Passive? Really?

On Sunday, our guest-speaker for service used Romans 12:2, and jokingly mentioned that he wanted to talk about the grammar – which always makes eyes roll a little. The intent was obvious, and he then stated it explicitly – he wanted to point out the fact that the two main verbs in the verse are in the passive tense in the Greek.

At at least one other point he jokingly talked about the verb δοκιμάζω, which comes later in verse 2, telling it’s meaning and joking, “…if anyone is actually looking on in the Greek…” He probably expected that no one was. Not so. It is my regular pattern to read along in the Greek with my interlinear. I only wish it had Hebrew – we’re looking at Nehemiah, and that isn’t in my Greek interlinear. But I digress…

I’ve heard this (the whole passive-thing in Romans 12:2) many times before, and never really questioned it. But having looked recently at middle and passive verb forms (which by themselves are the same in non-aorist/future tenses, to my knowledge), I found myself in a quandary. Now, all this may be just an instance of hubris. I don’t imagine myself to be an authority on Greek. And definitely not Koine particulars, since I’ve actually been studying Classical Greek. So take my conjectures and thoughts here with some grace. I’m looking for correction where my line-of-reasoning is faulty.

I just don’t see any reason to argue conclusively that both verbs are definitely passive! The usual intent is to say that the transformation is not something we can “do” on our own. And while I am fine with that sentiment, I don’t find the passage evidence compelling to require it.

The two phrases in question are:

  1. καὶ μὴ συσχηματίζεσθε τῇ αἰῶνι τούτῳ
  2. ἀλλὰ μεταμορφοῦσθε τῇ ἀνακαινώσει τοῦ νοός

I think there is agreement that the first phrase’s verb can be translated in either middle or passive. blueletterbible.org show it as being either/or. Either way, the verb must govern a dative, rather than an accusative for the expression to make sense. So it is either passive, “and do not be conformed to this age,” or middle, “and do not conform yourselves to this age.”

The next expression is clearly stated to be passive by many. And I don’t see the defining reason in the text. If read in the passive voice it reads, “but be transformed by means of the renewing of your mind.” Read in the middle, as far as I can tell, it says, “but transform yourselves by means of the renewing of your mind.”

So before going further, how does one differentiate between middle and passive?

  1. If there is a direct object in the accusative, the verb would be determined to be middle. Passive forms do not govern direct objects in the accusative to my knowledge – except in the case of double accusative forms like “teach” (e.g. he was taught the skill). But the lack of a direct object does not mean the verb is passive.
  2. If there is either a dative of personal agent or genitive of personal agent, the verb would be taken as passive. To my knowledge, the dative of personal agent is only used with the perfect and pluperfect tenses. In all other cases, the passive agent is given by the genitive of personal agent, ὑπό + genitive.

In this case, neither phrase has a direct object, so we are left without a clear-cut answer by the first rule. The second, similarly, does not clearly differentiate. But it appears to in English, where using the preposition “by” without the words “…means of” confuses the matter. The dative in the second phrase, τῇ ἀνακαινώσει, is not a dative of personal agent (that is my snap judgment), since the verb is not in a perfect tense. It is a dative of means. And this would actually argue against the passive reading, in my mind.

Read passive, it is saying that we should allow ourselves to be acted upon and states the means of the action, not the agent of the action. Read as middle, it says that we do an action, and we perform the action through a tool – the renewing/complete change of our mind. To be clear, if we read it passive, we must be very certain not to confuse the verse to say that the renewing of our mind performs the action. It is merely the means. Indeed, it is usually treated as the Holy Spirit transforming us by renewing our minds, thus causing the transformation. And I don’t argue with believing that. I’m just having trouble requiring that of this verse.

Another factor that might be given consideration is the preceding verbal clause in verse 1. It is a wish/command (“I beseech you…to present…”). It is a verb governing an infinitive. But it would seem to suggest an action on the part of the hearer. We ought to present our bodies. And if the following verbs are taken in parallel, as actions that support and follow this presentation, it would seem reasonable to treat them both as middle (actions we do to ourselves or for our own benefit).

As well, usually when brought forward into English, I have heard this phrase read, “Allow yourselves to be transformed…” I’m not sure whether to call that passive or middle. It actually sounds a lot like the hortatory subjunctive (though not in the first person – a requirement of the hortatory subjunctive, “Let me/us do…”).

Either way, the idea being presented is that the renewing of our minds will have the end result of transformation. I think we could reasonably say that we are to transform ourselves by the renewing of our minds without implying that we are actually responsible for the action causing the transformation (think, “…have yourselves transformed by means of the renewing of your mind…” This is a very reasonable middle voice reading. The passive nicely indicates that we are not the agent of transformation, but it renders the agent of means in an unclear fashion.

So here is where you come in. Am I missing a finer point of passive/middle discrimination? Or is there a matter of Koine usage versus Classical usage of the dative?

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About George

I'm interested in theology, languages, translation and various sorts of fermentation.
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3 Responses to Passive? Really?

  1. chioulaoshi says:

    In some instances, the distinction between middle and passive would make MUCH difference. I’m thinking of the example of προεχόμεθα in Romans 3:9. Is it intended to be middle or passive? If middle, then Paul was asking, “Are we better?” If passive, then Paul was asking, “Are we worse?” The meaning would be 180 degree opposite!!!

    In the case of Romans 12:2, whether these two verbs are understood as middle or passive won’t make that much of difference. The mid/pas form places the focus on the EXPERIENCE. Whether a pastor or speaker wants to emphasize that we are not being conformed to the world but being transformed because of God’s doing, or that we should take a more active role in not conforming ourselves to the world and transforming ourselves, Paul’s focus was that the believers experience or undergo the conformation and transformation; Paul was not trying to say HOW this should happen (by ourselves or by God).

    Hope this helps.

  2. George says:

    Right. Some verbs can have very distinctive differences in passive/middle meaning, e.g. γράφω/γράφομαι “write”/”indict”, ἄρχω/ἄρχομαι “rule”/”begin” I agree, the distinction here is not that great.

    At the same time, I often hear people making a great deal about these verbs being passive as an argument against our ability to produce transformation in our own lives. I find the argument from this text to be inconclusive. And that is not to say that I don’t agree, it is only to say that this verse is not a smoking gun.

    Thanks for the input. I’ll have to take a closer look at Romans 3:9.

  3. Pingback: 關身或被動? « Chioulaoshi Weblog

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