Reading Acts on Reading Acts?

I am teaching the book of Acts this semester, so starting this week will be actually reading Acts on Reading Acts. To celebrate I finally registered the domain for Reading Acts (so no more .wordpress in the URL, no ads and faster load times). They tell me I can use video now, although I doubt anyone really wants to see me blogging.

The Blogosphere reacting to Acts as History posts

The Blogosphere reacting to Acts as History posts

In the first week or two of the series, I will be working through some problems for reading Acts as a historical and theological document, then I will work my way through the book chapter-by-chapter. I will often use Craig Keener’s massive commentary on Acts as a discussion partner, but there are several new books in the last few years on Acts what will pop up over the next several months.

There will be several reoccurring topics in this series. First, I will often interact with Acts as a generally accurate description of the westward expansion of Christianity. This view is not without problems and my intention is to wrestle with the questions and see where that goes. Part of this struggle is the always problematic relationship of Paul and Acts. (I am reading Doug Campbell’s Framing Paul and his work may crop up from time to time.)

A second reoccurring theme will use of Acts by the contemporary church. One of the real problems for teaching or preaching Acts is the application of the book to how we “do church” today. Some recent writers want to embrace an “Acts 2” lifestyle and try to be the church like it was in the earliest days. This is not without theological or practical problems. Using Paul as a model for doing ministry is another popular application, but is the presentation of Paul’s ministry intended as a “how to guide” for planting and organizing churches?

A third thing I intend to do in this series is “ask good questions” even if I do not answer them. Since Luke cannot tell us everything about everyone, there are some real gaps in the book of Acts. What happens in those gaps may be as important as the story Luke tells. For example, where does Peter go when he leaves Mary’s house in Acts 12? We are not told, but the way Luke presents the material seems like a transition from Peter to James as the significant leader of the Jerusalem community.  This “gap” in the story seems extremely to me in the overall history of early Christianity.

This leads me to a fourth reoccurring theme. I do think Acts provides a framework for understanding early Christianity, not just in what he says but also in the direction in which he points. There are several places in the narrative foreshadowing where the story goes “beyond Acts.” For example, Paul’s speech in Acts 20 to the Ephesian elders strikes me as looking forward to the problems the church faced in the latter third of the first century. It is no coincidence that the book of Luke would have been circulating at the time.

So that is the plan for the next few months, I hope you enjoy the series and I encourage you all to participate as fully as you would like.

10 thoughts on “Reading Acts on Reading Acts?

  1. Wow, you’ve already introduced a LOT to discuss but I’ll mostly wait till you get into the topics. But FYI, I think it was the blog title that first got me looking and then reading/commenting. Having studied the Bible, theology and Christian history pretty extensively, in recent years I’d come to believe that Acts was absolutely pivotal in the way Christianity developed.

    To be precise, the “pivot” probably began 2-4 decades earlier (with the church’s center of authority disappearing in 70 C.E.) but “Luke” certainly reinforces and further advances the ascendance of Pauline theology and the “myth of origin” of a closely united beginning of Christianity with only lightly debating and soon-united, clear authority.

    Some of the glaring omissions you refer to hint at the more realistic picture which was clearly quite a bit different… some of which can be directly seen in the descriptions and confrontations by Paul. They evidence, not just in one or two but in several places, anything but united lines of authority and a spirit of amiable cooperation. And it’s not that contention itself would invalidate authoritative theology but we are left with issues that neither Acts nor any Scripture ever indicates were resolved and just what the resolutions were.

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    • “To be precise, the “pivot” probably began 2-4 decades earlier (with the church’s center of authority disappearing in 70 C.E.)” – Good point, although I have been working in 1 Cor quite a bit lately and wonder of the cracks in Jerusalem’s authority were not present much earlier: Doe the Corinthians care what Jerusalem tells them to do?

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      • Just some “nutshell” points re. the “who’s in authority” issue: Paul seemed to need/want a combo of his own (via revelation of and through the ascended–apparently not the earthly–Christ) and support or endorsement from Jerusalem. The q. is WHEN he particularly sought the latter and why. My reading is that it was a matter of particulars of a given location and congregation. Sometimes, at least, he was asserting independent authority BECAUSE reps from Jerusalem had gone to his congregations and were presenting what Paul considered a “different gospel”… core differences in his mind, whatever he meant by “gospel”. And probably mostly issues over Torah observance as related to cultural and ethnic boundaries and barriers, and what constituted “freedom in Christ”, etc.

        And it appears such “Judaizers” (officially endorsed as I think is clear) were there because of reports about Paul’s teaching (cf. Acts where Paul enters Jerusalem prior to the riot and his arrest… I forget the ch./verse). Also probably from the missionary response being strongest among “God-fearers” (vs. ethnic Jews) who had been basically following Judaism over against paganism. Even in Jerusalem this might have been the case, esp. if one includes Hellenized diaspora Jews, as Penetcost indicates, but particularly so in the urban centers where Paul was mainly starting and growing congregations.

        To “The Twelve” and James, the ongoing Jewish/Torah core of Jesus-following may have seemed (as indeed it proved) to be at stake. The q. may, at least subconsciously, have been, “Is God to ‘restore the Kingdom to ISRAEL [as we’ve known it]'”? [or to some new entity with mainly supra-cultural practices that it appears Paul could envision but probably they could not]? [And not forgetting that both Paul and the Jeru. leaders expected Jesus’ (re)appearance imminently.] The issues almost certainly did not revolve around individual salvation theology, which is what most American (and other?) Christians tend to read back into the texts.

        So, as to Corinthians “caring” or not re. Jeru. directives… I don’t know (have to re-examine that). But it appears at least the Galatians did… were significantly influenced.

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  2. This is the paragraph that caught my attention:
    “A second reoccurring theme will use of Acts by the contemporary church. One of the real problems for teaching or preaching Acts is the application of the book to how we “do church” today. Some recent writers want to embrace an “Acts 2” lifestyle and try to be the church like it was in the earliest days. This is not without theological or practical problems. Using Paul as a model for doing ministry is another popular application, but is the presentation of Paul’s ministry intended as a “how to guide” for planting and organizing churches?”

    I agree with both of the “problems” you mention here. A cut-and-paste approach to imitating either Acts 2 or Paul’s ministry ignores the particulars of both the season of the birth of the church and of our own times. However, I think the opposite problem is at least as real: To assume that neither Acts 2 nor Paul’s ministry are intended to provide any guidance for how we “do church” today leaves a real vacuum, which is filled repeatedly by ideas that are only tenuously linked to anything biblical. Of course I’m thinking also of Roland Allen’s famous book, Missionary Methods: St. Pauls or Ours? as well as some of the push-back against it. I think his instinct was mostly correct, and certainly one that my own conservative Anabaptist world should consider more deeply.

    I’m eager to hear your discussion of such questions, because (if I may speak of myself for a moment) I have been considering a book idea along the lines of Allen’s book, but focusing more on the purity of the church, both methods to achieve purity and boundaries for defining it–with the goal of investigating Paul’s answers to such questions for the churches that he helped plant.

    So happy teaching both in the classroom and online!

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    • I think I have a half dozen books with a title like Allen’s. Most of these try to track what Paul did, a few then try to make applications to the “post modern world.” I think Schnabel’s Paul the missionary does a very good job drawing principles.

      Usually the people who want an Acts 2 church have to back-pedal on many things (Annanias and Sapphira for example, no one wants an “Acts 5 giving program.”

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      • Thanks for the book recommendation, Phillip. I’ll have to check out Schnabel’s book.

        I certainly agree that a cut-and-paste approach to imitating first-century methods is problematic. I think we need to investigate the underlying theological grounds for such practices. The challenge then becomes to either adopt the same methods on the same theological grounds, or find other methods that are equally well grounded in the same gospel-shaped theological foundation. I’m convinced that some modern methods (whether in missiology or ecclesiology) are not as well-rooted theologically as they should be, and that we are reaping bad fruit as a result. To save me time and save you a spat on your blog, I won’t go into any more specifics at the moment! 🙂

        I’ll be listening as you discuss such topics more in this series.

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