A Word in Edgewise

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Putting off . . . putting on

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A new friend of mine—let’s call him HB—is an accomplished legal mind and great Bible teacher.  Recently, he started using The Voice in some of his teaching.  He posed a question to another friend—let’s call him ML (another accomplished legal mind and amazing Bible teacher)—about how to read Ephesians 4:22-24.  Paul uses two aorist infinitives for “putting off” the old self and “putting on” the new self.  Most Bible commentaries describe the aorist as a one time act.  It is often called punctilliar aspect.  That’s probably telling you a lot more than you want to know.  But the idea would be that we decide once and for all to put off the old self and put on the new.  In other words it refers to a person’s salvation.  But Klyne Snodgrass, a distinguished professor at North Park Theological Seminary, has this to say: “The aorist tense is used for undefined action. Not necessarily ‘point action,’ as has been the traditional way of looking at the aorist tense!”

Now here is how we translated the passage in The Voice.

 baptismal font

22 then you know to take off your former way of life, your crumpled old self—that dark blot of a soul corrupted by deceitful desire and lust— 23 to take a fresh breath and to let God renew your attitude and spirit. 24 Then you are ready to put on your new self, modeled after the very likeness of God: truthful, righteous, and holy.

You may notice words in both regular font and italic font.  The regular font is more of a straight line translation from the original Greek.  The italic is “explanatory paraphrase;” this expresses the idea of the Greek because often it takes more than one word in English to express the nuance and artistry of the original language.

Eventually HB and ML kicked the question to me and here is what I said to them late Saturday night.

You are correct that Paul uses aorist infinitives for “putting off” (the old) and” putting on” (the new).  In between however, he employs a present infinitive to describe ongoing renewal by the Spirit which is to typify the Christian life.

There are times when the aorist points to a one-time event (punctilliar) and times when it is undefined.  After all Greek only has a few tenses to draw from. and it is probably unwise to pound the pulpit every time you see an aorist.  On this occasion, however, I think the punctilliar is warranted because most scholars are convinced that Paul is making use of baptismal language when he talks about putting off and putting on.  Since baptism was supposed to be a one-time act, these aorist forms are appropriate.  Christian baptism–widely understood as initiation into the Christian life–was seen as the decisive turning point when a person denied the old nature once and for all and took on (intentionally) the new nature.  This language about Christian baptism was taken so literally in the first part of the second century AD that the baptismal candidates took off their old clothes, went down into the water naked, and came up from the water to put on a new set of clothes.  That was one reason why the church needed women deacons, to superintend the baptism of women candidates.

That said, however, I think Paul would also agree that we are to always be working out our baptismal vows.  That means we are continually in the process of renewal, which means setting aside/repenting of the old and appropriating the newness of the Spirit. This is why we translated the passage in The Voice the way we did.

Perhaps you’ve gone to a church and noticed a water font at the entrance to the sanctuary.  They are usually small and off to one side.  The purpose of the font is to remind you of your baptism.  You may see people dip their finger in the water and make the sign of the cross.

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