Verbal Aspect… the term that strikes guilt and fear into the hearts of Greek students and pastors alike: We all know it’s something we’re supposed to understand and incorporate into our appreciation of the Greek of the New Testament; but many of us are unsure of exactly what it means or how it applies or whether it really is as important as it’s made out to be. If this is you, let me give one illustration of how an understanding of verbal aspect can be important: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Have you ever heard a talk about that passage of Scripture, in which it is insisted that the words “he also glorified” talk about the church’s future by using the past tense in order to show just how certain it is? The problem is, this interpretation may involve a faulty understanding of how Greek verbs work – we need to understand them better if we are to interpret the New Testament more attentively.
Enter Constantine R. Campbell’s book Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek. I was kindly sent a review copy by Zondervan. Campbell sums up his book like this (if you don’t understand the lingo, please hang in there!):
It is claimed in this book that Greek verbs semantically encode aspect along with the spatial value of remoteness or proximity (with the exception of the future tense-form, which encodes aspect and future temporal reference). The difference between this description of the semantics of verbs and that of traditional analyses is that semantic temporal reference (“tense”) has been replaced by semantic spatial categories. In other words, while traditional analyses might regard verbs as encoding aspect and tense, here verbs are regarded as encoding aspect and remoteness or aspect and proximity. It is also claimed that these spatial values of remoteness and proximity, which are semantic, normally express temporal reference on the pragmatic level. (p129)
To put this more basically, let me give a concrete example: In aorist verbs, “past tense” is not intrinsic to the verb, but may be an application of its use in context. This is significant, because it means that we should not assume that an aorist indicative should always be translated with past temporal reference. Sometimes it is better translated with present tense in English: “Those he predestines he also calls; and those he calls he also justifies; and those he justifies he also glorifies.”
Campbell aims to help readers who have some knowledge of NT Greek to think about just what is intrinsic to the different tense-forms, and what is not. He does this in a very easy, readable, repetitive, illustrative style, with plenty of examples and exercises to help clarify things. I have no doubt that anyone who has some competency with NT Greek will be able to follow and learn from this book.
I can imagine some possible objections to the book: Despite being a general introduction to the basics of verbal aspect, it presents some particular viewpoints on verbal aspect that are idiosyncratic – such as the “imperfective aspect” of the perfect tense-form, or treating futurity as a “semantic value” of the future tense-form. However, I don’t see this as problematic, for a couple of reasons: Firstly, Campbell is always clear about when he is presenting something which is debated, and he points to resources that present alternative viewpoints. Secondly, I think it is important for the beginner to have something concrete to use in exercises: It may be that down the track, they will come to a different view about the aspect encoded in the perfect tense-form; but until then it is useful to be introduced to the concept with a working hypothesis: that the perfect tense-form semantically encodes imperfective aspect.
It is not the case that all previous ways of learning Greek were hopelessly off-track – or even that they had no concept of aspect – but it is the case that aspect has generally been under-appreciated: If you are using New Testament Greek, you really ought to come to grips with this issue… and I can’t think of a better introduction than this accessible, inexpensive book.