Why Verbal Aspect Improves Preaching, Part 1: Apprehension

by Donald C. McIntyre

Verbal Aspect is Critical to an Accurate Apprehension of the Text

Verbal aspect theory arose to prominence in 1989 and 1990 with the simultaneous work of Stanley Porter and Buist Fanning, who both sought to show how linguistics could further effect exegesis of the Greek New Testament (GNT).1 Upon the publication of the dissertations, a debate sprang forth between the two views, with Dr. Fanning’s views being more conservative to previous methods, and Dr. Porter’s being a hard break from previous grammatical theory. Thirty years later, their works are still cited in all relevant works on the subject.

Porter completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield, and his dissertation would be published as the inaugural volume in the Studies in Biblical Greek series, edited by D.A. Carson in 1989.2 After describing multiple definitions across biblical and non-biblical scholars on VA Porter defines VA in similar terms of Slavonic linguists when he states, “Greek verbal aspect is a synthetic semantic category (realized in the forms of verbs) used of meaningful oppositions in a network of tense systems to grammaticalize the author’s reasoned subjective choice of conception of a process.”3 He then goes on to provide functional names of the aspects he finds within Greek language with the corresponding tenses in which those aspects are typically found on page 89; these names and their corresponding tenses are, “perfective (»»Aorist), imperfective (»»Present/Imperfect), stative (»»Perfect/Pluperfect).”4 However, the perfective, imperfective and stative aspects need explanation for those unfamiliar with linguistic theory. However, Porter finds past definitions of aspect and their relationship to tenses as unsatisfactory (the reason for his dissertation) and progresses by defining past understanding before offering a corrective. In Porter’s research past understanding was that the “Perfect conveys past or antecedent action with present or current consequences; Present conveys durative or iterative action; and aorist conveys punctiliar action.”5  Instead of trying to define the individual aspects of perfective, imperfective, or stative at the beginning of his argument, Porter makes use Isachenko’s parade illustration: 

If I am a television correspondent in the BBC helicopter flying over the parade, I view the parade or process in its immediacy from a vantage outside the action as “perfective,” i.e. in its entirety as a single and complete whole. If I am a spectator sitting in the grandstand watching the parade pass by in front of me, I view the process immersed within it as “imperfective,” i.e. as an event in progress. And if I am the parade manager considering all of the conditions in existence at this parade, including not only all the arrangements that are coming to fruition but all of the accompanying events that allow the parade to operate, I view the process not in its particulars or its immediacy but as “stative,” i.e. as a condition or state of affairs in existence.6

With the emphasis on verbs throughout Greek studies, it can be understood why an exegete would seek to see what else could be found to say about a verb. Porter found that linguistic theory held the key to understanding more about the language of the GNT. Not only did Porter find linguistics as a field profitable, but he would go on to become a proponent of one particular theory of linguistics, systemic functional linguistics (SFL), for which he believes he is “perhaps best known for.”7 The idea of SFL that is most important to understanding VA theory is that, “One stream of SFL thought believes that the grammar of a language is realized in the numerous meaning choices that the user makes, until such a point where this potential for meaning must be realized in linguistic substance, in the words of the language.”8 Porter believes that each speaker, whether consciously, or subconsciously, makes a decision on how to encode his message. Two figures describe this selection process, the first in terms of VA function (figure 1-1) and then again in terms of the verbs discourse function (figure 1-2), both duplicated below.  

Figure 1‑19

Figure ‎1‑210

With this framework, Porter asserts that when an author wishes to keep some aspect in the background of the story, i.e. to carry the narrative along, the author would place it in the perfective aspect (the aorist tense.)11 When an author wished to draw attention to something, he would use a more “marked tense” through bringing it to the foreground using a different tense, which would either be defined (present tense, imperfective aspect), or well-defined (perfect tense, stative aspect.)

Verbal Aspect has been identified as “semantic category” above in Porter’s view. His method for identifying the verbal aspect of a form is narrowed down by the Greek (linguistic) tenses which he holds to rigidly. The more profitable analysis would be to see how Porter’s views of VA and SFL (the two being intrinsically bound together in his view) affect his exegetical method. In Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament, Porter’s chapter six addressed the need for a multidisciplinary approach to exegesis and describes his hierarchy of exegesis with three sections of analysis: 1.) the discourse 2.) context of situations 3.) context of culture. Elaborating on the foundational step in Porter’s exegetical analysis, he states that:  

Discourse analysis—itself an interdisciplinary if not multidisciplinary arena of study—involves taking linguistic analysis beyond the level of the clause or sentence, so that larger structures are attended to. These include patterns that make a text a cohesive discourse (the so-called textual metafunction): lexical choice and participant choice that indicate the topic of a discourse (the so-called ideational metafunction), and the social factors embedded in the discourse, especially regarding participants (the so-called interpersonal metafunction).12

These lexical choices and patterns drastically affect how Porter conducts exegesis. For example, Porter states concerning the aorist and imperfect tenses that “The Aorist as semantically the least heavily marked verb form is aspectually perfective, frequently occurring in past contexts as the background narrative tense. The Imperfect, semantically more heavily marked than the Aorist, is aspectually imperfective (its difference from the Present is discussed directly below), also often occurring in past contexts as the foreground narrative tense,”13 and a few pages later that, “In recognizing the semantic difference between the Aorist and the Imperfect, several grammarians still dispute how the Aorist or the Imperfect forms the backbone of narration.” The ideas of grounding (background, defined foreground, well defined foreground) and backbone of narration are the most helpful to the expository Preacher.

Donald C. McIntyre is a Ph.D. Student in Old Testament at Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, PA.

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