Brian Abasciano, James White’s Faulty Treatment of the Greek and Context of Acts 13:48

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by Brian Abasciano

Here are some comments I made in the Society of Evangelical Arminians private discussion group on James White’s treatment of Acts 13:48 in his book The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free (Amityville: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000). It was suggested that they be posted on SEA’s public website, so here is a mildly revised version of my comments. I refer to the first edition of White’s book, published in 2000, where White’s treatment appears on pp. 186-90. I believe there has been at least one revision, but have not consulted any revisions.

Near the beginning of his treatment White states that there is a mountain of argumentation against the view of the Greek word tasso as meaning “disposed” or the like. This is gross overstatement. If one looks at his treatment, there is hardly any evidence against it. He only gives 2 arguments, one having little to do with this specific text and the other invalid on grammatical grounds.

He begins with the fact that the vast majority of translations translate as “appoint” or something similar. That is a great point in his favor, but hardly carries much weight. It can easily be chalked up to tradition or failure to attend to exegetical details. Translations are not authoritative and translators can rarely exegete the text in detail given the focus of their task. This point of his is effectively countered by the fact that the most authoritative lexicon for New Testament studies (abbreviated BDAG)* translates the word differently than all those translations.

White also states that there is nothing in the text to motivate the “disposed” translation. Yet the scholars he cites (Buswell and Alford) as advocating it give good contextual reasons that White ignores.

A fair point White makes here concerns Luke’s usage of the word, that he uses the passive of it elsewhere to mean “appoint”. But that is not Luke’s only usage of it, and his usage is relatively minimal; he only uses the word itself 5 times, and then only 3 times in the passive! In 2 of those, BDAG lists the usage under the arranging/positioning meaning rather than under appointing. White carries out a misleading argument in which he points out how ridiculous it would be to think the word means “disposed” in the places in Acts where it clearly means “appoint.” But this comes off as naïve. Scholars know that a word’s meaning is determined by context. Word usage elsewhere by the same author is to be considered, but is not necessarily determinative. This is a case in which it clearly is not. And that point is butressed by Luke’s limited usage. So White’s point here has little to do with the specific context of Acts 13:48. It is not much by way of positive evidence for his view or against the “disposed” view against which White tries to argue.

That takes us to White’s grammatical argument, which is simply invalid. First, he states that the periphrastic construction “must be translated as a ‘pluperfect’” (189). That is false. Pluperfects are frequently translated with the simple past tense (cf. Wallace, 584; book reference below). But that is a relatively minor error that bears little on the substance of the issue. White then goes on seemingly to make a vital grammatical mistake in discussing the pluperfect. He says that it speaks of a completed action in the past and does not contain the idea of continuation of the past action into the present. In of itself, this statement is true, but then he seems to critically assume/treat this as if it means something very different, viz. that the pluperfect actually indicates that the past action does *not* continue into the present.

But note, e.g., Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 583:

To put this another way, the force of the pluperfect tense is that it describes an event that, completed in the past, has results that existed in the past as well (in relation to the time of speaking). The pluperfect makes no comment about the results existing up to the time of speaking. Such results may exist at the time of speaking, or they may not; the pluper­fect contributes nothing either way. (Often, however, it can be ascertained from the con­text whether or not the results do indeed exist up to the time of speaking.)

Now notice that I said “seems to” above, because White could claim that he doesn’t really state that it indicates the action does not continue into the present. But then one wonders why he stresses the point about not indicating continuation into the present. His inference is that tasso refers to past action. But that is unobjectionable.

But even if White’s comments here were granted, or if he did not intend to indicate that the pluperfect means the action does not continue into the present, he then makes a thoroughly flawed argument concerning the context in relation to the grammar. He argues that on the “disposed” view, tasso would have to refer to “something that takes place at the very point where the Apostles quote from Isaiah and proclaim that the Gentiles can receive the blessings of the gospel” (189). This is incredibly off track. Why would it have to do so? First, the gospel had already been preached to them the week before by Paul! So they certainly could have been disposed toward eternal life through that; indeed, I think they were. But they could have already been disposed to eternal life before hearing from Paul too (such as through being God-fearers, the synagogue, the Old Testament, etc.). Second and relatedly, the pluperfect construction is not connected directly to their rejoicing, but to their believing! It places the disposing prior to their belief, not necessarily prior to their hearing the Isaiah quote or even their rejoicing and honoring the word of the Lord. If the disposing view is taken, then it makes perfect sense that the disposing is what led them to believe; they were disposed to eternal life, and believing in Christ was the means of gaining eternal life; so they believed. So really, White’s argument is very weak. Sometimes it seems that some are convinced by arguments like these because an author gives concrete reasons and mentions Greek, but that they do not necessarily think through the arguments well enough. In the midst of White talking about the mysterious sounding Greek pluperfect, he says it would have to apply to such and such a point in the narrative, though without any foundation for doing so, and his following naturally believe it. But the argument is not sound.

* W. Bauer, F.W. Danker, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 3rd ed., 2000).