Series Introduction: Runge on Contrastive Substitution and the Greek Verb (part 1 of 6)

In the Spring 2014 volume of Novum Testamentum, Steven Runge published an article entitled “Contrastive Substitution and the Greek Verb.” My good friend, Brian Renshaw (NT Exegesis), and I have had extensive conversations on the Greek language and the status quaestionis of verbal aspect. So, upon reading this recent article, we have decided to blog through it in order to highlight its arguments.

We have been influenced by Runge’s Discourse Grammar and other articles (find here), and we find his theoretical framework not only highly valuable, but extremely convincing. Therefore, this series not only provides us a way to write and think through his argument, but also to help others in their struggle with verbal aspect discussions.

Runge engages Stanley Porter’s position of verbal aspect as founded upon contrastive substitution. In Porter’s literature, he has given the impression that Georg Curtius (Elucidations of Student’s Greek Grammar, 1875), Carl Bache (Verbal Aspect, 1985), and N.E. Collinge (“Some Reflexions on Comparative Historical Syntax,” 1960) affirm his position. These works, especially Bache’s, are formidable in early linguistic discussions of verbal aspect, well beyond the Greek language.

Runge, however, argues Porter not only has straw-manned his position so as to give the impression these linguists affirm an aspect-only position, but Porter also introduces contrastive substitution “without providing the requisite theoretical grounding or discussion of methodological constraints governing their legitimate usage.”[1] So, Runge’s argument is two-fold. (1) He critiques Porter for lacking an acceptable framework and (2) he critiques Porter for a misappropriation of his literature. Runge, therefore, revisits Porter’s claims against the literature he cites and concludes Porter misrepresents their findings and notes how Bache provides a theoretical framework that Porter ignores.

To read Runge’s Novum Testamentum article, click here.

Series Order

  1. Introduction to Series — authored by Shawn Wilhite and Brian Renshaw
  2. Article Introduction and Background — authored by Brian Renshaw
  3. Contrastive Substitution and the Nature of Tense — authored by Shawn Wilhite
  4. Selection of Contrastive Examples — authored by Shawn Wilhite
  5. Claims from Contrastive Substitution —authored by Brian Renshaw
  6. Conclusion and the Future of Verbal Aspect — authored by Shawn Wilhite and Brian Renshaw

What is Contrastive Substitution?

Throughout Runge’s article, the term contrastive substitution is merely assumed. Part of this assumption is due to the literature of linguistics, Porter’s argument upon such assumptions, and Runge, himself, has written on the topic too (See here, here, and here). Therefore, for those engaged in the on-going aspect discussion and keeping with the plethora of literature, contrastive substitution is a recognized expression for Porter’s argument.

However, for those unfamiliar with the debate, a brief definition of contrastive substitution is needed. Contrastive substitution is when a verbal form has an aspect that can use another verbal form to communicate the same aspect in a different tense. Note the uses of the imperfect verbal form and present verbal form. That is, why would you use a present verbal form (present tense and imperfective aspect) in the past tense when an imperfect verbal form (past tense and imperfective aspect) would suffice? If a verbal form typically occurring in one tense category (i.e. past, present, or future) has an equal aspectual counterpart in another tense position, then a Greek writer would have the choice to use two verbal forms depending upon their tense value.

According to Runge’s article, which will be further explored, Porter not only affirms contrastive substitution as a major framework for his verbal system, but he has misapplied how the literature has defined it. For Porter, because a present verbal form can appear in two tense categories (past and present), then contrastive substitution disavows tense being part of the semantic feature of the verb.

Note the following affirmations of Porter:

Applying this to the Greek examples above, it becomes clear according to a principle of contrastive substitution—by which the identical form is used in different temporal context—that Greek does not grammaticalize absolute tense with the present.[2]

In defining the semantic features of this system, my formulation utilizes contrastive substitution to illustrate that absolute temporal categories (such as past, present and future) are not grammaticalized by the verb forms even in the indicative mood and that a particular verbal aspectual semantic feature is grammaticalized by a given verb form.[3]

Verbal aspect theory is the theory that tense-forms in Greek do not grammaticalize temporal relations, but another semantic category concerned with how a speaker or writer chooses to conceptualize and present a process. Contrastive substitution, as well as other determiners, shows that the tense-forms in Greek are not time-based, even in the indicative, but that temporal relations are established through other means. Instead, the tense-forms grammaticalize verbal aspect.[4]

Contrastive substitution, then, is systemic to Porter’s verbal system. Porter uses contrastive substitution to prove that tense is not a semantic feature of the Greek verb. However, Runge’s article (as well as Constantine Campbell’s 2013 SBL paper) will show Porter mishandling his linguistic sources that are stating otherwise, thereby having Porter create a straw-man argument and “tip”, so to speak, the sources in his favor.[5]

Importance of Runge’s Article and Future of Linguistic Discussions

This paper has a few, highly important implications. First, it will call for a reevaluation of Porter’s method and use of sources. Porter should receive high praise for his work on Verbal Aspect.[6] It has been used as a primary source for the past twenty years in verbal aspect discussions. He pioneered linguistic studies for the biblical scholar and sought to bring cross-disciplinary perspective. Part of the reason his view has held sway for so long is because no one could match his linguistic discussions in biblical studies. Campbell (2013 SBL paper), Runge, and others are catching up in the linguistic field only to discover not only has he misrepresented his sources but also he is lacking a robust linguistic framework.

This leads us to our second implication, a sustainable framework matters for discussing verbal aspect. As Moisés Silva has argued in 1993, others and we have affirmed something similar,

In general terms, I found Porter’s theoretical framework more convincing than Fanning’s… On the other hand, when it came to looking at their implementation of the principles, I had many more problems with Porter than with Fanning: time and time again I failed to see either the logic or the evidence for his interpretations.[7]

If something is wrong or missing in the application and/or results, it means something is lacking in the framework. Presuppositions and a framework guide and govern, as safeguards, certain conclusions.

Finally, Runge’s article, future SBL discussions and publications, our series, and others will join in to revisit linguistic discussions revealing the insufficiencies of Porter’s framework and work collaboratively to build a robust linguistic framework for discussing verbal aspect.

We invite you to read Runge’s article (here), and follow along during the next couple of weeks as we blog through Runge’s article, highlighting his argument and conclusions.

Shawn and Brian


[1]Steven E. Runge, “Contrastive Substitution and the Greek Verb: Reassessing Porter’s Argument,” Novum Testamentum 56 (2014): 155.

[2]Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood, Studies in Biblical Greek 1 (New York: Peter Lang, 1989), 77.

[3]Stanley E. Porter, “In Defense of Verbal Aspect,” in Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics: Open Questions in Current Reserach, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 80 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 32.

[4]Stanley E. Porter, “Prominence: An Overview,” in The Linguist as Pedagogue, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Matthew Brook O’Donnell (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), 58–59.

[5]Runge, “Contrastive Substitution,” 155.

[6]Porter, Verbal Aspect.

[7]Moisés Silva, “A Response to Fanning and Porter on Verbal Aspect,” in Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics: Open Questions in Current Reserach, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 80 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 77.



4 thoughts on “Series Introduction: Runge on Contrastive Substitution and the Greek Verb (part 1 of 6)

  1. Pingback: Methodology and Background: Runge on Contrastive Substitution and the Greek Verb (part 2 of 6) | Doctrinae Coram Deo

  2. Pingback: Contrastive Substitution and the Nature of Tense: Runge on Contrastive Substitution and the Greek Verb (part 3 of 6) | Doctrinae Coram Deo

  3. Pingback: Bache’s Linguistic Framework and Select Contrastive Examples: Runge on Contrastive Substitution and the Greek Verb (Part 4 of 6) | Doctrinae Coram Deo

  4. Pingback: Porter’s Claims from Contrastive Substitution: Runge on Contrastive Substitution and the Greek Verb (part 5 of 6) | Doctrinae Coram Deo

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