Lexical Nominalization & Πίστις Χριστου

David Ker has pulled me into the debate and subjective/objective genitives. NT Wrong has written a few posts now on the construction arguing for an Objective Genitive.

Personally, I don’t know how much I have to add or really what side I’m on, though I suppose I lean toward the Objective view (see HERE for why). I would like to deal with the question though in a manner different than what we’ve seen thus far in NT studies. I want to look at subjective/objective genitives cross-linguistically if only to suggest a more objective or empirically motivated path out of this mess. My thoughts on the issue developed from reading Bernard Comrie & Sandra A. Thompson’s essay, “Lexical nominalizations” in Language Typology and Syntactic Description: Volume 3, Grammatical Categories and the Lexicon (Timothy Shopen, ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 334-381.

Those of you who have read deeply enough into the aspect debate should recognize Comrie’s name. He’s a bit of a giant in linguistics and his reputation is well deserved.

Nominalization is a big word for “turning something into a noun.” Much of the Comrie & Thompson essay deals with derivational processes where various things are turned into nouns. Our interest in this chapter is found in the section on Syntactic Collocation, where they write, “Perhaps the most interesting evidence for the hybrid verbal-nominal nature of the action nominal comes from the expression of subject and direct object with the action nominal” (355).

Let’s examine, first, how English subjects and objects are assimilated to Noun Phrase Syntax.

What is unique about English and subjective/objective genitives in NPs is the fact that both can appear at the same time because have two different genitive constructions. Thus in (1)

(1) The man’s belief in Christ.

can only be interpreted as [Subj: man’s ] and [Obl: in Christ].* But what happens when we only have one genitive construction. How is it interpreted then? Well, that depends on whether the nominalized verb is transitive or intransitive.

If in English there is only genitive construction whether it be Saxon (_’s) or Norman (of _), the genitive will always be objective with transitive nominalizations, as seen in Comrie & Thompson’s examples (2-4; page 356):

(2) The enemy’s destruction of the city.

(3) The city’s destruction.

(4) The enemy’s destruction.

In (2), the prenominal genitive is subjective, while the second is objective. But in other two, the genitive construction must be the object. In (3), it is the city that is being destroyed, not the enemy. Likewise in (4), its the enemy being destroyed rather than the enemy destroying something.

But when we move into English intransitive verbs, such as to believe, we find that the opposite is the case.

(5) The belief of man

(6) Christ’s belief.

Both (5) and (6) can only be interpreted subjectively. In (5), the NP refers to a man’s belief in something/someone and (6) refers to Christ’s belief in something/someone. This is the case regardless of whether the genitive is prenominal (Saxon) or postnominal (Norman).**

Okay, so that’s the case for English. Other languages do different things. In fact, according to Comrie & Thompson, English’s ability to mark both subjective and objective genitives in the very same NP is impossible in many other languages (357). German can do it to a limited, but rare extent (borrowed from 358 and also examples [8-9]):

(7) Herrn Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft
‘Mr Dühring’s overturning of science’

But Russian does not allow such double genitive constructions at all. One cannot, in Russian, combine the subjective and objective genitives in a single noun phrase. Thus in (8-9),

(8) razrušenie goroda vraga
destruction of.city of.enemy

(9) razrušenie vraga goroda
destruction of.enemy of.city

both NPs may be grammatical, but neither of them mean the English, the enemy’s destruction of the city. The first means roughly, “the destruction of the enemy’s city” (8) and “the destruction of the city’s enemy” (9).

But what does this all have to do with Greek? My point in discussing of all this is that just as English, German, and Russian are structure so as to make their subjective/objective genitive constructions clear, I would be willing to predict that Greek does the very same. Perhaps as non-native speakers, this less clear to us, especially since we English speakers are in the unique position of having two different types of genitives.***

An interesting line of research would be a complete examination of these kinds of nominalizations with transitive and intransitive verbs (as well as different types of transitive verbs based on semantic roles or types of arguments). I believe that this sort of study would be extremely fruitful in determining whether the phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ is subjective or objective. If someone wanted to take up this task that I don’t really have time for, I would be interested in your results. It might even make a good thesis project.

*In the English nominalization of believe, “in Christ” is not an object because to believe is not a transitive verb. But it is also not a mere Adjunct since it is required by the verb in order to have a complete sentence. It is thus labeled with the grammatical relation Oblique.

**Yes, yes, I’m sure you can come up with counter examples. I’m discussing tendencies, not complete universals. My point is that the meaning of all of these constructions are clear to the native speaker.

***It could possibly be argued that Greek allows for both as well based on examples like Philippians 2:30 τὸ ὑμῶν ὑστέρημα τῆς πρός με λειτουργίας “your deficiency of service to me” and perhaps 1 Peter 3:21(?) σαρκὸς ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου “the body’s removal of dirt.” But these cases are not the norm, making Greek more like German the English. In general, Greek seems to parallel both German and Russian in certain ways.

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