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

Date: Mon Oct 28 1996 - 14:03:10 EST

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

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." 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. 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.
 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.

Respectfully submitted to this group,

Daniel B. Wallace

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