Book Review: Justo González, The Story Luke Tells

González, Justo. The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 141 pp. Pb; $14.   Link to Eerdmans, including a short interview with González.

Professor Emerita at Columbia Theological Seminary, Justo González is known for his popular two-volume The Story of Christianity (1984) and three-volume A History of Christian Thought (Abingdon, 1987). In this short meditation on Luke’s Gospel, he offers a historian’s view of the theology of Luke/Acts. There is very little on authorship issues or whether the two books should be read together. Regardless of origin, González assumes the two books are to be read as a unit and his theological observations cover both books. González does not interact with other monographs on Luke’s theology nor is he particularly interested in exegetical details. There are no footnotes or references in these short reflections.

González, The Story Luke TellsIn the first chapter González makes a series of observations about Luke’s interest in history. Luke is the only author shows a particular interest in dating the events he discusses. He does this by placing the story of Jesus in a particular social, political and religious context by mentioning a number of characters by name who are known from history. Luke is also interested in geographic and political data. For example, Luke mentions the bay of Fair Havens on the island of Crete, the type of geographical detail a historian would include. One curious feature of Luke/Acts is that the history is unfinished, not only in terms of chronology but also geography (11). González suggests Luke wrote his history in this way in order to invite both the original and modern readers to continue the ongoing history of God’s work in this world (13).

In his second chapter González introduces the idea of typology frequently found in the Bible. By typology, he means patterns which repeat throughout the history. He first shows that God’s redeeming action in Jesus is a typology drawn from God’s redeeming action leading Israel out of Egypt. In Luke, Jesus is the Passover lamb; just as the blood of the lamb was used to redeem Egypt in the past now, the blood of the first born of God will redeem all people in Jesus. González’s second example is Luke’s development of an Adam/Jesus typology. While this is usually considered a Pauline idea, Luke connects Jesus and Adam in his genealogy and temptation. For González, these sorts of typological connections are not intended as foreshadowing, but to argue Jesus is the culmination of the plan of God. González says the fulfillment typology in Jesus is not necessarily the end since the church participates in the ongoing expansion of Christianity. We often forget Acts “is not only the history of the expansion of Christianity through the work of Paul and others; it is the beginning of the process through which Jesus Christ announces and claims his Lordship over all history and humankind” (27).

In the third chapter, Gonzalez traces what he calls the “great reversal.” He has in mind here the common biblical motif of the lesser being elevated above the greater (i.e., the younger son is given the blessing, the least likely son becomes the king, etc.) This great reversal is both religious and social (32). In Luke, those who had expect to enter into the kingdom usually are on the outside. In contrast, it is a Gentile or a woman who finds forgiveness in Jesus. For González this is the main idea of the Great Feast in Luke 14. The social aspect of this great reversal is seen in the story of Lazarus (Luke 16) where a poor man is elevated while a rich man finds himself in Hades. This theme of the poor entering into the kingdom appears repeatedly in the third Gospel. González points to the beatitudes, which are much more focused on riches and poverty in Luke’s Gospel than in Matthew’s. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus proclaims the year of “the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4), referring to the year of Jubilee, a time when the poor have their debts forgiven. In the Book of Acts, the great reversal includes people who were on the fringes of what it means to be a Jew, such as women, Samaritans, and Gentile God-fearers. González also detects the motive of a great reversal in the appointment of deacons in Acts 6 since they are drawn from the Hellenistic Jews.

One feature often observed about Luke’s Gospel is his interest in the female disciples of Jesus. Women are witnesses to who Jesus is from the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel. In his fourth chapter González surveys all of the women were featured in Luke in both Luke and Acts. Like many who studied this feature of Luke’s Gospel, González points out later church writers may have suppressed Luke’s interest in female disciples. He explains how the Western text of Luke’s Gospel reverses the order of the names Priscilla and Aquila. Gonzalez detects the work of a copyist who preferred putting the husband first. As a result of this sort of thing “much of what Luke has to say on the matter of gender lays hidden under layers of interpretation that we have received from earlier generations” (59).

In the fifth chapter, González surveys Luke’s view of salvation. While the title “savior” is a very Lukan term, the source of the image is the Old Testament. Terms like “redemption” and “to redeem” only appear in Luke, but the Christian reader often overlooks the Old Testament background of the Redeemer who is the “holy one of Israel” (Isaiah 41:14). But there is more to word savior in the context of the first-century Roman world. Gonzalez asks what the shepherds might have thought about “salvation” in Luke 2:1. For peasants living under the oppressive and exploitive Roman Empire, hearing an announcement of salvation may have brought to mind the end of Roman rule in Judea. Undoubtedly the angels’ announcement included salvation from sin, but that salvation would have looked like a New Exodus to Jewish shepherds. While the shepherds had an incomplete understanding of the angels’ announcement, but we too have an incomplete understanding if we are not aware of the political dimensions of salvation. Another aspect of Luke’s view of salvation often overlooked is the language healing. When Jesus heals, Luke uses the language of salvation. Modern over-emphasis on healing in contemporary Christianity obscures Luke’s theological point. This does not mean God will not heal, but it does mean that while we proclaim the message of salvation of the sins of eternal life “we also have to proclaim the same message in the sense of liberation from every power of evil” (74).

In the sixth chapter examines the frequent use of food and drink in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 7:34 Jesus’ opponents describes him as a “glutton and drunkard” because he frequently shared meals with sinners. In many cases in Luke, a meal is an opportunity to announce the great reversal. González uses the Sabbath meal at the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7) as an example. The Pharisee expected to be saved, but it is the sinful woman who goes away justified (82). There is, however, a great deal more to be said about meals than González is able to cover in this short chapter. Who Jesus eats with is often very important in the Gospel and I expected more historical and sociological commentary on meaning of table fellowship in this chapter. There is also an eschatological aspect to these meals, Jesus is demonstrating who he is by inviting everyone (poor and rich) to participate in his messianic banquet.

Luke’s Gospel begins with four of the most important hymn in Christian tradition. The Book of Acts also includes several stories where early Christians worship. These meetings appear to include food, the reading and instruction from Scripture (González calls this the service of the Word). González has a great deal to say on the Lord’s Supper, pointing out all the Gospels include the Last Supper and all highlight the eschatological dimension of the meal. The last supper “points to the future, to the feast of the wedding of the lamb, to a time when people will come from the east and the west and north and the south and eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). We have “sadly often lost that eschatological dimension of the Lord’s supper” (101). González connects the Last Supper to several examples of breaking bread in the Book of Acts. However. I am not convinced all of the references to “breaking bread” refer to Communion in the strictest sense. One such example is the storm in Acts 27. Paul does “take bread,” “give thanks” and he does “break the bread” before they begin to eat. The verbs are found in the Last Supper, but at least in my mind it is unlikely Luke intended this “last supper” on the boat as communion meal. Most of the participants were not Christians. Nevertheless Gonzalez thinks the meal provides hope for those who are traveling with Paul.

The final chapter of this book concerns Luke’s theology of the Holy Spirit. González surveys the passages in Luke’s Gospel which do not have parallels in the other Gospels. In doing so he is highlighting Luke’s particular view of the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is active in Jesus’s birth in early years, the Holy Spirit accompanies Jesus into the desert and when he returns to Galilee Jesus is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. González thinks it is significant that Luke uses the language of the “filling” with respect to the Holy Spirit. This looks back to the Old Testament, using Micah 3:8 for example. While the prophets were “filled with the Spirit of the Lord,” Eph 3:19 also prays that the readers would be “filled with all the fullness of God” (114). In the entire New Testament only Luke uses the word “to fill” to refer a person’s inner emotions: people are filled with rage, filled with villainy and deceit, filled with joy, and filled with the Holy Spirit. Since all these phrases commonly used among Christians today it is clear Luke’s contribution to the Christian doctrine of the Spirit is unparalleled in the New Testament (116).

Conclusion. While this book is not a full-blown theology of Luke/Acts, it is a simulating meditation on the theological contribution of Luke. It would make an excellent supplemental text for a college or seminary Gospels class, but it is accessible to the layman who wants to have an overview of a few of Luke’s major themes. The chapters are short enough the book could be used as in a small group Bible study.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on   on Reading Acts.

Benjamin Merkle and Thomas Schreiner, Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership

Merkle, Benjamin L. and Thomas R. Schreiner, eds. Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2015. 320 pp. Pb. $18.99   Link to Kregel  

Shepherding God’s Flock is a collection of essays by Baptist scholars on the topic of biblical leadership, primarily focused on elders in the local church. For the most part this is a very traditional conservative and Baptist view of church leadership. Do not let the conservative, pastoral appearance fool you. The essays in this collection are intentionally academic and are good examples of biblical and historical theology applied to the problem of modern church leadership. This is the second book I have read published by Kregel Academic which could have been published in their Academic line (read my review of Joe Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry.)

Shepherding the churchIn an introductory chapter, James M. Hamilton Jr. examines the evidence Second Temple Period in order to determine if the Christian church borrowed leadership structures from the Old Testament or synagogue. While it is unlikely early church borrowed the idea of elder from the Old Testament, it seems obvious the organization of the synagogue had an influence on early Christian congregations. The problem for Hamilton is a lack of information on the organization of synagogues in the Second Temple Period. As he says, the office of elder is certainly analogous to the elders of a synagogue, but there are also serious differences. I think there is more to be said on how early congregations were formed but I am not sure there is much data shedding light on the period. Hamilton’s chapter is handicapped by its brevity. This is not his fault of course, but the topic of first century synagogues merits additional study.

Chapters 2-4 cover the New Testament data on church leadership. First, Andreas J. Köstenberger contributes an essay on “Shepherds and Shepherding in the Gospels.” By surveying the four Gospels Köstenberger develops several observations which inform pastoral leadership in the twenty-first century. After surveying the texts on shepherding in the Gospels, he concludes that it is critical keep the idea of shepherding Christocentric. The Gospels present Jesus as the Good Shepherd and Jesus gives his disciples a mandate to “feed my sheep.” Köstenberger uses the restoration of Peter in John 21:15-19 as a model for every Christian community. Biblical leaders must be involved in training new shepherds, and the ultimate model for shepherd leadership is Jesus.

Second, Benjamin L. Merkle traces “The Pattern of Leadership in Acts and Paul’s Letters to Churches.” Merlke’s dissertation was on elders and overseers in the early church (Peter Lang, 2003). This essay examines elders in the book of Acts as well as the non-pastoral Pauline letters. He first surveys the references to elders in the book of Acts (primarily ch. 14, 20), although he does briefly discuss the authority of the Jerusalem elders found throughout the book. He also includes the deacons (Acts 6) in his discussion even though they are not called elders. One problem for a study like this is that the non-Pastoral letters do not mention elders. Merkle therefore draws together evidence from the church letters where leaders are described (Gal 6:6; 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Cor 16:15-16; Rom16:1-2; Phil 1:1, etc.).  Most of these refer to teachers in the local churches, so it is not a stretch to refer to a teacher as an “elders.”

Third, Thomas R. Schreiner focuses his chapter on the Pastoral Epistles and 1 Peter (“Overseeing and Serving the Church in the Pastoral and General Epistles”). The Pastorals have the most biblical data on elders and church leadership, so Schreiner’s chapter the densest of the collection. In fact, it could have been divided into two chapters, one on Timothy and Titus and another on 1 Peter and the rest of the New Testament. Or the editors could have moved the material on women as elders into another chapter and provided more detail on that more controversial topic. Schreiner briefly discusses whether elders and overseers are the same office before surveying the instructions for appointing elders in 1 Timothy. Much of this chapter is concerned with the qualifications for elders. He observes that the character qualities in 1Timothy are expected of all Christians regardless of their level of leadership in the church.

Most readers will want to know Schreiner’s view on the nettlesome “husband of one wife” in 1 Tim 3:2. It is not surprising he advocates the traditional view that an elder must be male, although he is open to a divorced and remarried man serving as an elder depending on the circumstances and length of time since the divorce (98). Paul main concern, Schreiner argues, is that elders have extremely high moral character. One way of demonstrating both spiritual leadership skills is their control of their home. Schreiner briefly discusses deacons in this chapter argues Paul refers to women deacons as opposed to a male deacon’s wife (111). He does not see this as a contradiction to 1 Tim 2:12 since a deacon does not “exercise authority. He does not deal with 3:12 where “husband of one wife” is repeated for deacons.

Chapters 5-9 trace the historical development of elder leadership. These several chapters trace much of church history despite the fact that there was not a great deal of shepherding in medieval Roman Catholic Church. Michael A. G. Haykin (“The Development and Consolidation of the Papacy”) and Gregg R. Allison (“The Papacy from Leo I to Vatican II”) combined to cover church history and explain how the Papacy developed and eventually departed from a biblical model of church leadership. Each concludes with a brief attempt to tie this material to the overall theme of the book. Despite these being extremely interesting chapters to read I did not see them is strictly necessary in a book attempting to describe biblical leadership in the New Testament and beyond.

More on topic is Nathan A. Finn’s “The Rule of Elders: The Presbyterian Angle on Church Leadership.” Finn compares the Presbyterian leadership model with the Baptist congregationalism. The difference is primarily in the Presbyterian view of two types of elders. This is a very friendly chapter and even the critique Finn offers is not a stinging rebuke by any means. In a similar vein, Jason G. Duesing looks at “A Cousin of Catholicism: The Anglican Understanding of Church Leadership.” Like the chapters on Roman Catholicism, this essay is an overview of the history of the Church of English. While very interesting and engaging, it is not directly related to elder leadership churches today.

In the final essay in the historical section of the book, Shawn D. Wright studies “Baptists and a Plurality of Elders.” For me, this was a very interesting chapter because I less unaware of the internal debate among Baptists over plurality of elders. Like all Baptists, Wright is clear the Bible should determine how churches are organized and he is of the opinion a plurality of elders congregational model is the most biblical. Surveying the historical data, Wright shows many of the earliest Baptists in England held to plurality of elders, although this position was later often abandoned. There are at least five factors which influenced Baptists to not maintain plurality as a model for their churches. First as congregationalists, many Baptist churches doubted whether a plural elder system could be reconciled with congregational authority. Second, Baptist sometimes had unusual ways of reading the texts supporting plurality of elders. Third, Baptist confessions never mandated the plurality elders and were often intentionally ambiguous on the issue. Fourth, several prominent Baptist leaders opposed plurality of elders or at least downplayed the importance of elder leadership. Last, many Baptist congregations simply lacked of qualified men who could serve as elders. Wright examine each of these factors and surveys several responses to them from later Baptist thinkers. He concludes by observing the return to plurality of elders in recent years, a trend witnessed by this collection of essays.

Two chapters round out the collection by applying this biblical and historical data to present church leadership. First, Bruce A. Ware develops “A Theology of Church Leadership.” To some extent this essay repeats some of the material from Schreiner’s chapter. Ware emphasizes the New Testament clearly teaches Christ is the Chief Shepherd of the church (1 Peter 5) as well as the Builder of the Church (Matthew 16) and Lord over the Church (Eph 1:20). For Ware, the three Greek and six English terms used for leaders in the New Testament all refer to the office of elder. As might be expected he argues the office of elder in the New Testament is restricted to men (295) and he has a very conservative view in 1 Tim 2:12. Applying this to a modern situation, if a woman teaches a Sunday School class for both men and women, Ware believes this would violate 1 Tim 2:12. He also describes the role of deacons in the New Testament and concludes 1 Tim 3:11 allows for women to be deacons despite “husband of one wife” appearing for both elders and deacons. This seemingly contradiction is left unexplained.

In the final chapter of the collection Andrew M. Davis describes “What It Means Practically to Shepherd God’s Flock.” Davis is the only contributor to this collection who is a senior pastor and his essay offers pastoral advice based on the biblical model of eldership. It is not necessary to summarize all twelve of his “practical elements of Christian leadership” here. Like the other authors in this volume, he is adamant the organization of the church should be based on the New Testament. While it is possible a leader may learn something from popular (secular) leadership books, the ultimate authority must be the Scriptures. For Davis this means a plurality of elders in a congregational system, men who are committed to bringing God glory by leading people in personal sanctification and making disciples.

Conclusion. For the most part there is nothing new or shocking in this book. Since the authors identify themselves as Baptists and nearly all teach in Baptist seminaries, the general argument of the book will please people who are within that tradition, and possibly enrage others, especially on the “women in ministry” issue. The historical chapters take up a large percentage of the book and are very valuable, but I think the space would have been better used engaging both sides of the women-as-elders debate. In addition, all the essays advocate for a plurality of elders. While I happen to think this is the best position, I would have enjoyed reading a counterpoint from a Baptist writer who rejects plurality. All the writers are more or less in agreement on plurality of elders and (it appears) women in ministry, a dissenting opinion would have been a helpful addition.

While well-documented and scholarly, the essays are all written on a non-academic level. The book should be read by church leaders who are interested in what the New Testament has to say about elders and deacons.


NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


Book Review: Joseph H. Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry

Hellerman, Joseph H. Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2013. 313 pp. Pb; $17.99.  Link to Kregel

In 2005 Joseph Hellerman published Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as cursus pudorum (SNTS 131; Cambridge University Press). There are a great deal of similarities between Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi and this new book published by Kregel Ministry. In fact, Embracing Shared Ministry draws on the insights of that earlier work and attempts to show that Paul’s vision of the church is counter to the Greco-Roman pursuit of honor and status.

Shared Minstry The first part of Embracing Shared Ministry concerns power and authority in the Roman world. Hellerman first describes social stratification in the Roman word, demonstrating that there was a rigid social order in the Roman world, from the extreme minority elites who had virtually all the power to the majority slaves who had absolutely no power. In fact, Roman life can be described as a “Quest for Honor” (cursus honorum). The second chapter of the book shows the lengths to which a Roman might go in order to gain honor. Hellerman offers by way of example a tombstone of C. Luccius (A.D. 134), on which all of the honors achieved by the man are listed. In contrast to this, Paul offers his own list of honors in Phil 3:5-6, which he considers “rubbish.”

Any status Paul has as a Roman citizen or an elite member of Jewish society is of no value to him whatsoever. As Hellerman points out, this turned the Roman world upside down (p. 77). While members of Roman culture were motivated by self-promotion, members of Paul’s churches were to seek the honor of others and to think of others more highly than themselves. This flies in the face of the Roman world, and as Hellerman points out, it flies in the face of power relations within the church (p. 99).

In the second part of his book, Hellerman applies the background he surveyed in the first part to the letter to the Philippians. He begins by point out that Paul simply identifies himself as a “slave” in Phil 1:1, despite the fact that a slave is the lowest class of person in the Roman world. In fact, Phil 2:5-6 will use that same language to describe Jesus.  In the Christ-Hymn Paul states that Jesus set aside his status as God and took on the status of a slave. Hellerman makes the point that this would be equivalent to a Roman senator setting aside his toga (his mark of status) and taking on the rags of a slave (also a mark of status). Because of that humble obedience, Jesus is exalted to the highest status imaginable, even above the emperor of Rome! That Jesus is called Lord is counter to a Roman world where Caesar is Lord and worshiped as a god (p. 167).

Is this view of Jesus “anti-imperial”? As Hellerman points out, “Paul’s agenda was not to influence the political process of Rome” (p.168). This means that “trendy academic portraits of anti-imperial Paul” are anachronistic.  Paul was not anti-Rome, although his gospel did subvert the social order by advocating Jesus as the Lord of a new social group. As I read Paul, I think that Hellerman is right that Paul is not consciously anti-Imperial, he in no way was advocating some sort of rebellion against the Empire. But the Gospel was so radical that it would erode the Empire if that Gospel practiced consistently. Perhaps the sad story of Church history is that by the time Christianity was the majority religion, it had become thoroughly Roman with respect to honor and status.

The third section of the book draws some very point application to contemporary Evangelicalism. At this point the book shifts from stories and illustrations drawn from the Greco-Roman world and focuses on real-world illustrations of the pursuit of honor and status in the church today.  These illustrations are drawn from Hellerman’s own experiences as a pastor and seminary professor. He is most interested in the problems of “corporate Christianity.” American Evangelical churches frequently turn pastors into CEOs who are expected to run their churches like they are big businesses. The problems with this church model are amply illustrated in two chapters with a number of anecdotes.

In the final chapter of the book, Hellerman makes some suggestions for returning to Paul’s vision for authentic ministry. It is no surprise at this point in the book that Hellerman argues that the church ought to have a “cruciform vision” for ministry. Rather than a CEO pastor, he advocates a “community of leaders” who together work as servant leaders who urge one another toward spiritual maturity and greater accountability. Just as Jesus set aside his honor and status as God in order to be a servant, Paul told his churches to set their own honor and status aside to serve one another. For Hellerman, that is the only effective model for the church today (p. 286).

Conclusion. What I find remarkable is that this book published by Kregel Ministry. It certainly is a book that pastors ought to read and the application of the book is important for developing vital ministry that seeks to live out the model of Jesus as the ultimate servant in modern communities. But this is not some sort of a post-emergent “let’s get back to Jesus” book. Nor is this book a popular leadership manual with plenty of pithy quotes and trendy jargon. Hellerman presents the data from the Roman world, applies it to the letter to the Philippians in order to tease out the nuances of the text modern readers simply miss. He then bridges the gap between that world and the modern world in order to challenge modern churches to follow Christ in a more authentic fashion.

I think that this book will appeal to scholars who study Greco-Roman backgrounds to the New Testament. Do not ignore this book because it was published in a ministry series since it collects most of the data from Reconstructing Honor in a handy (and less expensive) format. Pastors may find this a challenging read, but there is a treasury of background material here that will enhance teaching and preaching of the letter to the Philippians.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.