The Passive Tense Fallacy

Many attempt to prove synergism from scripture by appealing to the passive tense of some verbs. For example, some will interpret the possible passive tense of “called” (proskaleitai) used in Mark 3:13, when the Lord was calling the apostles, as implying that the apostles could have rejected Christ. Another example can be found in an article written concerning the Eastern Orthodox view of synergism.

One advantage of recognizing energeithai as passive is precisely that it enables us to see these occurrences of the term as synergistic, as are so many of those of energeia and energein. [Bradshaw, David. “The Divine Energies in the New Testament.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 50.3 (2006): 215]

The problem with this is that it ultimately becomes an example of “a little bit of Greek is a dangerous thing” – that something is in the passive voice does not automatically infer that the subject is able to react or do anything in response to the action. Here is a quote from someone who is far more knowledgeable than myself when it comes to Koine Greek grammar, concerning the use of passive tense:

…the subject is acted upon or receives the action expressed by the verb. No volition – nor even necessarily awareness of the action – is implied on the part of the subject. [Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, 1996; pg. 431]

In other words, the matter of the passive tense is simply on the place of the subject and the verb. It does not denote that the direct object participates in some way with the action. To put it another way, I could write the following sentence in two ways:

1) I threw the ball.

2) The ball was thrown by me.

In the former case, I am using the active tense; in the latter case, I am using the passive tense. However, does the transition to passive voice suddenly suggest that the ball somehow contributed to it being thrown? Does the passive voice suggest that, without the ball’s cooperation, it might have not been thrown? However, that is how many are interpreting the passive tense. They are doing so erroneously.

We can also see this in the context of many passages. Using the example of Mark 3:13 mentioned earlier, we can see that Christ’s calling of the disciples was not always “passive” – one only need to look back to the calling of Matthew/Levi (Mark 2:13-14) to see this. One can also turn to John’s gospel, where our Lord tells the apostles, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). Part of finding the meaning of a word is not only syntax, but likewise context and what else scripture tells us of the events around said word.

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