Greek Conditional Sentences (Part 1)

We’ve all used conditional sentences in language. Perhaps the greatest use (abuse) of the conditional is in regard to rearing children, “If you touch that, then you’ll regret it!” (Ah, the joys of parenthood.) But we also use conditional sentences in every day conversation and business. “If the third quarter profits are up, then we will remove the hiring freeze.”
Conditional sentences come in many varieties. Sometimes we use conditionals when we want to assume something to be true for the sake of argument. “If, as you say, the rent is due on the 15th, then I will pay it.” Sometimes we use conditionals to indicate probability. “If it rains on Friday, then I will not be able to play golf.” Sometimes we use conditionals to indicate counterfactual situations. “If you were a gentleman, then you would have opened the door for your date.”
We find conditional sentences in the New Testament as well. Linguists have categorized these conditional sentences into five classes. A class one conditional sentence is a sentence that assumes the truth of the condition for the sake of argument.1 This conditional is composed of the word “EI” (if) with the indicative mood in the first half of the conditional, and with any mood or tense being used in the conclusive half of the condition. (Linguists call the conditional part of the sentence [the part with ‘if’] the protasis, and the main clause the apodosis.)
Some have stated in the past that “EI” in the first class conditional may be translated “since.” But this isn’t the case. More properly, we should consider the conditional clause that which is assumed true for the sake of discussion or that which is assumed true because someone believes it to be true (either the speaker or the one with whom one is having the conversation). While it is the case that the indicative mood is the mood of fact, it is the mood of fact only insomuch as some individual believes his statement to be fact. It isn’t always necessarily the case that the speaker is stating facts, though he believes them to so be. Hence, when seeing the first class conditional used, we may readily accept that someone believes the condition to be true, though it may not actually be.
One such example is found in Matthew 12:26-28. Jesus says in verse 27, “And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out?” This statement is, in fact, a first class conditional sentence. Does that mean that it is true that Jesus casts out demons by Beelzebub? No. But it does mean that Jesus assumed that to be true for the sake of argument in this context, namely, because the Pharisees believed that to be true. Verses 26 and 28 also contain examples of first class conditional sentences because someone believed those things to be true as well.
Matthew 17:4 is another fine example. Peter says, “It is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.” Peter uses the first class conditional, assuming that it would be the Lord’s will that these tabernacles be made. It was, in fact, Peter’s belief that this would be the Lord’s will. But it really wasn’t the Lord’s will.
Lord willing, we shall take up the discussion of the remaining four classes of conditional statements in the weeks to come. For the present, however, I shall be taking a short break from writing my column as we are expecting our third child next week. I look forward to sharing more from my studies of Greek, after a short hiatus. Thanks for reading.
1. See Wallace’s discussion in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Zondervan 1996) pp. 690-694. The first class conditional is fraught with some controversy on how it is to be handled, but I believe that Wallace does a good job in pointing out the fallacies of the “traditional” view that “if” may be translated “since” in some passages. In fact, Wallace states, “We will argue that the first class condition should never be translated since.”

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