Archive for the ‘Prophetic Perfect’ Category

In an earlier blog, I suggested that passages traditionally understood by distinguishing between “positional” and “conditional” reality would be better perceived as NT uses of the OT rhetorical device known as the “prophetic perfect.”  Having briefly made that case, I would like to take it one more tentative step. Let me first of all say that I know that the inference I am going to draw will seem radical to many.  But is not the blogsphere the place for edgy ideas?  (I don’t know who wrote that rule, but I’ll appeal to it when it suits me!)  In truth, I am loathe to embrace or espouse radical ideas. And yet I am convinced that there could be profit in at least considering a further – if incendiary – ramification of the case I made earlier for finding the Old Testament prophetic perfect on the pages of the New Testament.  And thus, a brief and uncharacteristic moment on the edge.


My concern is for the reading of NT passages which have in recent decades been construed as describing theological realities which are “already/not yet.”  Indeed, the “conditional/positional” construct has been almost entirely replaced by the notion expressed as “already/not yet.”  Again, if that turn of phrase were intended to say only that the promises referenced are absolutely certain of fulfillment, I would take no umbrage.  But the formula has become shorthand for the notion that the promise at stake can be both fulfilled and unfulfilled, a possession both presently possessed and not yet possessed. 


I know I am treading on very sacred ground here, and I don’t anticipate many will agree.  But that construct seems to introduce into the passages a measure of abstraction that borders on incoherence, if not contradiction.  (“Already – but not yet!”  I ask humbly and honestly, are we perhaps taking liberties with the law of non-contradiction?)  Furthermore, a great many theological inferences are drawn from the perceived “already/not yet” character of those passages (cf. Col 1:13).  On the other hand, if those passages are read simply as New Testament uses of the prophetic perfect, then the “already/not yet” dynamic is not to be found in those passages, and thus those inferences cannot be drawn.  But nothing is lost exegetically; indeed, those passages are seen to be straightforward and powerful affirmations that the promises under discussion are absolutely certain of fulfillment.


If nothing more than as an intellectual exercise, I would argue that it is worthwhile at least to ponder the following:  a) the minds of the NT writers were certainly saturated with Old Testament truths and thought forms, and b) if the NT writer is simply utilizing a nuance borrowed from the Old Testament, a rhetorical device which to the mind of his readers powerfully bespeaks certainty of fulfillment, then c) the passages can be read as straightforward expressions of absolute certainty, such as that which was conveyed consistently in the older Scriptures by the exact same rhetorical device, and therefore d) the inferences drawn largely from those passages deserve to be rethought.


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Being an attempt to make full proof of the following proposition:

The writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.


In my mind, one of the most compelling evidences of that remarkable intellectual habit of mind is that Hebrew grammatical nuances – forms which are foreign to the Greek language – are employed by those Greek-writing Hebrew-thinking apostles.  One of those is the use again and again in the New Testament of a construction which, in the Old Testament, is known most commonly as the “prophetic perfect.”


The Old Testament thought form

Throughout the Old Testament, when the future is foretold the anticipated event is spoken of as if it were a completed reality.  That is, the grammatical form in which the prophecy is framed (i.e., the Hebrew perfect or perfective) would normally be read to describe completed action. But in these cases the event is in fact future, and yet because the matter being foretold by God is certain to come to pass, it is spoken of as already accomplished.  Although this may sound strange to a modern Western ear, it is a very common feature of the Hebrew tongue. 


The standard grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, describes one of the uses of the Hebrew perfect as follows:

To express facts which are undoubtedly imminent, and, therefore in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished (perfectum confidentiae), e.g., Num 17:27, behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Gen 30:13, Isa 6:5 (I am undone), Prov 4:2. . . . This use of the perfect occurs most frequently in prophetic language (perfectum propheticum). The prophet so transports himself in imagination into the future that he describes the future event as if it had been already seen or heard by him [my emphasis], e.g. Isa 5:13 therefore my people are gone into captivity; 9:1ff.,10:28,11:9…; 19:7, Job 5:20, 2 Chr 20:37.

 Section 106n, pp. 312-313


Again, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Waltke & O’Connor) refers to this usage as the “accidental perfective,” in which “a speaker vividly and dramatically represents a future situation both as complete and as independent [my emphasis].”  That text allows that this form is also known as the “prophetic perfect or the perfective of confidence” (Sec. 30.5.1.e, pp. 489-490).  And again, Jewish authorities consistently recognize this usage (though some have inconsistently tried to argue that the messianic prophecies in the canonical prophets must refer to a past Messiah, as those prophecies are in the perfect). Commentator Nahum Sarna says of Exodus 12:17 (“I have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt,” though that event was yet to happen),

     This is an example of the “prophetic perfect.” The future is described as having already occurred because God’s will inherently and ineluctably possesses the power of realization so that the time factor is inconsequential.

Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1991), p. 59.


Examples of this usage abound throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.


The New Testament Use

Again and again in the New Testament the future is spoken of as already accomplished.  Paul states that “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30); orthodox evangelical theology would affirm that the first three steps in that blessed gospel progression are accomplished reality for the believer, but that the final step is yet future.  Yet it is expressed as if it were as much an accomplished fact as the three which preceded it.  Again, Paul states in Ephesians 2:6 that God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  In Colossians 1:13 the apostle rejoices that Jesus “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.”  In my experience, this verse as much as any other is used to argue that the Kingdom promised by the Old Testament is already here, but if the verse is read in a way consistent with biblical habits of mind, it means nothing more (nor less, God be praised!) than this: the coming of that future day when we will be entirely delivered from evil in the kingdom of righteousness is so certain that it can be spoken of as if accomplished – which is the way God expresses anticipated realities throughout His Word.


A brief disclaimer.  I know that most do not discern the use of the prophetic perfect in the New Testament passages to which I have appealed.  Instead, a rather abstract construct has historically been appealed to in order to explain the apparent anomaly of future events spoken of as already accomplished.  That construct is the supposed distinction between “conditional truth” (what is true of man’s actual condition in the present physical world) and “positional truth” (what is truly and certainly destined to be ours because of our position in Christ).  Let me be clear: I concur with the point being made via the “condition vs. position” construct. Indeed, I cherish that reality.  But I am persuaded that the whole c/p construct would have been counter-intuitive to the Jewish-Christian readers of the New Testament.  It seems an abstraction born of a Greek turn of mind.  But more importantly, there is ready to hand an explanation which results in virtually the same understanding of the past tenses in strategic NT passages, but which looks to the intellectual habit of mind evident throughout the Old Testament to explain the perceived anomaly.  That is what I am arguing for here.

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