Time is not tense; Time is not aspect; but both are temporal

This started as a comment, responding the an observation made by Rod Decker and grew too long, so I’ve posted it here. He made the comment:

>Both aspect and tense are temporal. Both involve time [edit: my words]

True, but “time” is not the same in both. As an unqualified statement this is misleading.

He’s right, of course. And I made a mistake in not making it clear that this observation is precisely my point. And it is a major the problem with participants on both sides of the debate.

Through out much of the discussion and debate on aspect, it is the word time that is used to contrast with aspect rather than the actual technical terms such as temporal reference or tense.  And this is consistently done without qualification that a specific linguistic realization of time is involved. Instead, time (a non-linguistic or meta-linguistic concept) is treated as identical with a single linguistic instantiation. Some examples (in bold):

D. A. Carson:

“The issue between them can be simply put. Porter argues that aspect and only aspect is grammaticalized in the tense-forms of Greek, in all moods (which in his analysis are now renamed ‘attitudes’). There are quasi-exceptions, such as the future, which has a place apart, morphologically speaking, in the Greek verbal structure; or a verb such as εἶναι, which does not offer a full range of tense-form choices and is therefore ‘aspectually vague’, but in no case does the tense-form carry an unambiguous semantic feature other than what is aspectual (such as indication of time or Aktionsart)” (Carson 1993, 22).

“For instance, the fact that perhaps 85 per cent of finite aorists in the indicative are past-referring might owe a fair bit to the intrinsic likelihood that an action in the past will be presented as a ‘complete’ action: the speaker’s or writer’s choice of tense-forms (grammaticalizing aspects), theoretically as open-ended as the forms available, may be sharply constrained, or at least reduced within definable probabilities, by the pragmatics. Systematizing such reflections would go a long way toward deflating the protests of those grammarians who at this point are still unwilling to abandon all connections between verbal form and time in the indicative.”

Stanley Porter:

“Like McKay, Fanning assumes, but does not argue in any rigorous way, the traditional view that the tense-forms in the indicative mood and when used as participles are time-based” (Porter 1993, 37).

“Fanning, it seems to me, is incapable of shedding a time-based perspective on verbs” (Porter 1993, 38).

“So time, at least as a linguistic category, is no more absolute than any other, and I would contend that it is not grammaticalized, that is it is not enshrined by selection of a single tense-form in Greek, either in the non-indicative moods or in the indicative mood” (Porter 1993, 44).

Buist Fanning:

“First, I disagree with Porter’s strict insistence that the Greek verbal forms carry no temporal value at all, and I do not think that his view of this offers the kind of ground-breaking contribution to the field that he has claimed for it. I believe Porter has made the best case for this view that anyone can make, but it is not persuasive. It is true that time is not as important for Greek tenses as for English ones and that the aspect values of viewpoint or conception of the process are of central importance in all the forms of the Greek verb (except the future). But the linguistic evidence is overwhelming that in the indicative forms the tenses carry a double sense of time and aspect together.” (Fanning 1993, 58).

“Also, it seems to me that Porter spends so much time insisting on the absence of temporal meaning and assuming that this makes a vast difference, that he has neglected large areas of aspectual function which he should have pursued instead” (Fanning 1993, 59).

Daryl D. Schmidt:

“The more accurate claim would appear to be: tense forms in the indicative do not grammaticalize absolute time, any more than they grammaticalize absolute aspect. But this is far short of demonstrating that tense in the indicative has no temporal dimension” (Schmidt 1993, 70-1).

Daniel Wallace:

Traditionally, NT grammars have viewed time as a part of the Greek tenses, when such tenses combine with the indicative mood. In recent years, however, this view has been challenged, principally by S. E. Porter and K. L. McKay. Since the traditional view is pervasive in the literature-and in fact assumed to be true —this section will focus on the arguments for the nontemporal view, followed by an evaluation” (Wallace, 1997, 504—and this language continues through this entire section)

These are the easiest for me to search since I have these books in Logos and knew they were there from several read throughs of the book. These are unqualified statements with no reference to temporal deixis or tense as the location of an event in time with in the immediate context (there are in fact, only three instances of the phrase “temporal reference” from any author in the entire book). The same problem occurs elsewhere.

Somewhat better is this statement from Porter’s introductory grammar:

“The original function of the so-called ‘tense stems’ of the verb in Indo-European languages (of which Greek is one) was not levels of time (past, present or future), as many suppose, but one of verbal aspect (i.e. how the verbal action was perceived to unfold; see section 2 below on history of discussion). In Greek, verbal aspect is defined as a semantic (meaning) category by which a speaker or writer grammaticalizes (i.e. represents a meaning by choice of a word-form) a perspective on an action by the selection of a particular tense-form in the verbal system. The semantic features (the ‘meanings’) of the different verbal aspects are attached to the tense-forms. The verbal aspects are therefore morphologically based (i.e. form and function are matched). Verbal aspect is a semantic feature which attaches directly to use of a given tense-form in Greek. Other values—such as time—are established at the level of larger grammatical or conceptual units, such as the sentence, paragraph, proposition, or even discourse (see Chapter 21). The choice of the particular verbal aspect (expressed in the verb tense-form) resides with the language user, and it is from this perspective that grammatical interpretation of the verb must begin” (Porter 1999, 20-21).

To Porter’s benefit, the phrase “levels of time” makes relatively clear that “time” actually means “location in time.” However, there are still two serious problems:

  1. There is no actual explanation of tense as temporal deixis. Time = Tense. Nothing else is said.
  2. The fact that he still contrasts time with aspect is highly problematic. Aspect is temporal. I’ve read everything that Porter has written on aspect that I could get my hands on multiple times (and to the best of my knowledge I haven’t missed anything). At no point has he ever acknowledged this fundamental point. According to everything he’s written: Time = Tense. Time =/= Aspect. Unqualified. If anything, the sense that I get (and this is only a sense, I cannot and will not make a definitive statement about something I do not know) is that Porter has gone out of his way to avoid making statements about the temporal nature of aspect.

Thankfully, Rod himself should be highly commended for his excellent avoidance of such unqualified statements. The following quote from his article on εὐθύς is very good (as are many others from his monograph and other articles):

A major aspect of deixis relates to the grammatical function of tense. ‘In those languages that unequivocally exhibit it, tense is one of the main factors ensuring that nearly all sentences when uttered are deictically anchored to a context of utterance.’ Tense may be defined as ‘the grammaticalised expression of location in time.’ The debate as to whether Greek grammaticalizes time is complicated by two factors. First, most languages of the world do express time in this way.” (Decker 1997, 99).

While the words “whether Greek grammaticalizes time” makes is slightly uncomfortable here, this statement represents a much improved description of what we mean by the words “time” and “tense” and the grammaticalization of temporal reference—a very specific realization of time in language.

As a whole, I’m sure there is no problem for those who have the opportunity to study under any of these scholars and can get direct clarification. However, my experience has been for those who cannot, the kind of unqualified statements made here confuse students. But it has also resulted in a poorly framed debate that unnecessarily conflates terminology that shouldn’t be conflated. It’s definitely made my tutoring more difficult.

The truth of the matter is that none of these people could get away with such sloppy use of terminology if they were publishing in a journal or monograph series devoted to linguistics rather than biblical studies.

Works cited:

Carson, D. A. 1993. “An introduction to the Porter/Fanning debate.” In Biblical Greek language and linguistics: Open questions in current research. Stanley E. Porter and D. A. Carson, ed. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Decker, R. J. “The use of εὐθύς (“immediately”) in Mark.” Journal of ministry and theology 1 (1997):90–121. Clark Summit, PA: Baptist Bible College.

Fanning, B. M. 1993. “Approaches to verbal aspect in New Testament Greek: Issues in definition and method.” In Biblical Greek language and linguistics: Open questions in current research. Stanley E. Porter and D. A. Carson, ed. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Porter, S. E. 1993. “In defense of verbal aspect.” In Biblical Greek language and linguistics: Open questions in current research. Stanley E. Porter and D. A. Carson, ed. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

_______. 1999. Idioms of the Greek New Testament. 2nd Edn. Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press.

Schmidt, D. D. 1993. “Verbal aspect in Greek: Two approaches.” In Biblical Greek language and linguistics: Open questions in current research. Stanley E. Porter and D. A. Carson, ed. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Wallace, D. B. 1997. Greek grammar beyond the basics: An exegetical syntax of the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.