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|
|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)|
|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).