syntax and semantics

From: Mark House (
Date: Fri May 14 1999 - 12:11:27 EDT

Clayton wrote:

>I think this approach is at best simplistic. I am convinced that
understanding the semantic structure of a passage sheds more light on the
syntax of the passage than understanding the syntax sheds light on the
semantic structure.

>The problem with many discussions of syntax is that they are argued using
the assumptions of grammatical fundamentalism. They are argued as if all
meaning in a text is discovered in a bottom up manner based on morphology
and syntax.

Point well taken. I argued in a paper some years ago that aorist aspect
cannot be described as describing "point in time" (one writer described it
as "snapshot") action, when there are so many places in the NT where that
definition simply won't work. This was certainly the kind of "top down"
argument the semanticists seem to prefer. And they are certainly correct
that any understanding of syntax must be constantly tested and refined by
looking at the functions of the syntactical elements in context.

The danger, of course, is that just as a slavish adherence to grammatical
"orthodoxy" has the potential to preclude legitimate readings of a text,
attempts to discern semantic functions without reference to established
grammatical principles run the risk of an out-of-control subjectivism which
lacks any interpretive checks.

The best "orthodox" grammars of the past haven't simply appealed to prior
syntactical definitions. Rather, they test the definitions through the
examination of various contexts in which the principles are illustrated.
Certainly Robertson and Turner have attempted to do this in their
presentation of Greek grammatical principles. Our levels of agreement or
disagreement with the points made tend to result from our examination of the
contexts given in support of their points.

However, once these principles are laid down through a careful examination
of the language phenomena in their various contexts, they do and they must
become a part of an informed reading of the rest of the language. In Luke
8:23, the semantic context certainly delimits the significance of
imperfective aspect. The semantic context, however, merely illustrates that
the imperfect tense was the appropriate one to use in that place, because of
what the imperfect communicated to Greek speakers of the first century.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that there is an unavoidable circularity
here. It's not so much that semantic function "sheds more light" than
syntax. Rather, they are interdependent. Just as the semantic interpreter
wouldn't have a clue as to the semantic structure without first appealing to
his grammar book, the grammatical rule-writer wouldn't know where to begin
without looking carefully at contexts and their semantic significance.

Comments, anyone?

Mark House
Adjunct Greek Prof.
Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena, CA

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