Friday, December 28, 2018

Learning a New Word: Otiose

I learned--or maybe, just noticed for the first time--a new word while studying the gospel text for this coming Sunday. The word, otiose, appears in I. Howard Marshall's commentary of the gospel of Luke. According to the Oxford Living Dictionaries, the word means, "Serving no practical purpose or result." It also meant, archaically, "indolent or idle."

Marshall's use of the word comes in a refutation of Rudolf Bultmann's assertion that the appearance of both Simeon and Anna at the temple on the day of Jesus' dedication was implausible. Bultmann said that for the two them to show up at virtually the same time was contrived, a literary doublet meant to hammer a theological point home. Marshall disagrees and, noting that Anna's particular words aren't quoted, says, "her rather otiose role is more likely to be an indication of historicity." In other words, Simeon's words were cited and Anna's weren't. A contrived doublet would have them both spouting verbose proclamations. The fact that Luke doesn't quote Anna's specific words, only that she affirmed Jesus' identity and began telling others about Him, affirms that events that day in the temple happened exactly as Luke reported them.

The point Marshall makes is a good one. Twentieth-century scholars like Bultmann took as their project "demythologizing" the New Testament, believing, like Thomas Jefferson before them, that anything that they couldn't rationally explain or didn't come under the category of "normal" human experience, couldn't possibly be true and must be "made up." This kind of thinking is what causes people to dismiss such essential New Testament teachings as the Trinity, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, Jesus' miracles, and His resurrection. In other words, it leads to a tamed, irrelevant, impotent, and meaningless version of Christian faith.

Influenced by such thinking, one of my seminary professors, for example, made light of the New Testament's teaching about the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Godhead. "There must be a Holy Spirit," he would say dismissively. "Otherwise, how does the next tissue pop up in the Kleenex box?" To speak of the Holy Spirit, he said, was to speak of nothing more than team spirit, the good feelings that infect a group of people when they're joined together in something like the Church.

That, of course, is no Christianity at all and I am thankful for faithful Christian teachers, people filled with the power of God's Holy Spirit, who trusted in Jesus in the way that Luke 2:22-40, this coming Sunday's gospel lesson, tells us that Simeon and Anna believed. They trusted God even when He did something out of the ordinary that they couldn't explain.

To fail to take the Bible's witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ seriously is to render Christian faith otiose. And my experience with Christ these past forty-two years tells me that the Christian witness is anything but that. I believe in Christ and I also believe that Simeon and Anna declared Him the Messiah that day in the Jerusalem temple two-thousand years ago.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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