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Does the Present Tense Necessarily Mean “Now but not later”? (1 Tim 2:12) - Mondays with Mounce

Categories Biblical Studies Greek

1 Timothy 2:12 is one of the most debated verses today. My point in discussing it is not to enter into the general debate but to deal with an erroneous misunderstanding of the present tense. Most of what follows comes from my commentary on the Pastorals.

The phrase οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω, “I do not permit,” is generally translated “I do not permit/allow/let.” Some argue that because the present tense is used, it should be translated “I am not presently allowing a woman to teach” (Spencer, Beyond the Curse, 85) or “I am not permitting” (Payne, Trinity Journal 2 [1981] 172). Spencer comments, “Yet at this time Paul wanted to restrain the women at Ephesus from teaching the men until they themselves were well instructed” (JETS 17 [1974] 219). If Paul had intended the instruction to be for all time, it is argued, Paul would have used another form such as the imperative or future indicative or aorist subjunctive, or otherwise explicitly indicated such (Payne, Trinity Journal 2 [1981] 171; Fee, 72; Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, 180; Padgett, Int 41 [1987] 25; Witherington, Women in the Earliest Churches, 120-21; Kroeger and Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman, 83).

However, this is a serious misreading of the present tense. Grammarians unanimously agree that the present tense views an action from inside the action “without beginning or end in view” (Fanning, Verbal Aspect, 103). It says nothing about the completion of the event but only that from the speaker’s point of view it is an ongoing process. To say that the present tense implicitly teaches there is an end to the action is simply wrong.

There are also contextual arguments that make the same point.

(1) Wallace points out that the generic γυνή, “woman,” indicates that ἐπιτρέπω is gnomic and concludes that “the normal use of the present tense in didactic literature, especially when introducing an exhortation, is not descriptive, but a general precept that has gnomic implications” (Greek Grammar, 525, citing forty-one passages). To argue that Paul would have had to use a different verbal form if he were to indicate a timeless truth is simply not correct; this is the force of the gnomic used to describe an action that always occurs (cf. Fanning, Verbal Aspect, 208-17).

(2) If the use of the present tense automatically necessitated that the statement be relegated only to the author’s present, then this would raise serious problems with much of Paul's writing. In his thirteen epistles, Paul uses 1,428 present-tense active indicative verbs (out of a total of 2,834 indicative verbs in Paul). If this objection is true, then almost nothing Paul says can have any significance beyond the narrow confines of its immediate context. To be sure, many of these present-tense verbs refer to a specific historical situation (e.g., 1 Cor 8:13), but the reference is indicated not by the tense of the verb but by the context of the verse (cf. Wallace's comments on Eph 5:18; Greek Grammar, 525).

(3) When one looks at the use of the present tense in the PE, the general, universal scope of the tense is continually illustrated. In the PE there are 111 present-tense indicative verbs. If all of these were also relegated to the author’s present situation, then the PE would no longer teach us today that the law is not for the just (1 Tim 1:9), that God wishes that all could be saved (1 Tim 2:4; 4:10), that it is a good thing to pursue the office of elder (1 Tim 3:1), that the mystery of the Christian religion is great (1 Tim 3:16), that physical exercise is of some value but godliness is infinitely more valuable (1 Tim 4:8), that children should take care of their parents and grandparents (1 Tim 5:4), that there is great gain in godliness (1 Tim 6:6), that those desiring to be rich fall into temptation (1 Tim 6:9), that the love of money is a root of all evils (1 Tim 6:10); and the list goes on (cf., e.g., 1 Tim 3:2-13; 4:5; 5:4-18; 24-25; 6:7).

While the use of the present tense does not require that a statement be true in the future, neither is there anything in the tense that requires it to be true only in the present but not later. Spencer’s translation, “I am not presently allowing a woman to teach” (Beyond the Curse, 85), implies to many ears that the statement would not be true later, something the present tense cannot by itself connote.

(4) Moo finds twelve uses of the first-person-singular indicative in Paul that make a universal statement (Rom 12:1, 3; 1 Cor 4:16; 2 Cor 5:20; Gal 5:2, 3; Eph 4:1; 1 Thess 4:1; 5:14; 2 Thess 3:6), two of which (1 Tim 2:1, 8) specifically indicate that the statement is universal, which would imply by default that Paul uses the construction to make a universal statement (Trinity Journal 2 [1981] 200).

Wallace argues that there is no instance in Paul that the combination “first person singular present tense with an infinitive [“not permit to teach”] ever means ‘right now, but not later’” (Greek Grammar, 526 n. 30).

Again, my point in saying all this is not to enter into other debates surrounding this verse, but I thought it was important to clarify this misunderstanding of the present tense. As I said above, the present tense views an action from inside the action “without beginning or end in view.” It says nothing about the completion of the event but only that from the speaker’s point of view it is an ongoing process.

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