(From Dave Black Online, Friday, February 23, 2018. Used by permission.)
9:46 AM I hope you saw our announcement about our linguistics conference, slated for April, 2019. I’ve always found it interesting to watch how different minds tackle the same problem. Someday, praise God, we’ll no longer have the need to study languages – any language. The one thing all of us teachers of Greek have in common is a love for the language and an irrepressible joy when we see our students “get it.” But none of us would claim that we have the last word when it comes to grammar or even pedagogy. In the midst of all this, I’m still mulling over the matter of verbal aspect. What in the world shall we call the three (or two) aspects? This morning I want to share a few comments in the hopes of nudging the conversation forward.
First, as I reread Joshua Covert’s summary of recent approaches to the problem – and the wide variety of terms used to describe the aspects – I’m more convinced than ever that this is a real problem for Greek scholars and students alike, and it’s frankly beautiful to watch the discussion proceed. For our students’ sake (at the very least), we need to work towards some kind of agreement or standardization, don’t you think?
Secondly, I think the elephant in the room has yet to be discussed. It seems to me that a major part of the problem, if not the biggest challenge we face, is the fact that Greek teachers and linguists are often talking past each other. Each of us approaches the problem from a different set of perspectives. For the Greek teacher, for example, pedagogy is paramount. Moreover, most of us have little or no formal training in the science of linguistics. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t interested in what linguists are saying. We are. It’s just that we don’t always feel that we necessarily have to follow their explanations or terminology. Perhaps a classic example of this is what we encountered in our Greek 4 class on Tuesday night. Both of our commentaries (by Fee and Weima) expressed puzzlement over the fact that Paul used the adverb pantote (“always”) with an aorist infinitive. How in the world can something that’s “punctiliar” (both commentators used that word) be continual? This will not do. Ever since Frank Stagg published his essay “The Abused Aorist” in JBL(followed up later by Charles Smith’s “Errant Aorist Interpreters” in GTJ), teachers have been cautioning their Greek students not to view the aorist as referring to a “punctiliar” action. Yet still today one hears statements, in both sermon and commentary, such as “The aorist here shows that Paul had in mind a once-for-all-action.” Much of this confusion stems (I believe) from A. T. Robertson’s use of “punctiliar” to describe the aorist tense. Of course, Robertson never meant us to understand a “once-for-all action,” yet the term “punctiliar” was easily misunderstood to mean that very thing. After all, something that is “punctiliar” has one single “Punkt” or “point,” doesn’t it? My point here (no pun meant) is simply this: While Greek scholars are obliged to learn as much as they can from linguists (and I, a non-linguist, have even published two books on the subject), they are not obligated to follow linguistic science blindly.
Thirdly, I’m not sure we New Testament teachers are as far apart as the evidence may seem to point. I prefer “aoristic” instead of “punctiliar” because of the way the latter term has been abused by preachers and commentators. “Aoristic” works because its very meaning is “undefined.” In other words, by choosing aoristic aspect, an author is intentionally refraining from trying to describe how an action occurred. The action is a-oristos – “unlimited” or “undefined” in terms of its kind of action. This is precisely the point that was made by both Stagg and Smith in their journal articles.
Finally, let me say why I still prefer my terms. Think about how easy we make it for our students when we say that the imperfect tense has “imperfective” aspect, and that the perfect tense has “perfective” aspect, and that the aorist tense has “aoristic aspect.” Now don’t get me wrong. I’m willing to change my nomenclature if I can be convinced to do so. Indeed, Robert Picirilli, in a JETS essay, makes a suggestion I am almost happy with. Addressing the “issue of terminology,” he writes:
I think we must recognize that it is too late in the game, as A. T. Robertson said long ago, to change the names of the tenses or the word “tense” itself. It is hard enough to teach Greek students that “tense” does not meantime and “present” does not mean present; but we have learned to handle that. If aspect theory is to win wide recognition and usage, as I think it should, I believe we must develop a terminology that does not overlap with those names and is both appropriate in meaning and relatively easy for students to learn and use. I tentatively suggest, then, that “progressive” works better than “imperfective” and that “wholistic” works better than “perfective.” I have no suggestion as a replacement for “stative.” From this point on, then, I may speak of aspect or perspective, and of progressive perspective or imperfective aspect (for the present and imperfect tenses), of wholistic perspective or perfective aspect (for the aorist tense), and stative perspective or aspect (for the perfect and pluperfect tenses).
“Wholistic” may well work better than “aoristic,” and I’m open to using that language, though I still feel it’s too confusing, from a pedagogical standpoint, to use “stative” for “perfective.” Anyways, I hope you’re enjoying this discussion as much as I am. I’ve held conferences at SEBTS to discuss the synoptic problem, textual criticism, the authorship of Hebrews, the ending of Mark, and the story of the adulteress, and I’m hoping that our gathering in 2019 will shed more light than heat on the topic of verbal aspect. As with so many other matters, “Let the discussion continue!”