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.

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2 Responses

  1. 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. 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

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