Denver Journal

Denver Journal

Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek

01.14.09 | Denver Journal, New Testament, Craig L. Blomberg | by Constantine R. Campbell

    Craig L.Blomberg's review of "Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek"by Constantine R. Campbell.

    Book: Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek

    Constantine R. Campbell, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.  $16.99.  Paperback. 159 pp.  ISBN 978-0-310-29083-4

    An introductory primer to the verbal aspect of the Greek of the New Testament has been desperately needed for some time.  The learned debates among grammarians like K. L. McKay, Stanley Porter, and Buist Fanning have for the most part remained in fairly narrow academic ivory towers, while theological students have gleaned only the barest of essentials on the topic even in the newest Greek grammars. Little wonder that scholarly commentaries and monographs have at times fared little better. A succinct, clear summary of the most assured results of the last quarter-century of study in verbal aspect, complete with numerous New Testament illustrations and even exercises on which students can hone their skills, with "answers" in the back of the book, could go a long way toward dispelling the darkness.

    In format, this is precisely what Campbell's slim volume undertakes.  Unfortunately, while acknowledging dissenting views among grammarians, Campbell popularizes his own somewhat idiosyncratic approach, defended at length in two tightly-packed, highly technical monographs, so that if the latter prove misguided in significant ways, so will this primer.

    Campbell opts for identifying only two kinds of verbal aspect-perfective and imperfective.  The former represents the outsider's global or overall viewpoint on an action, like the view of a parade from the helicopter; the latter reflects the insider's viewpoint, like the spectator on the street corner watching the parade go by.  Unlike Aktionsart, which denotes the kind of action in the real word, aspect represents the perspective on the action chosen by the narrator, whether or not it corresponds to reality.  It is also important to distinguish between semantics (meaning that is automatically encoded in a particular word or grammatical form) and pragmatics (meaning that is allowed by a word or form but required only when certain deictic or contextual indicators are present.

    Campbell briefly surveys the main technical studies that have contributed to the state of the current discussion of New Testament Greek verbal aspect, concluding that the two main unresolved debates are whether or not tense is an issue for semantics or pragmatics and whether or not there are two or three verbal aspects.  Campbell cautiously opts for the pragmatic perspective on tense (rightly, in my opinion) and confidently for only two verbal aspects (wrongly, I think).

    As he proceeds to discuss these aspects and the relations of the various Greek tenses to them, Campbell concludes that semantically the aorist tense, reflecting perfective aspect, grammaticalizes remoteness and "is often used to outline the skeletal structure of a narrative" (p. 38).  The future tense also belongs under perfective aspect, but unlike the other tenses actually does denote time as part of its semantics, not merely when contextual indicators support it.

    The imperfective aspect is represented by the present and imperfect tenses, which semantically convey proximity rather than remoteness.  They often characterize the discourse parts of a narrative.  The historical present affords a classic example.  The imperfect tense shares impefective aspect with the present tense but remoteness with the aorist tense.  It thus conveys supplementary, "offline" material in narratives, not as significant as the skeletal structure identifiable by the aorists.

    Campbell acknowledges that his most innovative contribution comes by identifying the perfect and pluperfect forms not as perfective (as with others who use only two aspects) or as stative (by those who see three aspects) but as imperfectives.  But he appeals to his two bigger books for the detailed argumentation.  He notes that to justify separating stative aspect off as a third category of aspect, McKay insists that subjects of perfect tense verbs are always seen as responsible for the actions of the verbs, while Porter alleges they bring about new states of affairs.  Campbell selects examples from the New Testament where these generalizations seem not to apply.  The parallels between present and perfect tense forms, on the other hand, suggest to him that the perfect tense belongs under imperfective aspect.  Different from the present tense, however, the perfect semantically encodes heightened proximity.  "As such, it might be appropriate to think of the perfect as a super-present" (p. 51).

    The rest of Campbell's slim volume then reviews what has been presented under the headings of the two aspects (followed by the special case of the perfect and pluperfect), only this time proceeding tense-by-tense throughout.  Pragmatically encoded special uses of each tense are treated en route, like historical, inceptive, conative, and gnomic forms.  Numerous New Testament examples are presented and briefly discussed, with additional texts provided for the student to analyze in terms of tense and aspect, semantic and pragmatic encoding, and significance for exegesis.  The same is true for a quick tour of the non-indicative moods, showing how verbal aspect works more or less the same with them as with the indicative mood.

    The book ends with a concluding postscript that sums up:  whereas in English tenses, time is primary and spatial relationships secondary, it is the reverse in Greek.  A glossary of key technical terms in the books and the answers to the biblical exercises follow.  Throughout the volume, charts and diagrams help make Campbell's viewpoints much clearer than they would have been otherwise.

    As noted at the beginning of this review, this book looks exactly like a primer on verbal aspect should appear-in terms of level of difficulty, size, abundant use of Scripture and examples for practice.  But recent introductory or intermediate grammars that have begun to introduce verbal aspect to theological students have heretofore identified three aspects-aoristic (which functions like Campbell's perfective), imperfective, and stative (also called perfective, which grammaticalizes the perspective on an action regularly taught to students in the context of the perfect and pluperfect tenses-a past action which has given rise to an existing state of affairs, like the perspective). 

    Having read the first of Campbell's two bigger books, on aspect in the indicative mood, I can say that I am not convinced he has made his case either for limiting the number of aspects to two nor for assigning perfect and pluperfect forms to imperfective aspect even if we granted his narrowing the field to two aspects.  (His second bigger book, on the non-indicative mood, is sufficiently dependent on his first, if this little book is an accurate reflection of it, that presumably it could not on its own overturn problems attaching to the first).  The features that suggest parallels between the present and the perfect tenses form only one half of the story.  An equal number of features create parallels with the aorist-hence the old, rough and ready summary of the perfect as "past action with ongoing results."  The features in McKay and Porter that Campbell dismisses are not really at the heart of what the perfect tense is about, nor is it obvious that Campbell's counterexamples even are exceptions to the norms.  The use of nomenclature which overlaps but conflicts in meaning with those who adopts a three-aspect approach makes Campbell's work even more confusing for the novice.  Campbell's argument that the two-pronged "kind of action" that the perfect tense represents, which others use as grounds for separating the perfect off into stative aspect, rightly belongs only to Aktionsart and not also to aspect fails to account for the fact that Aktionsart and aspect can match each other when viewpoints agree with reality. 

    Other problems attach to Campbell's use of the concepts of remoteness and proximity.  Studies of verbal aspect that discuss "marking" point out that the imperfective aspect is more highly marked (stressed, highlighted) than the aoristic (what Campbell calls perfective).  So while, with Campbell, it is generally the case that the skeletal structural of a narrative will be conveyed by aorist tense verbs, it is precisely because there is no special emphasis being given to them in so doing.  This is just "what happened."  But the shift to an imperfect tense verb normally suggests more attention being given to that action for some reason rather than less.  These are scarcely supplemental, off-line activities but more heavily marked ones.  It would seem, then, that it is misleading to call them remote in any sense other than a temporal one, which brings us back to pragmatics rather than semantics (unless one follows Fanning and sees time as still inherently-semantically-encoded in tense forms), which Campbell does not want to use in describing the essence of a tense.

    In short, had Porter or McKay produced a book of this format and layout but reflecting their understanding of verbal aspect, I would have tried to find a way to require it of my students.  Had Fanning done so in light of his understanding, there would have been some areas where I would have demurred, but I would have still made it a "recommended" even if not required text.  But since Campbell's understanding of verbal aspect is furthest from my own and because of the complexity of trying to explain to students encountering this topic for the first time all of the options but then asking them to use a textbook with arguably the least likely of the options, while still mentally holding the rest in view, I can include it only in my bibliographies as a new work important to know about.

    Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
    Distinguished Professor of New Testament
    Denver Seminary
    December 2008