Theology found – and not to be found – in Greek participles

Part I: Matthew 28:19–20

Playing the role of the “fly on the wall,” I was sitting in my Synoptic Gospels class, listening to a report on discipleship. I knew that, once the Gospel according to Matthew would be up for consideration (as usual, writers will treat Mark first), sooner or later there would be a reference to “make disciples” in Mathew 28. The report was based on “Disciples and Discipleship,” an entry in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (second edition, 2013). And what I heard was somewhat surprising, but not totally unexpected. I looked it up more carefully after class, and found the following:

The imperative “make disciples” (mathēteusate) implies both the call to discipleship and the process of growth in discipleship. Even as men and women are called from among the nations to start life as a disciple, they must in turn follow Jesus through baptism and through obedience to his teaching. The participles “baptizing” (baptizontes) and “teaching” (didaskontes) describe activities through which the new disciple grows in discipleship.

DJG, 208; emphasis added

As you can see, there is a theology found in the Greek participles. However, is it a fair handling of the participles in Matthew 28:19–20? I don’t think so. I think this is the theological “second text” of the writer (to use a Voelzean concept) imposed on the participles. How should the participles be taken? One grammarian puts it this way: “Participles that precede the main verb have the effect of backgrounding the action with respect to the main verb of the clause; most participles that follow the main verb elaborate on the main verbal action” (Steven E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 101). And what does “elaborate” mean? It means “often providing more specific explanation of what is meant by the main verb” (Runge, 210). If so, in Matthew 28:19–20, poreuthentes (literally, “going”) has the effect of backgrounding the imperative mathēteusate (“make disciples”). “Going” is in a sense a precondition for “making disciples.” (This participle even feeds on the imperatival force of mathēteusate, so much so that it is translated “go.”) And, if baptizontes (“baptizing”) and, to some extent, didaskontes (“teaching”) explain what is meant by “making disciples,” the theology expressed in the quote above must be wrong. Growth in discipleship is not equivalent to making disciples.

One may argue on the basis of NT evidence (especially in the book of Acts), that becoming a disciple and being baptized go hand in hand. Disciples were made by baptizing. However, it seems that the same cannot be said about didaskontes (“teaching”). Teaching seems to be a second step, a bit removed from the action of making disciples. Is it because didaskontes is a different type of participle? No. It has to do with the whole notion of “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This seems to entail “growth in discipleship.”

By the way, this is how George Beasley-Murray, himself a Baptist, explains the Matthew 28 passage: didaskontes is closely connected with making disciples; didaskontes is a separate move. So, it is (a) make disciples, baptizing; (b) then teach. (Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, 89). And I think this interpretation is essentially correct. This is at least the explanation I offered the students in class on that day.

Dr. Vilson Scholz is a visiting professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis

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