Monday, January 17, 2005

RB16620 - Rob #26: Gnomic or static present 

(16620) Robert Bowman [Mon Jan 17, 2005 10:40 pm ](Rob #26: Gnomic or static present)


In this post I will complete my response to your post #18 of October 23, 2004 (message #15826 in the online archives; pp. 231-35 of our document in the Files section of this Group), which was your response to the last two sections (out of three) of my post #16 (pp. 173-74).


I had quoted Wallace's description of the gnomic present. In response, you wrote:

This is one of the worst characterizations of the gnomic present I have ever read, which raises the question why you are taking Wallace as your authority on this. (p. 231)

Well, well. I believe the answer your "question" means to elicit is something like "I'm using Wallace because he's the only guy I could find to back up my position." The fact is that I cited Wallace throughout my post #16 (to which you were responding) because his discussion of the various uses of the present tense is (a) recent, (b) extensive, (c) part of a highly regarded reference work, and (d) illustrative of a number of points that I have made about the categories of uses of the Greek present. As I shall note below, Wallace is not alone in this matter.

Since you later acknowledge that you don't have a copy of Wallace and are relying on my quotation, let me give a more complete quotation of the relevant portion:

1. Definition

The present tense may be used to make a statement of a general, timeless fact. 'It does not state that something _is_ happening, but that something _does_ happen.' [Williams, _Grammar Notes_, 27] The action or state continues without time limits. The verb is used 'in proverbial statements or general maxims about what occurs at _all_ times.' [Fanning, _Verbal Aspect_, 208] This usage is common.

2. Semantics and Semantic Situations

The gnomic present is distinct from the customary present in that the _customary_ present refers to a regularly recurring action while the _gnomic_ present refers to a general, timeless fact. It is distinct from the stative present (a subcategory of the customary) in that the stative present involves a temporal restriction while the gnomic present is generally _atemporal_.

There are two predominant situations in which the gnomic present occurs. [See Fanning, Verbal Aspect_, 208-17, for seminal work in this regard.] The _first_ includes instances that depict _deity or nature as the subject of the action_. Statements such as 'the wind blows' or 'God loves' fit this category. Such gnomic presents are true _all_ the time. There is a _second_ kind of gnomic, slightly different in definition: the use of the present in _generic_ statements to describe something that is true _any_ time (rather than a universal statement that is true _all_ the time). [Fanning, 209] This kind of gnomic present is more common. Wallace, _Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics_, 523.

Please note also that I had previously cited the above passage as found on pages 521, 523, and this was a mistake; the entire quote comes from page 523.

Wallace goes on to focus on what he calls (following Fanning) the second, more common kind of gnomic present, the "generic" kind that describes "something that is true _any_ time." The fact that generic gnomics are far more common explains why grammars that give very short comments about the gnomic present refer exclusively to the generic gnomic and do not bother to make the distinction (e.g., Moule's _Idiom Book_, the only grammar that you cited).

Now, your criticism of Wallace's description of the gnomic present as the worst you have ever read may reflect in part on my not having given you a complete enough quotation. I assumed that you had Wallace and could read the entire section. I'm not sure if you'll change your mind about Wallace's description after getting a more complete account. In places you assert that Wallace is wrong or "careless," and in other places you claim that I have misunderstood Wallace. My guess is that you won't like Wallace's view once you've understood it, but I expect you'll let us know either way.

The bottom line of most of your comments is that the gnomic use pertains only to statements of what is proverbially true or true at any time. Thus, gnomic presents are of the type exemplified by such statements as "A good tree *bears* good fruit" or "God *knows* what you need." These statements mean that whenever there is a good tree, it bears good fruit; whenever you have a need, God knows what it is. The first statement does not mean that a good tree eternally bears good fruit, and of course good trees do no such thing; the second statement does not mean that God eternally knows what you need, although that may be true. The brunt of your criticism at this point is that the gnomic does not express an action or state that obtains continuously at all times (pp. 231-33).

You may disagree with him, but Wallace clearly does distinguish two kinds of gnomic presents. The kind that you recognize is the kind that Wallace says is the most common, what he calls the "generic" type of gnomic present. But Wallace's first, less common kind of gnomic present is what he says occurs in "universal" statements. These statements "are true _all_ the time" as distinguished from statements that are "true _any_ time."

By the way, Wallace derives this distinction from Buist Fanning's study _Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek_, published by Oxford University Press in 1990 (see Fanning, 208-17). In turn, Fanning cites John Lyons's highly influential book _Semantics_ (Cambridge University Press, 1977) for the distinction (and overlap) between gnomic and generic statements (Fanning, 209 n. 15, citing Lyons, 680-82). Your dismissal of Wallace's treatment as the worst you have ever read might be worth rethinking.

The two examples that Wallace gives in his description (quoted above) of the universal type of gnomic present are "the wind blows" and "God loves." Regarding these examples, you wrote:

Because the examples he gives are limited to characterizations, that is, statements about the nature of the thing, they give a false impression about all gnomic statements. `The wind blows' is a bad example because wind and blowing are the same thing. If you said "The air blows," then you can see that this is a gnomic present and true, but not continuously true. (p. 233)

You may have a point here, though it is debatable. I see the problem in a somewhat different way, though, than you do. Wind and blowing are not the same thing; wind is a particular kind of blowing. All wind is blowing, but not all blowing is wind. (If I blow air out of my mouth, that isn't wind.) "The wind blows" could be construed as a "generic" statement, not a universal one. Whenever and wherever there is wind, that wind blows. On the other hand, one might support Wallace's categorization here on the grounds that "the wind" is always blowing *somewhere* on the earth; wind is a constant, continual phenomenon.

You wrote:

Going back to deity, it is a gnomic present to say "God knows what you need before you ask for it." But it is not a gnomic present to say "God knew me before I was born." Both of these sentences have "before" clauses. In the first case, the "before" clause refers to an action that occurs repeatedly, at any time, past, present, or future, thus making the action of the main verb repeated "omnitemporally," at each occurrence of the circumstance referred to in the "before" clause, and hence gnomic. In the second case, the "before" clause indicates a specific PAST event, and so the main verb is not extended over multiple, customary occasions, and hence is not gnomic. (p. 233)

For some reason, you didn't address Wallace's other example, "God loves," at all. Instead, you contrasted two statements about God knowing, one of which you say is gnomic and the other not. I will address those examples, but first I must point out that "God loves" is an excellent example of the "universal" type of gnomic present. The statement means that it is always true that God loves. Specific biblical examples of this statement are found in 1 John: "God is [ESTIN] love" (1 John 4:8, 16). Paul's statement, "God loves [AGAPA] a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:7), is also clearly gnomic, though I think one could debate whether to classify it as universal or generic (I would classify it as generic). The Old Testament has some examples like these:

"He loves charity and justice" (Ps. 33:5 [32:5 Gk.]).
"For the Lord loves justice" (Ps. 37:28 [36:28 Gk.]).
"For the Lord loves mercy and truth" (Ps. 84:11 [84:12 Heb.; 83:12 Gk.]).

The above seem best construed as universal gnomic presents: they express what God always is like, not merely what God is like at the time of speaking. I grant, though, that one *could* construe them as generic gnomics. On this exegesis, the Psalmist is saying that the Lord loves it any time when human beings show charity, justice, mercy, or truth. Since either way of reading these statements implies the other, the line between universal and generic gnomics here is awfully thin. I do think a text like the following would more definitely be a generic gnomic:

"The Lord looses the fetters;
The Lord gives wisdom to the blind;
The Lord sets up the broken down;
The Lord loves the righteous;
The Lord preserves the strangers..." (Ps. 146:7-8 [145:7-8 Gk.]).

Here are some other examples:

"The Most High dwells [KATOIKEI] not in places made by human hands" (Acts 7:48; also 17:24). "The Spirit searches [ERAUNA] all things" (1 Cor. 2:10). "God is [ESTIN] not tempted by evil, and he tempts [PEIRAZEI] no one" (James 1:13). "God.knows [GINWSKEI] all things" (1 John 3:20).

I grant that some of these occurrences might be classified as customary presents (1 Cor. 2:10; James 1:13), but in any case the line between the customary and the universal gnomic would be very thin in such texts. Nor do I think one can eliminate the category of universal gnomic by reclassifying all of these texts as customary presents, unless the customary present is broadened to include verbs expressing states that are always, continuously true-which amounts to letting the universal gnomic in through a side door.

Now, let's look at your examples. "God knows what you need before you ask for it." This could be construed as a "generic" type of gnomic present: on those occasions (past, present, or future) that you happen to ask for something you need, at any such occasion God knows before you ask. However, the sense might be that God *always* knows your need-even before you ask for it. Taken in that way, the verb could be construed as a universal type of gnomic present. In any case, we agree that "knows" in this occurrence is a gnomic present (as in the similar sentence in Matthew 6:8).

On the other hand, you deny that "knew" is gnomic in the sentence, "God knew me before I was born." Well, given this English sentence, obviously "knew" cannot be a gnomic present because it is not a present-tense verb. (Might you be begging the question here as to how a Greek text using the present tense in this place should be translated?) What, though, of the sentence, "God knows me before I am born"? This sentence is grammatically parallel to your first example. There is a difference, one you pointed out in setting forth your two examples. In "God knows what you need before you ask," you write, "the 'before' clause refers to an action that occurs repeatedly, at any time, past, present, or future." In "God knows me before I am born" (to use my more grammatically parallel example), "the 'before' clause indicates a specific PAST event," namely, the birth of the speaker. This difference, I think, clearly proves that "knows" in "God knows me before I am born" cannot be a *generic* gnomic. However, it does not preclude that "knows" in such a sentence cannot be a *universal* gnomic. At the least, the sense of the sentence is consistent with such a classification: to say "God knows me before I am born" would seem to be another way of saying "God *always* knows (or, "has always known") me, even before I was born." If this is not gnomic, it is something very much like it. Of course, we are here indirectly revisiting Jeremiah 1:5; I will have more to say about this verse in my response to you on that subject in a later post.

I would rather not get bogged down in a discussion of the meaning of such terms as "timeless" and "omnitemporal" (see your comments, p. 231). My comment about the word "timeless" possibly being confusing to some had reference to the fact that some people interpret the word "timeless" as a description of God to mean that God is "outside of time," meaning that God does not participate in actual moments of time. This is not how most orthodox Christians use the word, but the confusion exists, and I was actually trying to avoid that confusion. If one understands "timeless" to mean not limited to any one specific point or period of time, the word is serviceable in this discussion, though it could still be ambiguous. A proverbial statement like "Dead men tell no tales" is "timeless" in that it applies at any time, though not literally at all times in a continuous or permanent sense. "God knows all things" is a statement of what is true continuously at all times; some would express this point by saying that it is "timelessly" true, but it does not matter to me one bit whether we use the term in this way or not. What is important is to recognize the distinction between the two kinds of statements.

I had written:

"Obviously, one must qualify this 'timeless' usage as relatively timeless in the case of nature, though not in the case of deity (particularly in the biblical context)."

You commented:

You are here committing the fallacy of postulating a distinct theological grammar, that the semantic significance of grammar and syntax is different in theological discourse than in non-theological discourse. This is the foundation of the circularity inherent in modern Christian reading of the Bible. It views the Bible as insufficient to convey its meaning in its chosen language of communication, which was not any sort of special theological grammar, but the regular and ordinary grammar of the Greek of the time. (pp. 231-32)

I disagree. Rather than "postulating a distinct theological grammar," I am recognizing distinct uses of the same grammar in different contexts. The act of assigning an unqualified "timelessness" to statements about God and not to statements about nature is not arbitrary or theologically question-begging but arises from a consideration of these statements in their differing contexts. Likewise, I do not base my interpretation of John 8:58 solely on the grammatical features of the text in the abstract but in relation to the immediate context in John 8 and the associations that Jesus' statement evokes in its Jewish theological context.


Here again is what Dana and Mantey wrote about "the static present": "_The Static Present_. The present tense may be used to represent a condition which is assumed as perpetually existing, or to be ever taken for granted as a fact.... 2 Pt. 3:4...Jn. 15:27; 1 Jn. 3:8.... The idea of
progress in a verb of action finds its natural counterpart in an idea of perpetual state in a verb of being. This use is practically the present of duration applied to a verb of being" (Dana and Mantey, 186, capitalized emphasis added). (H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, _A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament_, rev. ed. [New York: Macmillan, 1957], 186.)

In my earlier post dealing with this subject, I had commented:

"They use this term 'static present' to refer to a usage of the present that is formally similar or analogous to the PPA (which they call 'the present of duration') with a verb of being that expresses a 'perpetual state.'"

You replied:

THEY do not consider this usage "formally similar or analogous to the PPA," YOU do. They put it in a completely different class, one in which the progressive character of the present tense is not prominent. You assume they assign what others consider a PPA to the `static' category, and that is why you conclude what you do. But this turns out to be not true of two out of three examples, and the third is just a misunderstanding on their part (see below).

You have either missed or chosen to ignore the statement that Dana and Mantey made that was the basis for my comment. Regarding the static present, they wrote: "This use is practically THE PRESENT OF DURATION APPLIED TO A VERB OF BEING." There it is, explicitly comparing the static present to the present of duration and saying that the former is "practically" the latter applied to a verb of being.

To try to disprove my point-though you cannot do so if you ignore the evidence I present for my point-you claim that Dana and Mantey assign the PPA and the static present to completely different classes and that the static present is assigned to a category "in which the progressive character of the present tense is not prominent." Only by sleight of hand can such a claim seem persuasive. Dana and Mantey divide uses of the present tense into two categories, "Regular Uses" and "Special Uses." In the regular uses (progressive, which includes the present of duration; customary; and iterative) the "fundamental idea of progress is especially patent" (Dana and Mantey, 182). In the special uses "the root idea is not so evidently patent"; these "are not of so frequent occurrences as the regular uses" (184). But patent and prominent are not the same. Thus, whereas most of Dana and Mantey's "special uses" do not convey a progressive or linear force (the aoristic, futuristic, historical, and tendential uses, 184-86), they explicitly state that the static present DOES express such an idea: It represents "a condition which is assumed as perpetually existing.... The idea of progress in a verb of action finds its natural counterpart in an idea of perpetual state in a verb of being" (186, already quoted above). If there is a distinction between progressive and perpetual, it is that a perpetual state is even more extended through time than a progressive one; or it may be a distinction between a state of being and an action. In any case, Dana and Mantey explicitly state that the static present is essentially the same as a present of duration applied to a verb that expresses a state of being.

I had written:

"I still do not understand why Dana and Mantey listed John 15:27 as both a present of duration (PPA) and a static present. But I agree with them that the present tense can express a static, perpetual, or unchanging state of being."

You ignored my second sentence and offered to answer the first. You explained that "You have been with me from the beginning" in John 15:27 is the present of duration (PPA) while "you bear witness" is the static present. You then comment, "However, I think this usage here is basically the same as the descriptive present." I do not think this explanation will work. Here is the entire sentence:

"When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will witness about me, and you witness also, because you have been with me from the beginning" (John 15:26-27).

I see only two ways to construe "witness" (MARTUREITE) in verse 27. We may construe it as a futuristic present, conforming it in sense to the future indicative "he will witness" in verse 26. This is how the verb is translated in the NKJV, NASB, and other versions. The other choice is to construe it as an imperative, which is how it is translated in the NIV and other versions. The NRSV retains the ambiguity with its rendering "you also are to testify." Neither of these choices understands the verb as a descriptive present. Nor do I see any plausible way that Dana and Mantey might have construed the verb as a static present expressing a "perpetually existing" state. So, I doubt they had MARTUREITE in mind when listing John 15:27 as a static present, though it appears there is no way to prove they did or did not.

The situation is similar with their citation of 1 John 3:8. Since there are two present-tense indicative verbs in that verse and Dana and Mantey do not specify one of them, we cannot be certain which one they meant. And again, neither of them works as a static present. "The one committing sin is [ESTIN] of the devil" may be gnomic, as you said, but it is clearly not
expressing a static situation or perpetual state (so, if gnomic, it must be generic, not universal). "The devil sins [hAMARTANEI] from the beginning" is the better candidate for a verb expressing something of relatively perpetual duration, though not, as I pointed out, a perpetual state. Still, given their description of the static present, it seems more likely that Dana and
Mantey were referring to hAMARTANEI, though we cannot be certain either way.

Regarding 2 Peter 3:4, I wrote:

"The hypothetical objector in 2 Peter 3:4 is asserting that everything remains just as it has been from the beginning of creation. Whether we translate this as if it were a PPA (as some translations, such as the NLT, do) or as a static or gnomic present (as many translations do, such as the KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, and NRSV), the meaning in this text is essentially the same."

You replied:

False. If 2 Peter 3:4 involved a gnomic (or "static") present, then it would be saying that all things have AND WILL remain the same from the beginning of creation. Because as a "timeless fact" it is ALWAYS TRUE. "All things [always] remain the same"(!). (p. 235)

Indeed! That is exactly what Peter is representing the scoffers as saying! They are scoffing at the idea that creation will be radically changed in the Second Coming of which Christians speak because it appears to them that everything just continues the same. Therefore DIAMENEI ("remains," "continues") in context expresses the idea of things always staying the same, "that all things have AND WILL remain the same," as you put it.

The fact that the KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, and NRSV all translate DIAMENEI in 2 Peter 3:4 using an English present tense lends considerable support to my point here. Clearly, these translators understood DIAMENEI along the same lines as Dana and Mantey and NOT as a PPA.

Now, your argument for bias in the conventional translations of John 8:58 is that these versions, in adopting that rendering, deviate from the way they translate similar verses. Yet I have cited other verses where many of these same versions also translate in the present tense a verse that you claim should be construed as a PPA. 2 Peter 3:4 is one of these. You have plainly stated that you think Dana and Mantey are wrong about 2 Peter 3:4; well, you then must also say the same thing about the KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, and NRSV. Knock yourself out! But the fact that these versions translate 2 Peter 3:4 as they do undermines your argument that they handle John 8:58 in an unprecedented and skewered way. Brenton's translation of Psalm 89:2 LXX is another example. I just don't think the evidence supports your strong claim that the present-tense verbs in these texts MUST be interpreted as PPAs and MUST be translated using a form of the English past tense.

I stand by my conclusion to my post #16:

"So, the Greek present tense can denote a static, perpetual, or unchanging state. We might call this a type of the 'gnomic present,' or a 'static present,' or even a broad form of the 'descriptive present.' It doesn't matter. What matters is that we recognize that such a usage, attested in the grammars, does occur. This gnomic/static/broad-descriptive present can be formally similar to the PPA in some cases, and which category we apply will depend to some extent on how broadly or narrowly we define the PPA and on how the elements of the sentence work together with the verb in context" (174).

Furthermore, I conclude that 2 Peter 3:4 is an especially good example of the point.

In Christ's service,

Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
Center for Biblical Apologetics
Online: http://www.biblicalapologetics.net

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