Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek, Book Review

Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek. By Constantine R. Campbell. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. 159 pages. Paperback, $16.99.

Although the importance of verbal aspect for understanding the Greek of the New Testament is widely acknowledged among scholars and professors, there has been limited interaction with the idea at the introductory level. With this volume, Constantine Campbell seeks to fill this gap by organizing the controversial and technical linguistic discussion into a “primer on Greek verbal aspect—an introduction, a textbook, a way in for nonspecialists” (p. 9). Campbell is a lecturer of Greek and New Testament at Moore Theological College and has written several monographs in this area. Convinced that “understanding Greek verbs matters,” Campbell aims to present the common ground of the debate in a way that can provide a foundation for students of Biblical Greek.

Campbell divides his book into two main parts. The first part delineates verbal aspect theory. He defines verbal aspect along with related topics, charts the history of verbal aspect developments, briefly explains “perfective” and “imperfective” aspect, and then discusses issues involved with the perfect tense-form. The second part outlines how verbal aspect functions in the forms that actually appear in the New Testament text. In this part, Campbell seeks to relate verbal aspect to the other semantic and contextual factors involved in exegesis. After providing some “verbal lexeme basics,” he interacts with the major tense-forms and then concludes with a chapter on participles.

One useful feature of this volume is the clear distinctions and clarifications Campbell provides. He explains that aspect “refers to viewpoint—how the action is viewed,” and that Aktionsart “refers to how an action actually takes place—what sort of action it is” (p. 22). Tense, then, is seen as primarily conveying a “morphological form” rather than a temporal reference (p. 24). He also distinguishes between “semantic” and “pragmatic” aspects of verbs. Semantics refers to “the values that are encoded in the verbal form” and are properties that cannot be cancelled (p. 22). Pragmatics refers to “the expression of semantic values in context and in combination with other factors” (p. 23). Campbell asserts that aspect is a semantic value while tense and Aktionsart are pragmatic. He employs these distinctions in the subsequent discussion, which is consistently brief and focused. Though each section has the potential to attract swarms of footnotes, Campbell keeps the chapters flowing at a steady pace.

Another important feature is Campbell’s analysis of verbal aspect as a compositional tool of an author. Verbal aspect “represents a subjective choice” that an author makes when “portraying a particular action, event, or state” (p. 20). Accordingly, Campbell highlights the “narrative function” of each particular aspect in the various tense-forms. The exercises at the end of each chapter in part two are intended to guide a student through the process of applying these intentional “aspect choices” to the interpretation of texts.

The “key methodological principle” which governs Campbell’s approach is “the power of explanation” (p. 33). Whichever model of the verbal system is able “to account for all uses of the verb” should be adopted (p. 33). This is a helpful guide and functions as an authority for Campbell’s linguistic choices. However, this issue is the fulcrum of the debate over aspect theory. Not all Greek scholars will agree with Campbell’s ordering and assessment of verbal aspect. Someone familiar with the broader discussion will recognize the significant choices Campbell makes. For instance, agreeing with Stanley Porter, Campbell denies that tense-forms semantically encode temporal reference. Regarding the number of aspects, Campbell sides with Buist Fanning and argues that there are two rather than three (denying stative aspect).

As Campbell notes, some of these particular issues are of “enormous importance” (p. 32). He does point out in the footnotes where he argues for these decisions in his larger works. Even so, a more detailed history of the debate, further interaction with opposing views, or an appendix tracing the arguments for some of the contested positions would strengthen the volume. Because of the book’s brevity, these added elements would not detract from the succinct nature of this useful introduction.

In Review and Expositor 106.4 (Fall 2009), 633-35.

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