googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: John 3:16, "The One Who Believes", The Continuous Aspect of Greek Participles

Saturday, March 13, 2010

John 3:16, "The One Who Believes", The Continuous Aspect of Greek Participles

I've sometimes heard much hay made about the continuous aspect of Greek participles. I concede that there is an implication of an ongoing process whenever a participle occurs but I object to the characterization that a participle means there is a process going on forever without interruption. This is often the argument made concerning John 3:16:

πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται, ἀλλ᾿ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
“Everyone believing in Him should not perish but should have eternal life.”

The participle in this passage is “πιστεύων” (pisteuōn, “believing”) and the argument has been made that the use of a participle demands that eternal life is only available to everyone who continuously believes. If the person should cease to believe, he ceases to have eternal life. I'm always curious how people who use this argument define “eternal life”; if you once had eternal life but no longer have it, then it wasn't really “eternal,” was it? Besides that, though, I believe this is an abuse of the continuous nature of participles.

As I read Greek, I see participles functioning in a way very similar to English participles. They typically act as either adjectives or adverbs. Consider the sentence, “I hurt my knee while jogging.” In this sentence, “jogging” acts as an adverb describing when I hurt my knee. Jogging would generally be understood to be an act that continued for a while but no one would understand it to mean I continuously jog without interruption. Neither would anyone take that sentence to mean that my knee hurts only while I jog. The very ordinary understanding is that I hurt my knee during an act of jogging and my knee is still injured regardless of whether or not I am still jogging.

We can see a similar, adverbial use of the participle by John in Revelation 1:12:

καὶ ἐπιστρέψας εἶδον ἑπτὰ λυχνίας χρυσᾶς,
“And when I turned, I saw seven golden lamp stands.”

John is describing when he saw these lamp stands: when he turned. It would be absurd to imagine that John must continuously turn around in a circle without interruption to see the lamp stands. Likewise, “believing” in an adverbial sense would describe how or when we come to salvation. The use of the participle alone does not demand that salvation is only available as long as we continuously believe without interruption.

But “believing” in John 3:16 is not an adverb, it is an adjective. Even so, a similar principle applies. Imagine that I am sitting in a restaurant with a friend and I say to him, “Look at that pretty girl sitting by the window.” Next imagine that my friend leaves and I go to the counter to pay. While I'm standing in line, the pretty girl gets in line behind me and we talk for a couple of minutes. After I leave the restaurant, I call my friend and say, “I just talked to that pretty girl sitting by the window.” Now, the fact that she was no longer sitting by the window when I spoke to her is not important. I am using the participle “sitting” as an adjective to identify which girl I'm speaking about. From now on, she could forever be identified as “the pretty girl sitting by the window”.

My “pretty girl sitting” example is not entirely sufficient because the participle in that clause is an attributive adjective. In John 3:16, the participle is being used substantively. In English, substantival participles are rare – or at least infrequent. It's difficult to think of several examples but one good example would be “driver” which is understood to mean, “the one driving.” Once someone is identified as the driver, he can continue to be referred to as the driver even when he's no longer driving. For example, in the police report of an auto accident, the police officer might refer to someone as “the driver of the first car” even if the officer never observed him driving. So once again we can see that the use of a participle does not automatically mean “continuing forever without interruption.”

Setting the context of John 3:16 aside, there are at least three acceptable translations of ὁ πιστεύων:

“The one believing”
“The one who believes”
“The believer”

These three possibilities are functionally equivalent. As stated above, people who insist on the continuous aspect of “believing” in John 3:16 are usually trying to create the impression that salvation is conditional on our continued belief. However, the word “believer” means “the one believing” in exactly the same way the word “driver” means “the one driving.” Just like a person can still be identified as the “driver” even if he should stop driving, so can a person be a “believer” even if he could temporarily stop believing. If someone should claim to be a believer and then later claims to be an unbeliever, I suggest he was never a believer in the first place (1 John 2:19).

Let me end with a qualifier: I believe that the believer identified in John 3:16 is indeed someone who continuously believes. Consider for a moment John's use of ῾Ο νικῶν (“the one conquering” or “the victor”) in Revelation 2:11. If a person has won the victory, then he is forever the victor. It is not conditional on some continued state conquering. Rather, it is an adjective that describes his permanent status as “the one who overcame.” In that same sense, the participle “the believer” is not a conditional statement that we are saved only as long as we believe. It is instead an adjective describing our permanent state of being a saint after having once believed.

No comments: