Tag Archives: history

Are we gospelly?

Sometimes we may think we have thought of something for the first time and it turns out that someone else got in there before us. In Bible translation work nowadays we are committed to using local languages to express Biblical concepts, but in modern English a lot of our key Biblical terms are very Latinate: jusitification, sanctification, redemption, resurrection. It almost looks as though, when Christianity was taking hold in Britain that English wasn’t seen to be sufficient to express these ideas. Or was it?

I’ve been having a look at Christian vocabulary in Old English and that really doesn’t seem to be the case at all. (Old English was spoken for over six centuries and the precursor of Modern English, with some Latin, French and other languages thrown in along the way.) Old English, a bit like modern German, could easily make new words by combining old ones; and it seems that Christians of the time often used words that were already in the language to express Christian ideas in ways that would be clearly understood. Then somewhere along the line people lost their nerve, decided that English really wasn’t the proper way to talk about these things and we have been left with Latin ever since.

Have a look at the table below.

Latin Modern English Old English Modernised Old English
resurrectio resurrection ærist rising
justificare justify rihtwísian righting (we still have the word ‘righteous’ from the same root)
redimere redeem/redemption liesan/alisedness   abycgan loose/release, buy
sanctificare sanctify gehalgian to make holy (holy and hallow are both from Old English)
incarnatio incarnation  inflæscnes infleshness (or perhaps inbody-ing)
trinitas trinity þriness (thriness) threeness
gratia grace giefnes/gifnes giveness (the Old English word is closely related to ‘forgiveness’ and ‘gift’)

Now some Old English words have stuck. We still talk about church (cirice), but something to do with the church is ‘ecclesiastical’ and not ‘churchly’ (in Old English they had ciriclec). We have ‘heaven’ (heofon), ‘sin’ (synn), ‘holy’ (halig), ‘forgiveness’ (forgifnes) and ‘worship’ (weorþscipe – a noun denoting something with worthiness or excellence), and ‘God’ (God).

And, of course, we still have ‘Gospel’. The Old English for that was ‘Godspell’, made of god (‘good’) and spell (‘news, account or story’). But nowadays we have an ‘evangelist’ rather than a ‘gospeller’ (godspellere). The ‘gospeller’ might go around ‘gospelling’ (godspellian).

So many of our Christian terms are fairly meaningless for the unchurched in modern Britain. Most people don’t think of ‘undeserved favour’ when they hear the word ‘grace’, for example. Perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out the Anglo-Saxons’ book and consider how we can express the good news in really down-to-earth language, in English as well as in many languages throughout the world where the speakers don’t yet have Scriptures or key Biblical terms. That’s one way for us to be ‘gospelly’ (godspellic).

Languages of Wilder Confusion: hidden dangers for international collaboration

I’ve appreciated the numerous short, thought-provoking articles Jim Harries has written (and also here) on topics of cross-cultural communication. One that got my attention recently was Building Castles in the Sky: A case for the use of indigenous languages and resources in Western mission-partnerships to Africa, particularly in the light of 2 realities which are close to home for me:

  1. For my work as a Bible translation consultant (in training) I am reliant on using languages of wider communication (mostly English, with little bits of Hausa) to discuss the meaning of parts of the Bible and help translators check and improve their work. I am very aware of the dangers and pitfalls that this entails.
    1. (Why is this a reality for me? I’m rather slow and poor at learning to speak languages, and work with far too many languages to attempt it.)
  2. There is a real push amongst some Americans who want to “accelerate Bible translation” to resource and partner directly with local churches around the world and to cut out the missionary middle man, as it were. This is possible because more and more non-Western partners are able to communicate in Western languages of wider communication(English, Spanish, French).

Jim warns that great danger lurks here.   Continue reading Languages of Wilder Confusion: hidden dangers for international collaboration