Basics of Verbal Aspect (2)

30 11 2008



Well, it was great fun to blog at Zondervan’s Koinonia site a couple of weeks ago about Greek verbal aspect (check out the posts to get up to speed). Following that, I enjoyed meeting and talking to a number of Greek professors and teachers at the SBL conference in Boston. Most of the responses to my new book, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek, have been positive, and it was great to learn that several teachers in the US and UK will be using the book with their students. I hope this all goes towards bringing verbal aspect into the mainstream of Greek teaching and learning. 

There has, however, been some resistance to a “primer” on verbal aspect. The main reason seems to be that the “dust has not settled” on various aspect issues within academia, and so, it is claimed, a textbook that takes a particular “line” may be premature. Below I include one of my (slightly edited) responses to this kind of objection (see here for the original review and reply).

While some are concerned that the “dust has not settled” on verbal aspect, it has been pointed out that there a number of areas where a good consensus has been reached. These include a definition of verbal aspect, the role of Aktionsart categories, and the fact that aorist, present, and imperfect tense-forms are aspectually perfective and imperfective respectively. Yes, there is still some debate about the perfect and pluperfect, but all the aspect theorists agree that aspect provides a much more robust analysis than the old Aktionsart approach to the perfect, of a past action with present consequences. So even for the perfect there is agreement that aspect offers a better approach.
This leads me to my next observation, which is that the standard grammars that we all use (and, by the way, for which I have great respect) were all based on the new theories of their day. Aspect and Aktionsart studies had not “settled” when Robertson wrote his masterful tome. There was not a consensus at that time, and yet he dared to author an authoritative work, drawing on theories he believed to be best at the time. Nowadays some Greek users are so committed to the “traditional” way of understanding Greek, that they are reluctant to adopt the new theories of our day, even though that’s exactly what the earlier grammarians did. The heart of the problem is that waiting for all the answers is not the solution. Curtius didn’t have all the answers. Robertson didn’t have the answers. Chantraine didn’t have all the answers. But they were not claiming perfection; rather they were interested in improvement; in advancing our understanding. And so, in my humble opinion, waiting till “all the dust has settled” is a vain hope, and is expecting more than we’ve ever had before. We should be interested in advancing our understanding, and there is no doubt whatsoever that verbal aspect offers a genuine advance, even while some issues remain unresolved. My books are not intended to be the last word, neither are Porter’s, Fanning’s, Olsen’s, or Decker’s. But we need to listen carefully to each voice as each one offers enhanced understanding, continuing the legacy of the great ones before, who transformed the understanding of their day.

Con Campbell

Understanding Faith (04)

24 11 2008
Julius Caesar Bust

Image by iirraa via Flickr

Today’s entry is where I put in a plug for knowing something about the culture behind the NT. Here is where I mention that many Christians feel really comfortable with the current Scholarly focus on Judaism. And why not? Those who read the Bible are familiar with Judaism through the OT and the controversies of the NT. Jesus, Peter, Paul… they were all Jews. So of course we’ll feel at home with this! But there is another context, which we don’t feel so at home in… i.e. the Graeco-Roman world. But let’s not forget that Paul (at least) was also very connected to this world. He had to be if he was going to be a missionary. So the Graeco-Roman world is relevant to the context into which Paul was writing. Therfore it must be of some importance for us who read the NT today! This will be something I will come back to in future entries. For now though, we need a quick lesson into the fabric of Romans society in the first century. The Roman world was literally held together by relational exchange A ↔  B. As Richard Saller says in his exceptional little book Patronage in the Early Empire, “The Romans could hardly conceive of friendship apart from reciprocal exchange.” In fact from the Emperor all the way down to the lowest citizen it was reciprocal exchange which held everything together. And so fides (the Latin word for faith) has been defined as “”confidence” (fides) and, especially (in a more derivative sense of fides), the “good faith” or “trustworthiness” that inspires confidence.” Whenever the Romans thought about a relationship they thought in terms of two way exchange (A ↔ B). When we talk then about “faith” or “grace” as exchange words because they are used in relationships, this is therefore not a big jump. Rather, the culture of the day confirmed that this was a logical way for people to see things. Now we are ready to tackle pistis Christou which we’ll do next entry.

Bruce Lowe

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Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

23 11 2008
trois canetons / three ducklings

Image by OliBac via Flickr

Do you ever worry you are repeating yourself? If you are a preacher, you should be glad! You should be ecstatic. You should be overjoyed, when you find you are repeating yourself (did I already say that?). When you repeat yourself people take note. Repetition is a powerful way to emphasize something in a talk. But I wonder if you every thought about the different ways you can repeat yourself:

Epanaphora occurs when one and the same word forms successive beginnings of phrases expressing like and different ideas, as follows: “To you must go the credit for this, to you are thanks due, to you will this act of yours bring glory.” In Antistrophe we repeat, not the first word in successive phrases… but the last as follows:… “Gaius Laelius was a selfmade man, a talented man, a learned man, to good men and good endeavour a friendly man; and so in the state he was the first man.” Interlacement is the union of both figures… “Who are they who have often broken treaties? The Carthaginians. Who are they who have waged war with severest cruelty? The Carthaginians. What are they who have marred the face of Italy? The Carthaginians. Who are they who now ask for pardon? The Carthaginians.” (from Rhetorica Ad Herennium, 1st Cent BCE)

Why not think about using one of these at a climactic point in your next talk?

Bruce Lowe

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Understanding Faith (03)

22 11 2008
Two-Way Street Sign

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In our last entry the observation was made that grace (charis) can be used to describe the complete exchange process of gift giving A ↔ B. Today I want to suggest from Romans 3:1-8 that the same relational framework lies behind the pist- root, i.e. “faith.”

“Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? ” (Rom 3:1-3)

Notice three steps of “faith” in the above passage. Firstly, God “entrusts” his oracles → people. Secondly, the Jews are “unfaithful” in heeding these words → God. Thirdly, God is faithful in bringing wrath → people, for their unfaithfulness. The same “faith” root in the Greek describes all three steps (God ↔ people), and from this we gain a clue as to how an audience would know what meaning they give to the same word in each case. Starting again with charis, a reader would know what this word meant by having a cultural understanding of the position of the two people within the relationship. It is the relationship which is the starting point and the clue to understanding the meaning of the word. The same principle works for Romans 3:1-8. When you know the place of the parties and the nature of the relationship between them, the meaning of pistis becomes obvious. Now we can start to make some headway! We now have a way of understanding the meaning of “faith” in a given context –by first understanding the nature of the relationship being spoken about and the position of the parties within it. Before doing this however, we will firm up what has been said here by briefly talking about relationships in first century culture.

Bruce Lowe

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From Ethics to the Gospel (03b) – ordered creation (follow up)

18 11 2008

Following my earlier post, Phil raised some useful issues. Generously giving me the benefit of the doubt, he commented:

“I’d also be careful to point out that all of these are a result of humanity’s sin and the fall (God giving the people over to shameful lusts because of their sin), which I’m sure you mean to imply in your post.”

Phil’s comment sparked some useful thoughts for me:
Yes, I was meaning to imply that these things are the result of sin and the fall. Although maybe “imply” isn’t the best word. I didn’t intend the post to be talking about something other than, or additional to, sin and the fall. I was intending the post to actually be talking about sin and the fall – but trying to put flesh on the bones for what that means in certain areas.

So it’s true to say that (e.g.) the creation of human-animal hybrids is a result of sin and the fall. That is perfectly true, but highly generic. It wouldn’t help us identify how sin is manifesting itself, so as to produce this result. And without identifying the particular expression of sin, we’ll be handicapped when we try to address and prevent the sin.

Think of the parallel with medicine. Suppose your stomach is sore. It is useful if a doctor can tell you: “Your stomach is sore because you have a disease – it’s not just indigestion.” But it’s far more useful if you doctor can tell you: “Your stomach is sore because you have bowel cancer” (or IBS or Crohn’s disease or tape worms or …) “ – and here’s what we need to do about it.”

Romans 1 contains some brilliant descriptions of the generic way sin works. And because they are generic, they apply to every situation. But Romans also contains some highly particularised discussions of specific instances of sin. Eg. Romans 14 (the ‘weaker brother’ discussion)– it doesn’t explicitly use the word “sin” at all until the very last word of the chapter1 – but it’s all about a particular expression of sin, and how to overcome it.

What I was trying to tease out is one of the ways in which, through sin, we suppress the truth, and exchange God’s truth for a lie. That isn’t an alternative to thinking through how “shameful lusts” operate – it’s integral to thinking it through. Now for any given individual, there will be all sorts of complicated feedback loops at play:

  1. Sin may become obvious through wrong desires. But putting those desires into action predisposes you towards changing you beliefs to match your actions – i.e. accepting a lie, a false view of reality.2
  2. Sin may become obvious when you accept a lie about the way the world really is. But when you build your life on a false view of reality, that opens you up to all sorts of disordered desires too. (And you may be blind to their disorder – you may be sincerely wrong.)
  3. Both of the above at once.

All this is enormously important for preaching. We need to teach about sin generically, to help people see how the same underlying dynamics are at work in every area of life. We also need to teach about sin specifically, so that people can learn to see how the truth is being suppressed in any given situation.

In a sentence:
Thinking wrongly about God’s good order in creation is sin. (Or one expression of sin, anyway.)

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the major, world-shaping sins of our age. But even saying that is still generic. For any given issue (homosexuality, transgender, animal-human hybrids, etc) it needs to be complemented with:

  • the specific ways in which we think wrongly about God’s order
  • the specific ways we distort that order in practice (and what the consequences are)
  • the specifics of how that order is redeemed in Christ
  • the specific responses of faith and repentance to which Christ calls us

We can’t do the specifics for everything – life is too short. That’s why we need to preach the generics. But if we don’t do the specifics for some things – especially the big sins of our own cultures – then people don’t learn how to apply the generics to everyday life.

Think of those evangelicals who had a strong doctrine of sin (in general) but who argued in favour of the slave trade.  They’d got the hang of the generic, but they were blind to the (world-shaping) particular expressions of sin in their age.

1 Or, if you’re following in Greek, the second last word of the chapter. 🙂

2 For a non-theological take on the same issue see ‘Cognitive Dissonance.

From ethics to the gospel (03) – blank slate vs ordered creation

17 11 2008

[Catch up on the whole ‘From ethics to the gospel‘ series]

New Blackboard

Image by drinksmachine via Flickr

What happens if you think the world is a blank slate? To put it another way, does it matter whether God created the world with order built in? Here’s why it matters: If Creation is a blank slate, then we’re free to (re-)order things whatever way we like. If no order is given in creation, then any order we choose with be arbitrary. There’s no objective reason for choosing one way of doing things over another. It’s just a matter of what suits you, of what gives you an advantage, of where your vested interests lie.

If1 that’s true all sorts of things suddenly make sense:

  • Homosexuality. If the pattern for human sexuality isn’t built into creation – if it’s arbitrary – they why not experiment with other forms of sexual expression? Especially if they seem to work better for you?
  • Transgender. If a person’s sex (either male or female) isn’t a fundamental aspect of being human – if it’s arbitrary and/or accidental – then why not change it?
  • Human-animal hybrids. If God hasn’t created a clear distinction between humans and animals (or, indeed, between one kind of animal and another), then why not experiment to see what sort of hybrids we can produce? (Including hybrids far more radical than currently the case; we’re still at the tame end of the spectrum.)

If you’re in a teaching role, and you’re tackling these issues, it’s important to do more than state what’s right and wrong. (Though, of course, you shouldn’t do less.)

It’s better to also help people see that the issue underneath these issues: Do we acknowledge that God is Creator? Are we willing to submit to the order that he has created?

Now, of course there’ll be debates about whether, and how, we rightly discern that order (i.e. epistemology2). But before we get there, we need to ask: In principle, are we willing to admit that God’s order is built in to his creation? And, once we know what it is, are we willing to submit to it? Unless the answer to these questions is “Yes”, there’s no point moving on to the other, more detailed questions (i.e. the epistemology).

If we can’t say “Yes”, we have a more primordial problem. We don’t want God to be God. We want to order the universe ourselves, as we see fit. We still want to claim the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Adam & Eve

Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

Posted by Rick Creighton

The next item in this series (‘From ethics to the gospel’) will be posted next Monday.

1 N.B. I’m not saying this is true. In fact, I’m saying it’s not true. But I’m also exploring where your thinking would go if you thought it were true (as many people do). Cf. My previous post: ‘From ethics to the gospel via creation’

2 Epistemology is the study of how, and whether, we know what we know.

Basics of Verbal Aspect

10 11 2008

Basics of Verbal Aspect

Some readers may be interested to know that I’m a guest blogger this week at Zondervan’s academic blog, Koinonia. The topic is Greek verbal aspect.

I will post there each day this week, and the first post is now up.

Check it out here.


Posted by Con Campbell