still not true that
the aorist indicates finished or complete action--not even in the
McKay provides helpful insight into the significance of the tenses
but then proceeds to misrepresent and misuse the aorist. With regard
to the statement that Judas sinned (h!marton, Matt 27:4), he asserts
that the "past time reference is unimportant: that it is aorist aspect,
referring to the action as complete, is all important.11 To the
contrary, the past time reference as indicated by the augmented form
and the context is more important than any nonexistent intimation
about the nature of the event.
Only a few examples need be cited to demonstrate that aorist
tenses (of any mood) need not designate completed actions.
"Death reigned through one man" (e]basi<leusen, Rom ).
"Guard yourselves from idols" (fula<cate, 1 John ).
"That he might show in the coming ages the exceeding riches of
his grace" (e]ndei<chtai, Eph 2:7).
See also the examples under the previous heading. It should be
apparent that while an aorist may be used with reference to a
completed action, the tense itself does not indicate or imply this.
THE AORIST NEITHER IDENTIFIES NOR VIEWS ACTION AS PUNCTILIAR
The term "punctiliar" is not only one of the most misunderstood
of grammatical terms but also one of the most inappropriate. No
grammatical feature can indicate a "punctiliar act," though vocabu-
lary and context can readily do so.
8 Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 193-94.
10 Ray Summers, Essentials Of New Testament Greek (
11 K. L. McKay, "Syntax in Exegesis," Tyndale Bulletin 23 (1972) 55-56.
210 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Scholars are quick to point out that the term "punctiliar" must
be "properly understood." Stagg, for example, notes that "Careful
grammarians make it clear that the punctiliar idea belongs to the
writer's manner of presentation and not necessarily to the action
itself.12 He proceeds to defend Moulton's and Robertson's use of the
term "punctiliar" as describing the way the action is viewed and not
the action itself,13 and explains that the aorist is "punctiliar only in
the sense that the action is viewed without reference to duration,
interruption, completion, or anything else.14 If language means
anything, this says that the aorist is not punctiliar at all--especially
not in the way it views (or states, or regards) the action! This
terminology mars Stagg's otherwise excellent discussion. The aorist
neither designates nor even "views" the action as punctiliar. It does
not view it in any way! It merely labels (names, titles) the action. For
Robertson to state that "the 'constative' aorist treats an act as
punctiliar which is not in itself point-action," is to deny what he
earlier affirms in identifying the aorist as meaning "un-defined"
(emphasis added).15 The aorist does not "treat," "view," "regard," or
"state" the action as punctiliar or anything else. Its very purpose is to
refrain from doing so.
Examples of accuracy
According to Dana and Mantey, the aorist "states the fact of the
action or event without regard to its duration.16
it "represents the action denoted by it indefinitely, i.e., simply as an
event, neither on the one hand picturing it in progress, nor on the
other affirming the existence of its result. The name indefinite as thus
understood is therefore applicable to the tense in all of its uses.17
Machen demonstrates admirable restraint in avoiding the term "punc-
tiliar" and identifies the imperfect as pointing to continued or re-
peated action whereas the aorist is a "simple assertion of the act.18
Wenham, unfortunately immediately after an invalid identification of
the aorist as "a punctiliar (or point) tense," clearly states that "the
12 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 222.
13 Ibid., 225, 229.
14 Ibid., 223.
15 Robertson, Grammar, 824, 31-32.
16 Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 193.
17 Ernest DeWitt
Greek (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1900) 16.
18 J. Gresham Machen,
New Testament Greek for Beginners (
SMITH: ERRANT AORIST INTERPRETERS 211
action of the verb is thought of as simply happening, without any
regard to its continuance or frequency.19
Examples of inaccuracy
Quotations here must of necessity be selective since almost every
standard grammar may be faulted at this point--even those which in
other contexts clearly state the matter. For example, in his next
sentence after saying that the aorist regards action as undefined,
Chamberlain unfortunately adds, "The common term for this is
punctiliar action.20 Whether or not it is the common term is not the
point. The action need not be punctiliar and an aorist does not even
view it as such--it merely names the act involved.
Conversation with Greek teachers will generally indicate a high
degree of defensiveness with regard to any objections to such tradi-
tional terminology as "punctiliar." It is regularly insisted that the
grammarians rightly distinguished between the nature of the event
and the fact that an aorist is merely looking at an event ''as a
whole"--the latter being identified as a "punctiliar view." The re-
sponse is threefold: (1) It is not being argued that all grammarians
have misunderstood the aorist (Note the quotations, throughout this
article, under the headings "Examples of accuracy"); (2) It is asserted
that the term "punctiliar" is a misleading and inappropriate term to
describe the fact that an aorist merely names an act without reference
to its duration; and (3) Nearly all the grammars may be validly
charged, at least with inconsistency, in that in their illustrations they
interpret aorists as indicating "single acts," "particular occasions,"
and "fixed," "momentary," or even "instantaneous" events. If this be
defended as a kind of "grammatical shorthand," meaning that the
aorist in a particular context may point to such actions, it is re-
sponded that it is not the tense which indicates these matters and it is
inexcusable to confuse students by such inaccurate "shorthand."
Dana and Mantey state that the aorist "presents the action or
event as a 'point,' and hence is called 'punctiliar"21 and "the play is
entirely upon whether the action is punctiliar--viewed as a single
whole--or whether it is the opposite, continuous or repeated.22 On
this basis they affirm that the aorist clause in 1 John 2:1, i!na mh>
a[ma<rthte, means "in order that you won't ever commit an act of
19 J. W. Wenham, The Elements of New Testament Greek (
University, 1965) 96.
20 Chamberlain, Grammar, 67.
21 Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 194.
22 Ibid 195.
212 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
sin.23 This error has been perpetuated in scores of commentaries and
sermons, in spite of the fact that all that John did was tell his readers
what he wanted them to avoid, namely, sin. The number of acts of sin
should not enter the picture merely on the basis of an aorist tense.
Hale states that "the chief emphasis is on the point-like quality of
the action.24 Godet wrote that the aorist e@lq^, "shall have come,"
in I Cor , must allude "to a fixed and positively expected
moment, which can be no other than that of the Advent.25 Moule
goes so far as to state that the chief function of an aorist "is to
indicate an action viewed as instantaneous" (emphasis added).26
Dodd says that "the aorist forms express momentary or occasional
action.27 With regard to the verb "entered" in Rom 5:12, Mickelsen
remarks that "the tense of the verb indicates a distinct historic
entrance.28 One must respond that this concept comes from the
meaning of the verb itself since it is difficult to have an entrance
which is not distinct and not historical.
Robertson states that "the tense of itself always means point-
action.29 Summers says bluntly that "the kind of action is punc-
tiliar.30 One should note that these last statements refer to the action
as punctiliar. It is an improvement to refer to the action as only being
viewed in a punctiliar sense, but even this is a misrepresentation of
the aorist. It should be added that attempts to represent the aorist as
a "dot," in contrast to the representation of the linear tenses by a line
or series of dots, are misleading at best.
Literally hundreds of examples could be listed to show that the
aorist does not indicate, or even necessarily view, the action as
punctiliar. Of course it may be used of a "punctiliar" event, but the
use of the aorist does not prove this fact.
24 Clarence B. Hale, Lets Study Greek (Chicago: Moody, 1957) 32.
25 Frederic Louis Godet, Commentary on First Corinthians (reprinted;
Rapids: Kregel, 1977) 680.
26 C. F. D. Moule,
An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek (
27 C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles (The Moffat New Testament Commentary;
28 A. Berkeley Mickelsen, "The Epistle to the Romans," The Wyclfffe Bible
Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison;
29 Robertson, Grammar, 835.
30 Summers, Essentials, 66.
SMITH: ERRANT AORIST INTERPRETERS 213
"So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed"
(u[phkou<sate, Phil ).
"Look at the birds of heaven" (e]mble<yate, Matt ).
"He remained a whole two years" (e]ne<meinen, Acts 28:30).
"Do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?'" (merimnh<shte
and fa<gwmen, Matt ).
"If we forgive men their trespasses" (a]fh?te, Matt ).
"But you, whenever you pray" (proseu<x^, Matt 6:6).
"The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat" (e]ka<qisan, Matt
Again it should be noted that all the examples cited under the
preceding heading are also applicable here.
Contrary to Moulton and Robertson, the aorist is not "punctiliar
in statement" (nor in fact, as they admit).31 It is noncommittal in
statement. It refrains from viewing action as either linear or punc-
tiliar. It abstains.
THE AORIST DOES NOT INDICATE ONCE-FOR-ALL ACTION
This aspect of "theology in the aorist tense32 has been criticized
so often that one almost feels like he is "beating a dead horse" by
even bringing up the subject. But the "horse" refuses to stay dead!
Examples of accuracy
All the statements which were quoted in objecting to the aorist as
indicating completed or punctiliar action would also be appropriate
here. Indeed, the once-for-all theory is just a "hyper-punctiliar" view
and very few of the standard grammars deal directly with the
terminology. (Of those examined for this study, only Turner misused
it. See below.) After objecting to Law's assertion that the aorists in
I John 1:1 must refer to "a definite occasion",33 Stagg responds, "It is
fallacious to argue from the grammatical aorist to a historical singu-
larity.34 Likewise he notes that "Turner misleads when he finds
necessarily a 'once and for all' in the aorist imperative.35
Examples of inaccuracy
In his commentary on Revelation, Charles states that the aorists
e@ktisaj ("created ") in and e]ni<khsen ("overcame") in 5:5 each
31 Moulton, quoted and approved in Robertson, Grammar, 832.
32 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 222.
33 Robert Law, The Tests of Life (3d ed.;
34 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 226.
35 Ibid., 230-31.
214 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
indicate "one definite act" which was "once-for-all.36 This statement
is probably true except that this is not shown by the aorist tense, but
by word meaning, context, and other revelation.
Ryrie builds a theological point on the aorists of Rom 6:13b
and 12:1. Because the aorist "does not present the action as a series of
repeated events. . . , the presentation of body is a single, irrevocable
act of surrender rather than a series of repeated acts of dedication.37
Walvoord makes the same error by stating that the aorist in 6:13b
means, "Present yourself to God once and for all.38 But neither
grammar nor theology suggests any such limitation on these verbs.
One might just as well argue that just as the Jews presented morning
and evening sacrifices, so the believer should present himself to God
both morning and evening. Is it dishonoring for a Christian who has
failed (as all do) to present himself anew? (In reality, as long as men
are sinners, no presentation can be a once-for-all presentation!) But
frequency is not the point. Only the fact of presentation is at issue.
In his commentary on Revelation, Morris often refers to aorists
as indicating once-for-all action. One example is metano<hson ("re-
pent") in 3:19.39 But as Stagg notes, Morris fails to explain how the
word poi<hson ("do the first works," 2:5) may be taken as a once-for-
In commenting on the aorist e]tu<qh in 1 Cor 5:7, which refers
to the fact that Christ was sacrificed for us, Johnson states that
the aorist tense is "looking at the event as a once-for-all thing.41 It is
true that the verse is looking at a once-for-all event, but even with an
imperfect tense the same would be true! (To say that Christ "was
dying" for us would still point to the once-for-all event at the cross.)
But the statement implies that this significance is because of the aorist
tense and is therefore misleading at best. Such lack of precision has
fostered the confusion which has led scholars like Francis Schaeffer
to affirm that "the Greek aorist is a once-for-all past tense.42
36 R. H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St.
John (ICC; 2 vols; New York: Scribner's, 1920),
37 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago: Moody, 1969) 79.
38 John F. Walvoord,
The Holy Spirit (3d ed.;
39 Leon Morris, The Revelation of
40 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 227.
41 S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., "The First Epistle to the Corinthians," The Wycliffe Bible
Commentary (ed. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison; Chicago: Moody,
42 Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time (
SMITH: ERRANT AORIST INTERPRETERS 215
A friend recently argued that the aorist imperative in the plural,
"Greet one another with a holy kiss" (I Cor , in contrast with
the three earlier present tense forms of the same verb), proves that
Paul was not commanding a general practice but only a conveyance
of his personal greetings. My friend's interpretation may be correct,
but it cannot be proved by the aorist tense!
Again, all the biblical examples previously cited are also appli-
cable under this heading. In addition, none of the following refer to
"They loved not their lives unto death" (h]ga<phsen, ).
"What you heard from the beginning" (h]kou<sate, I John ).
"Trade until I come" (pragmateu<sasqe, Luke ).
"Jesus. . . went about doing good" (dih?lqen, Acts ).
"The promise which He promised us [many times], life eternal"
(e]phggei<lato, I John ).
"Five times I received thirty-nine stripes" (e@labon) . . . three
times I was beaten with rods (e]rrabdi<sqhn) . . . three times I was
shipwrecked" (e]naua<ghsa, 2 Cor -25).
"For all [seven] had her" (e@sxon, Matt ).
"Holy Father, keep them, in your name" (th<rhson, John ).
"They lived and reigned a thousand years (e@zhsan and e]basi<leu-
sen, Rev 20:4).
"All the time in which Jesus went in and went out among us"
(ei]sh?lqen and e]ch?lqen, Acts ).
"Wherefore that field is called 'Field of Blood' until this day"
(e]klh<qh, Matt 27:8).
"For all have sinned and fall short" (h!marton, Rom ).
THE AORIST DOES NOT DESIGNATE THE KIND OF ACTION
The truthfulness of this assertion should be adequately demon-
strated by the very fact that the grammar books have divided the
aorist into various "kinds" or categories (e.g., constative or indefi-
nite; ingressive or inceptive; culminative, effective or resultative;
gnomic; epistolary; dramatic; etc.). But, amazingly, it is necesary to
fight an uphill battle against the grammarians at this point. Even
though it contradicts what they say elsewhere, almost with one voice
they proclaim that the "fundamental idea of the kind of action
involved" is the "one essential idea" in the Greek system of tenses.43
43 Davis and Robertson. Grammar, 293.
216 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Examples of accuracy
Near the turn of the century Moulton popularized the German
term "aktionsart" in describing the fundamental concept in the Greek
tenses. The term is normally translated "kind of action," and as such
it has produced all kinds of interpretive errors. As noted under the
previous heading, even when "kind of action" is understood as
meaning "way in which action is being viewed," the term misrepre-
sents the aorist. McKay writes, "In common with most English-
speaking classical scholars, I prefer to use another label, 'aspect,' for
what is referred to is not the kind of action, but the way in which the
writer or speaker regards the action in its context--as a whole act, as
a process, or as a state" (emphasis added).44 The term "aspect" is
certainly an advance over "aktionsart" (or "kind of action") in refer-
ring to the aorist. But to define the aorist aspect as looking at the
action in any way is to deny its basic noncommittal significance. As
McKay himself later notes, the proper aspect of the aorist is "un-
defined",45 It does not "look at" the action as any particular kind of
action. His three aspects would better be named a "labeling" aspect, a
"process" aspect, and a "state" aspect.
As Stagg has stated, "the presence of the aorist does not in itself
give any hint as to the nature of the action behind it.46
Examples of inaccuracy
the 'kind of action.'47 Chamberlain makes an essentially identical
statement but then contradicts it by correctly stating that the aorist
regards the action as undefined, as "a-oristoj, from a]ori<zw, 'I do not
The most extreme statements are those made by Moule. Under
the heading "Aktionsart," he states that the primary consideration to
the Greek mind was "the nature of the event," "the kind of action.49
Here there is not even a pretext about how the action is viewed, but
an explicit connection with the actual nature of the act!
Summers says of the aorist that "The kind of action is punc-
tiliar.50 But as everyone should know by now, the aorist does not tell
anything about the kind of action.
44 McKay, "Syntax in Exegesis," 44.
45 Ibid., 47.
46 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 231.
48 Chamberlain, Grammar, 67.
49 Moule, Idiom-Book, 5.
50 Summers, Essentials, 66.
AORIST INTERPRETERS 217
Perhaps this is the most appropriate place to note that some
grammarians have used the term "aktionsart" with reference to the
stem (verb root) idea rather than, or in addition to, any reference to
the tense idea. Chamberlain,51 Davis and Robertson,52 and Moule53
furnish examples of this. This approach has more to commend it than
the attempts to link aktionsart with the aorist tense itself, but as
Moule is forced to conclude, "Many fascinating exceptions and
modifications. . . present themselves."54
Probably the best way to establish the point at issue is simply to
cite several aorists which describe distinctly different kinds of action.
Heb 11:5 refers to the action of many individuals over many years:
"These all died in faith" (a]pe<qanon).
Acts tells of an "instantaneous" single act: "Immediately she
fell at his feet" (e@peson).
Eph 2:2 refers to a "continuous past action: "In which you
used to walk according to the way of this world" (periepath<sate).
A number of references indicate indefinite future repetitions:
"whenever you see a cloud rising. . ." (i@dhte, Luke ); "Greet one
another with a holy kiss" (a]spa<sasqe, Rom ). Compare this
latter illustration with the single occasion greetings employing the
identical verb, e.g., "Greet Rufus" (Rom ).
Other passages present what may be called general "policy"
statements: "If you greet only your brothers. . ." (a]spa<shsqe, Matt
); "If you do not watch. . ." (grhgorh<s^j, Rev 3:3).
THE AORIST IS NOT THE OPPOSITE OF THE PRESENT,
IMPERFECT; OR PERFECT
With the possible exception of the once-for-all mistakes, this is
probably the area of most confusion with regard to the aorist. It is
commonly assumed that aorist tense verbs appear in a context for the
purpose of establishing a contrast with, or even denying, what is
affirmed by the other tenses. But, as should be evident from the
foregoing discussion, this is plainly not the case. The aorist tense is
never in contrast with the other tenses. It cannot be, for it does not
assert anything! It merely refrains from affirming what they may
imply. It is thus general and all-inclusive, rather than specific and
exclusive or contrasting.
51 Chamberlain, Grammar, 69.
53 Moule, Idiom-Book, 5-6.
54 Ibid., 6.
218 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Examples of accuracy
It is embarrassing to admit the difficulty in finding accurate
statements comparing the Greek tenses. The standard grammars
almost all, at one time or another, succumb to the tendency to draw
unnecessary contrasts. The most nearly consistent discussion available
to this writer is that by Stagg. In properly responding to Dodd's
differentiation between the imperfect and the aorist he notes that the
common distinction "holds almost always for the imperfect but not for
the aorist.55 Later he remarks that "The aorist may cover a specific
act, but it may also cover repeated or extended acts; and other tenses
also may cover specific acts.56 He also points out that the aorist is
used with the phrase a]p ] a]rxh?j; ("from the beginning") in 1 John
(h]kou<sate), and the present is used with the same phrase in 3:8
Examples of inaccuracy
Dana and Mantey state that Greek writers were instinctively and
"acutely conscious of the distinctive force of each tense in expressing
the state of an action. The play is entirely upon whether the action is
punctiliar--viewed as a single whole--or whether it is the opposite,
continuous or repeated" (emphasis added).58 This is certainly an
overstatement. An aorist never affirms the fact of continuous or
repeated action, as a present may do in certain contexts, but it is not
the "opposite" of a present--it never denies or stands in contrast with
.what the present implies. The key proof cited by Dana and Mantey59 is
the variant reading in John 10:38 (i!na gnw?te kai> ginw<skhte, "that
you might know and keep on knowing." Jesus' point, however, may
simply be paraphrased, "I want you to know, and also to keep on
knowing." There is no contrast; the present only elaborates--it adds
to what the aorist says.
It is absolutely invalid to affirm that "The aorist infinitive denotes
that which is eventual or particular while the present infinitive
indicates a condition or process.60 Dana and Mantey assert that "Thus
pisteu?sai is to exercise faith on a given occasion, while pisteu<ein is
to be a believer.61 This, of course, contradicts their own statements
55 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 224.
56 Ibid., 225. See also Stagg's important correction of Law's misuse of the aorist in
contrast with the perfect. Ibid., 226-27.
57 Ibid., 226.
58 Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 195.
60 Ibid., 199.
SMITH: ERRANT AORIST INTERPRETERS 219
that an aorist speaks "without reference to progress",62 "or dura-
tion",63 "without implying that the action was either durative or
perfective,64 and "without in any sense defining the manner of its
occurrence.65 An aorist infinitive (such as pisteu<sai) may designate
a single act of faith or a life of faith. It definitely does not contrast
with the present; it merely does not affirm what the present often
Davis and Robertson claim that the aorist a[marth<swmen in
Rom 6:15 means, "Shall we commit a sin?66 But this is patently
fallacious. It no more focuses on a single act than on a score of acts.
It simply means, "Should we sin?"
One of the most common errors in this classification is the oft-
repeated claim that the aorist subjunctive in prohibitions forbids one
to begin an act, whereas the present imperative commands one to
cease doing an act.67 While these differences may often fit the context,
they are by no means indicated by the tenses in either case. To insist
that the aorists in the clause, "Do not give (dw?te) that which, is holy
to the dogs, nor cast (ba<lhte) your pearls before swine," must mean
"do not begin" to do these things,68 is purely arbitrary. Whether they
had been done before, or not, is wholly beside the point.
Wenham gives a beautiful statement to the effect that a present
imperative is used for "a command to continue an action or do it
habitually" whereas the aorist imperative denotes "a command simply
to do an action without regard to its continuance or frequency.69
But almost unbelievably he proceeds to deny his own clear statement!
He refers to the parallel accounts of the Lord's prayer in Matthew
() and Luke (11:3) and notes that Luke uses the present impera-
tive of di<dwmi ("give "), whereas Matthew uses the aorist. His conclu-
sion is that the present "denotes a continuous act of giving, day after
day" while the aorist indicates "a single act of giving: 'for today.'70
On the same basis, Jeremias argued that Luke's version requests the
daily giving of "earthly bread" while Matthew's version requests the
eschatological "bread of life" for "the great Tomorrow.71 The correct
approach is to realize that the present adds an emphasis which the
62 Ibid., 193.
64 Ibid., 194.
implies such a distinction!
69 Wenham, Elements, 98.
71 Joachim Jeremias, The Lords Prayer (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964) 24-25.
220 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
aorist does not include but does not deny. They refer to the same
action without any "contrast."
One of the most amazing examples of overly contrasting the
tenses is McKay's contrast between the perfect, toi?j gegamhko<sin
("the married men") in 1 Cor , and the aorist, o[ gamh<saj
("the married man"), in . The latter, he says, designates a "man
newly committed to marriage," because the aorist refers to "a decisive
event as a whole.72
The examples listed under the previous heading show that the
aorist can be used of all kinds of actions, including repeated and
continuous ones. This should adequately demonstrate that the aorist
is not the opposite of the so-called durative tenses. Only a few
additional references need be cited.
In Gal 4:9 there is an interesting textual variant between
the aorist douleu<sai and the present douleu<ein. But is there a
significant difference between, "Do you wish to serve as a slave to
them again (aorist)?" and, "Do you wish to be in a condition of
slavery to them again (present)?"
Likewise, is there a significant difference between, "To which
of the angels did he ever say. . . ?" (ei]pe<n, aorist, Heb 1:5) and,
"To which of the angels has he ever said. . . ?" (ei@rhken, perfect,
The gospel statement includes the fact that Christ "has been
raised" (perfect tense, e]gh<gertai, 1 Cor 15:4). But continuance is not
denied by the normal use of the aorist, "he was raised" (or "he arose,"
h]ge<rqh, Matt 28:7, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:34).
Aorist participles do not, of themselves, indicate momentary or
temporary action in contrast with present participles. The aorist
participle, a]kou<saj in Luke , does not describe a momentary
and ineffectual hearing in contrast with the present participle,
a]kou<wn, in , which supposedly indicates an effective hearing with
lasting results.73 Otherwise, as Stagg has noted, Joseph's "hearing"
(a]kou<saj) would have to be a momentary and ineffectual hearing,
even though it caused him to obey in every detail (Matt )!74 The
context, not the tense, tells which of the hearings was effective.
Aorists deny neither results nor process.
72 McKay, "Syntax in Exegesis," 56.
73 Stagg ("The Abused Aorist," 231) rightly objects to this error of Zerwick and
SMITH: ERRANT AORIST INTERPRETERS 221
THE AORIST DOES NOT OCCUR IN CLASSES OR KINDS
Though the labels vary extensively, Greek grammars and com-
mentaries use a fairly standardized system of classification for what
they call the various kinds, or uses, of the aorist tense. The most
common labels for the six generally recognized classifications are as
follows: constative, ingressive, culminative, gnomic, epistolary, and
dramatic. It is hereby affirmed that these labels are wholly unrelated
to the concept or function of the aorist tense. Most of them are
equally applicable to other tenses. There may be constative, in-
gressive, or culminative (and etc.) expressions, but not constative,
ingressive, or culminative aorists. This is not mere nit-picking. The
distinction is essential to avoid misrepresentations of God's Word.
Examples of accuracy
Though they have misstatements, Davis and Robertson properly
note that the classifications are closely related to the meaning of the
words involved.75 McKay states that there was "no problem about
using the aorist of the same verb twice in quick succession with. . .
apparently different meanings. . . ," since "the aorist was simply the
aorist, the 'undefined,'" and adds that "context is always important in
deciding the precise significance of a particular form.76
Though he mixes it with error, Robertson states that the "in-
gressive" (or inceptive, or inchoative) aorist is not "a tense notion at
all. . . , it is purely a matter with the individual verb.77 By this he
means that it is determined by word meaning and is not a tense
function. He later notes that the "culminative" concept is shown "by
the verb itself78--not by any aspect of the tense. His best statement,
stripped of its invalid accoutrements, is that "there is at bottom only
one kind of aorist . . . .79
Stagg's statement is perfect when he declares that the aorist is
"a-oristic, undefined as to action," and that "Only contextual factors
permit one to go beyond that to ascertain whether the action alluded
to is singular or not."80 A statement may affirm such distinctions, but
the tense does not. This is why Dana and Mantey add, after intro-
ducing their classifications, "However, the verbal idea as well as the
context usually affects very decidedly the significance of the aorist."81
76 McKay, "Syntax in Exegesis," 47, 56.
77 Robertson, Grammar, 834.
78 Ibid., 835.
80 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 224.
81 Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 196.
222 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Examples of inaccuracy
uses" (emphasis added), but then contradicts himself by using the
standard classifications which, he says, are determined by the differ-
ing points of view and functions of the tense!82 Likewise, Dana and
Mantey assert that the point of the aorist is to speak of an event
"without in any sense defining the manner of its occurrence," but then
proceed to classify its uses based on the "modifications of the
fundamental idea.83 These "modifications," they say, result from the
"different angles" from which the action is contemplated.84 But as has
been seen, the purpose of the aorist is to refrain from viewing the
action in any way!
It should be noted here that just as one would not choose to
employ an aorist to emphasize process, he would not employ an
aorist to emphasize a state. It is therefore not surprising to find that
verbs with meanings which usually point to a state of being may be
used in the aorist tense to describe entrance into that state. This is to
be expected since the aorist is employed in naming an act, not a state.
If this usage is labeled as "'ingressive," it should be made clear that
any "ingressive" concept is derived from the meaning of the words,
regardless of what tense is employed. An earlier statement is worth
repeating: There may be constative, ingressive, culminative (and etc.)
expressions, but not constative, ingressive, or culminative aorists. If
one defends such labels as "ingressive aorist" as merely another
example of "grammatical shorthand," the response is that any "short-
hand" should express reality and should not mislead. Other tenses
may also be employed in constative, ingressive, or culminative expres-
sions. These distinctions are not shown by the tense and the terminol-
ogy employed should not imply that they are.
Hale claims that "The aorist may put the spotlight on the
beginning of the action, on the effect of the action, or on the action as
a whole, but not on its progress or its repetition.85 The emphasized
words (his emphasis) are valid but the earlier phrases deny the fact
that the aorist does not identify or view the action in any way. The
meaning of the words and the context may point to these things, but
the tense does not. The statement by Summers that "There are several
shades of meaning in the use of the aorist tense" is simply not true.
83 Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 195-96.
84 Ibid., 195.
85 Hale, Lets Study Greek, 33.
SMITH: ERRANT AORIST INTERPRETERS 223
There is no way to illustrate this point except by showing
examples of arbitrary classifications and insisting that the classifica-
tions are not derived from any tense function but from word meaning
The most commonly cited example of an "ingressive" aorist is in
the clause, "for your sake he became poor" (e]ptw<xeusen, 2 Cor 8:9).
But the aorist simply labels the act; he "abdicated" or "renounced" his
riches; he impoverished himself. Nothing focuses on the beginning of
the act. Attention is focused only on the fact.
Is the aorist in the statement "The lion prevailed" (e]ni<khsen,
Rev 5:5) ingressive, constative, or culminative? The answer is, It is
aorist! Any classification comes from an interpretation of the context
and could be true (or false!) regardless of the tense employed.
John's command, "Produce fruit worthy of repentance" (poih<-
sate, Matt 3:8), clearly refers to a process, though the aorist is used
only for the purpose of naming the action.
The word "received"(cf. e@labon in John ) is often cited as an
ingressive aorist. But the aorist does not point to the beginning of an
act--only to the fact of the act. Anything else is derived from the
meaning of the word and sentence.
The KJV translated e]si<ghsen in Acts , "kept silence," while
the NIV translates, "became silent" (constative versus ingressive).
Which does the text affirm? Neither, though both are true statements!
The best translation would be the most noncommittal (like the aorist),
"the multitude was silent."
To translate e@klausen in Luke , "he burst into tears," as
Robertson does,86 is absolutely arbitrary. All we are told is that "he
THE AORIST MAY DESCRIBE ANY ACTION OR EVENT
This is simply the converse of all the negative statements of the
preceding headings. Further, the very fact of the various classifica-
tions such as ingressive, culminative, etc., proves the point.
Examples of accuracy
After introducing the Greek tenses, Chamberlain urges students
to "Remember that the same act may be looked at from any of the
86 Robertson, Grammar, 834.
87 Chamberlain, Grammar, 67.
224 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
three viewpoints." According to McKay, "The action referred to by
the aorist may be single and punctiliar or it may be repeated, or
spread continuously over a long period of time.88 Though he mis-
takenly identifies the aorist as indicating action viewed as instan-
taneous, Moule correctly states that it can refer to either past,
present, or future.89 This agrees with Stagg's statement that "the
aorist can properly be used to convey any kind of action.90
Turner's remark is quite pertinent: "Sometimes the change of
tense is prompted by no other motive than avoidance of monotony.91
Stagg wisely notes that "it is sometimes far from apparent why the
writer switches his tenses.92
Examples of inaccuracy
A recent student paper explained that the verb "was confirmed"
(e]bebaiw<qh) in Heb 2:3 "expresses point action" and is therefore
rightly translated in amplified form with the addition, "once-for-all."
Of course, it does not refer to point action at all, but to the sign
miracles of the apostles which were accomplished over a period of
almost forty years.
Another student paper, in explaining the verb "sinned" in
Rom , claimed that ''as an aorist it . . . speaks of one single act of
sin." Davis and Robertson argue the opposite view and say that it
refers to "the whole history of the race.93 Neither approach can be
proved by the tense. The immediate context and the larger context
(theology) must be involved in one's decision.
A well-known pastor recently distributed a paper arguing that
the aorists in 1 John 2:1 were for the purpose of prohibiting even
"one act of sin." He added, "the tense could not be present because
John is addressing believers, and a true believer will not keep on
sinning." This statement misrepresents the aorist, which may prohibit
many acts as easily as one, and also misrepresents the present tense,
which is often used of sinning Christians (cf. 1 John ; 1 Cor ,
, ; Eph 4:26; 1 Tim 5:20).
Hughes argues that "in favor of interpreting the present passage
[Heb 6:4-6] in the light of the baptismal event is the series of
88 McKay, "Syntax in Exegesis," 47.
89 Moule, Idiom-Book, 10.
90 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 223.
91 Nigel Turner, Syntax (vol. 3, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, ed. James
Hope Moulton; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963) 66.
92 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 226.
SMITH: ERRANT AORIST INTERPRETERS 225
participles in the aorist tense. . . which would appropriately point
back to the moment of initiation through a rite. . . . 94 But the same
logic would require "having fallen away" (v 6) to refer to baptism!
There is nothing about the tenses that even suggests that they all refer
to the same event--much less that of baptism.
It is hardly necessary to provide examples under this heading.
The great variety of examples listed under the previous headings all
demonstrate that any time or kind of action can be described or
viewed by an aorist. Furthermore, the grammars never dispute the
point, though their statements and their practice are riddled with
inconsistencies. Merely for the sake of completeness a few additional
examples will be cited.
Matthias was selected from among "those who had accom-
panied" Jesus during his entire ministry (sunelqo<ntwn, Acts ).
Here again the aorist describes a "durative" event. Similarly, Jesus
said, "I always taught" (e]di<daca, John ) wherever the Jews
The same verse states that Jesus "went in and went out" among
the Jews (ei]sh?lqen, e]ch?lqen), yet uses present participles (refer-
ring to past time) to describe the same "going in and going out"
In John was commanded to write (gra<fon) the things he
had seen, and the things which are, and the things about to occur
(gene<sqai). Both of these aorists refer to future events (for John) that
would cover extensive periods of time.
Dana and Mantey wrote: "Probably in no point have translators
made more blunders than they have in rendering the aorist." Whether
or not this is true of translators, it is certainly true of grammarians
(including Dana and Mantey), commentators, teachers, preachers,
and students. As McKay has stated, however, the aorist was simply
the aspect used "when the speaker or writer had no special reason to
use any other.96 Robertson's terminology is almost identical: "The
aorist is the tense used as a matter of course, unless there was special
94 Philip Edgecombe Hughes, "Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Peril to Apostasy," WTJ 35
95 Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 200.
96 McKay, "Syntax in Exegesis," 46.
226 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
reason for using some other tense.97
fies by stating that "If one desires to emphasize the notion of linear
action on the one hand or the state of completion on the other, it is
not the tense to use" (emphasis added).98
The sum of the matter is simply that with regard to the kind of
action, and the way in which action is viewed, the aorist says no more
than the analogous simple preterite and non-durational participial,
infinitive, imperative, and subjunctive forms in English. Departure
from the aorist is therefore far more exegetically significant than its
97 Robertson. Grammar. 831.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
200 Seminary Dr.
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