Book Review: Andy Chambers, Exemplary Life: A Theology of Church Life in Acts

Chambers, Andy. Exemplary Life: A Theology of Church Life in Acts. Nashville: B&H, 2012. 292pp. Pb; $29.99.   Link to B&H Academic

Andy Chambers is senior vice president for Student Development and professor of Bible at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis. This study of Luke’s summary narratives is clearly evangelical. Chambers approaches Acts from the perspective of Christian faith and offers this study as a way of applying the book of Acts to contemporary church life.

ChambersIn the opening chapter of this monograph, Chambers describes how we “lost Luke’s theology of the church life” as a result of an over-emphasis on historical critical method. He is concerned here with the view Luke created fictional situations to present his view of how the church developed. The long shadow of F. C. Baur has prevented scholars from seeing Luke’s intention to describe the ideal life of the church in the summary narratives in Acts. Literary criticism and narrative theology has corrected this to a certain extent since these methods are focused on Luke’s rhetorical strategies as an author. Chambers will therefore make qualified use of contemporary narrative criticism, although he thinks Luke had specific intentions as the author of the text.

In his second chapter he describe summarization as a rhetorical feature of Acts. The first four of the features of summary narratives are found in a variety of Greco-Roman literature and Acts tends to include similar information. First, the summary narratives tell about church life as opposed to describing them dramatically. Second, summary narratives are unfocused general statements about church life. Third, narrative time accelerates in the summary narratives. Fourth, summary narratives depict an ongoing way of life in the Jerusalem church. One way that Luke describes this ongoing state is switching from an aorist to an imperfect verb in the summary statements. Chambers argues the change in sound of been inflicted verb would be picked up by an oral culture hearing the text read publicly.

In addition to these for standard features, Chambers notices a number of other items found in the Book of Acts. For example, since these statements are brief transitional summaries, they make only general references to time. Luke’s summaries usually follow chiastic ABA pattern and make frequent use of repetition. In addition, the summary statements tend to be culturally neutral. By this Chambers means they are not tied to Jewish practice.

His final and perhaps more controversial observation is that Luke only emphasizes the positive aspects of the Jerusalem congregation in summary narratives. Chambers does not think Luke downplays controversy or division in the early church in the narrative portions of his book, but he does omit this material in the summary statements. It is hard to imagine why Luke would include negative items in a summary statement intended to be an example to later church readers for how to “do church.”

Having clearly described Luke’s summarization strategy, chapters 3-5 of Exemplary Life carefully study each of the three summary narratives in the book of Acts. These summaries, Chambers argues, are Luke’s description of the “exemplary life” of the early church. A chapter is devoted to each summary narrative (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35; 5:12-16) in order to develop a long list of commitments made by the earliest believers. For example, it is well-known the believers in Acts 2:42-47 were committed to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to breaking bread together, and to prayer. But Chambers argues there were other defining features as well, such as fear of the Lord, signs and wonders, sharing in each other’s lives and possessions, daily fellowship (which included the practice of the Lord’s Supper). One important characteristic of the early Jerusalem church was caring for the needs of the community as well as whole city of Jerusalem.

Having created an impressive list of features of the ideal community from the three summary narratives, Chambers then examines four texts in which Luke describes Gentile communities. The goal is to demonstrate these Gentile communities share the same kind of features as the ideal, exemplary community found in the summary narratives. What he is looking for are “enriching echoes” of these summaries in the Samaritan mission (8:1-15 9:31), Antioch (11:19-30, 13:1-3), Ephesus (19-20), and Troas (20:7-12). Presumably these were chosen because the most clearly demonstrate the point Chambers wants to make, the ideal of Jerusalem was replicated in the Gentile churches.

Two minor critiques comes to mind here. First, the Samaritans are not exactly Gentiles, nor are the exactly Jews. A Christian community in Samaria may be implied by 9:31, but I am not sure 8:1-25 can be fairly described as the establishment of Gentile churches in the Pauline sense. Second, Chambers omits Thessalonica and Corinth, even though there are certainly Gentile churches established in both locations. This may simply be a matter of limiting the study to make the material manageable, or perhaps because these two particular Gentile communities would yield negative data not helpful for the ultimate thesis of the book. There is simply not much to work with for Thessalonica, but Luke devotes a nearly as much attention to Corinth as he does Ephesus, and far more than Troas. (To be fair, he frequently cites Acts 18 in his final chapter.)

In chapter 7 Chambers sums up his findings in order to demonstrate Luke offered the Jerusalem Community as an ideal for the later, primarily Gentile church to follow. This is the reason the summary statements are culturally neutral, lacking specific reference to the Jewish boundary markers. The boundary markers were undoubtedly practiced by the Jerusalem community, but since they were no longer relevant to the Gentile churches reading Acts, Luke has omitted them from the summaries.

He begins with a long list of 24 items found in the summary narratives and they uses these to create a biblical theology of “Church Life in Acts.” In the explanation following his list, Chambers shows how these items turn up one or more of the later Gentile churches, indicating Luke’s intention to encourage later readers follow the model of the earliest church. For the most part, this chapter lists non-controversial topics which ought to characterize any healthy church

However, some of the “exemplary features” are not necessarily found in the later texts, even if they are important features of Church Life. Chambers says “an exemplary church deliberately assimilates new believers,” citing the summary narrative in Acts 2:42 (147). But the later texts he cites in Acts do not necessarily support this point. Acts 11:26 only implies ongoing training and discipleship and 13:21 simply notes the proconsul Sergius Paulus believed and was astonished at the teaching of the Lord, but this is far from assimilated into a community committed to the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, prayer and breaking of bread. Of the verses listed, only 20:18-20 (Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders) clearly describes a community like Acts 2:42. Ultimately I think this extremely long list of characteristics of an exemplary church could have been more efficient, combining similar points in order to avoid this kind of problem.

Conclusion. Chambers has done what he set out to achieve. The summary narratives in the early part of Acts do indeed seem to be general enough to provide an example for later churches looking for a model for how to live as Christians. While I am less convinced the later reports in Gentile churches are true echoes of these summaries, in general Chambers makes an excellent argument that Luke’s intention was to provide a model of an ideal church for later generations to emulate. What is more, this point is quite preachable in an evangelical context. It is always difficult to know who to apply the book of Acts, especially the activities of the earliest church. Chambers does not want to apply the specifics, only the general example found in the summary statements. In the end, Chambers would say, this was Luke’s purpose for including such summaries.

NB: B&H did not provide me with this book, but I am sure they would have if I asked for it. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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