Imperative Imposters

Introduction

Some New Covenant Theology adherents want to insist that even in the new covenant, whilst expounding vigorously that believers are not under the old covenant Law, nevertheless they ARE under a new kind of law. They would call this ‘the Law of Christ’, using Paul’s phrase from Galatians 6. When asked how we are supposed to discover what, precisely, this law contains, various answers are given. A common one is to assert that ‘the Law of Christ’ is made up of all of the ‘imperatives’ of the New Testament – the command-style statements made through those writings. And that these are the new-law ‘commandments’ which we are supposed to be obeying. However, on closer examination, this definition proves to be woefully inadequate on various counts. And one problem is the Greek use of the imperative ‘mood’. Here is a quick survey of Greek verbs:

“Ancient Greek verbs have four moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive and optative), three voices (active, middle and passive), as well as three persons (first, second and third) and three numbers (singular, dual and plural).

In the indicative mood there are seven tenses: present, imperfect, future, aorist (the equivalent of past simple), perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect. (The last two, especially the future perfect, are rarely used). In the subjunctive and imperative mood, however, there are only three tenses (present, aorist, and perfect). The optative mood, infinitives and participles are found in four tenses (present, aorist, perfect, and future) and all three voices. The distinction of the “tenses” in moods other than the indicative is predominantly one of aspect rather than time.”

Greek, then, is much more precise than English, and sometimes our translators have struggled to adequately represent what is being said. They do a valiant job. Just, sometimes, we need to know a little more so that we do justice to all that the text is saying.

Imperatives have ‘strength’

We must also see that all imperatives are not equal. They vary in ‘strength’. In other words, there are ‘levels’ of commanding, and this can be quite adequately seen in English. James L Boyer says:

Much popular exegesis of the Greek imperative mood rests on unwarranted assumptions. Analysis of the actual usage of the imperative in the NT reveals that many common exegetical conclusions regarding the imperative are unfounded. For example, a prohibition with the present imperative does not necessarily mean “stop.” And when it does, it is context, not some universal rule of the imperative, that determines the meaning. The imperative mood has a wide latitude of meanings from which the exegete must choose in light of contextual clues. The temptation to standardize the translation of the various imperatival usages should be resisted.” Grace Theological Journal 8.1 (1987) 35-54. [“A Classification of Imperatives: A Statistical Study” – James L Boyer]

Even in our own language, we can see that imperatives can be used in different ways. Let’s take a single-word imperative – “Go!” – and see if I can illustrate.

  1. Encouragement – “Go for it” (implies ‘you CAN do it’)
  2. Exhortation – “Go on – shoot!” (as my football team’s striker nears the goal)
  3. Direction – “Go left at the next junction” (Satnav command)
  4. Authoritative – “Go into all the world and preach the gospel”

There are probably others. What determines? Context, of course. Boyer, again:

Commands include a broad spectrum of concepts–injunctions, orders, admonitions, exhortations–ranging from authoritarian dictates (a centurion ordering his soldier to go or come, Matt 8:9), to the act of teaching (Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5:2, cf. 12ff.). Commands are distinguished from requests as “telling” is from “asking.” The distinction, however, is not made by the mood used but by the situation, the context. They are used in the language of superiors to subordinates and of subordinates to superiors, and between equals.”

To reiterate, Greek is far more ‘analytical’ than English. It has more tenses. And tenses have moods. As an example of this, there is a ‘mood’ in Greek called a ‘hortatory subjunctive’. It converts an imperative into an exhortation – usually translated ‘Let us’. But it is still an imperative. See, for example, Galatians 5 vs 26

“Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another”.

So what we might conceive of as New Testament ‘laws’ aren’t to be read indiscriminately as such, even if we take the view that the ‘law of Christ’ consists of all of its imperatives. For example, there are imperatives in what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Are we, then, commanding God? Of course not.

Simply, imperatives are not always ‘imperative’! Read Boyer’s article.

An Inadequate Definition

What I am seeking to demonstrate is that if this ‘law of Christ’ is going to be loosely defined as consisting of “all of the imperatives of the New Testament”, this is woefully inadequate. It does not give us enough basis for us to be able to decide what is ‘in’ and what is not. Which imperatives? How do we know? Second, we have no information about what the first church considered to be a part of it, and no way of deciding that. And what happens, without exception, with those who hold this is that they utterly fail to even attempt a definitive description. It is simply left as an extremely loose assertion, which is somehow expected to be convincing.

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About David White

Until recently David White served as a leader and preacher at a small village church in Lavendon, Buckinghamshire, England. At the present time he resides in Barton On Sea in the UK. He has been a Bible-soaked Christian for half a century, trained at London Bible College (now London School of Theology), but more importantly in God’s school of life.