Aspect Theory in the Dead Grammarians

I thought I’d give clearer explanation of why I don’t care for the two words, “Aspect Theory,” appearing together.

My frustration with this particular collocation of words stems from the historical concerns. Generally when we hear the phrase “Aspect Theory,” it is in relation to what is thought to be its opposite: “Aktionsart Theory.” And generally the following definitions are involved: Aspect is the subjective choice of how the author wanted to describe the action and Aktionsart objectively conveys how the action actually took place.

This is all well and good and generally I have no problem with this distinction (mostly). My problems begin when people start using the two terms as representing two eras in the study of Koine/Hellenistic Greek.

Dr. Decker rightly makes it clear that there is a difference between the two eras in his comment on the previous post:

As to past grammarians, one thing that all study of aspect in NT circles in the last 50 years has agreed upon (starting from McKay in the 1960s, Porter, Fanning, Campbell, Olson, etc.) is that the older grammars have conflated aspect and Aktionsart. The two can and must be distinguished, but the terms were used interchangeably prior to the mid-20th C., even though there are some “cracks” beginning to appear around the turn of the century in grammarians like Burton and Robertson.

This is true, though I would emphasize that they only conflated terminology. That is, I am convinced the old grammarians knew that they were talking about subjective authorial choice on one page  (Aspect) and eventual conceptualization on another (Aktionsart) even if they only used one word. I’ve argued this point HERE (see especially Moule’s interpretation of Moulton’s discussion of Aktionsart).

So then, my problem begins when people read a present day distinction (1989 and following) between Aspect and Aktionsart back in to the old grammarians as if Robertson or Moulton or Blass were not conflating terminology and following the recent distinction between Aktionsart and Aspect.

This is often how Porter writes (and is why I consider the historical survey of his monograph to be so problematic):

One of the most important of these grammarians was Karl Brugmann, who elucidated the theory of Aktionsart. . . . This theory was adapted for New Testament study first by Friedrich Blass in his grammar, which, expanded by Albert Debrunner, has been translated into English and continues to be the most widely-cited New Testament Greek reference grammar, and then by James Hope Moulton, the first to introduce Aktionsart terminology into New Testament study. Aktionsart theory made a distinctive contribution to Greek grammatical study in that it frees the tense-forms from strict reference to time, especially promoting the recognition by most grammarians that non-indicative verb forms did not refer to time. However, this theory also had severe limitations. The first was in its attempt to objectify a conception of how events transpire, and then to equate these conceptions with particular grammatical forms.

Stanley E. Porter, Handbook to Exegesis of the New Testament (NTTS 25; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 116.

Here, Porter himself errs in applying the present day distinction between Aspect and Aktionsart, even though the grammars make it rather clear that their authors had both aspect and Aktionsart choice in mind at different times in their grammatical discussions (cf. the post referenced above).

And the result is that students are making this and even worse historical errors (cf. HERE, where the author confuses Aktionsart with a pre-Winer(!) view of the tenses) in their understanding the history of Greek grammar. More and more students and professors (again, this RBL review) are under the false impression that the old grammars aren’t relevant any more.

To state it frankly, that’s nonsense.