Keeping up to Date with Greek (Verbal Aspect)

Let me preface this post with my saying that I am not currently a pastor. What I say here should therefore be taken with a grain of salt, but I hope more than that that it would be weighed carefully. As a result, I will couch this in the form of a question with reflections.

Is it possible for pastors to keep up with current Greek scholarship on at least a marginal enough level that they are aware of the discussions and especially take into account developments in the last 2+ decades on verbal aspect?

I notice in sermons that pastors and speakers frequently say something about the Greek that lies behind the English version they are using and make an exegetical pronouncement about the text based on the verb that is questionable. The idea that either absolute time or kind of action’ is the central feature of the verbal tense-form is an antiquated idea (with some debate as to whether time functions at all in it). I hesitate to provide examples lest I single pastors out. These pronouncements do not always affect the main point of the sermon but if I were preaching ideas that have shown to be false, I would want to have those things corrected out of integrity.

So, is it possible for a pastor to keep up with current Greek scholarship? I have two thoughts on this.

1) Scholars may be to blame in the first place. Commentary writers and popularizers of academic material have themselves failed to keep up and provide pastors with material that keeps up to date with the current understandings of the Greek language, especially the Greek verb.

I recently got my hands on a commentary that was released in 2010 (I won’t mention who) that fails to cite any Greek grammatical work beyond 1963, with the exception of two revised lexicons (1996 and 2000) which themselves are not in line with modern linguistics and Greek grammatical study. As such, the writer refers to tense-form usage in terms of its time-values and ‘kind of action’ that fails to recognize what all the major players of Greek grammar currently do and have for at least 2 decades: aspect, and not time, is the major contribution of the verbal tense-forms. Sadly this commentary is not alone in relying on dated grammars that were once magisterial (and no doubt they should be consulted) but have now been surpassed and even contradicted. How can pastors be expected to stay up to date if they are reading commentaries like this?

On the other hand, there are small glimmers of hope that the tide is changing as pastoral commentaries such as Kruse’s The Letters of John (PNTC) and Carson’s forthcoming Johannine Epistles (NIGTC) take verbal aspect seriously in their discussion of the Greek verb. Let’s hope for higher percentages.

2) Whatever the time commitments of the pastor, most (I hope) would agree that the preaching and teaching of the Word is central to the pastor’s job (cf. e.g., Acts 6:4; letters to Timothy). If that is so, the same pastors would agree that the faithful preaching and teaching of the Word is required. After all, to knowingly say something false would not be helpful. I don’t want to say that the pastor needs to be a scholar (there are varying gifts anyway) but should not some contact be maintained with the disciplines from when the pastor first encountered them in their seminary training (Greek as well as church history, theology, etc.)? After all, seminary does not teach everything the pastor needs to know so that they don’t have to read another book in their life, but it exposes the pastor to the beginning of a lifetime of study (I first heard this idea expounded by D.A. Carson in an interview).

Of course, all this is predicated on the idea that the languages are important for the pastor in the first place, a topic for discussion another time (but as I’ve heard many say and I myself believe: you don’t find pastors who have learned Greek well ever complain that it has not been fundamental in their study and teaching).

So, is it possible to maintain contact and stay abreast of the current discussion? I don’t have the final answer and won’t say more than I’ve just said for now except that if a pastor doesn’t think the languages are worth their time, should they quote Greek or refer to grammatical issues in a sermon in the first place?

Interested in your thoughts.

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8 comments

  1. David A Booth

    Andrew,

    It is good to have you back in the blogging world.

    As the solo pastor of a congregation, let me suggest that it is possible for a pastor to continue growing in his knowledge of and skill with Biblical languages – but not in the way that a full time doctoral student or a professor of Biblical studies or linguistics does. Even there it might be helpful to point out how few scholars actually keep abreast of the research in both koine Greek and the Semitic languages.

    First the bad news:

    1. Most pastors only took a year or a year and a half of Greek and/or Hebrew in seminary. Since this is clearly inadequate for competent reading of the Bible, a majority of pastors simply stop working in the original languages at all. I consider this one of the sadder aspects of modern pastoral training (By contrast, in the 19th century it was common for those pursuing pastoral ministry to work with Greek all through college and all through seminary).

    2. The expectations for pastors are set ridiculously low when it comes to Biblical languages: I earned an MDiv at Gordon-Conwell theological seminary. Gordon-Conwell is one of the more rigorous seminaries and it even offers a masters degree in Biblical language. Nevertheless, the standard encouragement was for students to keep up their Greek and Hebrew after graduation as though their time in seminary would be the high water mark of their skill set.

    Now the good news:

    1. The past two decades have seen a virtual renaissance in publishing with respect to Biblical and cognate languages which has made it much easier for diligent pastors to continue developing their understanding of how Biblical languages actually work. To pick just one example, Steven Runge’s “Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament” helps bridge the gap between professional linguists and those who have a much more elementary understanding of how Greek works.

    2. The Internet has been an enormous benefit to pastors in alerting us to developments in the field (through the comments of scholars) and giving us easy access to much of the best scholarly literature through Amazon.com. If you don’t remember life before personal computers and the Internet you might not appreciate how big a deal that is. So, for example, although I pastor in Massachusetts I read a plug by Larry Hurtado (Scotland) for Margaret Sim’s doctoral dissertation on “Marking Thought and Talk in New Testament Greek”. I purchased this work on Amazon and have just begun reading it. This could not have happened 25 years ago.

    3. I have discovered that world renowned professors are actually quite willing to answer questions from pastors. I won’t mention anyone’s name lest this lead to a flood of e-mails – but several professors have been quite kind in responding to my questions about their research or published articles.

    The bottom line is this: If a minster thinks his primary calling is to minister God’s word, then no argument for working to become more skilled in the Biblical languages is necessary. If a pastor has the discipline to include work in the Biblical languages in his regular routine of study, then there are plenty of resources available to help him in this pursuit.

    Best wishes,

    David
    p.s. As I am currently preaching through First Corinthians, I would give a plug for the Pillar Commentary by Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner as a good example of introducing linguistic information in a way that is helpful to those who are at an intermediate stage in their knowledge of Greek.

  2. Sandy Grant (@SandmanGrant)

    Andrew, I am one of your classic cases. I am almost 20 years out of theological college, and learned nothing about aspect when I was there. I am keeping up my Greek in other respects (a plug for Con Campbell’s Keep Your Greek). And I have a more recently graduated colleague who understands aspect and makes use of it. But I have not come across anything that explains it easily. What can you recommend in terms of “NT verbal aspect for dummies”? An article or two? Which is the best modern NT Greek grammar for explaining it?

  3. Andrew Rozalowsky

    Hi Sandy,

    Con Campbell also has a book about verbal aspect pitched at the introductory level called, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek published by Zondervan. What I find helpful about this book on the introductory level is that it introduces the major players (Porter, McKay, Campbell, Fanning) and their views – where they differ, but most importantly, where they agree. I disagree with his incorporation of Aktionsart (‘kind of action’) as a useful pragmatic category but my whole point in the blog was in keeping up with at least where they all agree.

    For a helpful summary of Porter’s view there are two excellent resources. Andy Naselli has written an introduction to verbal aspect in the DBSJ: http://andynaselli.com/wp-content/uploads/2007_verbal_aspect.pdf?9d7bd4
    Rod Decker has also written a summary of Porter’s main monograph in verbal aspect: http://ntresources.com/documents/porter.pdf

    Actually I’m going to put these in a main blog post. Thanks for asking the question. I hope these resources help.

  4. Alex S. Leung  (@sixsteps)

    Hey there Andrew,

    Thanks for writing this post. I think your concerns are certainly valid; I share your distaste for some preacher’s misuse of their limited Greek knowledge.

    My Greek professor at seminary highly suggested that we refrain from mentioning anything of the original languages, especially with regards to verb/tense forms. We ought to be able to preach, make the sermon’s point, to communicate in such a way that the lay person can be assured of the clarity of God’s Word.

    Pastor’s certainly should keep abreast in biblical scholarship, especially concerning the biblical languages. Amen to that.

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