This explanation by Jeff Smelser is included with permission and was downloaded on March 31, 2012 from http://www.ntgreek.net/present.htm :
FONT INFO: If you see boxes or question marks where you should see Greek text on this page, download and install the Gentium font. Aktionsart & the Present Tense In English, we think of the tense of a verb as denoting the "time" of the action. In Greek also time is indicated by tense, but only absolutely so in the Indicative mood. And time is not the primary significance of Greek tenses. Fundamentally, Kind of Action, rather than Time of Action, is indicated by tense.
For now, we will distinguish between two kinds of action, linear and punctiliar. Linear action can also be called durative, continuous, or progressive. Punctiliar action is instantaneous. (However, we need to guard against supposing that those tenses sometimes described as punctiliar necessarily imply instantaneous action. We will elaborate on this point when we discuss the aorist tense.)
The kind of action indicated by the use of the present tense is durative. There are special uses of the present tense where the durative idea may not be conspicuous. Sometimes, someone will learn of these special uses and mistakenly conclude that the durative idea is not fundamentally characteristic of the present tense. In the following paragraphs, we will consider the comments of several well known authors of Greek grammars in order to put the different uses of the present tense in perspective.
Linear Aspect is Characteristic of the Present Tense
It is incorrect to think of the time element (present time) as fundamental to a present tense verb and to therefore conclude that linear action is just a trait that may or may not accrue to the verb. In fact, it is the other way around.
First, let's consider some comments from the standard descriptive grammars:
The original function of the so-called tense stems of the verb in Indo-European languages was not that of levels of time (present, past, future) but that of Aktionsarten (kinds of action) or aspects (points of views). (Blass & DeBrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 166.)
...essentially the tense in Greek expresses the kind of action, not time, which the speaker has in view and the state of the subject.... In short, the tense-stems indicate the point of view from which the action or state is regarded....the present expresses linear action. (Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. 3: Syntax, p. 59.)
[The Present Indicative] normally expresses linear action (Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. 3: Syntax, p. 60.)
The durative (linear or progressive) in the present stem: the action is represented as durative (in progress) and either as timeless (ἔστιν ὁ θεός) or as taking place in present time (including, of course, duration on one side or the other of the present moment: γράφω 'I am writing [now]';...The present stem may also be iterative: ἔβαλλεν 'threw repeatedly (or each time)'. (Blass & DeBrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 166.)
These ideas (punctiliar, durative, perfected state) lie behind the three tenses (aorist, present, perfect) that run through all moods. The forms of these tenses are meant to accentuate these ideas. (A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 824.)
The grammars quoted above are widely recognized as the most thorough and authoritative. Other grammars, not as extensive in scope, also provide valuable insights. One is by Maximilian Zerwick, who describes three "aspects" with which a speaker might use a verb:
1) as a simple realization...without reference to continuation or repetition...: the "aorist"
2) as a nature or kind of activity in progress or habitual (repeated) or simply as this kind of activity or activity tending to a given end: the "present" or "imperfect"
3) as a completed act resulting in a "state of affairs" which is predicated by the verb as holding for the present time: the "perfect" (Maximilian Zerwick, Biblical Greek, p. 77.)
H. E. Dana and Julius Mantey were the authors of a popular intermediate grammar.
There are therefore, three fundamental tenses in Greek: the present, representing continuous action; the perfect, representing completed action; and the aroist... representing indefinite action. (Dana & Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 178.)
There are really two fundamental ways of viewing action. It may be contemplated in single perspective, as a point, which we may call punctiliar action (R. 823); or it may be regarded as in progress, as a line, and this we may call linear action (M. 109)....The aorist may be represented by a dot (.), the present by a line (_________), and the perfect by the combination of the two (.________). (Dana & Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 179.)
Hence, beginning, instructive grammars, instruct the student to assume the continuous idea when translating, and to view as exceptional those occasions when context and the requirements of English idiom demand some other rendering.
[The present active indicative verb] can be either a continuous ('I am studying') or undefined ('I study') action. We recommend using a continuous translation by default, and if it does not fit the context switch to the undefined. (William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek_, p. 125.)
The present tense is basically linear or durative, ongoing in its kind of action. The durative notion may be expressed graphically by an unbroken line (___________), since the action is simply continuous. This is known as the progressive present. Refinements of the general rule will be encountered; however, the fundamental distinction will not be negated. (James Allen Hewett, New Testament Greek, A Beginning and Intermediate Grammar, p. 13.)
The Terms Aktionsart and Aspekt
From German, we get these two terms which are used to represent the chief significance of tense in the Greek language. Aktionsart is "kind of action." Aspekt is "point of view" and refers to the kind of action as perceived by the speaker. During most of the 20th century, the term Aktionsart has been in the forefront of discussions about Greek tenses, sometimes being used as distinct from Aspekt, and sometimes being used comprehensively so as to include the idea of Aspekt. An example of Aktionsart being used to cover both ideas is found Nigel Turner's volume on Syntax. He summarized the significance of the tense stems in Greek saying they
indicate the point of view from which the action or state is regarded. The word Aktionsart (kind of action) has been taken over in all countries to express this essential idea.New Testament Greek, vol. 3: Syntax, A Grammar of p. 59.
Some Uses of the Present Tense Obscure the Linear Idea
Are there occassions when there is no durative idea even though the present tense is used? A. T. Robertson wrote,
It is not wise therefore to define the pres. ind. as denoting 'action in progress' like the imperf. as Burton does, for he has to take it back on p. 9 in the discussion of the 'Aoristic Present,' which he calls a 'distinct departure from the prevailing use of the present tense to denote action in progress.' In sooth, it is no 'departure' at all. The idiom is as old as the tense itself and is due to the failure in the development of separate tenses for punctiliar and linear action in the ind. of present time. (p. 864)
In other words, Robertson is saying the kind of action may be punctiliar even though the present is used. Fifteen pages later, he alludes to this observation saying,
It has already been seen that the durative sense does not monopolize the 'present' tense, though it more frequently denotes linear action. The verb and the context must decide. (p. 879)
But this does not mean Robertson considered the present tense to be equally well suited to a linear idea and a punctiliar idea. Rather, certain verbs in certain contexts may call for a punctiliar understanding.
Similarly, James Hope Moulton described the present stem as "normally denoting linear or durative action," but cautioned, "It must not be thought, however, that the durative meaning monopolises the present stem." (A Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. 1:Prolegomena, p. 119.)
Still, we should not be too quick to cease looking for a durative idea in instances where it is not at first apparent. In the phrase, "Friend, I do thee no wrong" (Matt 20:13), the durative idea may not be obvious. The verb translated "do wrong" is the present active indicative ἀδικῶ. The perceived wrong, that is, the perceived inequitable treatment, was a one-time occurrence. Is linear akionsart present here?
Linear aspect doesn't necessarily mean action perceived as continuing into perpetuity. It simply represents the subject as speaking from a perspective in the midst of the action. "Friend, I do thee no wrong." These words are spoken as the householder is in the midst of compensating his workers. The addressee has yet to take up that which is his. From the speaker's perspective, he is doing something (and he denies that what he is doing is wrong.) The linear idea is not absent.
In Matt 17:15, we read "oftimes he falleth into the fire." The verb "falleth" is the present active indicative πίπτει. We know from the context that it refers to repeated action. It is not literally continuous action. Each incident of falling is repeated again and again. Is a durative idea present?
The durative idea can be iterative or habitual, rather than constant. Robertson even suggests a different graph to illustrate an iterative action. Rather than a line ( _________ ), he illustrates with dots: (.....). (p. 880.) From the viewpoint of the father of the boy, falling into the fire is something that happens over time inasmuch as it happens repeatedly. In fact, the father means to convey the idea that this is not an isolated incident. This use is called the Iterative Present. This is not a different tense. It is rather one category of usage wherein the durative idea has a particular quality.
According to Moulton, Burton regarded "we forgive" (ἀφίομεν) in Luke 11:4 as punctiliar. And at first glance we might agree, understanding that forgiveness occurs at a point in time, and is not a process. However, Moulton offers the alternative view that ἀφίομεν may be describing habitual action and should here be considered an Iterative Present. Certainly that suits the context: "And forgive us our sins; for we ourselves also forgive every one that is indebted to us."
Burton, as well as Robertson, identified a Gnomic Present used in proverbs. Turner, citing Burton's discussion of the Gnomic Present, offers Mt. 7:17, Jn. 7:52, 2 Co 9:7, and Jas 1:13-15 as examples. Consider Mt. 7:17, "Every good tree makes (ποιεῖ, pres. act. ind.) good fruit, but the corrupt tree makes evil fruit." One might argue that producing fruit is not a continuous activity, that there are seasonal interruptions of the process. But the very nature of a proverb is to state that which is generally true. The reference is not to a single, isolated instance of bearing fruit, but to that which is characteristic over time. Thus the durative idea is present.
In Mt. 13:44, ἀγοράζει ("buys") is present active indicative, and yet is not easily understood to be linear. The man paid the money, took possession, and the deed was done. What use of the present justifies its occurrence here if the aspect is not linear? The Historic Present (again, not a different verb form, just a different use) occurs frequently in narrative, especially in the gospels. Often the verb λέγω ("say") is present in form even though it is describing past action. In these cases, kind of action is not necessarily durative. The idiom is much like our colloquial speech:
So the fat guy says to the skinny guy, "You're a wimp".
Then the skinny guy gets up and jumps on the fat guy's head.
The verbs "says," "gets," and "jumps" are all present in form, even though they are describing past action. In the original NASB, these verbs are often translated as past tense, and marked with an asterisk to alert the reader to the present form of the Greek verb.
Now, in Mt. 13:44, where "goes," "sells," "has," and "buys" are all pres. act. indicatives, if one insists on bringing the idea of continuous action over into English, I suppose one could translate, "and from joy of it, he is going and selling all things whatsoever he is having and is buying that field." This, however, would obviously not convey in English the idea intended in Greek. I believe what we have here is an example of Historic Present verbs. This seems to be confirmed by the parallel between the occurences of ἀγοράζω in verse 44 and verse 46. In the former case, it is present, and in the latter, past; however it serves the same purpose in both cases.
According to Turner, "the hist. present is an instance where Aktionsart and tense-forms do not coincide; this present usually has punctiliar action" (p. 60). But then he goes on to say that Mark and John are particularly fond of this use and "their narrative is made vivid thereby." It seems to me that in this last observation, we find the durative idea. This mode of speech, relating a past incident using present tense verbs, makes the narrative vivid by transporting the hearer to the time of the action. Or it could be said the incident being described is transported to the time of the narration. By this means, the speaker recreates the incident as if it is happening at the moment. He puts the scene before himself and his audience and they imagine the events unfolding before their eyes. They are imagining themselves as being in the midst of the time of the action. The action is viewed as happening and accordingly, I wonder if it is not best to consider that even though the action may be instantaneous, from the Aspekt of the speaker, there is a linear quality to it.
Linear Aktionsart characterizes the Present tense. If it can be argued that there is such a thing as a punctiliar use of the present, one should not be too quick to resort to this explanation when a linear idea is not immediately apparent. Not only the nature of the activity, but also the point of view of the speaker or the intended impression upon the hearer may call for linear Aktionsart and account for the present tense.
Published in The Old Paths Archive