1 John 1:9

Mark House mhouse at fuller.edu
Fri Aug 17 15:08:17 EDT 2001

I apologize for my delay in getting back to this thread. A thought or two
more and I'll leave it:

On the question of present tense significance in 1 John 1:9, Mark Wilson

>>If, by Progressive, you mean an action that is ongoing in the
sense of "unbroken continuation," then I think I would have to disagree.
I am not sure the word hOMOLOGEW could bear that here.

"Unbroken continuation" certainly was not my intent. I intended a broader
understanding of progressive action, which could include iterative action
over a longer period of time.

>>Personally, I think of a Present as "ongoing" as often as I think
of an Aorist as "once-for-all," which is practically never, and
on the occasions I do think of an "ongoing" action or state, I do so
based on the lexical aspect primarily.<<

I don't think my understanding is too far from Wallace's definition, which
is fairly typical. He portrays the present broadly as focusing on an
action's "development or progress" (after Fanning) and states (after McKay)
that it "basically represents an activity as in process (or in progress)"
(Gk. Grammar Beyond the Basics, 514). Certainly this "unaffected" or "basic"
meaning can be intruded upon by such influences as lexical meaning, but it
is nevertheless, for Wallace and a number of others, the starting point for
understanding the present tense.

This well-accepted understanding of the present tense, by the way, stands in
sharp contrast to the discussion of the "punctiliar" aorist, which has been
seriously called into question in a number of studies.

Mark Wilson again:

>>I would prefer to call this a Habitual Present. The idea then is
not to be continually confessing, but make it your habit to
confess your sins... but only as often as is necessary.<<

Then Robert Matlack responded:

>>Wouldn't it make better sense to see this as a general, timeless,
statement that something happens? If we want to title it, it would be a
gnomic present. The idea then would be "If this happens, then that
happens." I don't see how either progressive or habitual is required. It
seems more a statement of principle. The major truth is stated in 1:5.
The related truths or principles are stated in 1:6-10 -- 5 or 6 depending
on how you divide them.<<

Later Robert expanded:

>>I'm certainly no expert, but Wallace (I know he is not held in
high regard by some) does discuss the "gnomic present" of which he says,
"This usage is common". He discusses the idea as an action viewed as a
general fact (perhaps I have misread him). I find the idea here better
than the habitual. It does not seem that His faithfulness and justice is
habitual, it is a general truth, or that His forgiveness and cleansing is
conditioned on our habitual action. Are we not forgiven and cleansed the
first time we confess or do we have to have a habitual pattern?<<

Quite true. The gnomic (as well as the habitual) seems like a viable
candidate here (though not my preference).  In fact, when you consider that
Wallace categorizes the iterative, the customary (habitual) and the gnomic
(timeless fact) all as "broad-band presents, " at least to that extent we
all seem to agree. The presents in the conditional sentences in 1 Jn. 1
don't seem to anticipate one-time actions, but actions conceived as
temporally broad in some respect.

Later, Mark Wilson cited Porter's work to make the following point:

>>The Aorist or Present does not change HOW
based on how the writer wants to portray the action.<<

While this is certainly an important point to consider when dealing with an
event that has already taken place, it's a bit hard to know how to employ it
with respect to an anticipated action like the confessing in 1 Jn. 1:9. If
John's portrayal of the anticipated confessing is (or can be) fundamentally
different from the way the confessing will actually occur, it's hard to see
the point of the way in which the conditional statement is constructed. In
other words, why use the present subjunctive (with its basal progressive
significance) for the protasis when a single act of confession is
anticipated? Does not the choice of the present indicate the way in which
John at least anticipates that the action will occur?

Then Rob Matlack added a new wrinkle:

>>I have since run across a
reference to an article by J. P. Louw, "Verbal Aspect in the First Letter
of John," Neotestamentica 9 (1975). Louw is quoted in the reference
"...expository discourse of which the First letter of John is an example,
employs the present predominantly for it is a zero tense of factual
actuality." This sounds similar to my idea of taking it as a statement of
truth or principle. Is anyone familiar with Louw's ideas?<<

While I think Louw's description applies well to the present indicatives in
1Jn., such as the "we announce to you" in 1:3, I don't think he intended the
description to include the present subjunctives of 1Jn's conditional
sentences, since these obviously aren't portraying actualities (or, for
those who like tongue twisters, factual actualities), but potentialities.
Thus I don't think Louw can be cited at this point to support the gnomic
understanding (or, in conditions, what is often called the "present general

Let me conclude by giving a quick "plug" for the more basal, progressive
conception of the present in these ch. 1 conditions (as that which John
anticipates will occur in the lives of the believers to whom he writes). I
think my preference for the progressive here is based on a desire to follow
the flow of the context with respect to the five conditional sentences in a
consistent way:

In the first (v. 6), although the claim (EIPWMEN) is aorist, it makes better
sense to me to understand the walking in darkness as ongoing (or repeated)
action than of general conditions. Here perhaps I'm influenced by the
lexical idea of "walking" (an example of Mark Wilson's "lexical aspect"
influencing meaning, I think). Something like this works for me: "If we make
the claim that we have (or "are having") fellowship with him, and we go on
walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth."

The second condition (v. 7) is again influenced by the "walking" concept,
and bolstered by the idea of fellowship, which seems to fit better with a
progressive state than a general condition. (However, it should be noted
that a decision regarding the aspect of the protasis need not force the same
decision with regard to the apodosis.) I like something like: "But if we go
on walking in the light as he is in the light, we have (or "are having")
fellowship with one another and the blood... cleanses (or "is cleansing") us
from every sin." I admit to a preference for the gnomic understanding of
"have" and "cleanses" here, so to an extent I'm again admitting the validity
of Mark Wilson's "lexical aspect" point at least for this apodosis.

Jumping to the fourth conditional sentence (v. 9) for the sake of brevity,
I'm persuaded by my perception of the context (influenced, to be sure, by
the lexical meanings of the verbs in question) and by the progressive
potential of the present tense, to go with a more progressive reading here
as well. Awkwardly: "If we should go on admitting our sins, he is (remains)
faithful and just...."

But as George Blaisdell keeps reminding us, perhaps we should not let our
hearts be (progressively) too troubled on these fine points, when we seem to
be together on the larger issue.

My last two cents, I think.

Mark House

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