Grace Theological Journal 2.2 (Fall 1981) 205-26.

          [Copyright © 1981 Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission;

                       digitally prepared for use at Gordon College]




                        ERRANT AORIST



                                          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.



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

its significance.



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


2 William Douglas Chamberlain, An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New

Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1960) 67.



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

mythological accretions.



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 Davis' grammar (William Hersey Davis, Beginner's

Grammar of the Greek New Testament [New York: Harper & Row, 1923] viii). The

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.



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.


Biblical examples

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

essentially timeless.

"In you I am well pleased" (eu]do<khsa, Mark 1:11).

"Now is the Son of Man glorified" (e]doca<sqh, John 13:31).

"In this is my Father glorified" (e]doca<sqh, John 15:8).

"Wisdom is justified by all her children" (e]dikai<wqh, Luke 7:35).

"The grass withers" (e]chra<nqh, I Pet 1:24).

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 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.



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

Davis asserts that "it does not distinguish between complete or

incomplete action.”9


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.


Biblical examples

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 5:17).

"Guard yourselves from idols" (fula<cate, 1 John 5:21).

"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 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.

9 Davis, Grammar, 78.

10 Ray Summers, Essentials Of New Testament Greek (Nashville: Broadman,

1950) 55-56.

11 K. L. McKay, "Syntax in Exegesis," Tyndale Bulletin 23 (1972) 55-56.



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 Burton declares that

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 Burton, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament

Greek (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1900) 16.

18 J. Gresham Machen, New Testament Greek for Beginners (Toronto: Macmillan,

1923) 81.



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 (Cambridge: Cambridge

University, 1965) 96.

20 Chamberlain, Grammar, 67.

21 Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 194.

22 Ibid 195.



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 13:10, 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.


Biblical examples

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.


23 Ibid.

24 Clarence B. Hale, Let’s 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 (Cambridge:

Cambridge University, 1968) 10.

27 C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles (The Moffat New Testament Commentary;

London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1946) 78.

28 A. Berkeley Mickelsen, "The Epistle to the Romans," The Wyclfffe Bible

Commentary (ed: Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison; Chicago: Moody,

1962) 1197.

29 Robertson, Grammar, 835.

30 Summers, Essentials, 66.



"So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed"

(u[phkou<sate, Phil 2:12).

"Look at the birds of heaven" (e]mble<yate, Matt 6:26).

"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 6:31).

"If we forgive men their trespasses" (a]fh?te, Matt 6: 14).

"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.



This aspect of "theology in the aorist tense”32 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 4:11 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.; Grand Rapids: Baker, n.d.) 47.

34 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 226.

35 Ibid., 230-31.




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-

all aorist.40

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), I. 134-35.

37 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago: Moody, 1969) 79.

38 John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit (3d ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

1954) 197.

39 Leon Morris, The Revelation of St. John (The Tyndale New Testament Com-

mentaries; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969) 84.

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,

1962) 1237.

42 Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time (Downers Grove: InterVarsity,

1972) 165.



A friend recently argued that the aorist imperative in the plural,

"Greet one another with a holy kiss" (I Cor 16:20, 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!


Biblical examples

Again, all the biblical examples previously cited are also appli-

cable under this heading. In addition, none of the following refer to

once-for-all actions.

"They loved not their lives unto death" (h]ga<phsen, Rev 12:11).

"What you heard from the beginning" (h]kou<sate, I John 2:24).

"Trade until I come" (pragmateu<sasqe, Luke 19:13).

"Jesus. . . went about doing good" (dih?lqen, Acts 10:38).

"The promise which He promised us [many times], life eternal"

(e]phggei<lato, I John 2:25).

"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 11:24-25).

"For all [seven] had her" (e@sxon, Matt 22:28).

"Holy Father, keep them, in your name" (th<rhson, John 17:11).

"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 1:21).

"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 3:23).



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.



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

Davis incorrectly affirms that "the fundamental idea in tense is

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.

47 Davis, Grammar, 78.

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


Biblical examples

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 5:10 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 12:54); "Greet one

another with a holy kiss" (a]spa<sasqe, Rom 16:16). Compare this

latter illustration with the single occasion greetings employing the

identical verb, e.g., "Greet Rufus" (Rom 16:13).

Other passages present what may be called general "policy"

statements: "If you greet only your brothers. . ." (a]spa<shsqe, Matt

5:47); "If you do not watch. . ." (grhgorh<s^j, Rev 3:3).




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.

52 Davis and Robertson, Grammar, 295.

53 Moule, Idiom-Book, 5-6.

54 Ibid., 6.



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 2:24

(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.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid., 199.

61 Ibid.



that an aorist speaks "without reference to progress",62 "or dura-

tion",63 "without implying that the action was either durative or

perfective64 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

does affirm.

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

(6:11) 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.

63 Ibid.

64 Ibid., 194.

65 Ibid.

66 Davis and Robertson, Grammar, 296. Even Stagg ("The Abused Aorist," 231)

implies such a distinction!

67 Davis and Robertson, Grammar, 296.

68 Ibid.

69 Wenham, Elements, 98.

70 Ibid.

71 Joachim Jeremias, The Lord’s Prayer (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964) 24-25.



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 7:10, and the aorist, o[ gamh<saj

("the married man"), in 7:37. The latter, he says, designates a "man

newly committed to marriage," because the aorist refers to "a decisive

event as a whole.”72


Biblical examples

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,

Heb 1:13)?

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 6:49, does not describe a momentary

and ineffectual hearing in contrast with the present participle,

a]kou<wn, in 6:47, 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 2:22)!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


74 Ibid.




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 itself”78--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


75 Davis and Robertson, Grammar, 296,

76 McKay, "Syntax in Exegesis," 47, 56.

77 Robertson, Grammar, 834.

78 Ibid., 835.

79 Ibid.

80 Stagg, "The Abused Aorist," 224.

81 Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 196.



Examples of inaccuracy

Burton correctly states that the tense is indefinite "in all of its

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 repetition85 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.


82 Burton, Syntax, 16-17.

83 Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 195-96.

84 Ibid., 195.

85 Hale, Let’s Study Greek, 33.



Biblical examples

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

and context.

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 1:12) 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 15:12, "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 19:41, "he burst into tears," as

Robertson does,86 is absolutely arbitrary. All we are told is that "he

wept. "



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.



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 5:12, 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 5:16; 1 Cor 6:18,

8:12, 15:34; 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.

93 Davis and Robertson, Grammar, 200.

            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.


Biblical examples

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 1:21).

Here again the aorist describes a "durative" event. Similarly, Jesus

said, "I always taught" (e]di<daca, John 18:20) wherever the Jews

gathered together.

The same verse states that Jesus "went in and went out" among

the Jews (ei]sh?lqen, e]ch?lqen), yet 9:28 uses present participles (refer-

ring to past time) to describe the same "going in and going out"

(ei]sporeuo<menoj, e]kporeu<omenoj).

In Rev 1:19 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

(1973) 152.

95 Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 200.

96 McKay, "Syntax in Exegesis," 46.



reason for using some other tense.”97 Writing with Davis, he ampli-

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.

98 Davis and Robertson, Grammar. 295.





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