Since coming to North America, I’ve realized more and more that the USA and the UK are, as George Bernard Shaw allegedly said, “Two nations divided by a common language.”
But sometimes it feels like I’m learning a foreign language. More than once I’ve been asked, “So, what language do they speak in England?” or “What is your first language?” Sometimes it’s just spelling: not colour, but color. Sometimes it’s a matter of emphasis: not gar-age, but gar-age. Sometimes it’s pronunciation: not tom-ah-to, but tom-ay-to. But sometimes it’s a completely new word I’ve had to learn for the same thing: not trousers, but pants; not biscuits, but cookies; not pavement, but sidewalk, etc.
I could persist in using my old vocabulary, but it doesn’t get me very far, and can result in some confusing conversations. So, I must learn this nation’s vocabulary to improve both my understanding and my ability to communicate (without losing my valuable accent, hopefully!).
This is also true for all of us when we try to understand and communicate the Gospel. How do we understand the theological words, phrases and concepts of the New Testament? Do we consult dictionary.com, Merriam Webster’s, OED, etc? If so, we will import 21st century Western meaning into ancient Eastern words, confusing ourselves and others.
So, how do we understand the theological words, phrases and concepts of the New Testament? Where do we turn?
The first question
While we may get some light from Greek lexicons, our main dictionary should be the Old Testament. When we come to a word, phrase, or concept in the New Testament, our first question should be, “What does the Old Testament say about this?” Remember, the New Testament was originally written by Jews, and much of it was written to Jews. It assumes a knowledge of the Old Testament, and builds upon it. Therefore, we must always read the New Testament with the dictionary of the Old Testament in our hand.
Tomorrow I’ll give some examples of how we can use the Old Testament as a dictionary of Christian vocabulary.