Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Introduction to the imperfect

As you learn Greek, you will be exposed to the whole issue of aspect. At first it is a little confusing, but after a while you will get the hang of it. But what can become frustrating is trying to be attentive to aspect, and then coming across let’s say an imperfect; you know it is continuous in aspect but you can’t see what the big deal is. This piece of knowledge doesn’t make the passage come clear, or zing, or anything else. After a while you start wondering why you are spending the time learning Greek. Does it really help?

There are several issues going on here, but before getting into them let me summarize aspect, especially for those of you who are not yet.

The essence of the Greek verb is not its ability to tell time. There is past, present, and future, but even in the indicative time is secondary to aspect; and outside the indicative mood there is no absolute time. The Greek participle, imperative, infinitive, and subjunctive cannot designate when an action occurs. All they can tell you is aspect.

So what is aspect? Aspect refers to the type of action that the verb is describing. The default aspect is “undefined” (it goes by several names). By default I mean that when the speaker just wants to say something happened (or happens), he puts it in the undefined. If in fact the action was punctiliar, if in fact it happened in a single point of time, the speaker will also use the undefined aspect. And so Jesus “died” on the cross.

The continuous aspect is more clearly marked for aspect. It described something as a process. Sometimes it describes an ongoing action, or a repeated action, or sometimes the stress is on the beginning of the ongoing action, but in some way it is a process. On the cross Jesus “was saying” (continuous), “Father, forgive them.” He didn’t just say it once.

Finally, the perfective aspect is the most aggressively marked aspect. By “aggressive” I mean the perfective aspect is always clear and significant. Perfective means that the action was completed (and hence usually refers to a past event), but the action has ongoing consequences. My favorite example is Jesus’ last words on the cross: “It is finished.” Everything that Jesus came to earth to do had been done; his mission was complete. The consequence is that now there is access to God.

Okay, enough for Greek 101. This is how aspect is generally described. But in class the other day we came across a passage with an imperfect (past time, continuous aspect), and someone asked about the significance of the imperfect. It was really subtle, and the general ways of describing aspect wasn’t especially helpful.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus says that some of the seed fell on good soil and it “was producing” (εδιδου) fruit (Matt 13:8). Now in one sense this is a no brainer. Fruit doesn’t appear instantaneously; it is formed over time, through a process. And yet Jesus could have used the default undefined aspect, and the fact that he didn’t suggests we are suppose to see something in the aspect of the imperfect.

Here is another way to look at aspect. The particular metaphor comes from Constantine’s new book, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek. He likens the undefined aspect to a helicopter view over a parade, seeing it as a whole, not overly concerned with the movement of the many parts. But the continuous aspect is like being on the ground, in the midst of the parade, seeing all the parts, their movements and interactions. It is like being there.

This is not a new idea. Buist Fanning in his amazing book, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (Oxford), talks about action being described from the outside (undefined) or the inside (continuous).

I am coming to see that this way of describing aspect may be more helpful. Take our verse in question. Why emphasize that the fruit “was being produced”? Because it is a subtle way of landing the helicopter, pulling you into the story, helping you feel part of the parable. Yes, it is subtle, quite subtle, but isn’t that the normal use of language? Not everything we say carries momentous meaning. Often our choice of words are due to nuance and style.

A great example of this is Matt 13. The first three verses read, “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat (εκαθητο) beside the sea” (ESV). Why did Matthew use the imperfect? Because the stage is being set. The drama initiation. The actors introduced.

The same can be seen in Mark 2:13. “He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming (ηρχετο) to him, and he was teaching (εδιδασκεν) them” (ESV). the stage is set. The appetite is whetted. You are in the story, ready to hear what happens next.

There are many ways to use the imperfect. Sometimes it helps us see wonderful theology. Other times is gives quiet hints to the careful reader as to what is happening and invites them to join the parade.