Greek Language/Linguistics / Leadership/Ministry

The Role of Greek in Sermon Preparation (Part 2): Verbal Aspect

I heard of a seminary professor somewhat recently who said (paraphrased) that verbal aspect was something interesting in the 1990s and early 2000s, but that trend (not sure if this was the word he used) has now kind of faded. This was heard through a secondary source, so it may not be entirely accurate. But if this is the thought among seminary professors, let alone Greek professors, this is sad. Sad because I think the majority of Greek teachers still haven’t wrestled with the implications of verbal aspect for exegesis and interpreting the Greek text. I don’t mean to come off as a snob or pretentious (maybe too late), but at the risk of offending lots of seasoned scholars whom I may have to interview with for a job sometime in the near future (because they obviously read this blog), this lack of engagement with verbal aspect is reflected in a lot of New Testament commentaries today, commentaries that expound the Greek text.

For those who might not be familiar with Greek verbal aspect, it is a way of viewing the Greek verbal system in terms of aspect rather than tense or Aktionsart (which is the German term meaning kind of action). Throughout a majority of church history, the Greek verbal system has been viewed in terms of tense–that is, that the tense-forms of Greek (aorist, present, perfect, etc) conveys primarily time of action. The English verbal system is predominantly a tense-based system (I run, I ran, I will run, etc). However, in the early 1900s, Greek scholars came to the conclusion that this way of looking at the Greek verb poses many problems; hence, they determined that Aktionsart is a better way to describe how the Greek verbal system functions. This paradigm is still predominantly taught in beginning Greek courses today, where the various tense-forms convey a kind or type of action. For example, we are taught that the aorist tense-form conveys complete, or (God forbid) punctiliar action; the present tense-form conveys continuous, durative action; the imperfect tense-form conveys continual action in past time; the perfect tense-form conveys completed action in past time; and so on and so forth.

However, this paradigm is not without its difficulties either. One example of this is seen in 1 Pet 2:17, where a string of four imperatives are given: πάντας τιμήσατε. τὴν ἀδελφίτητα ἀγαπᾶτε. τὸν θεὸν φοβεῖσθε. τὸν βασιλέα τιμᾶτε (“Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king”). The interesting thing about this is that the first is in the aorist tense-form, while the second, third, and fourth commands are in the present tense-form. According to Aktionsart, this would mean that the first command is to be done once, while the rest are to be done continually. But that interpretation seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? (I will return to this in just a moment.) So, honor everyone only once, and continue to love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the king? While the second, third, and fourth interpretations seem unobjectionable, the first does. Honor everyone once?

In the perspective of verbal aspect, however, the tense-forms convey a particular aspect of the verb, it is the way the verb is conceived of by the writer and how he wants to convey the action being portrayed. It has nothing to do with how the action actually occurs; it is the way in which the writer portrays the action. Some scholars, like Buist Fanning and Constantine Campbell, talk about viewpoint, internal or external, and identify two aspects: perfective (external viewpoint) and imperfective (internal viewpoint). Others, like Stanley Porter and Rodney Decker, talk about three aspects: perfective (reflecting action as complete), imperfective (reflecting action in progress), and stative (reflecting action as a complex state of affairs). The perfective aspect is conveyed by the aorist tense-form; the imperfective aspect by the present and imperfect tense-forms; and the stative by the perfect and pluperfect tense-forms. A main difference between Aktionsart and verbal aspect, at least relative to this discussion, is that Aktionsart states that the kind of action is how it actually took place; verbal aspect states that the action is simply portrayed by the writer in this way without comment as to how it actually took place.

Going back to the example of 1 Pet 2:17, according to verbal aspect, this would mean that the first imperative is a general command, and the subsequent imperatives are more specific. It is not how the action is to be completed, but rather how the writer portrays this action in this discourse. So the command to “honor everyone” is general; the following “love the brotherhood,” “fear God,” and “honor the king” are specific ways in which the more general command is to be completed.

While I cannot go into much more depth regarding verbal aspect (I recommend as an introduction Porter’s Idioms of the Greek New Testament as a beginner’s guide; and I might need to follow this one up with another post), one can see the potential fruit that can be reaped for purposes of exegesis. There are far less difficulties associated with verbal aspect than Aktionsart, and I believe more accurately reflects the Greek verbal system. If interpreters of the New Testament are truly interested in learning the intended meaning of Scripture, they cannot ignore this crucial area of Greek grammar.

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