Re: Attention aspect geeks: John 15:6 EBLHQH, EXHRANQH

From: Don Wilkins (
Date: Sun Apr 06 1997 - 19:13:06 EDT

[Warning: this is long.]

I appreciate Jonathan's reasoned and non-confrontational approach to
argument, and will attempt to respond objectively.

Jonathan wrote:
>It seems to me that any set of rules that we propose to describe a language
>is always speculative, and may need to be adapted or discarded based on the
>data. By definition, those passages which don't seem to fit our current
>working set of rules are "difficult passages". The scientific method is to
>examine data, look for patterns, speculate about general principles, propose
>a theorem, and see if the theorem explains further data.

I agree with the use and your definition of the scientific method. As to
the speculative level of our rules, see below.

>Right now, I don't think that the scholarly community has established clear,
>agreed-upon principles for understanding aspect in Greek, and this is often
>reflected in the discussion here. Naturally, *I'm* struggling with aspect -
>I'm struggling with the rest of the language too - but even people who have
>been working with Greek for a very long time seem to be struggling with it.
>The grammars I use disagree on many issues, and since I can't find an
>ultimate source of authority, I need to look at passages and tentatively
>make up my own mind. I reserve the right to change it at any time during the
>next 60 years.

I appreciate the honesty and humor of your last statement. I think your
first statement is, however, the result in part of misunderstanding past
scholarship in Greek. Certainly one might get the impression from reading
b-greek discussions that aspect is a new and controversial issue, but in
fact it was thought through and discussed a long time ago, and much of what
is being said now is reinventing the wheel (partly due to minor differences
in terminology). At the risk of being too bold or blunt, I would also say
that the grammars you are using seem to disagree largely for one of two
reasons: (1) the disagreement is only apparent due to semantics, and (2)
not all grammars are created equally (i.e. some are just incorrect). As to
making up your own mind, you need to have adequate preparation and/or
experience first, and rely on expert opinion until then. That may sound
harsh, but it is no more so than advising you to trust your physician for
advice until you go through medical school and internship on your own. Or
in your own field, you know that there is a great deal to learn and
practice in programming before you get proficient at it. In either field,
the experts still struggle with many problems, but this does not negate
their expertise or serve to prove that their opinions about a given issue
are no better than those of the untrained.

>"Every good theory comes after a good guess" - Georg Polya. B-Greek seems to
>be a good place for speculation, since there are so many experienced people
>here who can comment, and they are quite familiar with the literature. But I
>rather suspect that people like McKay and Fanning have gone beyond the
>initial guessing stage, and have gathered a lot of evidence for their views.
>That doesn't mean we need to accept them - and we can't accept them all,
>because they disagree.

Georg was probably right for the most part, and b-greek is an excellent
forum. However, I imagine that all of us who have had formal training and
experience would admit that we stand on the shoulders of giants, and we
lose a lot of stature if we choose to jump off. Of course no one's
opinions--theirs included--are right simply because of the source, but we
are only wise to grant them credit for their knowledge and extensive
research. This became plain to me--in the lexical area--when I began doing
computerized TLG searches. I expected to find many more examples of words
than were cited in LSJ, and to my surprise I found that there was little to
be found not already in LSJ (which is not itself always intended to be
exhaustive). I trust that the experts in grammar from the past were equally
competent, and in fact I find them to be right in their appraisals of
issues. Whenever I think I have a new and dramatic idea about something, I
immediately become very sceptical of it if it runs counter to the
"established" rules (if it goes into new territory not inconsistent with
the rules, I am more optimistic about it). In something as basic as
aspect--which is normally described in detail in *any* first-year
grammar--it is very unlikely that the established rules are wrong. And if I
am to consider this possibility, I first want to see some convincing
evidence, i.e. extensive evidence which blows away the established
theories. It takes a great deal of effort to find and evaluate such
evidence, and so far I haven't seen any evidence of this calibre in b-greek
discussions. IMO, reinterpreting well-known passages that have already been
explained adequately under existing rules and knowledge does not qualify.
With sophisticated computers and databases, we at least have grounds to
hope for new evidence to be brought into our discussions, but I'm growing
tired of seeing old war-horse passages used as *new* evidence for this or
that theory.

>>In the case of the gnomic aorist, an English
>>point of view is something we just can't seem to rid ourselves of (pardon
>>the dangling prep). I very seriously doubt that this aorist indicative is
>>really timeless, and we do not make it so by merely translating it this
>>way, even though a timeless translation sounds so good *in English*.
>>McKay's statement
>Ah, but *is* this an English point of view only, or one that is also found
>in the Greek? That is the question! And don't forget that languages may
>share quirks - when I was living in Germany, I often found it disconcerting
>how many English idioms and quirks of grammar were also in German, since I
>would recognize them from English, and I wouldn't know for sure if they
>really were appropriate in German. Naturally, Greek and English are not as
>closely related, but they do share some features.

This is a question for those who are expert in both languages, as your
comment about German indicates. Even then, the experts would have to give
the question a great deal of thought and try very hard to shift gears
cleanly between the two languages.

>>"A clause containing AN (including
>>EAN, hOTAN, etc.) with a subjunctive depending on an aorist indicative is
>>usually a clear indication that the context is timeless..." indicates to me
>>that he is just beginning to study conditional sentences, and his
>>interpretation of 1 Cor 7:28 suggests that he has taken a wrong turn.
>Please be concrete - in what way do you feel that he has taken a wrong turn?
>How would you interpret this? Do you have some evidence for your view?

See my response to the next comment.

>>Like others who have similar view points, he is ignoring the fact that the
>>aorist in question is in the indicative and has the augment.
>Well, he may not be interpreting it the same way you would, but that isn't
>necessarily ignoring it.

I admit I really don't know if he is ignoring it. However, if he is taking
the same approach as Mari Broman Olsen and others, he *is* ignoring it (if
I understand the approach correctly). The standard wisdom is that the
aorist augment in the indicative is a sign of past time. That is where we
should start in interpreting this construction, and the evidence for this
view of the augment is voluminous and has been around for a very long time.
When McKay (?) suggests that the apodosis in 1 Cor 7:28 can be translated
as future, he is confusing this contruction with a future more
vivid/probable. We could take the aorist as gnomic and then explore the
possibility that the construction is similar to a present general, but in
the process we need to get more deeply into the concept of the gnomic
aorist itself. Above all, we need to try to find other instances of this
conditional formation that might be clearer, and that calls for an
extensive search beyond the NT.

>>As to the condition in John 15:6, please, gentlemen, let's do our homework
>>before we attempt to dicipher what is going on.
>Doing our homework certainly includes asking questions here, quoting from
>published sources, comparing to other passages we know, etc.

On the contrary, while asking questions is ok, mere comparison to other
passages we know is not only circular but has been done, and done, and
done. Published sources are only as good as their own sources of evidence
(which may just be the evidence we already know).

>>This includes, inter alia,
>>searching elsewhere for examples of the same thing (using exhaustive
>>computer searches etc. wherever possible) and refraining from conclusions
>>until (if ever) we have sufficient evidence to back them up.
>I'll keep doing searches, and I'll keep asking questions, but I really think
>that tentative conclusions are very helpful. I can read the grammars on my
>now-sagging bookshelves, see where more experienced people disagree, and
>look at their examples to see who seems to have evidence on their side.
>Wherever there is disagreement, somebody is wrong, but if they state their
>opinions clearly, I can figure out who I think is right.
>Besides, without some working hypotheses, I can't read Greek.

Jonathan, I applaud your diligence, and in any case you will make your own
choices, as you are entitled to do. But I would suggest that you get
comfortable with the idea of saying "I don't know, I can't decide." We all
have to do that about other things in life where it takes an expert even to
have a tentative opinion. If interpreting a passage were a serious matter
of health, I doubt you would hesitate to seek and rely upon expert advice.
Your quest wouldn't be to become an expert in a hurry, it would be to
locate the most reliable expert and put your trust in that person. Pastors
are a good analogy. When we encounter a serious spiritual problem, we don't
start a search for the best seminary for us to attend, we try to find a
pastor who is expert and trustworthy. And the one who recommends the easy
way out of a problem probably isn't the best.

Sorry for the length of this post. The good news is that I need to get back
to work and probably won't have time for other lengthy contributions.

Don Wilkins
UC Riverside

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