God “Was Able”? Or “Is Able”?

In this post I’m doing a dangerous thing—questioning grammatical details in English Bible translations when I am only a second-year Greek student. So please take this post with a grain of salt. If you are a Greek scholar and you see I am missing something, please let me know and I’ll happily correct this post. Meanwhile, since blogs are good for thinking out loud, here goes!

[Edit: I’ve received responses from a couple people who know Greek better than I do, including my Greek teacher, Joseph Neill. Here is part of what he wrote:

Could it be translated as “God is able”? Yes, but the grammar does not require it; in fact, it leans the other way I think. But based on God’s nature and the greater context (4:23 especially), it is right for us to understand from this passage that not only was God able, but God is able. (Context might lean this way.) So, if this is what Paul had in mind (God is able), I think he would have said exactly what he did say. But then again, if he did not have all this in mind (but rather God was able) he would have still said it exactly how he did say it. =)

Later: I would need to study and think more about it to be sure I got it right, especially the part that suggested Paul  could mean either was or is (in English thought) and he would have worded it the same either way. I would like to find examples that conclusively prove this hunch of mine.

See this comment below for his full response, as well as similar thoughts in comments from Marlin Sommers.]

Today I continued reading through Romans in Greek for the first time. Near the end of chapter four, I noticed something interesting:

ὃ ἐπήγγελται δυνατός ἐστιν καὶ ποιῆσαι. (Rom. 4:21)

A hyper-literal translation might read something like this:

What [he] has promised, able [he] is also to do.

Here is the same clause in some popular English translations:

What he had promised, he was able also to perform. (KJV)

What He had promised He was also able to perform. (NKJV)

What God had promised, He was able also to perform. (NASB)

What God had promised, he was also able to do. (CSB)

What God promised he was also able to do. (NET)

God was able to do what he had promised. (ESV)

God had power to do what he had promised. (NIV)

Do you see the difference? The Greek uses a present-tense verb (“is” ἐστιν), but these English translations use past-tense verbs (“was” or “had”). The Greek seems to say “he is able also to do,” while the English translations say “he was able also to do.”

Why might these English translations do this?

Here’s one possible explanation: Some Greek writers frequently insert “present tense” verbs into narratives of past events. But they do this without intending to imply that the action is happening presently. This is sometimes called the “historical present.” In other words, the Greek “present tense” does not neatly match English present tense verb usage, sometimes being used instead for other rhetorical purposes. (Hence my scare quotes around “present tense” above.)

You can see this in a translation such as the NASB, which marks these verbs with an asterisk. Here’s a random example from Mark:

As they *approached Jerusalem… He *sent two of his disciples, and *said to them… (Mark 1:1-2)

Is the same thing happening here in Romans 4:21? I doubt it. This use of the Greek “present tense” is usually found in narratives—in stories. This passage is not a story but rather a discussion about a story. Steven Runge, who discusses the “historical present” in depth in his recent book Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, does not appear to include even one example of the “historical present” from any of Paul’s letters. Almost all of his examples come from the Gospel narratives.

Another possible explanation for the English translations here is that they switch from present to past in order to match the other half of the clause: “what he had promised.” But there, too, the Greek seems to carry more of a present tense: “what he has promised.”

(The weeds: The Greek verb here, ἐπήγγελται, is a perfect tense-form. The perfect tense-form is often understood as describing a present state that is the result of a past action. Though it was dying out in the Greek Koine of the NT era, there was also a pluperfect tense-form that is basically a past version of the perfect tense-form: “had promised” instead of “has promised.”)

In summary, it seems to this second-year Greek student that neither half of the clause clearly carries a past tense sense. The first half (probably) depicts a present state (“what he has promised”) and the second half (more clearly) asserts a present reality (“he is able also to do”).

This brings me to my third and best working explanation: The English translations above do not follow the Greek as closely as they could. Interestingly, I am not alone in my assessment. There are a few English translations that agree with me, some old, some recent:

What He hath promised He is able also to do (YLT “Young’s Literal Translation)

Whatever things God hath promised, he is mighty also to do. (Wycliffe)

What he has promised he is able also to do. (Darby)

What God has promised, He also is able to do. (TLV “Tree of Life Version”)

God is able to do whatever he promises. (NLT)

Similarly, though I haven’t found any commentaries that directly address this translation question, several appear to indirectly affirm my conclusions. First, a comment from Moo:

It is Abraham’s conviction that God is fully able to do whatever he promised that enabled his faith to overcome the obstacle of the tangible and visible “facts.”1

And, better, a direct translation by Schreiner, followed by commentary:

Abraham grew strong in faith “by being fully assured that God is able to do what he had promised” (πληροφορηθεὶς ὅτι ὃ ἐπήγγελται δυνατός ἐστιν καὶ ποιῆσαι…)… He surely has the power to accomplish what he has promised.2

[Edit: In his 2018 revision of this commentary, Schreiner interprets Romans 4:21 as even more clearly expressing the timeless nature of God’s ability. His translation now reads: “by being fully assured that God is able to do what he promised” (instead of “had promised”).  And his comment now reads: “He surely has the power to accomplish what he promises” (instead of “has promised”). See page 246.]

In sum, I give Darby top marks for following the Greek most closely: “What he has promised he is able also to do.” And I give the NLT top marks for best expressing the timeless truth that Abraham grasped: “God is able to do whatever he promises.”

Whether or not I am right in the above, this I do know is true: My own faith, like Abraham’s, will be strengthened only if I am confident that God is able—past, present, future, always able—to do everything he has promised.

This timeless nature of God’s power is expressed clearly even in English translations several verses earlier in Romans 4: “The God who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17 CSB).

John Toews puts it this way:

More is said about God than about Abraham’s faith. The character of the God “faithed” determines the character of the faith exercised. The point of the text is that the fulfillment of the promise is based on the power of God. Even more important than Abraham’s faith is God’s faithfulness.3

What a mighty God we serve!


Greek scholar or not, share your insights in the comments below. And thanks for reading.

  1. Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 286. Emphasis added.
  2. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 238-39. Emphasis added.
  3. John E. Toews, Romans, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2004), 123.

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11 thoughts on “God “Was Able”? Or “Is Able”?”

  1. Interesting how the business of interpretation is a collective effort even for those who look to the book alone. And then there’s the reality that all the knowledge in the world can’t overcome our own personal (or collective) biases. I’m thinking of a quote of St Antony when confronting some philosophers of his own day: “Which is older, the understanding or the book? And which of these is the source of the other?”

    Understanding, unfortunately, is not a product of book knowledge. Wisdom and understanding starts with humility and realizing our place before God.

  2. Thanks, Dwight. I like it. I’m so glad wise fools rush in where timid theological scholars, fear to tread. Amen! God is always present tense. The past tense is appropriate when, in the person of His Son, God enters human history, which is linear. But God is the great I AM! And I am happy to see my friend J. N. Darby got it right! 🙂

    I had two years of Greek at Wheaton College. When we got married, my husband and I planned to spend one night a week on our Greek. The first night came. We each came with our books: he, assuming we would use the text he used at Westminster Theol. Sem. and I, assuming we would use the text I used at Wheaton. Sadly, on the that disagreement , the plan foundered and the world lost two Greek scholars.

    1. Lois, life has strange twists like that, doesn’t it? I have not become all I dreamed I would, either. Just today I was telling my wife I have long thought it would be grand fun to produce a complete album of my own musical compositions, working alongside other more skilled musicians, showcasing my composing and arranging in many different musical genres and styles. But when will that happen! So we live faithfully and fruitfully, though finitely. As you and your husband have, too, despite not becoming Greek scholars. 🙂 God bless!

  3. A hearty yes and Amen to the ONLY IAM ( Was+ Is+ Will ) as in Rev:22;13 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.
    Best Regards;
    Delmer B. Martin
    RR# 4 Elmira ON
    CANADA

  4. Congratulations on sticking with the language study to the point where reading through Romans is an option!
    I think translators are treating this under the broad category of “indirect discourse.” Abraham was fully convinces that {…} In English we usually shift the tense when they talk about what was said, perceived, or thought in the past. Suppose you said yesterday, “I see the dog.” Someone reporting it now would say “Dwight said that he *saw* the dog” not “Dwight said that he *sees* the dog”(unless for some reason they are using the historical present). (This illustration is from Dan Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. He has discussion and examples on pp. 457-458) The Greek language tends to keep the tense that would have been used in the analogous direct speech. If Abraham had verbalized what he was convinced of he would have said, “I am fully convinced that God is able to do what he has promised.” When Greek reports this belief it keeps the tenses from the direct speech, whereas English steps them back because the believing happened in the past.
    Does English usage require that we “step back the tense” in this case? For a truth that is not time sensitive it might not matter. It is a question of whether we say “Columbus believed that the world was round,” or “Columbus believed that the world is round.” God’s ability to fulfill promises is timeless, but at the level of grammar Paul seems to me to speak of Abraham’s belief about a particular promise, with Abraham’s belief in the generalized statement something we can safely infer.
    On a related note, I find it interesting that informal English has a historical present that functions much like the Greek. As in, ” He was walking down the road and when he comes around the curve he sees a bear.”
    Anyhow I hope I don’t sound like a pedant dousing enthusiasm! One advantage of reading in Greek is that some things strike me that wouldn’t strike me in English, even when I have no quarrel with the English translation.
    xaris kai eirene

    1. Marlin, thanks much for your thoughts. Exactly the sort of informed “pedantry” I’m looking for. 🙂

      Several questions. How would this be included under “indirect discourse,” given that we have no record of Abraham ever making a statement such as “I am fully convinced that what God has promised he is able to do”? In other words, I am not seeing explicit evidence either in the OT text or in Paul’s commentary that Paul is adapting direct discourse and re-presenting it as indirect discourse. Doesn’t it seem just as likely that Paul is simply adding his own summary statement about what he observed about the nature of Abraham’s faith?

      Your Columbus illustration certainly rings true; we English speakers could use either past or present tense nearly interchangeably there. Are you suggesting that the Greek tense is likewise nearly interchangeable in such a case, so that it is grammatically indifferent whether English translations use present (like the Greek) or past?

      Are you saying that the translations that use English present tense are wrong, or merely that it is, semantically, a matter of indifference?

      You say “at the level of grammar Paul seems to me to speak of Abraham’s belief about a particular promise.” Do you indeed mean “at the level of grammar,” or do you mean “at the level of contextual semantics”? I see the latter, but am still seeing a more generalized statement at the level of grammar.

      It would be fun to meet you sometime!

      χάρις σοὶ καὶ εἰρήνη

  5. “Doesn’t it seem just as likely that Paul is simply adding his own summary statement about what he observed about the nature of Abraham’s faith?”

    Yes, I think that is what is going on. The term indirect discourse gets used rather broadly to indicate various things that use the same grammatical structures. So even things like “John saw that …” fit the structure. Wallace comments that it would be more accurate to label the larger category something like “perceived formulation” or “summary assessment object cause” and reserve the term indirect discourse for actual reported speech. That could make for some real monstrosities of grammatical labeling!

    On the question of whether this is grammatically a particular statement or a general statement, what i had in mind is that it is simply the relative pronoun with the indicative rather than the generalizing relative pronoun + αν + subjunctive. The latter normally comes into English with an -ever suffix as in “whatever” or “whoever.” Greek also has the relative pronoun οστις which can convey a generic idea. English does use the simple relative pronoun “what” for general clauses where no specific antecedent is intended “What he says, he will do.” Maybe the Greek does as well, I don’t know and can’t study it now.

    As for translating it with present tense, that seems a question of English grammar. If it is a general statement then there is no problem with a present tense (unless we get an objection from a prescriptive grammarian). If it is a specific statement with the promise of the son as the antecedent of what, it is still not going to be misleading in this case. But in some cases it might be. “John said that the cow is alive,” for example, would seem to imply that the cow was alive not just when John said it but also when the speaker told us what John said. The Greek use of the present would not carry this implication. But however we translate no one is going to think that the promise was still waiting to be done when Paul was writing.

    I guess using a past tense and a simple “what” rather than “whatever” seems the best formal equivalent translation based on my limited knowledge. But the passage would make no sense if Paul was not assuming and utilizing the fully general principle about anything God promises.

    As far as meeting you in person, I have been thinking the same thing since I was at Faith Builders College Student Retreat when you spoke and then became aware of your writing and studies. I have enjoyed quite a lot of stuff on your blog and am challenged by the passion for studying the scripture. I am only a few hours away so we should be able to make it happen sometime.

    1. Thanks, Marlin, for the follow-up comment. That’s helpful. For the record, my Greek teacher Joseph Neill shared some similar thoughts (which I pasted into my own comment below).

      Yes, hopefully we can meet sometime. Blessings!

  6. My Greek teacher Joseph Neill was kind enough to send me his thoughts on this verse:
    —————–
    Here is a list of some of my thoughts:

    * The perfect ἐπήγγελται is referring to what God had promised specifically to Abraham.

    * ἐστιν is not HP. [historical present]

    * Greek (as commenter Marlin Sommers seems to be saying) uses the present εἶναι is indirect discourse when referring to past events. An example is . Peter followed (past) and did not realize (past) that the happening is (present) real but he thought (past) to see a vision. So the ἐστιν is moved back one slot to ‘was’ in English. Greek would not use a past tense in this context, only a present form of εἶναι. If Greek uses ἦν in indirect discourse in this way, English translation moves back one slot to ‘had been’ (see examples of both in ). The use of ἐστιν would not necessarily imply a stative or existential reality, but is accomplishing the same function as if we used a past tense verb in English. Notice that ἔστιν can be used to talk about God’s existential being, as seen in . The difference is between the two is that God was able to do something for a person in context (Abraham), probably best explained as indirect discourse using a present tense verb in Greek and past verb in English, while is simply stating that it is necessary for someone coming (presumably whenever they come) to God to believe that He is/exists (at the time of their coming).

    * The main verb is ἐνεδυναμώθη. Abraham was strong in faith, giving (δούς) God glory and being fully convinced (πληροφορηθεὶς) that what God had promised (perfect moved back one slot), he was (present moved back one slot) also able to perform.

    * Could it be translated as “God is able”? Yes, but the grammar does not require it; in fact, it leans the other way I think. But based on God’s nature and the greater context (4:23 especially), it is right for us to understand from this passage that not only was God able, but God is able. (Context might lean this way.) So, if this is what Paul had in mind (God is able), I think he would have said exactly what he did say. But then again, if he did not have all this in mind (but rather God was able) he would have still said it exactly how he did say it. =)

    …I would need to study and think more about it to be sure I got it right, especially the part that suggested Paul could mean either was or is (in English thought) and he would have worded it the same either way. I would like to find examples that conclusively prove this hunch of mine.

    I pulled one of the examples and some ideas from Wallace. You can look more there as well; Marlin Sommers referenced him as well.
    ————-
    I’ll end this quote from Joseph with a plug for his class. If you want to learn Greek, be sure to check it out: https://biblicalgreekprogram.org/

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