Friday, August 13, 2010

Was the Church Wrong about the Meaning of Verbs in Scripture?

Some readers might be discouraged by the content of this post. Please work your way through it. Don't be stopped by the use of some words that you don't know. Get the most out of it as possible.

Recent discussions here and elsewhere have brought to my attention a debate about the understanding of the verbs of Scripture. Several modern Greek grammarians are saying that we didn't understand the meaning of the Greek verbs until now and that standard grammarians had been fundamentally wrong for centuries until the recent work of certain men. There is a strong movement to lead toward a different understanding of the tenses of the Greek verb, led, as I see it, mainly by men such as D. A. Carson, Stanley Porter, and Rodney Decker. Some would call this the Porter-Fanning Debate, because of the argumentation between Stanley Porter and Buist Fanning in 1990 on the subject of Greek verbal aspect. Porter is President and Dean, Professor of New Testament, at McMaster Divinity College and Fanning is the Department Chair and Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Fanning takes a position that is closer to what we have read and studied from A. T. Robertson and Dana and Mantey. Porter introduces a new position on the tense of the Greek verbs. Fanning is backed by Daniel Wallace, among others. Porter is supported by D. A. Carson. Now when there is an argument over the tense of the Greek verbs, this debate, and these two sides, must be taken into consideration.

Porter and Fanning fundamentally disagree whether tense involves time. Fanning, and those who believe like he, are convinced that time is clearly involved in the meaning of the tenses. Porter, and his followers, which are all very much new, insist that the tenses present no information about time, but that all the temporal knowledge arises only from the context and certain deictic indicators.

Porter contends that the inherent meaning of the tenses of the Greek verbs show "aspect" rather than time, what has been called Aktionsart. Porter, with the agreement of Carson, and so now fashionable among even evangelical scholars, says that there is no objective understanding of time in verbs because the timing and action of a verb are understood based only upon the subjective choice of the speaker or writer's conception of what is occurring. This character of the verb has been called "aspect." The speaker or writer can view an activity however he wants, so nothing can be objectively deduced about the time of a verb. Porter says that tense itself is a complete misnomer. Of course, this flies in the face of how men for all written biblical or theological material has understood the Greek verb through all time. How men have understood the Greek verb was wrong. According to Porter and Carson, we now know better. And, of course, this new understanding must be reflected henceforth in all commentaries on the New Testament.

Fanning and Wallace argue, like have Greek grammars for a long time, that a temporal aspect (time) is found in the tense of the verbs in the indicative and in participles. Wallace answers Porter in his Greek Grammar in Appendix IV on pp. 504-512. He says that the basic, unaffected meaning of the present tense sees both aspect and time (pp. 514-516). So the existence of some exceptions as verbs relate to time does not mean that the tenses of the verbs in the indicative do not have an objective temporal meaning.

Is it possible that for centuries, students of Scripture were wrong on the meaning of the verbs of the New Testament? Would the Holy Spirit have allowed this? Did we really need Porter and Carson to come along to bring us the true understanding of the Bible that the church has missed these thousands of years? I have noticed that the nature of modern scholarship is the continued seeking for some new break through that will set apart one scholar from another. In the secular world, the new discovery certainly can exalt the scholar to a place of prominence in the scholar community or society. I see even evangelical scholars to take up this same kind of tact. There are so many smart guys with advanced degrees that one can hardly be noticed as significant or special without some new discovery or find on the resume.

Unfortunately, much of the new "science" of the modern scholars flies in the face of what has been believed and taught by believers for a long, long time. And, of course, that tends toward believers being dependent on the new sacral society of scholars instead of the teachers in the church. And it really does remove a certainty in the meaning of the Bible. How do we know that some other new "find" could in the future overturn what we have already switched to believing because of the last great discovery of scholarship?

This is a very fundamental disagreement, about which many would assume that we are to agree to disagree. Depending upon which side you take, Porter or Fanning, you will come to several different conclusions about what Scripture is saying. That will affect your practice. People have an affinity to be a part of some new and not before understood knowledge, especially young men going out to prove themselves or form some niche. They can always say, "Well, yes, that's what people were saying before, but now with Porter, well, things have changed---and, by the way, did you see what Carson said about that?" In the world of scholarship, these wranglings can often be something like a major league baseball game. Two teams pound it out for nine innings and then later that night go out and get together for a meal and beverage. Everyone sees each others' points and then they move on.

I have talked here and elsewhere about a temporal aspect in the use of the perfect tense in soteriological and bibliological contexts. The views of Porter and Carson and Decker would say that no temporal aspect should be seen in the perfect, that is, unless there is something to be seen in the context of the passage that would enlighten us to the perspective of the author. In other words, the verbs themselves have no objective temporal meaning from which we could ascertain any doctrine. This is new. We need to know that it is new.

Carson, of course, would call seeing time in the indicative to be an exegetical fallacy. But why? We need to know why. Just because Carson says it does not make it so. We need to see some of the back story to this kind of discussion. These men have been swayed by the arguments of Porter. That doesn't mean it's an exegetical fallacy. It means that Carson thinks it's one. His saying it is one doesn't make it one. I could quote several older sources in opposition and Carson and Porter would simply say that their scholarship had been overturned by new scholarship. So there we are. Actually there is a big debate on the tense of the verb among evangelicals. An argument that I, sadly, don't seem to hear is one that involves historic theology. God is at work through the church in the interpretation of Scripture. He's not going to wait until 1990 to open some interpretive key that we've never seen before. We should reject this new approach.


Anonymous said...

I have never heard of this debate before, so I am not aware of all the particulars. Maybe I am misunderstanding, but let me get this straight: Is somebody saying that there is NEVER any temporal aspect to any Greek verbs, or only that certain tenses (such as perfect or aorist) do not relay temporal information? The former is hard to believe that anyone would say, since we can clearly see in the NT people relaying information that happened in the past using past-tense verbs, information that is yet future using future-tense verbs, etc. If somebody is actually stating there is NEVER temporal info, they need to get out of the musty library a while and get some fresh air.

My second observation or question would be regarding contemporary sources. Wouldn't it be very clear to have a look at the writings of the "ante-Nicene fathers" who were familiar with Greek and see any assumptions they make about verb tenses? The average fisherman of the 2nd Century would know more about Greek than any five Greek scholars put together today. What do early writings on the NT reveal about the authors' understandings and assumptions of NT verbs?

Anonymous said...

In the 19th century Bible scholars followed secular ideologies and came up with the Westcott-Hort Theory of textual transmission. This was new and it certainly changed some things - for the worse. The 20th century Bible versions came from this theory. In the 20th-21st centuries, Bible scholars are now following secular linguistic theories to rewrite the NT Greek textbooks. Again, this will change the substance of the new Bible versions being produced. William Tyndale knew what the Greek verbs meant and how to translate them into English back in the 16th century.