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.