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Second Thoughts on First and Third Class Conditions: Some Exegetical Distinctions

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A great deal of misunderstanding has traditionally surrounded the New Testament’s use of conditional statements. All too often, this confusion begins with improper assumptions based on what one knows of other clausesabout a particular passage’s conditional clause, and results in a mishandling of the Bible. In particular, examples of bad exegesis abound due to certain common misunderstandings of the distinctives of first and third class conditional clauses. What these distinctives are, and the defining traits of each type of conditional clause, is essential data for the exegete seeking to handle the Word of God accurately.1 When properly understood, the treatment of conditional statements in the Greek New Testament can be a rewarding practice for exegetes and preachers alike.

Consideration of Distinguishing Categories

Good exegesis of first and third class conditional clauses stems from a proper understanding of their structural, semantic, and exegetical similarities and distinctives.2 In fact, it is for structural reasons that the two are separately categorized. The first class condition has in the protasis “ei” plus a verb in the indicative mood, while the third class has in the protasis “ean” plus a verb in the subjunctive mood. Both allow for a verb of any mood or tense in the apodosis. The structural differences between the first and third class conditions enable the exegete to classify them with little difficulty:3

Class of Conditional Clause

Appearing in the Protasis

Appearing in the Apodosis

First Class

ei + indicative (any tense)

Any mood or tense

Third Class

ean + subjunctive (any tense)

Any mood or tense

Because their classification is based strictly upon structural grounds, no indication is supplied as to the significance of their respective classifications. The next practical question, then, is “So what?”

This question has led many a student to consider the semantic nature of the clauses to perhaps determine hermeneutical differences between the two. The semantic nature of conditions, however, is less objective and, therefore, not easily discoverable. In determining the specific semantics of a conditional clause, one must take special notice of the context in which it appears. For instance, in Romans 8.13 Paul writes,

eij gaVr kataV savrka zh'te, mevllete ajpoqnhv/skein.

“For if you are living according to flesh, you are about to die.”4

This is clearly a cause-effect conditional clause, known not because of the structure, but by the logical relationship between the protasis and apodosis. However, one quickly finds that these semantic categories are hardly helpful in distinguishing between the first and third class conditions (or in surfacing their respective significance) for in Romans 7.2 Paul writes,

ea]n deV ajpoqavnh/ oJ ajnhvr, kathvrghtai ajpoV tou' novmou tou' ajndrov".

“But if her husband should die, she is released from the law of her husband.”

Here, a structurally third class conditional clause carries the same cause-effect (semantic) sense as the first class condition above. Furthermore, two structurally identical clauses will regularly reflect differences semantically. In Matthew 6.30 we find,

eij deV toVn covrton tou' ajgrou' shvmeron ojvnta kaiV au]rion eij" klivbanon ballovmenon oJ qeoV" ouJvtw" ajmfievnnusin, ouj pollw'/ ma'llon uJma'"

“If God so clothes the grass…will he not much more [clothe] you?”

This example, though structurally the same as the first one above, is semantically categorized as “evidence-inference,” that is, an inference (apodosis) is drawn from the evidence (protasis).5 It is certainly not a cause-effect condition. So then, since the semantic category may cross classes of conditional clauses, and regularly does, it is not helpful in pointing out the differences in sense between the first and third class conditional clause.

The exegete, then, is still uncertain as to the exegetical differences between the first and third class conditional clauses. The structural distinctives define the clauses, but the crucial hermeneutical differences between them have yet to be surfaced. These exegetically significant differences between the first and third class conditions fall into three areas: (1) differences in the protasis, (2) differences in the apodosis, and (3) differences in the relationship between the protasis and apodosis.

Exegetical Distinctives

Protasis Differences

First and third class conditional clauses exhibit certain differences in the sense reflected in the protasis. The condition in a first class clause is stated without regard to its actuality (i.e., without regard to objective factuality, external truth or falsehood). According to Zerwick, “the condition and its consequence are simply stated without reference to whether the condition is in fact fulfilled or not.”6 This is commonly misunderstood, as reflected in the frequent translation by many scholars of ei as “since” or “because.”7 According to Young, “If [the premise of the condition] is true, then it can be rendered with ‘since.’”8 Two examples will be sufficient to show his conclusion incorrect:

ou|to" eij h profhvth", ejgivnwsken ajVn tiv" kaiV potaphV hJ gunhV h{n ti" a{ptetai aujtou', o{ti aJmartwlov" ejstin.

“If this one were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner!”
Luke 7.39

eij deV ejk qeou' ejstin, ouj dunhvsesqe katalu'sai aujtouv".

“Now if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”
Acts 5.39

In both instances above, the protasis is true! To render ei as “since” or “because,” though, would misrepresent the belief of the speaker who, in both instances, does not believe the protasis. The translation “since” could be supplied in about 37% of all first class conditional clauses, but since these writers (and speakers) had at least two words for “since” and chose to use “if” instead, it is more appropriate not to misrepresent their vocabulary.9 Moreover, Wallace argues that “the first class condition should never be translated since.”10 Rather, a more proper approach to a first class protasisand which would better reflect the sense the writer is attemptingwould be “If X, and let us suppose that X is true…”

eij kakw'" ejlavlhsa, martuvrhson periV tou' kakou'

“If I spoke wrongly (and let us suppose that I did just that), speak out concerning that wrong.”
John 18.23

Where the sense of “since” is that of a foregone conclusion, the rhetoric packed in the conditional statements using “if” cannot be overlooked. The key idea one must provide for the protasis of a first class condition is “assumption” or “supposing (for the sake of the argument).” The expression we choose for this idea is “determined, for the sake of the argument.”

The protasis of a third class conditional clause carries quite a different sense than that of the first class. Grammars normally label it with expressions of probability and futurity. Perschbacher offers the wide range of “potential, contingent, uncertain, future, or undetermined.”11 One grammar suggests that uncertainty is implied with the occurrence of the subjunctive mood in the protasis.12 Robertson claims that when a writer wished to portray uncertainty, he selected the subjunctive realizing the indicative would not be allowed: “The element of uncertainty calls for the subj.”13 The uncertainty of the third class condition comes through, for instance, in Hebrews 6.3:

kaiV tou'to poihvsomen, ea[nper ejpitrevph/ oJ qeov".

“and this we will do, if God should permit (us).”

Beyond the element of uncertainty is the widely admitted future sense of the third class protasis.14 According to Boyer, “the common denominator (of the third class protasis) is futurity.”15 The following examples compellingly exhibit this sense:

tau'tav soi pavnta dwvsw, ea]n peswVn proskunhvsh/" moi.

“I will give you all these things, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Matthew 4.9

kajgwV ejaVn uJywqw' ejk th'" gh'", pavnta" eJlkuvsw proV" ejmautovn.

“And if (when) I should be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
John 12.32

However, it is clear that not all (nor nearly all) of the third class conditions suggest futurity:

ejavn ti" peripath'/ ejn th'/ hJmevra/, ouj proskovptei.

“If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble.”
John 11.9

So then, while the conditional clause of this class regularly indicates uncertainty, it does not always suggest futurity.16 The expression we choose for this idea, then, is “undeterminedbut likely.”17

Apodosis Differences

The apodosis in a first class conditional clause varies a great deal. It may come in the form of a statement, a question, a command, a suggestion, etc.18 Furthermore, it reflects an extreme degree of independence from its protasis (this will be addressed further in the following section). Quite often, the apodosis provides certitudeas a guarantee or promisegranted the condition is fulfilled:

Kuvrie, eij kekoivmhtai swqhvsetai.

“Lord, if he sleeps (and we’re assuming he is since you yourself just said so), then he will (certainly) recover.”
John 11.12

eij deV cwriv" ejste paideiva"… a[ra novqoi kaiV oujc uiJoiv ejste.

“Now if you are without discipline (and let’s assume that you are), then you are (indeed) illegitimate and (certainly) not sons.”
Hebrews 12.8

The apodosis of the third class conditional clause also comes in a variety of forms, from statements of fact and instructions, to questions, promises, and warnings.19 The relationship of the apodosis to the protasis, however, is different from that of the first class condition in that it is less independent of its protasis (this, too, will be discussed later). Whereas the first class apodosis regularly suggests certitude, the third class apodosis tends to forecast a resultgiven the condition is eventually realized:20

ea[n tina" eu{rh/ th'" oJdou' ojvnta"… dedemevnou" ajgavgh/ eij" jIerousalhvm.

“If he should find anyone belonging to the Way… he would (as a result) bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
Acts 9.2

Ea]n oJ kuvrio" qelhvsh/ kaiV zhvsomen kaiV poihvsomen tou'to h] ejkei'no.

“If (it be that) the Lord wills, we will (as a result) live and do this or that.”
James 4.15

Relationship Between Protasis and Apodosis

The apodosis of the first class conditional clause exhibits complete independence from its protasis. According to Zerwick, the apodosis “is expressed as it would have been expressed independently of the condition."21 Robertson is even more emphatic stating that, regardless the verbal protasis, “the apodosis may be in the indicative (any tense) or the subjunctive or the imperative [and] there is no necessary correspondence in tense between protasis and apodosis.”22 The following will demonstrate the great variety:23

ei[ tinov" ti ejsukofavnthsa ajpodivdwmi tetraplou'n.

“if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back fourfold.”
Luke 19.8b

ejgwV… eij peritomhVn ejvti khruvssw, tiv e[ti diwvkomai

“If I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted?”
Galatians 5.11

In the third class conditional clause, however, the subjunctive tends to govern the sense of the apodosis, making it at times predictable.24 This is because the subjunctive mood is, in Wallace’s words, “related to potentiality,” which more often than not carries with it a present/future force.25

ea]n diya'/, povtize aujtovn

“If he should thirst, (at that time) give him drink.”
Romans 12.20

ea]n ti" ajfevlh/ ajpoV tw'n lovgwn tou' biblivou th'" profhteiva" tauvth", ajfelei' oJ qeoV" toV mevro" aujtou'…

“If anyone takes away from the words described in this book, God will take away his share…”
Revelation 22.19

The second half of the clause is, therefore, logically drawn toward the first in such a way as to naturally proceed from it.

Conclusion

Other than structural distinctives, the first and third class conditional clauses evidence occasional propensities toward natural distinction. Often these differences are quite subtle, and require the eye of a careful exegete to properly draw them out. Though they are subtle, these differences provide the critical information for accurate hermeneutics. Along with a solid grasp of the overall context of any passage, the exegete would do well to consider carefully the nature of the conditional clauses that appear within that context while drawing upon their differences. It is then that he can confidently handle the Word accurately in its intricacies.

Bibliography Page

Blass, F., and A. Debrunner. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Translated and revised by Robert W. Funk. Chicago: The University ofChicago Press, 1961.

Boyer, James L. “First Class Conditions: What Do They Mean?” Grace Theological Journal 2 (Spring 1981): 76-114.

__________. “Third (and Fourth) Class Conditions.” Grace Theological Journal 3 (Fall 1982):163-75.

Dana, H. E., and Julius R. Mantey. A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. New York:The Macmillan Company, 1927.

Kijne, J. J. “Greek Conditional Sentences.” The Bible Translator 13 (October 1962): 223-24.

Mounce, William D. Basics of Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House,1993.

Nutting, H. C. “The Modes of Conditional Thought.” American Journal of Philology 24 (1903): 278-303.

__________. “The Order of Conditional ThoughtI.” American Journal of Philology 24 (1903): 25-39.

__________. “The Order of Conditional ThoughtII.” American Journal of Philology 24 (1903): 149-62.

Perschbacher, Wesley J. New Testament Greek Syntax: An Illustrated Manual. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995.

Robertson, A. T. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1914.

Turner, Nigel. Syntax. Vol. 3, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Edit James Hope Moulton. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Young, Richard A. “A Classification of Conditional Sentences Based on Speech Act Theory.” Grace Theological Journal 10 (Spring 1989): 29-49.

__________. Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994.

Zerwick, Maximilian. Biblical Greek: Illustrated by Examples. Translated and adapted by Joseph Smith. Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1963.


1 In one sense, one is forced to define conditional clauses by the traits giving cohesion to a class: that is, defining by the lowest common denominator. It is only this lowest common denominator belonging to a class of conditional clauses that can be immediately assumed true for any random clause at hand. Anything additional must be derived from the context.

2 According to a search conducted in Accordance (with some adjustments made for mistaggings) the number of first and third class conditional clauses are nearly equal, with approximately 300 of each in the New Testament.

3 Chart adapted from Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 689.

4 All translations are the author’s own.

5 Wallace, 683.

6 Maximilian Zerwick, Biblical Greek: Illustrated by Examples, Joseph Smith, trans. (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1963), 102.

7 F. Blass, and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Robert W. Funk, trans. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961), 189. According to BDF, the sense of the protasis of a first class condition is “often closely bordering on causal ‘since.’”

8 Richard A. Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 226. See also William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 330. According to Mounce, “Sometimes the apodosis (sic) is clearly true, and you can translate ‘Since such and such, then such and such.’”

9 James L. Boyer, “First Class Conditions: What Do They Mean?” Grace Theological Journal 2 (Spring 1981), 77.

10 Wallace, 690. See also H. C. Nutting, “The Modes of Conditional Thought,” American Journal of Philology 24 (1903), 280. According to Nutting, “the function of ‘If’ is not parallel to that e.g., of ‘Since.’”

11 Wesley J. Perschbacher, New Testament Greek Syntax: An Illustrated Manual (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 90.

12 H. E. Dana, and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927), 290.

13 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1914), 1004.

14 The future, in fact, is the most common tense of the third class apodosis per James L. Boyer, “Third (and Fourth) Class Conditions,” Grace Theological Journal 3 (Fall 1982), 164. The inherent futurity of the third class condition may explain why there are only (according to Accordance) about a dozen future indicatives in the protasis of New Testament first class conditions (Boyer, p. 171, claims to have located 14; Wallace, p. 707, claims to have located over twenty), and in Modern Greek they have dropped out altogether.

15 Boyer “Third (and Fourth) Class Conditions,” 166.

16 Contra Dana and Mantey, who declare “the thought always has to do with the future” (p. 290); So too, Robertson, with, “the third class condition is confined to the future” (p. 1018).

17 The terminology of “determined” and “undetermined” is borrowed from J. J. Kijne, “Greek Conditional Sentences,” The Bible Translator 13 (October 1962), 223. He, in turn, has likely borrowed from A. T. Robertson, 1004.

18 Robertson, 1008.

19 Boyer “Third (and Fourth) Class Conditions”, 164.

20 But see Wallace, p. 696, who offers a more comprehensive list of senses as he attempts to cast a large enough net to include all instances.

21 Zerwick, 102.

22 Robertson, 1008.

23 In contrast to the independent view stands Boyer “First Class Conditions: What Do They Mean?”, p. 75. According to him, “the (only) correct explanation of the first class condition is a simple logical connection between protasis and apodosis.” Wallace, however, considers this a “minimalist statement that could be said of all conditionsfirst, second, third, or fourth class” (p. 691).

24 In fact, more futures appear in the apodosis of third class conditionsgoverned by the subjunctive in the protasisthan any other tense, and the present and future combine to make up the overwhelming majority (265 according to Boyer “Third (and Fourth) Class Conditions,” 164).

25 Wallace, 707.

Related Topics: Grammar