Monday, April 28, 2008

Whatever you Bind or Loose . . .

Ben Witherington's Errors on the Periphrastic Participle in Matthew 18:18

I found a link from Alpha & Omega to this article from Ben Witherington. I don't have time presently to write a full response, so here's the quick and dirty. Witherington states (in elliptical form):
One of the more interesting sayings of Jesus with equally interesting theological implications is found in Mt. 18.18--" I tell you whatever you (i.e. Peter and the gang) bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." . . . If the Evangelist, and/or Jesus before him had wanted to say "whatever is bound on earth, was already bound and determined in heaven" he could certainly have done so, first in Aramaic and then in a Greek rendering of the same. The fact is that Jesus here says the opposite. . . . Now we could debate endlessly about what this refers to. In my view it has to do with decisions about community matters such as are described in vss. 16-17. The point is that there is a heavenly
ratification of such a spiritual decision on earth.
When one of his readers asked about the grammar used in this passage, Witherington responded:
Firstly, the future tenses in the second clauses in this verse are just that future tenses, they are not perfect tenses.

When another reader pointed out the obvious--namely, that the periphrastic future-perfect is employed in this passage and not merely a future tense verb--Witherington responded:

Sorry but this is not the way such conditional statements in Greek work at all. You cannot judge these things on the basis of verb tenses and participles by themselves, but in context. When a future tense is in the apodosis of a future more probably conditional statement, it always implies a future condition, NOT a perfect one. Mounce is simply wrong about this if he was referring to conditional clauses.

Sorry, but the fact that a periphrastic participle happens to appear in a conditional clause has absolutely no bearing on the meaning of the periphrastic participle (what is Witherington’s authority for this? He does not say). A future-perfect periphrastic participle means “will have been,” not simply “will.” The action of such a participle in the apodosis of a conditional statement is indeed future, but it is always a past action from the standpoint of the action in the protasis. In the present case (Matt 18:18 and Matt 16:19), the periphrastic construction means “whatever you bind/loose will have been bound/loosed in heaven.” See the NASB on Matt 16:19 and Matt 18:18, as well as the notes for those passages in the NIV, the ESV, and the NET. I would refer the reader to D. A. Carson for more information on this construction, who concludes these statements "must therefore be rendered 'shall have been bound/loosed'" (Commentary on Matthew). While he is tentative about seeing future-perfect force purely on grammatical grounds, he argues convincingly that other "paradigmatic" considerations are at work here (particularly why this grammatical construction was used over against a simpler one which is more common--especially with the luo word group). See also Mantey's comments. I also checked with Turner and BDF, and found nothing to overturn this (in fact, Turner plainly states that the periphrastic future-perfect carries the normal force of a future-perfect, and lists both Matt 16:19 and 18:18 as examples, 89). I haven’t checked Wallace yet, but since he helped with the notes on the NET I cannot imagine him saying anything different. The point is, by the time Peter et al has bound or loosed, that binding/loosing has already taken place in heaven. There are still those who dispute this understanding, of course. But my larger point is that Witherington's fiat on the periphrastic participle and this passage won't hold. The passage simply does not support Witherington’s point about human free will. But even if we grant that Witherington's understanding of the participle is an exegetical option, it is still only one option. That's a far cry from the cut and dried way Witherington has argued his case. At best, it's a poorly chosen passage if his goal is to convince us of his Arminianism.