Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek by Constantine R. Campbell

About two months ago, I happened to catch a Zondervan blog post that mentioned that they were giving away 20 review copies of Constantine Campbell’s Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek. I enjoy studying Greek, needed to learn more about the verbal aspect theory, and like free books, so I sent off my email and managed to snag a copy.

I got a friendly email yesterday reminding me that I still needed to write my review and mentioning the week-long series of blog posts on verbal aspect from the book’s author next week at the Zondervan Koinonia blog. It appears that I’m not alone as I’ve seen several other reviews coming out today.

Though I had 11 semesters of Greek classes in college and seminary and taught elementary and intermediate Greek for six semesters, my exposure to the verbal aspect theory has been rather limited. In fact, I don’t recall its ever being mentioned in any of my Greek courses with the one exception of the 15- or 20-minute overview in Advanced Greek Grammar. But by that time, I had already done some reading on my own, first prompted by a question from one of my first-year Greek students (he had a friend from another school whose teacher was a proponent of the verbal aspect theory) and then by my preparing to teach tense uses to my fourth semester students. But the extent of my reading was the section in Wallace’s Grammar, “An Assessment of Time in Verb Tenses,” and a smattering of articles and papers that I found online. I have since read and would recommend an article written by my friend Andy Naselli, “A Brief Introduction to Verbal Aspect Theory in New Testament Greek.”

All this to say that I was excited to have an opportunity to dig a little bit deeper.

Contents

Verbal Aspect Theory

1. What is Verbal Aspect?
2. The History of Verbal Aspect
3. Perfective Aspect
4. Imperfective Aspect
5. The Problem of the Perfect

Verbal Aspect and New Testament Text

6. Verbal Lexeme Basics
7. Present and Imperfect Tense-forms
8. Aorist and Future Tense-forms
9. Perfect and Pluperfect Tense-Forms
10. More Participles

Summary

BVABG brings a technical and controversial subject down to a level that most Greek students can understand and benefit from. It’s a fairly easy read, even for those with little to no exposure to the details of the verbal aspect debate.

What follows is a brief summary of Campbell’s positions on some of the main issues.

Aspect and Aktionsart are distinct and must not be confused.

  1. Aspect is the author’s subjective viewpoint or way of portraying action. A tense-form is always either perfective or imperfective. That never changes.
  2. Aktionsart refers to the various kinds of action that a verb can perform based on the semantics, the lexeme, and the context. A tense-form can have many different Aktionsarten as those influencing factors change.

There are only two aspects—perfective and imperfective—not three (stative is not an aspect but an Aktionsart) or four as some have suggested.

  1. Perfective aspect views the action externally, as a whole, in summary. It’s like a reporter watching a parade from a helicopter.
  2. Imperfective aspect views an action internally, as it unfolds. It’s like a reporter watching a parade from the street.

Aspect corresponds to semantics, which is contrasted with pragmatics. Pragmatics corresponds to Aktionsart.

  1. Semantics (or more properly verbal or grammatical semantics) refers to the “values that are encoded in the verbal form” (22). They are always present and uncancelable. Semantics answers the question “Who am I?”
  2. Pragmatics refers to the semantic values in context and in combination with other factors” (23). As such, they are changing. Pragmatics answers the question “What do I do?”

This semantics–pragmatics dichotomy is what leads Campbell and others to exclude time from the tense-forms, for if the time element is changeable or cancelable (and it is), then it must be part of pragmatics and thus a part of the verbs Aktionsart, not a part of semantics, what the tense-form always communicates. And to say that time belongs to pragmatics is to say that the tense-forms don’t encode temporal reference.

As Campbell puts it,

The remaining question related to the distinction, however, is this: Is temporal reference semantic or pragmatic? If temporal reference is semantic, then Greek verbs truly are tenses. A verb’s temporal reference is uncancelable and is a core part of its meaning. An aorist is a past tense and must always be a past tense.

But here, of course, lies a problem. We learn early on that aorist are not always past referring. Therefore, we are led to ask: Is past temporal reference a semantic value of the aorist? . . . Even though the aorist often ends up expressing past temporal reference when used in Greek texts, this is a pragmatic implicature rather than semantic encoding. (24)

The most important players in the history of verbal aspect are Georg Curtius, K. L. McKay, Stanley Porter, Buist Fanning, Mari Broman Olsen, Rodney J. Decker, T. V. Evans, and—the author himself—Constantine R. Campbell.

The present points of disagreement among scholars are

  1. whether time is intrinsic to the tense-forms in the indicative mood,
  2. how many aspects there are, and
  3. which tense-forms belongs to which aspects—a point that Campbell leaves off.

Perfective Tense-Forms

Campbell argues that both the aorist and future tense-forms are perfective. Many have maintained that the future is aspectually vague or non-aspectual, but Campbell disagrees. In addition to being perfective, the aorist is remote, which can take the form of spatial, temporal, or logical remoteness. The future is also perfective, but, unlike all the other tense-forms, it is a true tense in that it always conveys future time, and by extension remoteness. I’m not sure why Campbell feels the need to make an exception with the future in terms of time. It seems that this is a similar move to Olsen’s when she maintains that some lexemes convey temporal reference in their semantics, but others do not. The bigger problem is the overlap between the aorist and the future. Since (1) both are perfective, (2) both are remote, and (3) both can be future, what’s the difference between them when they are both future referring. Why choose one over the other? Campbell’s attempt to differentiate between them in this case is less than satisfying.

Imperfective Tense-Forms

Since there are only two aspects in Campbell’s system, he puts the remaining tense-forums in the category of imperfective.

  1. Present is imperfective and proximate.
  2. Imperfect is imperfective and remote.
  3. Perfect is imperfective and more proximate.
  4. Pluperfect is imperfective and more remote.

Campbell defends his view based on the similar roles that the present and perfect on the one hand and the imperfect and pluperfect on the other hand play in narrative.

The rest of the book goes on to discuss the Aktionsarten of each of the tense-forms. Chapters 7–10 include examples as well as exercises, with an answer key in the back. Oddly enough, Campbell’s system results in something not too different from the tense uses that you find in Wallace’s Grammar. Though I do think that Campbell’s system does provide a more linguistically informed and organized approach to the Greek verbal system, I’m not yet convinced that it really changes as much as proponents seem to suggest.

Evaluation

As one who has not delved into the technical literature on this subject, I find Campbell’s book informative, accessible, and fairly well reasoned. It doesn’t answer all of the questions, but it certainly provides one with a nice introduction to the major players and contours of the issues involved in the verbal aspect debate. I highly recommend it to those wanting to learn more about verbal aspect.

Finally, one grammatical error that was missed: “Thus, the semantic values of the future indicative tense-form is [are] perfective aspect and future temporal reference” (39).

Endorsements

Other Reviews

Mike Aubrey at his ἐν ἐφέσῳ: Thoughts and Meditations blog:

Michael Hanel at the BibleWorks Blog:

Donald Kim at his blog:

Matthew Malcolm at his Crypto-theology blog:

Andy Naselli at his blog:

William Varner at Amazon:

, , , ,

11 Responses to Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek by Constantine R. Campbell

  1. Michael Hanel November 9, 2008 at 6:05 am #

    Well Phil, if you’re going to get all razor-eyed, technically two grammatical errors were missed, if he also misspelled “prefective” in your short quotation ;-)

  2. Phil Gons November 9, 2008 at 10:20 am #

    Whoops! That one was mine! Fixed it. Thanks.

  3. Con Campbell November 11, 2008 at 12:07 pm #

    Thanks for the great review Phil.
    Just for clarification, I argue that the aorist is perfective and remote, whereas the future is perfective and future referring (i.e. remoteness is not a grammaticalized element of the future form). I regard the future as a real ‘tense’ because it universally refers to the future, unlike the other tense-forms which do not universally convey a single temporal reference.

  4. Mike November 11, 2008 at 8:37 pm #

    A question, Phil. Do we attribute too much sophistication to the writers of Scripture?

  5. Phil Gons November 11, 2008 at 10:51 pm #

    Mike,

    Well, I don’t know how much sophistication you attribute to the writers of Scripture, so it’s hard for me to answer that question. ;)

    I think I know what you’re getting at though. I don’t think Peter or Paul thought in these terms about their language. That doesn’t mean that our thinking in these terms can’t help us understand the NT writers’ use of the Greek language. Yes, we should avoid hard and fast rules that don’t make room for exceptions, but thinking in organized ways about language like this doesn’t have to equate to thinking that Peter and Paul where expert grammarians and linguists according to 21st-century standards.

  6. Phil Gons November 11, 2008 at 10:58 pm #

    Con,

    Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your work in this very fine book.

    I appreciate your clarification, but I’m afraid I don’t see how you can avoid concluding that the future tense-form does indeed grammaticalize remoteness (though I can certainly see why you don’t want to say that :)). If the future tense-form grammaticalizes future time, and if future time always conveys remoteness, then the future tense-form always conveys remoteness. And if it always conveys remoteness, then the future tense-form grammaticalizes remoteness. The same logic you use in your comment above to conclude that the future tense-form grammaticalizes future time could be applied to show that the future tense-form grammaticalizes remoteness, right? I’m not sure what I’m missing.

  7. Con Campbell November 11, 2008 at 11:10 pm #

    Thanks Phil.

    I think what’s missing is that I don’t anywhere argue that future temporal reference ‘always conveys remoteness’. Now, that might be true, and I’m open to the possibility, but it’s not something that I’ve argued, and quite deliberately. I think the problem, from my point of view, is that in Greek spatial metaphors can convey temporal meanings, but temporal meanings don’t convey spatial metaphors. But I’m happy to pushed on this.

  8. Phil Gons November 11, 2008 at 11:18 pm #

    Thanks for the further clarification, Con. That helps.

    I’ll have to chew on this a bit more.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The BibleWorks Blog - November 9, 2008

    […] 4. Phil Gons. […]

  2. συνεσταυρωμαι: living the crucified life - November 11, 2008

    […] I found that Phil Gons also has a review up as […]

  3. Verbal Aspect « Ad Fontes - April 22, 2010

    […] Phil Gons also has a good summary of Constantine Cambell’s Introduction to Greek Verbal Aspect. […]

Leave a Reply