Non-imperatives in Romans 12:9-13.

Why can’t we translate the non-imperative clauses in Romans 12:9-13 as something other than imperatives? I don’t see any reason why not. In fact, I believe that translating these non-imperative forms as commands puts too much emphasis on our human effort that just isn’t in the text at this point. The introduction of 14 commands in this passage also has the effect of hiding the more relevant theme that must be continuing in this passage of the Spirit’s control of our minds (cf. Rom. 8:4ff; 12:2,6). The tension within the ethics of the New Testament is that we are frequently commanded to do what we are only able to do through the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The pages of the New Testament do also give plain descriptions of what Spirit-regenerated life looks like, and these should not all be reduced to the rhetoric of direct instructions.

Understood descriptively, vv. 9-13 offer a detailed picture of what love looks like after the preceding discussion of gifts (analagous to 1 Cor. 12-13). It is not a series of orders, but it would have been heard as an attractive description of what love does. Certainly this should motivate us to those actions, but the real power behind any of these loving behaviors is the control of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. These aren’t just mitigated commands. The expository nature of the text leaves more room for figuring in the role of the Spirit.

The real difficulty is how to translate this passage into English when there are some surprising subject-verb agreement features of the Greek text that can’t be automatically carried over into English. The first phrase says “Love (singular) [is] unhypocritical (singular),” but the following supporting phrases are all plural verbal participles (e.g. “abhorring (plural) evil, clinging (plural) to the good…”).

I think the main reason all our English translations go the way of expressing all 14 of these clauses as commands where there isn’t a single imperative verb is this: in trying to do justice to the apparent discrepancy of the lack of number agreement between the first singular clause and the following plural participles, making them all commands apparently solves this problem in English.  By supplying an implied command (“let be”) for the first clause (“let love be unhypocritical”), there is no longer any lack of agreement between the subject of the first clause and the assumed plural “you” subject of all the following participles. The subject now is always ‘you’.

The big problem, however, is that the grammatical subject of this whole paragraph is ‘love’. The traditional English solution loses that and shifts the entire focus to ‘you’. A second person plural subject is not expressed in any form in any of these 14 clauses in vv. 9-13 (nor in the previous 5 verses).

A better understanding of the apparent mismatch in the Greek subject-verb agreement of vs. 9 is that Greek normally allows the semantics of the situation to dictate the forms of the subject and verb. This is regularly seen in various disagreements for person and number when there are compound subjects, and for a variety of semantic reasons (see my summary of the issues here). In Rom. 12:9 the disagreement comes about because the true initial subject of the paragraph is the singular notion of love, but Paul is talking about love that is expressed by the multiple members of the body of Christ. The mismatch in number agreement happens when the singular abstract concept of ‘love’ is introduced and then described by participles that are plural due to the multiple agents in view.

Here’s my first attempt at a translation. Notice that the first command does not occur until vs. 14…

9 Love is unhypocritical: it is people abhorring evil, clinging to the good, 10 affectionate to one another with brotherly love, leading the way in showing honor to one another, 11 not shrunk back in eagerness, boiling over in the Spirit, serving the Lord, 12 rejoicing in hope, enduring suffering, persevering in prayer, 13 sharing their possessions for the needs of the saints, pursuing love between strangers. 14 Bless the ones pursuing you; bless and do not curse.

After translating this passage to more carefully reflect what is happening in the original text, a few things stand out that are not so apparent when all the dependent clauses are translated as separate commands…

The single sentence that includes vv. 9-13 starts off with the broad thematic content of the paragraph, namely, that love is unhypocritical. This theme is illustrated by a broad movement in the following participles from showing love to the brothers in the community who are called saints to a love that endures suffering and is sought after even between strangers.

The transition from the string of participial and adjective phrases in vv. 9-13 to the commands in vs. 14 is marked by the double use of DIWKW ‘pursue’ in vs. 13 in the sense of ‘hospitality’ (or more literally “pursuing love between strangers”) and in vs. 14 in the sense of “bless the ones pursuing (i.e. persecuting) you.”

Understood as a description rather than a series of commands, it also becomes more reasonable to understand the TW PNEUMATI as “the Spirit” rather than as the human spirit that one can manipulate. And that, I believe, is the whole point of Paul using participles in this paragraph rather than imperative verbs. It’s the Spirit’s work, first of all, before it is our own.

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Researching God’s Word, My Sometimes Idol

From my last post, I must recognize that I need to be the learner just as much as the teacher regarding this call from Scott Hafemann that I passed on to my students:

I would like you to think about Greek as loving the Lord with your mind in the same way that you engage in loving the Lord with your heart and your soul and your strength in all the other pursuits of your life.

Oh, how often I need to hear this in my own daily ministry routine. It’s ironic that I can be so deep into God’s word—preparing for a translation session, a teaching assignment, or delving into a biblical research interest—and yet I can easily approach God’s word as a work project devoid of any real relationship with God.

I’m not talking about reading the Bible as a task to be checked off. No, for me it’s that I too often fall in love with the practice of the reading the word instead of loving the Presence of the Word who can speak into every minute of my life. I love my work, and I enjoy the flowers alongside of the road. But I can get so engrossed in the details of the exegetical pathway that I lose sight of the journey’s destination. In this sense, even my time in God’s word can become an idol. It reminds me of something that my first undergraduate Bible teacher, Carl Schultz, used to say at Houghton College:

Make sure that in your exegesis you do not exit Jesus.

I think he was talking about a certain brand of scholars who tend to divorce the divine Jesus from the biblical text. But the warning applies equally well to my pursuit of biblical scholarship without it being a spiritual discipline offered in love to God.

When the study of God’s word lacks devotion to God himself, it could be an idol for me. Do I love my academic discipline more than my Lord and my God?
μὴ γένοιτο. May it never be!

But he gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

James 4.6-8

Lord, give me your grace each day to draw near to you, and won’t you arouse me from my spiritual wandering when I simply follow the daily grind?

Luther and Hafemann on Studying Greek

When I first found out that I would be teaching the introductory New Testament Greek course to national Bible translators and pastors in Papua New Guinea this month, I had to write my former Greek teacher, Scott Hafemann, right away. He was the first one who ever thought I would be doing this. Back when I was taking his classes for the Wheaton College Graduate School in 1998-99, I knew I was studying Greek so I could be a better qualified advisor to national Bible translators. But he was confident that I would be training mother tongue translators to use the Greek text for themselves.

So when I wrote to Scott with the news, he immediately made available to me the CD for his soon-to-be-released online course for distance learning through the Semlink Office at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

In the first lesson on the CD, Hafemann reminded me of a quote from Martin Luther that he had recited for us in class in 1999. Luther talks about how important the study of Greek is…

Insofar as we love the gospel, to that same extent, let us study the ancient tongues. And let us notice that without the knowledge of languages we can scarcely preserve the gospel. Languages are the sheath which hides the sword of the Spirit, they are the chest in which this jewel is enclosed, the goblet holding this draught. Where the languages are studied, the proclamation will be fresh and powerful, the scriptures will be searched, and the faith will be constantly rediscovered through ever new words and deeds.

I explained Luther’s images of the sheath, the chest, and the goblet so that my English-as-a-second-language students could fully grasp the word pictures. Papua New Guineans frequently use ‘tok piksa’ in their daily conversations. Judging from the nods and groans that accompanied the teaching, I believe Luther’s message spoke powerfully to the students. One student even came and asked for the quote after class. He got the following quote from Hafemann as a bonus.

Echoing Luther in his online course, Hafemann states:

Our study of the Greek language is not an end in itself, but we study Greek for the sake of knowing scripture, and we know scripture for the sake of understanding God’s self-revelation to us, and we want to understand God’s self-revelation to us that we might live in relationship with him. So Greek for the sake of scripture, scripture for the sake of knowing the Lord, and knowing the Lord for the sake of living in relationship with him. Greek and the gospel: inextricably linked…

It’s a spiritual discipline. Learning Greek is not simply an academic exercise. It’s a calling and it’s a privilege. It is a spiritual exercise like any other spiritual exercise, whether it’s prayer, fasting, worship. I would like you to think about Greek as loving the Lord with your mind in the same way that you engage in loving the Lord with your heart and your soul and your strength in all the other pursuits of your life.

That is what I am asking my Greek students to do here in PNG. Throughout the 6 hours that we have together each day, we intersperse the lectures and group activities with prayer, singing, Christian greetings, and lessons from God’s word that illustrate the Greek material. They are used to hearing explanations of God’s word through two or three subsequent translations, and they said “maybe something has gone missing.” So they are motivated to learn Greek so they can really hear God’s message to them and live in relationship with him.