Friday, February 3, 2012

Carson on the Aorist, the Middle, Granville Sharp, and Colwell's Rule

I have four items for my write-up today on D.A. Carson's Exegetical Fallacies: Second Edition:

1. Carson states on page 66 that "Languages 'break down' with time: the syntax becomes less structured, the number of exceptions increases, the morphology is simplified, and so forth." Some of this is evident in the use of the aorist and the present tense in the New Testament. What I have learned in introductory Greek-language classes is that the aorist is a past tense or refers to a single incident rather than a continuous action. As one professor said in an introductory Greek class, the imperfect tense is like a movie, whereas the aorist is like a snap-shot. And, if I'm not mistaken, the present tense was also presented as continuous in the introductory Greek classes that I took.

But things are more complex than that. Carson cites examples in which an aorist is used when the author is talking about a continuous action. For example, Philippians 2:12 uses an aorist when it says "you have always obeyed". Although the aorist indicative often refers to an incident in the past, that is not always the case, for the aorist is used in "in you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11) and "the grass withers" (I Peter 1:24), and these do not describe past, completed events. Regarding the present tense, Carson discusses Zane Hodges' argument that the present tense is not always used to describe continuous activity. On page 100, Carson states: "He argues, for instance, that most Christians would not [interpret the present tense in John 14:6b as] 'No one continually comes to the Father except through me,' as if occasionally someone might come another way." So how can we tell what an aorist or a present means in a biblical passage? According to Carson, it's by looking at the context.

2. Carson criticizes those who assume that the middle voice of a verb is always reflexive or "suggests that the subject acts of itself" (page 75). When Luke 8:24 says that the waters subsided in the middle voice, it is not saying that the waters of their own volition decided to stop raging. Carson also notes that there are deponents----verbs that are in the middle voice, yet their meaning is not reflexive but can be active. I'm happy to note that, in the introductory Greek classes that I took, I learned about deponents. Moreover, getting into Greek literature itself is enough to disabuse one of any notion that the middle is always reflexive. Heck, I remember times when the past passive functioned as a deponent!

3. I never learned about the Granville Sharp rule in Greek classes. I took introductory Greek at universities, not in Christian seminaries, which is probably where the Granville Sharp rule is discussed. But I learned about the rule when talking with theological polemicists who liked to appeal to the Greek. The rule in its simplistic form states: "if two substantives are connected by kai and both have the article, they refer to different persons or things...; if the first has an article and the second does not, the second refers to the same person or thing as the first..." (Carson here is quoting Syntax of New Testament Greek, by Brooks and Winbery.) Here's an example: II Peter 1:1 says "Our God and Savior Jesus Christ". Under Granville Sharp, that is saying that Jesus Christ is both God and Savior, and the reason is that there is a definite article in front of "God" but not in front of "Savior", and both terms are connected by kai ("and"). If the author had wanted to say that God and the Savior were two separate entities, he would have put an article in front of God, and an article in front of Savior, and the text in the English would read: "our God and our Savior Jesus Christ". But there is no article in front of "Savior", and so, under Granville Sharp, God and Savior are referring to the same person. (There is actually debate about this passage, but I'm just appealing to it to show how Granville Sharp works.)

But, as Carson notes, Granville Sharp is actually more complex than that. For instance, Granville Sharp himself said that the rule does not apply when the nouns are in the plural. When the New Testament says "the Pharisees and Sadducees", for instance, it is not saying that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were the exact same party, for, in Acts 23:7, we see that expression, and yet the author acknowledges that the Pharisees and Sadducees disagree with each other on the issue of the resurrection. Moreover, Carson notes that the presence of an article in front of two nouns----"the (noun) and the (noun)"----does not necessarily mean that there are two entities. In Revelation 2:26, we see a reference to the one who conquers and the one who keeps God's word, but that is not saying that the one who conquers is a separate entity from the one who keeps God's word. They're the same person, even if there's an article in front of both nouns.

4. John 1:1 says that "God was the word". Because there is not a definite article in front of "God" here, Jehovah's Witnesses translate that as "the word was a god". They do not want to say that the word that became Jesus Christ was God himself, for they do not believe that Jesus (before, during, or after his life on earth) was God. But they claim that Jesus as the word was "a god", a supernatural being who was less than God.

Is their translation legitimate? Or can one translate the phrase as "the word was God", meaning God, even if there is not a definite article before the Greek word for "god"? According to Colwell's rule, we can translate it as "the word was God". Colwell's reasoning is this: In the Greek, the order is actually "God was the word". There is an article-less noun that comes before a copulative verb ("was"). According to Colwell, in many cases, a definite noun that comes before a copulative verb lacks the article. Consequently, even though there is not an article in front of "God", it can refer to "God" (which is definite) rather than "a god" (which is indefinite). Carson responds, however, that article-less nouns before copulative verbs can be definite or indefinite----that we see both in the New Testament, in "an approximately equal proportion". Carson has grounds for believing that John 1:1 is saying that the word was God, not just "a god", but he does not think that Colwell's rule by itself is adequate justification, at least for showing that the text has to mean "the word was God".


  1. Regarding Jehovah's Witnesses' "New World Translation" Bible and its rendering of John 1:1, it may interest you and your readers to know that, in support and explanation of their wording of this verse (especially within the third clause with "a god"), there is soon to be published a 20+ year study (as of 2/2012), a thoroughly researched reference work - an historical analysis & exhaustive annotated bibliography - it will be entitled, "What About John 1:1?"

    To learn more of its design and expected release date, you are invited to visit:

    When finally published, apart from discussing many of the other topics and scriptures often related to the man-made Trinity doctrine, you will also discover that we have collected information on about 430+ scholarly reference works (mostly Trinitarian) which, throughout the centuries, had opted to say something other than, "and the Word was God," and that, included among them are over 120 which had chosen to use "a god" within the third clause of their renderings.

    As you might expect, we are very excited at the opportunity to share our findings with others.

    Agape, JohnOneOne.

  2. Thanks, John. Someone else you may want to tell about this is Nick Norelli at He's interested in Trinitarian issues.

  3. James: I've been hearing about this book for nearly a decade. It all started way back when I used to debate in AOL chat rooms. I can't believe it still hasn't been published.


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