MDR: The present-tense argument

A common counter-argument to the foregoing interpretation of the Mark and Matthew passages is this. The phrases typically translated “commit adultery” are in fact in the present tense in Greek.[1] As many Bible students know, Greek has more verb tenses than English. In particular, in addition to the present tense, Greek has an “aorist” tense.

Generally speaking, the Greek present tense indicates continuous action while the aorist tense indicates action that occurs just one time at a particular point in time. Greek scholars refer to this as “punctiliar” action.

Now the argument is this. If “commit adultery” is in present tense (and it is), then surely Jesus was referring to the divorced person as “living in adultery.” A continuous verb tense indicates that the sin condemned by Jesus is not just the divorce or even the remarriage, it is also the continuing in the marriage. And if continuing in the marriage is sin, then we must insist that the marriage not be continued.

This argument overlooks a subtlety of the Greek language. The present-tense verbs are in the indicative mood. The indicative mood asserts a fact. However, in the indicative mood, present tense does not necessarily indicate continuous action. Edwards accumulates a number of authorities that leave this point beyond doubt.

The Greek [present indicative] covers both ideas in the indicative … it is not wise therefore to define the present indicative as denoting “action in progress” … .

On April 25, 1978, Harding Graduate School of Religion conducted a preachers’ forum on the subject of “Divorce and Remarriage.” In a question and answer session, the question was asked whether “commiteth adultery” in Matt. 19:9 is a continuous act or a one time sin. Raymond Kelcy, who teaches at Oklahoma Christian College, answered first, saying: “… But there is nothing in the verb, the present tense verb, to give anybody any consolation on either side of that question. If it gives anybody any support it would be the punctiliar. … When asked to comment on the same question, and Kelcy’s handling of it, Floyd said: “I would agree with brother Kelcy’s handling of it, Floyd said: “I would agree with brother Kelcy. I think that is right.”[2]

Dr. Floyd served and taught for many years at Lipscomb University as a professor of Biblical languages and has long been recognized as among the Church of Christ’s greatest scholars in New Testament Greek.

Hicks actually went to the trouble of counting the use of the present indicative in each of 719 occurrences in Matthew. Where a clear distinction could be made, 62.3% of the verbs indicated point time, not continuous time.[3]

Finally, as previously noted in our discussion of Matthew 5:31-32, the correct rule is that whether the verb is point in time or continuous must be taken from the context, especially the surrounding verbs. “Divorces” and “marries” are inevitably point-in-time verbs. Therefore, “commits adultery” is also a point-in-time verb.


[1] Present indicative passive or middle, to be precise. “Present” is the tense, as in English. “Indicative” is the mood. English doesn’t have much in the way of moods, except the subjunctive, which is nearly forgotten. “Passive,” “active,” and “middle” are the voice. Greek verbs thus have a tense, mood, and voice. English verbs have a tense and voice, and occasionally a mood.

[2] Clinton Hicks, The Abuse of The Present Indicative, a guide research paper presented to professor Richard Oster, Harding Graduate School of Religion, Memphis, TN, Harding School of Religion Library, p. 18, quoted by Edwards, p. 68.

[3] Ibid.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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7 Responses to MDR: The present-tense argument

  1. Mike says:

    Hi,

    I am currently studying the subject of MDR and have ran across this argument and others. In addition I am reading a book by Olan Hicks “What The Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, & Remarriage”.

    Mr Hicks and others make the same claim as stated in the above post. After considerable study I agree with the present tense statements. I do find it interesting/suspect that the aorist tense is used in Matt. 19 of divorces and marries as point of time then changes to present. If point in time is to be maintained then why not stay with the aorist tense. There is no logicial reason to change the tense unless you are wanting to convey something other then point of time.

    Running a count of present tense verbs and converting that information into percentages and probabilities to prove a point of scripture is a very weak argument.

    I am very frustrated so far in my study in that experts in Greek line up on both sides of the present tense argument and that a subject of this importance and magnitued is so complex.

    Mr. Hicks outlines in chapter 10 that the Greek language is very complex and takes years of intense study to fully understand. If this is infact the truth, it renders the bible as a useless document to the average person and only understandable by the highly educated. The Catholic church and the dark ages were of this same mind.

    It seems to me to be untenable that the souls of so many rest on the interpatation of the tense of one word in scripture.

    Thank you,

    Mike

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Mike,

    I agree. The answer shouldn’t depend on one difficult Greek construction. That’s why I make several arguments from several directions.

    This post is part of a series indexed at http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/marriage-divorce-remarriage/

    I think you’ll find that there are quite a few arguments in favor of the interpretation I argue for.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Jay

  3. Yvonne says:

    Hi,

    I think it's worth noting that the aorists are in the subjunctive mood, which denotes possibility, something that may happen. I'm no Greek student, but I have studied other languages with such tenses and moods, so 'divorces' and 'marries' would be read as 'may divorce', and 'may marry' in the sense of future possibilty, then the present tense for 'commits adultery'. So, it's not the the divorcing and marrying has happened, but that it may happen, which means that the present makes sense. One is not going to assume that 'commits adultery' is something one 'may' do, but something one *does* do, one time, *if *the previous actions 'may' happen, one time.

  4. Christopher says:

    I find it interesting that we are today tying our doctrine to a verb tense, after Jesus refuted the Sadduces’ false belief that there is no resurrection on the basis of verb tense (when God tells Moses He IS the God of long deceased Abraham, Issac and Jacob). Verb tense can have huge implications for our doctrine and even salvation – that much is clear.

    There are only two possibilities in this matter: one either commits adultery once or does so continually. From what I have read, the verb root is important in ascertaining how such a question is answered – as Robertson wrote, an eye blinking is punctiliar but a heart beat is continuous. Since the adultery in question occurs because of a new marital relationship (wihich is continuous), I find it hard to conclude that Jesus was not indicating an ongoing act of adultery.

    Explain why I am wrong if you think that I am.

  5. Alabama John says:

    Maybe we could add Romans 4:15. “Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.
    It seems to me grace would cover those in the past who sinned.
    For sure, the law sure has caused a lot of wrath among Christians.
    Seems if it was so important God would of made it easier to understand so we could follow it willingly and not fear having something wrong that can be understood in so many different ways as to cause anxiety over our salvation among us.
    If the common man cannot understand what is required of us, but only todays experts, then God would be the author of confusion and that cannot be the case at all.
    Keeping it simple for us should be in our mind when we study teach, and preach, since the Bible was written for the common man.

  6. Alabama John says:

    Apply this same logic to other sins like drunkedness, gulttony, and many others plainly listed. Ever how it applies to all the others let that same reasoning about Adultery apply. All apply the same logic.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Christopher,

    You entirely misapply what Jesus said.

    (Matt. 22:31-32 ESV) 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

    Jesus does seem to make his case based on the tense of “am” — present tense. So if Jesus can argue from the tense of a verb, why shouldn’t I?

    As shown in the post this comment is attached to, in Matt 5:31-32, in this construction, the present indicative takes its time action from the context.

    (Matt. 5:31-32 ESV) 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces [aorist, point in time] his wife, let him give [aorist, point in time] her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces [gnomic present participle, borrows time from context] his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery [aorist, point in time] and whoever marries [aorist, point in time] a divorced woman commits adultery [present indicative, borrows time from context].”

    Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, says “divorces” in . 32 is a gnomic present, which is neutral as time — meaning time comes from the context. Obviously, although “divorces” or “releases” is plainly a point-in-time action, the verb is a present participle. Plainly, Jesus can use present tense to refer to a point in time action.

    What is being asserted, then, is that, in divorcing, the man is not creating a clean slate with freedom to remarry; on the contrary, his establishment of a new relationship will be an act of adultery against his spurned wife.

    Nolland John, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NICGT, 2005, 244.

    When is this woman made what Jesus says? The moment her husband drives her out whether she marries again or not. Even when women such as this eventually married again, they were made μοιχευθῆναι the very moment they were driven out. It ought also to be plain that Jesus here scores the husband who drives out his wife. Of what is the woman guilty? Jesus has no indictment against her. She is the one that is wronged; that is what the passive states, and doubly so with ποιεῖ before it. Jesus here shows against whom this wicked husband sins: first against his innocent and helpless wife, and secondly against any man who may later on consent to marry her (hence the second passive μοιχᾶται)

    R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 232–233.

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