Placement is Everything: Position and Meaning in Greek Conditional Clauses

Dependent adverbial clauses are a common feature of Koine Greek, generally categorized based on the kind of content conveyed (e.g., conditional, comparative, spatial, temporal, reason/result, etc.) While many spatial and temporal adverbial clauses are evenly distributed before and after the main clause on which they depend, the same cannot be said of conditional clauses introduced by ἐὰν and εἰ. Only rarely are they found following the main clause.

Why are they not more evenly distributed?

Conditional Clause Placement and Meaning

Conditional clauses are a common feature of the Greek New Testament, but are in a class of their own based how they impact the truth-conditional status of the overall proposition. Placing the conditional clause before the main clause brings about a very different effect compared to placing after.

Conditional clauses introduce something that must be true in order for the main clause to hold true. This is a notable difference from other kinds adverbial clauses such as temporal or comparative clauses. For example, the temporal clause “when he arrived” does not affect the truth-conditional status main clause, whereas, conditional clauses like “if you obey me” always affect the truth-conditionality of the main clause. Unless the condition is met, the main clause will not hold true.

At the Beginning

This impact on truth-conditionality explains why conditional adverbial clauses nearly always occur at the beginning of the clause they modify, and only rarely at the end.

We see this in 1 John 1:9:

ἐὰν ὁμολογῶμεν τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν, πιστός ἐστιν καὶ δίκαιος ἵνα ἀφῇ ἡμῖν τὰς ἁμαρτίας καὶ καθαρίσῃ ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης ἀδικίας. (SBLGNT)

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, so that he will forgive us our* sins and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (LEB)

The condition makes clear from the outset that our confidence in forgiveness and cleansing from sin is conditioned upon confessing the sin, no big surprise here.

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At the End

Only a minority of conditional clauses come at the end of the main clause. Delaying the condition that affects the truth-conditionality of the main clause brings about predictable pragmatic effects. The delayed introduction of the condition creates the sense that something has been withheld, as though what was thought to be true has a “gotcha” introduced at the last minute. Let’s take a look at some examples.

In 1 Cor 16:7 we see a stated desire rolled back a bit based on the inclusion of the conditional clause at the end, acknowledging that it may not come about.

οὐ θέλω γὰρ ὑμᾶς ἄρτι ἐν παρόδῳ ἰδεῖν, ἐλπίζω γὰρ χρόνον τινὰ ἐπιμεῖναι πρὸς ὑμᾶς, ἐὰν ὁ κύριος ἐπιτρέψῃ.  

For I do not want to see you now in passing, for I hope to remain some time with you, if the Lord allows it.

In 1 John 2:3 the writer takes something that most readers would assume to be true, then adds a conditional caveat at the end as a reminder not to take things for granted. Lip-service is not enough to say we have come to know God. Placing this truth-conditional element at the end has the predictable, pragmatic effect of restricting a statement that we thought was true.

Καὶ ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐγνώκαμεν αὐτόν, ἐὰν τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ τηρῶμεν.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.

The same kind of rhetorical “gotcha” effect is found in Rom 8:17. Although the conditional particle εἴπερ is a compound and not frequently found in the NT, it still achieves a similar pragmatic effect.

αὐτὸ τὸ πνεῦμα συμμαρτυρεῖ τῷ πνεύματι ἡμῶν ὅτι ἐσμὲν τέκνα θεοῦ. 17 εἰ δὲ τέκνα, καὶ κληρονόμοι· κληρονόμοι μὲν θεοῦ, συγκληρονόμοι δὲ Χριστοῦ, εἴπερ συμπάσχομεν ἵνα καὶ συνδοξασθῶμεν.

The Spirit himself confirms to our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, also heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer together with him so that we may also be glorified together with him.

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Slow Down

Not all adverbial clauses are created equally; some have quirks that limit their distribution when compared to spatial or temporal clauses. Keep in mind that there are no rules about where conditional clauses must occur. Instead, there are principles that help us understand why some uses bring about certain effects while others do not.

So next time you see a conditional clause, slow down and consider the implications of its placement within the clause.

Steve serves as a Scholar-in-Residence at Logos Bible Software.  He has a Doctor of Literature degree in Biblical Languages from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, supervised by Christo Van der Merwe. He currently serves as a research associate affiliated with the Department of Ancient Studies, University of Stellenbosch. In preparation for his doctoral research, Steve completed several years of study in the linguistic fields of pragmatics and discourse grammar. This culminated in attending a workshop on discourse analysis offered by SIL/Wycliffe Bible Translators, facilitated by Stephen H. Levinsohn. He has also earned a Master of Theological Studies degree in Biblical Languages from Trinity Western Seminary in Langley, B.C., and a BA in Speech Communication from Western Washington University.

Steve has served as a visiting professor teaching Greek discourse grammar at Knox Theological Seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at Northwest Baptist Theological College, Trinity Western University, and Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS) while completing his education. He is very active in the church. He and his wife were married in 1990. They have two daughters, and live in Bellingham.

The full set of Discourse Commentaries, co-authored by Steve Runge and Josh Westbury, is available on Logos.

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  • Puritan John Owen (1616–1683) agrees with placement at the beginning as seen in the opening pages of his classic work On the Mortification of Sin. [1] In the process of exegeting Rom. 8:13b cited below, he addresses the effect of placing a conditional clause before the main clause:

    εἰ δὲ πνεύματι τὰς πράξεις τοῦ σώματος θανατοῦτε, ζήσεσθε. (NA28)

    But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (LEB)

    Owen claims conditionals such as this one can perform two distinct functions: (1) To denote “the uncertainty of the event or thing promised, in respect to them to whom the duty is prescribed.” In other words, this is not an action with a direct result but instead an action that makes another action possible. For example, “If I go inside the store on a rainy day, I will buy some smoked kippers.” (2) To denote “the certainty of the coherence and connection that is between the things spoken of.” In other words, the guaranteed result of putting the deeds of the body to death is life. For example, “If I go inside the store on a rainy day, I will be sheltered from the precipitation.”

    Owen recognizes the latter of these two functions as valid speaking to “the certain connection….intimated in this conditional particle.” He illustrates this with his own example of telling a sick man, “If you will take such a potion, or use such a remedy, you will be well.” As Dr. Runge mentioned in his article above, not a big surprise but still, it’s nice to see a pastor and theologian nearly four centuries before us considering the effects of conditional clauses. Owen goes on to develop his explanation further but you’ll have to read it for yourself to see where he goes with it.

    1. Owen, John, The Mortification of Sin in Believers: The Necessity, Nature, and Means of It. With a Resolution of Sundry Cases of Conscience Thereunto Belonging 3rd ed. London: Printed for Nathanael Ponder, at the Peacock in the Poultrey near Cornhill, and in Chancery Lane near Fleet Stree, 1668, 2-3.

  • I read this because I am doing a study of Revelation, and the delayed conditional of Rev 14:11 caught my attention. I don’t see it fitting into this category of “gotcha” (it’s almost a reversal of the conditional in Rev 14:9, so aside from its form there is no surprise), and I can find very little discussion of it in general.

Written by Steve Runge