What follows is a follow up to my previous post about the mean old God vs. the loving new God. If you haven’t already, you might want to read that first before taking this on.
Vocabulary. We can express ourselves only with the vocabulary we have. To put it another way, we cannot say something using words we don’t know. In like manner, we cannot ask others to express themselves in words they don’t know or with meanings they don’t have. You would think it’s obvious, but, in theology as in life, one of the biggest mistakes we make is to put our vocabulary into the mouths of others who have never heard the words, nor have words of their own that approximate our meaning.
Many years ago in seminary, a group of us spent hours debating what Paul’s letter to Philemon had to say about slavery. We tried hard to make Paul say something that complemented our understanding of slavery, particularly as we knew about it in American history. We even imagined that he did, but it was not so. We could not force a 20th century American vocabulary into Paul’s mouth. It’s a small example, but it’s related to the subject of my previous article about the mean Old Testament God vs. the loving New Testament God. How is it that the loving God we know through Jesus Christ can be the same cruel vindictive God we read about in the Old Testament?
The question we have to ask ourselves is, What vocabulary did the ancient Israelites have to talk about and understand God? How did that vocabulary change as the centuries unfolded? It’s important because how can God reveal God’s self to a people except through the vocabulary they already possess? What, in any given era, did they know about the characteristics of gods? There were plenty of gods to provide examples. What words and meanings were available to them to begin expressing knowledge about a new god, JHWH? What we know for certain is that the nature of God as revealed in Jesus was not known to them, although the progressive unveiling of God’s self revelation throughout scripture always moves in that direction, introducing new meanings into old words and bringing new words into play one small step at a time.
We don’t say anything in the usual Sunday school curricula about the dynamic development of revelation of who God is, or about who we are as God’s people, and precious little about it in most adult Christian education programs. Many of us still use Luther’s small catechism, or its cognate, to teach teens preparing for confirmation. Five hundred year old German ideas about God may have enduring value, but how well do they communicate with contemporary American experience? It leaves faithful, life long Christians trying to force 21st century meanings onto words our English bibles use to tell the stories of peoples who lived thousands of years ago in cultures far different from our own. It’s unfair to those ancient ancestors. It’s unfair to today’s faithful trying to understand who God is. It creates an impossible roadblock to inquiring minds of non Christians who may want to know more about us.
It’s a problem. Not only do we have to begin teaching adults about scripture using the vocabulary they already have, we also have to help them understand that those living two, three, or four thousand years ago had a different vocabulary with different meanings from our own. Then begins the slow task of introducing them to a new vocabulary that can lead to a deeper understanding. I’m surprised at how hard that is to do. I used to teach a weekly class at the local rescue mission where few of the participants had graduated from high school. They were eager to learn, but I had to start by using words they knew well, introducing new vocabulary with care, and struggling to find ways to express myself in words they were accustomed to using, all without being condescending.
I’ve often made the mistake of assuming that my well educated parishioners did not need the same care, forgetting that their religious education stopped in the sixth grade, or sometimes earlier. College educated people using grade school words and meanings to talk about God! Good Grief! Moreover, more educated folks appear to be quicker to assume that the ancients had and used the same vocabulary we do to understand God. Not so many years ago, it came as a surprise to those in my parish bible study group that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not Jews practicing the Jewish religion as it was known to Jesus. They were honestly unaware of the developments that took place over the course of the scriptural record, but believed that words used to understand God and humanity in the oldest stories were the same as words used in the most recent stories. Even among clergy colleagues there is a tendency to impute early 21st century ethics and morality into the words used to describe how faith was understood in biblical times. When it doesn’t fit, they are a little too quick to condemn those ancients for their failure to have the morals and ethics of a modern liberal Christian. How impatient we are! I wonder if our descendants will be as unfair to us as they wonder at our ignorance about what is so obvious to them.