The following is taken from The Late Awakening , a CruPress eBook, where Neil Downey collects thoughts on the Gospel from a variety of Pastors, Theologians, and Regular Joes. Here, Neil's friend David O'Hara gives some historical context for the English word "gospel" and explains why it's so vital.
What is the gospel?
I find it helpful to look at where our words come from – not just to make them clearer by telling their story, but also to show us how they are not clear to us. This is important because it can keep us from falsely believing that our words are "sharper than any two-edged sword." That is, it can remind us that while our words may point to something real, true, and powerful, we should remember that it is not our words that are real, true, and powerful but the one who chose to express himself as the Word who is real, true, and powerful. John's Gospel begins by announcing that this "word" ( logos ; "word" is an inadequate translation) became flesh and dwelt among us. Shortly thereafter, John the Baptist, Andrew, and Jesus' mother Mary give us three examples of what our words about the Gospel ought to do. In short, all three of them simply point to Jesus.
Now, down to business: our word "Gospel" is the descendant of the Saxon phrase "gód spel," which translates the Latin "bonum nuntium" and the Greek "euangelion." All of these mean something like "good tidings," "good news," or "good message." The Greek word "angelos" means "messenger," and the noun "angelion" means, correspondingly, "message." "Eu-" means "well," or "good." The Romans translated this into their language as "bonum nuntium," or "good announcement." In both cases – in Greek and Latin – we use language suited to cultures with a strong sense of both military and political life; announcements play a great role in Greek democracy and in the expansive Roman world. They keep us abreast of important news that affects us all.
The Gospel came more slowly to the Saxons, who rebuffed (and often beheaded or impaled) missionaries to them. Romans looked soft and weak, and their religion, the Saxons thought, reflected that. What the successful missionaries discovered was that the Saxons were people of war, stories, and songs. The Heliand , written a millennium ago, cast the story of Christ into the form of an heroic song, or spel , from which we get our word "spell," as in magical spell – an incantation, something chanted or sung. What the Greeks received as good news , the Saxons received as a "gód spel" or good story , told well in a form they recognized.
I realize this is probably not what you were looking for, but I think it's an important preface to any other answer I could give. Here’s why:
We could think of the Gospel as a political announcement, as a story or song to be sung, or as a piece of data. There is a theological strain in contemporary Christianity that leans toward saying that it is the latter; a piece of data that needs to be received, or a clearly expressible doctrine that needs to be learned according to precise formula. In one way, this is true. There is a determinate content to the Gospel that can be expressed in words as in John 3:16-17 or Colossians 1:15-24, for instance. And we should heed the words of Galatians 1:10 and the last chapter of John's Revelation about altering that content. At the same time, if all we needed was a few doctrines, God sure inspired a dang long book! Are we to assume that God is just a sloppy writer or given to long-windedness? Or are we to assume, as I do, that the stories are essential to the doctrines?
2 Samuel 14:14 summarizes the Gospel in a way that shows us that the Gospel is something that haunts particular human stories. It is not just an ethereal doctrine or logos found only in the lofty Empyrean and accessible only through precise formulae; it is a logos that took on flesh, red meat, life among us.
Photo courtesy of Wessex Archeology (Flickr Creative Commons)
Neil Downey has been on staff with Cru since 2001 and currently serves as Senior Editor of CruPress. A native of Melita, Manitoba, he lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota with his wife and four children. Follow him on Twitter @xNeilo.
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