Saturday Night Theologian
2 January 2005

Jeremiah 31:7-14

In the movie version of The Lord of the Rings, King Theoden, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and the other defenders of Helm's Deep have endured a night of attacks by orcs, and their position appears hopeless. At dawn as they prepare for a final, futile charge against the enemy, a horn sounds, and a host of reinforcements, led by Gandalf the White, appears on the battlefield, and the defenders of Helm's Deep are saved. (In the book, the situation, though serious, is not quite as dire prior to Gandalf's arrival.) Ancient Greek plays would sometimes have one of the gods appear at a particularly opportune moment to deliver the protagonist, a literary device that came to be known as Deus ex machina. Jeremiah speaks to a people in exile, subjugated to an empire that controlled the entire region without serious opposition. Their situation appeared hopeless, yet the prophet urged them not to give up, for he assured them that God would indeed deliver them. "For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and redeemed him from hands that were too strong for him." The problem of the Jews in exile was not that they had faulty tactics or a poor strategy for overthrowing the Babylonians. Their problem was that they were utterly incapable of overthrowing the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar led the most powerful army in the world, and it was completely out of the question that the Jews could muster a contingency strong enough even to give the Babylonians a good fight. Where was the miracle that could deliver them? Jeremiah knew that their Deus ex machina was Deus ex coela, God from heaven, who had delivered the nation in the past and would do so again. From time to time in our lives we face situations that are too complex, too inscrutable, or too overwhelming for us to face on our own. When we have found ourselves in such situations, how often has God provided a miraculous deliverance for us, one that was totally unexpected? The Jews had a national story that told of many of God's interventions throughout history, and we have personal and family histories that tell of similar events. It is sometimes tempting to look at our immediate circumstances and think that this is the end for us, that we have no way out, but the prophet reminds us, as do our own experiences, that God can always pull us through, regardless of our predicament.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Psalm 147:12-20

South Texas experienced something amazing last week on Christmas Eve: snow! Although we saw only flurries at our house, people living on the south side of San Antonio had enough snow to coat the ground, and Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas, got two inches. The city of Victoria, halfway between San Antonio and Houston, got twelve inches of snow. Those of you who live further north may laugh at people who go bonkers over a little bit of snow, but imagine the amazement of the people in Brownsville who had never seen snow before in their city! In San Antonio it's been a mere 20 years since the last measurable snowfall, but in Brownsville more than 100 years of record-keeping had never recorded more than flurries (and those only very rarely). It's hard to imagine now as I write this that parts of South Texas were blanketed with snow only a week ago, since I'm sitting outside writing this in 70+ degree weather, but the psalmist reminds us to think of God when we see snow and ice this time of year. "He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down hail like crumbs--who can stand before his cold?" Israel is not noted for an abundance of snow and ice, so the Israelites, whose houses were designed more to dissipate the scorching heat of summer than to insulate against the occasional cold of winter, probably paid as much attention to snow and sleet as my neighbors south of town did this past week. The psalmist goes on to say that God also sends his breath to melt the snow, which then waters the land. We can learn something about God, and something about life, by paying attention to the weather. Cold is followed by warmth just as hard times are followed by blessings. Life and death, sickness and health, youth and old age are natural parts of life. We prefer the good times to the bad, and in fact the good times far outnumber the bad for most people. The difficulties we face in life are not signs that God has abandoned us or that we have done something wrong. They are just a natural part of life. The bad times remind us of how good our lives are most of the time, and sometimes in our most traumatic moments we experience God most intimately. There are still three months of winter for those of us in the northern hemisphere, but the warm glow of the sun, the lengthening daylight hours, and the closeness of friends and family remind us that winter will give way to spring before too long.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Ephesians 1:3-14

One of my cousins joined our family through adoption. His parents--my aunt and uncle--had made arrangements to adopt a baby through an adoption agency, and they were overjoyed when they were able to bring him home. As an older cousin, I always knew he was adopted, but I never really thought anything about it. We played together when we were younger, and now our families get together from time to time, even though we live in different states. When we do see each other, the adults talk, our children play together, and we are a family. That one of the people in the family was adopted makes no difference whatsoever to our relationship. Several New Testament passages speak of Jesus as the adopted son of God, but such passages are usually de-emphasized today, because they reflect a "lower Christology" that harkens back to the Adoptionist controversies of the third and fourth centuries. Paul of Samosata, a leading adoptionist, taught that Jesus was adopted by God at his baptism, so before that point he was only the human Jesus, not the Christ. The leaders of the church who held the position that came to be defined as orthodox rejected Paul's interpretation of the scripture, despite the prevalence of adoptionist language, and stressed Jesus' position as Son of God from birth. Today's reading from Ephesians, chosen as a traditional Epiphany reading because January 6 commemorates Jesus' baptism (as well as the visit of the wise men), stresses not Jesus' adoption but the adoption of believers: "He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ." Although Paul of Samosata's view of Jesus' adoption into the Godhead is rejected by orthodox theologians, there is something about adoption as a symbol that speaks to me. We are all born to biological parents, who may or may not have wanted us, but everyone who is adopted was chosen by people who were not his or her biological parents. Adoptive parents choose their adoptive children; they choose to love them, take care of them, and receive them into their family. In a sense, adoptive children are the recipients of more love than biological children. Society expects parents to love their biological children, but why would someone love a child that is not one's own? Adopting a child is an act of love, an act free of coercion or societal pressure. In the same way we are God's adopted children. God had no particular reason to love us, and we certainly had done nothing to merit God's love, but out of the immeasurable well of compassion, God chose to love us, despite our sins, despite our shortcomings. As adopted children, we have full access to our inheritance from God, and as a pledge of that inheritance, we have received the Holy Spirit. Adoption is a beautiful picture of how much God loves us.

For other discussions of this passage, click here and here

John 1:(1-9), 10-18

If the adoptionist language present in parts of the New Testament, especially in the baptism stories, represents lower Christology, the prolog to the Gospel of John represents the highest Christology of the New Testament. Borrowing from the language and thought of the Stoics, John presents Jesus as the eternal Logos, the Word or Reason behind the universe and God's tool in creation. The Incarnation of the divine in the human Jesus is also presented strikingly in verse 14: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father (or, the Father's unique Son), full of grace and truth." As remarkable as the doctrine of the Incarnation is in and of itself, with reference to Christ, the prolog goes on to describe the effect that the Incarnation has on believers. "And of his fullness we all have received, and grace upon grace." One of the most interesting verses in this section is verse 18, which begins, "No one has seen God at any time." What follows is a matter of debate. The majority of manuscripts read, "The only-begotten (i.e., unique) Son has revealed him." A few manuscripts read, "The only-begotten/unique God has revealed him" (NRSV's "God the only Son" is a reasonable translation, but it masks the textual and theological problem by appearing to combine the two readings). Although the NRSV, NASB, and many other modern translations choose the second reading, I agree with Bart Ehrman that that reading is an orthodox corruption of scripture, created to promote a high Christology in the face of Arianism, adoptionism, and other controversies. Of course, the Johannine prolog's Christology is still plenty "high" without this reading. To me, the passage that begins "No one has seen God at any time" makes no sense to conclude with "The only-begotten God has revealed him." In Johannine theology, it is the Son who reveals the Father, through the mystery of the Incarnation. Many Christians want to take statements like those in the prolog literally, but it is better to see statements regarding the eternal, indwelling Logos as symbolic or--better--mystical rather than literal. A literal reading can only lead to a coarse misunderstanding of the divine truth that is present in this passage. The prolog speaks in the language of philosophy, the language of transcendence, the language of mystery. The Christian religion is a mystery religion in the best sense of the word: a religion full of truth that can only be expressed in multivalent, ambiguous language. The mystery of the Incarnation cannot be expressed in human words. It took God's divine Word to communicate the truth to those who would listen.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.