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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xcvi. ποιέω, πράσσω.

There is a long discussion in Rost and Palm’s Lexicon, s. v. πράσσω, on the distinction between these words; and the references there given sufficiently attest that this distinction has long and often occupied the attention of scholars; this occupation indeed dating as far back as Prodicus (see Plato, Charmides, 162 d). It is there rightly observed that ποιεῖν brings out more the object and end of an act, πράσσειν the means by which this object is attained, as, for instance, hindrances moved out of the way, and the like; and also that the idea of continuity and repetition of action is inherent in πράσσειν == ‘agere’ or ‘gerere,’ ‘handeln,’ ‘to practise’; but not necessarily in ποιεῖν == ‘facere,’ ‘machen,’ which may very well be the doing once and for all; the producing and bringing forth something which being produced has an independent existence of its own; as ποιεῖν παιδίον, of a woman, ποιεῖν καρπούς, of a tree; in the same way, ποιεῖν εἰρήνην, to make peace, while πράσσειν εἰρήνην is no more than to negotiate with the view to peace (see Pott, Etym. Forsch. vol. iii. p. 408); that attaining what this is only aiming to attain. Πράττειν and ποιεῖν are in this sense often joined together by Demosthenes, and with no tautology; thus of certain hostile designs which Philip entertained he assures the Athenians ὅτι πράξει ταῦτα καὶ ποιήσει (Orat. xix. 373), he will busy himself with the bringing about of these things, and he will effect them1 (cf. Xenophon, Cyrop. ii. 2. 30; Aristotle, Ethic. Nic. vi. 5): πράσσειν, in the words of a recent German scholar, ist die geschäftige, ποιεῖν die schaffende Thätigkeit.

How far can we trace the recognition of any such distinction in the Greek of the N. T.? There are two or three passages where it is difficult not to recognize an intention of the kind. It is hard, for example, to suppose that the change of words at John 3:20, 21 is accidental; above all when the same reappears at 5:29. In both places it is the φαῦλα πράσσειν, which is set, in the first instance, over against the ποιεῖν τὴν ἀλήθειαν, in the second against the ποιεῖν τὰ ἀγαθά, just as at Rom. 7:19 we have ποιεῖν ἀγαθόν and πράσσειν κακόν. It would of course be idle to assert that the ποιεῖν relates only to good things, for we have ποιεῖν ἀνομίαν (Matt. 13:41), ἁμαρτίαν (2 Cor. 5:21), τὰ κακά (Rom. 3:8); not less idle to affirm that πράσσειν is restricted to ill things; for, to go no farther than the N. T., we have πράσσειν ἀγαθόν (Rom. 9:11). Still it is not to be denied that very often where the words assume an ethical tinge, the inclination makes itself felt to use ποιεῖν in a good and πράσσειν in an evil sense; the latter tendency appearing in a more marked way in the uses of πράξις, which, occurring six times in the N. T. (namely at Matt. 16:27; Luke 23:51; Acts 19:18; Rom. 8:13; 12:4; Col. 3:9), has in all these places except the first an evil signification, very much like our ‘practices’; cf. Polybius, iv. 8. 3 (πράξεις, ἀπάται, ἐπιβουλαί); v. 96. 4.

Bengel, at John 3:20, gives the proper explanation of this change of words: ‘πράσσων. Malitia est irrequieta; est quiddam operosius quam veritas. Hinc verbis diversis notantur, uti cap. 5:29.’ There may be a busy activity in the working of evil, yet not the less it is true that ‘the wicked worketh a deceitful work,’ and has nothing to show for all his toil at the end, no fruit that remains. Then too evil is manifold, good is one; they are ἕργα τῆς σαρκός (Gal. 5:22), for these works are many, not merely contradicting good, but often contradicting one another; but it is καρπὸς τοῦ πνεύματος (Gal. 5:19), for there is an inner consent between all the parts of good, a ‘consensus virtutum,’ as Cicero calls it, knitting them into a perfect and harmonious whole, and inviting us to contemplate them as one. Those are of human art and device, this of Divine nature. Thus Jerome (in loco): ‘In carne opera posuit [Paulus], et fructus in spiritu; quia vitia in semetipsa finiuntur et pereunt, virtutes frugibus pullulant et redundant.’ Here is enough to justify and explain the fact that the inspired reporter of our Lord’s words has on these two occasions (John 3:21, 22) exchanged the φαῦλα πράσσειν for the ποιεῖν ἀλήθειαν, ποιεῖν τὰ ἀγαθά, the practising of evil for the doing of good. Let me add in conclusion a few excellent words of Bishop Andrewes: “There are two kinds of doers: 1. ποιηταί, and 2. πρακτικοί, which the Latin likewise expresseth in 1. ‘agere,’ and 2. ‘facere.’ ‘Agere,’ as in music, where, when we have done singing or playing, nothing remaineth: ‘facere,’ as in building, where, after we have done, there is a thing permanent. And ποιηταί, ‘factores,’ they are St. James’ doers. But we have both the words in the English tongue: actors, as in a play; factors, as in merchandise. When the play is done, all the actors do vanish: but of the factors’ doing, there is a gain, a real thing remaining.” On the distinction between πράξις and ἔργον see Wyttenbach’s note on Plutarch’s Moralia, vol. vi. p. 601.


1 These are some of their words: Auch Krüger und Franke (Demosthenes, Olynth. iii. 15) unterscheiden πράσσειν als die geschäftige, ποιεῖν als die schaffende Thätigkeit. Zulänglicher wird es indess sein, diesen Unterschied dahin festzustellen, dass bei ποιεῖν mehr die Vorstellung von dem Product der Thätigkeit, bei πράσσειν mehr die von dem Hinarbeiten auf ein Ziel mit Beseitigung entgegentretender Hindernisse, von den Mitteln und Wegen vorherrschend ist, wodurch dasselbe erreicht wird. Damit verbindet sich die Vorstellung einer wenigstens relativen Continuität, wie aufgewandter Anstrengung. It may be added that in πράσσειν the action is always more or less conscious of itself, so that, as was observed long ago, this could not be predicated of animals (Ethic. Eudem. vi. 2. 2); while the ποιεῖν is more free and spontaneous.

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G4160,G4238.]

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