Re: Rom 7.14-25--Historical Present/Wallace's response

Carlton L. Winbery (
Mon, 28 Oct 1996 18:00:58 +0400

>Re. Rom 7 and the historical present. There has been quite a bit of reaction
>to Tommy Wilson's note about what I said in my Exegetical Syntax about the
>possibility of historical presents in Rom 7. In general, I am a bit baffled
>at the responses. For one thing, many seem to be reacting to what they
>assumed I said, without reading the grammar. For another, many others
>detoured from the grammatical point to a more general interpretive point.
> Certainly this is valid and needs to be done. But interpretation cannot be
>divorced from syntax. Hence, allow me to make a more direct response to this

As one who now has read most of Wallace's grammar, let me assert that I was
agreeing with Wallace's position that the use of the historical present in
the context with verbs other than in the 3rd person was correct. I agree
with him in his treatment as stated below.

>First, I did not say that it was impossible for the present tenses to be
>historical presents, just that it is unlikely that they were since they did
>not fit the contours of all known historical presents (and we have plenty of
>them in the NT, 415 in all I believe). To see such in Rom 7 would require, I
>believe, that such a convention was both available in the language and one
>that presented itself to the readers as a viable option. Hence, I beg to
>differ with one reviewer: my view is not "absurd." Just the opposite! It is
>holding others accountable when they want to grab a category and apply it to
>a passage because it already fits their preconceived notions. Do we really
>have the right to use grammar in this way-that is, by enlisting the support
>of a grammatical category merely because such is convenient? That's like
>saying that an articular future participle should be classified as causal
>because it fits my theology! One has to ignore the semantic situation
>(including certain syntactical and structural features) to say such a thing.
>Second, one response thought that my view was a theological importation on
>the text. The response had all the earmarks of being written from one who
>had not read my grammar. I do not at all deny that this text could be
>autobiographical and referring to Paul's preconversion life, just that one
>has to make the case based on other than normal syntax. Indeed, at one time
>I held to the preconversion view and based it on other than syntax; I held it
>in spite of not taking the present tenses as historical, for I did not see
>that as a legitimate part of my argument.
>Dr. Winbery critiques my treatment with this word: "Categories are our
>efforts to make sense of the text. . . To turn around and use that to prove a
>theological point is absurd."
Let me state again that I was not talking about Wallace's interpretation of
this passage. In fact I agree with him here. My statement was against one
who said that these are historical presents and then said that that fact
proves that this passage was talking of Paul's life before his commitment
to Christ. I still say that such a use of categories is absurd in the
absence of any other indicating factors
> This is partially true, but not nuanced
>enough. For one thing, this sounds as if Dr. Winbery is saying that we can
>never use grammar in a negative way-i.e., to suggest that a view is
>improbable. If we can't use grammar that way, then language has no meaning
>(because in affirming what the syntax does mean, we are necessarily also
>indicating what it does not mean). To be sure, our grammatical categories
>are our attempt to make sense of the texts (not just a text). But by
>gathering data and examining all clear examples of a given category of usage,
>a certain pattern often emerges.

Amen! You are talking about a person who has torn up hundreds of sermons
because of the Greek NT.

>For example, all clear examples of the
>subjective genitive are related to a head noun that has a verbal cognate
>(such as love of God, revelation of Christ, etc.). Recently, a student asked
>me if a particular genitive related to an adjective (not a substantival one
>either) could be a subjective genitive. Another wanted to take a genitive as
>subjective when the head noun was not a "verbal noun." In such cases, do we
>not have a right to say, "No, this is unlikely because of the semantics of
>subjective genitives"? If not, then any view has as much probability as any
>other. (In a postmodern world, of course, that is no problem.) Secondly,
>rather than categories being the labels we use to make sense of the text,
>they are labels we first put on texts whose sense is compellingly obvious.
> Grammatical method must start with the clear categories. But if a given
>passage holds forth more than one legitimate option (as in Rom 7), how much
>of a right do we have to choose one that has no grammatical parallels but may
>fit contextually? Doesn't this look like petitio principii? It seems to me
>that in such a case, to argue for the historical present view, one would have
>to demonstrate either (1) that this view is probable in the text on other
>grounds or (2) that historical presents occur sufficiently in the first
>person to allow the audience even to see this as a possibility. Unless Dr.
>Winbery knows something that the rest of us do not about Rom 7, I do not
>think that a mere appeal to the present tenses as historical will do the job.

Which is the point of my original post. I think you should go back and
read what I said about the person who called the presents historic. That
is the position that is totally without foundation in the text.

> Once again, I never said that such a categorization is impossible, but that
>it is unlikely. With historical-literary documents, you can't speak in
>absolute terms. But, as I said in the preface to my grammar, all heterodoxy
>is based on what is possible, but not on what is probable.
>Thus, it seems that perhaps some of the reaction to my treatment of the
>historical present is more a theological reaction than one based on grammar.
> I welcome all evidence that the historical present can occur in the first
>person in hellenistic Greek. It would even be helpful if such were found in
>rapid succession, rather than interchanging with aorists, as the other
>historical presents do. And, further, that it is found in didactic
>literature. The more parallels to Rom 7 the better. I am by no means
>opposed to this. But so far, I haven't seen anything that even allows me to
>treat this as a viable option. If our theological conclusions about the
>meaning of the NT are not based on the conventions of the language, then what
>are they based on?
>Third, for a more detailed discussion of the matter, I simply urge you all to
>look at my treatment in the Exegetical Syntax. The basic treatment is on
>531-32. I also urge you to read the preface and pp. 1-11 to see my
>syntactical method rather than jumping to conclusions without seeing the work
>in question.
The book is in my hand and I am in total agreement with your negative
assessment of the use of the category of "historical present" in Rom 7:14
and stated the same position in my own words in my post.

Carlton L. Winbery
Fogleman Professor of Religion
Louisiana College
Fax (318) 442-4996
Phone (318) 487-7241