A Pattern of Sound Words
Concerning Aiõn and Aiõnios
THE MOST commonly used Greek-English lexicons used today by Christians are those by Thayer (1886) and by Arndt and Gingrich (1957). The definitions given for the noun, aiõn, and the adjective, aiõnios, are widely accepted as authoritative and determinative for the teaching of everlasting punishment. This becomes for many believers a strong bulwark against taking scriptural passages such as John 12:32; Romans 5:18,19; 11:32-36; 1 Corinthians 15:22-28; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Ephesians 1:10,11; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:20; 1 Timothy 2:4; 4:9,10; and 1 John 2:2, at face value. What is claimed for Matthew 25:46 or 2 Thessalonians 1:9, for example, is seen as limiting the meaning of the former passages.
Concerning the noun, aiõn, however, both lexicons (and all other such works) allow for an interpretation that would harmonize with the teaching of eventual, universal salvation. Thayer’s lexicon gives as its first definition of aiõn the sense of “age.” This is the second definition (of four) given in the more recent lexicon edited by Arndt and Gingrich. Hence a passage such as Matthew 12:32 could be understood as referring to the present age and the age to come, which would not, in itself, keep us from taking Romans 3:21-24 and 5:12-19 in reference to universal justification.
But in both of these lexicons, the adjective, aiõnios, is presented as having three meanings, in none of which the limiting sense of “age” is carried over from the noun. The adjective, it is claimed, means: (1) without beginning; or (2) without end; or (3) without beginning or end.
This may strike others, as it does me, as a rather dubious development of an adjective’s meaning in relation to its noun form. But apart from that, this threefold definition simply does not work in several New Testament passages (and many other passages in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint).
The usages of aiõnios in Romans 16:25; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; and Philemon 15, seem especially puzzling in view of the claims of these two lexicons.
It certainly is difficult to understand how the keeping of a secret can have no beginning, and indeed if the secret is revealed, we must assume its being kept as a secret has come to an end. No wonder the KJV of Romans 16:25 reads “since the world began,” even though the Greek speaks of “times” described as aiõnios. The RV is more faithful to the threefold definition, referring to a mystery kept “through times eternal” but now manifested, but that has the great disadvantage of making no sense whatever if these times are to be understood as either without beginning or without end, or, even more puzzling, without beginning and end.
In such cases, Bible commentators generally ignore the threefold definition given in the lexicons and make their own for these particular passages. In the NICNT volume on Romans, John Murray explains that “times eternal” refers “to the earlier ages of this world’s history” (THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS, vol.2, p.241). Such ages would obviously have both a beginning and end.
Notice how A. T. Robertson handles the adjective in his WORD PICTURES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. In commenting on Matthew 25:46 he follows the threefold definition given above, writing: “The word aiõnios . . . means either without beginning or without end or both” (vol.1, p.202). But in commenting on Titus 1:2 he insists that the words “before times eternal” refer “Not to God’s purpose before time began . . . but to definite promises (Rom.9:4) made in time.” Here he explains Paul’s words as signifying “Long ages ago” (vol.4, p.597). Some other commentators may try to explain that Paul is referring to something that God promised in “eternity past,” but for most of us it does seem difficult to grasp any meaning in the idea of a promise being made and kept without any beginning of its being made.
In the multivolume THEOLOGICAL DICTIONARY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT (begun in German under the editorship of Gerhard Kittel) Hermann Sasse admits, “The concept of eternity [in aiõnios] is weakened” in Romans 16:25; 2 Timothy 1:9 and Titus 1:2 (vol.1. p.209). He explains that these passages use “the eternity formulae” which he had previously explained as “the course of the world” perceived as “a series of smaller aiõnes” (p.203). Sasse also refers to the use of aiõnios in Philemon 15, which he feels “reminds us of the non-biblical usage” of this word, which he had earlier found to signify “lifelong” or “enduring” (p.208).
This is not to suggest any particular agreement with all these various attempts to define aiõn and aiõnios. In fact, the confusion created by these attempts to preserve some sense of everlastingness in these terms makes the attempts rather suspicious. Putting all the evidence of the usage of these terms in the New Testament together, it seems to me that the threefold definition of aiõnios as signifying without beginning, or without end, or without begining and end, must be dismissed as inadequate at the very least. Furthermore, to add further definitions that are not at all clear in themselves, as Sasse does, only adds to the confusion.
Of all widely used, modern attempts to define these terms, I have found the concluding definition given in THE VOCABULARY OF THE GREEK TESTAMENT (edited by James Hope Moulton and George Milligan) most helpful. Concerning aiõnios we read, “In general, the word depicts that of which the horizon is not in view . . .” (p.16). If the horizon of the extermination spoken of by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is simply not in view, then we can see that what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:22 can truly occur. The same all who are dying in Adam, which includes some who incur eonian extermination, can indeed eventually be vivified in Christ. The Bible, in fact, does not speak of judgment and condemnation, death and destruction, hades and Gehenna, or any of these serious consequences of sin, as unending. It may refer to them as not having the end in view, but none of these fearful works of God can keep Him from achieving His will (1 Tim.2:4); reconciling all through the blood of Christ’s cross (Col.1:20), and becoming All in all (1 Cor.15:28).
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