Applying Acts (Part 2)

One of the most important issues we need to sort out at the beginning of a study on Acts is how we ought to apply the book to the present church.  Some Christians will argue that the book of Acts ought to be normative for Christian life and practice.  For example, since the early church lived simply and held all things in common, we ought to live simply and care for the needs of others just like they did in Acts 2 and 3.  Claiborne popularized this idea (and he lives it out as well), although the sense that the poverty of Jesus and the earliest forms of Christianity ought to be applied today has been a common thread throughout church history.  The Twelve Marks of a New Monasticism is an example of people who are trying to live out a lifestyle modeled on the church as it appears in the book of Acts.  I have a great deal of respect for this kind of ministry and think that these sorts of projects are healthy for the Church in general.

On the other hand, the majority of the church (historic and modern) has dispensed with the book of Acts as a model for doing ministry.  It is far easier to do what works in our community than carefully examining Scripture and attempting to synthesize Paul’s methods and draw some analogy to present situations. I suspect that Shane Claiborne is less interested in Pauline mission than using Jesus for a model.  He can correct me on this, but The Irresistible Revolution is an excellent attempt to live out the life and thinking of Jesus, not apply Paul’s missionary strategy.  In fact, there is little in the book that can be described as “Pauline” and pretty much ignores the book of Acts after the first few chapters as a missional model.

My guess is that Paul would not have created a commune-like community in Corinth or Ephesus.  In fact, I take great comfort in the fact that Paul founded a school (a Bible College, I assume) in Ephesus and functioned as a scholar-teacher in the Greco-Roman world.

But I also think that he was not at odds with Jesus on how to live out the Christian life.  Jesus did not do “mission” in the sense defined by Schnabel, even though he modeled a lifestyle that can be described as “missional.”  As Schnabel says “whenever we move from Scripture to our own time, seeking to let Scripture shape the life of the church, we face the dichotomy of a historical past and a contemporary future” (Paul the Missionary, 37-8).   The question is less about “can we re-create the church of Acts 2” and more about “should we re-create that church”?  But is it legitimate to desire to recreate the church in Ephesus or Corinth?

Applying Acts (Part 1)

It is fairly obvious that the main method of evangelism in the first century was oral.  Paul and other missionaries proclaimed the Gospel to people who “hear the word of God.”  Since travel was limited in the ancient world, the missionary had to travel to places where the most people will hear the message.  It is doubtful if Paul’s mission would have done very well at all if he had stayed in Antioch and taught people who came to hear his message.  Since he was called to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, he needed to travel to large cities where he could find public venues for his proclamation of the Gospel.

As Schnabel points out, this need for maximum exposure means the market place, where people were accustom to hearing various speeches (Paul the Missionary, 37).  Traveling orators frequently turned up in the agora, gathered a crowd and made philosophical speeches.  For example, Dio Chrysostom describes the Cynics as hanging around public places and publicly mocking other philosophers:

…still these Cynics, posting themselves at street-corners, in alley-ways, and at temple-gates, pass round the hata and play upon the credulity of lads and sailors and crowds of that sort, stringing together rough jokes and much tittle-tattle and that low badinage that smacks of the market-place. Accordingly they achieve no good at all, but rather the worst possible harm, for they accustom thoughtless people to deride philosophers in general, just as one might accustom lads to scorn their teachers, and, when they ought to knock the insolence out of their hearers, these Cynics merely increase it. (Orations, 32.9)

When describing orators in Tarsus, Dio Chrysostom says:

Accordingly men come forward to address you who are both empty-headed and notoriety-hunters to boot, and it is with mouth agape for the clamour of the crowd, and not at all from sound judgement or understanding, that they speak, but just as if walking in the dark they are always swept along according to the clapping and the shouting. (Orations, 34.32)

For Paul, this may have been a problem since he consciously separates himself from the orators. Because of the nature of his mission he must go to the market place and speak to crowds when possible, but he does not want to be confused with the others working these crowds.  In 1 Thess 2:3-8 he makes it clear that he does not use elements of rhetoric (flattery, etc), but rather the Gospel is successful because of the power of the Holy Spirit.  Because he proclaims the gospel Paul runs the risk of appearing as an orator, but he works very hard not to be confused with them.

But Paul did not go everywhere – there is no record of his preaching in a pagan temple.  He seems to avoid them altogether in his mission.  In Lystra, he may have been in the temple precincts since the priests of Zeus try to make a sacrifice to him (Acts 14), and in Athens he preaches on Mars Hill near the altar to the Unknown God.  Neither case went the way Paul would have liked.  If Paul had gone into a temple or temple court, how might the have addressed any crowd which might have gathered?

Here is the problem for the application of Paul’s mission to present mission efforts: How do we to people “where they are at” while making it clear that we are not “where they are at”?  Are there lines which cannot be crossed if the Gospel is to be genuinely given?

Mission in the Early Church

Schnabel describes mission in the early church as consisting of three elements (Paul the Missionary, 28-9) .  First, the missionary communicates the good news of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior.  Second, the missionary communicates a new way of life to those who respond to the good news.  This necessarily means that social and cultural patterns must change in the light of the Gospel. Third, the missionary tries to integrate these new believers into a new community.  The new believers are a new family (brothers and sisters) or a new community (a citizenship in heaven).

By in large, I agree with this general outline of method.  It is not difficult to demonstrate that Paul’s message centered on Jesus as the Messiah and that his death provided some kid of solution to the problem of sin.  What is more, Paul is clear in his letters that when one is “in Christ” everything has changed.  The believer is a new creation and therefore has a new relationship with God. The believer has a new family, which means there are new family obligations which bear on social connections.  The new believer’s relationship with God has social and ethical ramifications which go beyond the  typical confines of “religion” in the ancient world.

These elements of mission also explain many of the problems Paul faces in fulfilling his calling.  How does a person “live out” this new relationship with Christ?  How do Gentiles relate to the God of the Hebrew Bible? If Gentiles are in Christ, how ought the relate to the pagan world?  Two examples come to mind.  On the one hand, should the Gentile believer in Christ accept the Jewish law as normative for their worship and practice?  On the other hand, can someone who is “in Christ” attend a birthday celebration at a pagan temple without actually worshiping any god?  In the first case, the Gentile is radically changing his pattern of life which would create a social break with his culture.  In the second case, he is making a minor adjustment in order to remain socially accepted.  These are not straw-men, since there are clear cases of both things happening in the New Testament.

I assume Paul would be someplace between these two extremes, based on a reading of Galatians and 1 Corinthians. What is remarkable to me is that Paul would never compromise on any of these points, but he was flexible enough to present the gospel in a new context without compromise.  The Gospel is always centered on Jesus Christ and his work on the cross, yet there are times when Paul enters a synagogue and tries to convince Jews from the Hebrew Bible that this is true, and other times when he sits with pagans and attempts to show that even their own philosophy points to the God of the Bible.  In both cases the Cross is central, despite the fact that Paul knows that a Theology of the Cross is going to offend both groups.

This tenacious hold on the core of the gospel ought to be a “missions strategy” in any century.

Paul the Missionary: Strategy and Method

The first time I taught through the Book of Acts in a college class, I asked the students to write an essay describing Paul’s missionary strategy, with illustrations from the book of Acts.  I thought this was simple enough and most students caught on that I was looking for “what sorts of things does Luke describe Paul as doing when he first visits a new town.” basically, Paul went to the marketplace and the synagogue. One student, however, argued that Paul did not have a missionary strategy, rather the just did what the Holy Spirit told him two. I was rather annoyed by this, and re-phrased my question, “OK, then what is the Holy Spirit’s missionary strategy?”  My point was that the Holy Spirit’s strategy was Paul’s as well, and that we should be able to use this model in our ministry in the twenty-first century.

This anecdote gets at a serious problem for students of the book of Acts.  Did Paul have some sort of a plan for world evangelism?  If he did, how can we adopt that strategy for modern mission?  Should the modern church try and replicate Paul’s method in evangelism and church planting?  Or better, is it even possible to do mission in the same way that Paul did?  Eckhard Schnabel deals with this problem at length in Paul the Missionary. I plan on blogging through large sections of this book over the next four months as I teach through the book of Acts this semester.

Schnabel defines mission in terms of intention and movement.  Someone on a “mission” is sent out by an authority and the mission is defined by the sending party rather than the going party.  Geographical movement depends solely on the nature of the mission.  Schnabel points out that this is exactly the description of Jesus we find in the Gospel of John.  Jesus was sent by the Father and does nothing but the will of the Father.  In turn, Paul describes himself as sent by Jesus Christ and God the Father for the purpose of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles (Gal 1:1).

So did Paul have a strategy or method in his ministry?  Was there an actual plan in his mind, or did he simply following the prompting of the Holy Spirit?  Perhaps the answer is “yes.” Schnabel cites J. Herbert Kane: Paul had a “flexible modus operandi developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and subject to his direction and control.” (Christian Mission in Biblical Perspective [Baker, 1976], 73).  Paul claims to be led by the Spirit, but he also seems to have a logical plan in mind to get the Gospel into places where it will flourish and reach the most people.

That Paul put reasonable amount of thought and planning into his work seems to me as obvious as the fact that he was led by the Spirit in both creating and executing that strategy.  The modern church needs both a prayerful submission to the Holy Spirit and a rational, reasonable strategy for engaging modern culture with the power of the Gospel.

ETS Atlanta – Luke / Acts Consultation

I am at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta this week, where it is “all justification, all of the time.”  At least that is true for the biblical studies papers. Attendance is high this year, breaking all records I am told.  Perhaps the opportunity to defend the Reformed Tradition against the New Perspective was tempting for many, but I am seeing quite a few dedicated followers of Wright as well.  I assume the bump in attendance has to do with the topic and plenary speakers, but also the location.  Atlanta is such an easy place to get to and is very convention-friendly.  One thing that is unforgivable is the lack of free wireless in the hotel.  I feel like I should have stayed in a much less comfortable hotel and got free wireless and a bagel for breakfast.

Last night we heard Thomas Schreiner for the plenary session, today after lunch it is Frank Theilman, and tomorrow morning we get N. T. Wright and a panel discussion.  I plan to make a few comments about each plenary session.

Wednesday afternoon I attended all four of the papers in the Luke / Acts Consultation.  All were excellent papers, well presented and thought provoking.  Osvaldo Padilla presented a paper on the speeches in Acts entitled “Reading Acts with the Chronicler.”  Padilla observed that the usual way of treating Luke as a historian is to compare him to Greco-Roman historians like Thuycidides, more or less because Thucydides gives us a nice methodological statement on how he wrote his speeches.  While there is nothing wrong with this, there are some problems, since not all Greco-Roman historians were as careful as Thuycidides.  Many embellish speeches with rhetoric in order to show-off their education and rhetorical skills.  A more profitable avenue of research, says Padilla, is to observe how the Chronicler handles speeches.  Luke was “steeped in the Hebrew Bible,” so the speeches in Chronicles may provide a model for Luke’s speeches in Acts.  Padilla chose the speech of the Queen of Sheba (1Kings 10:1-3 / 2 Chron 9:1-12) and concludes that the Chronicler was very conservative in treating his source.  The speech of Hurum in 1 Kings 10:14-29 / 2 Chron 9:13-28 is a littler different.  Here the Chronicler does slightly modify the speech, but he does so by using other scripture (Exod 35) which was more or less implied by the original context. He concludes Luke was very conservative in the use of his sources, using speeches especially from outsiders to highlight his theological agenda.

Brian Mark Rapske read entitled “Reading Acts in the Light of Contemporary Border Studies.”  Rapske summarized the contribution of this sociological field and showed that borders are both geographical and social.  Borders are never as stable as is often assumed, the are not solid lines, but rather airbrushed lines.  People that live along borders tend to challenge both sides of the border; they are “strangers” and “edge-walkers.”  While this was the first time I have heard of this sort of sociological study, I was fascinated with how this might be applied to what I called the “fringes of Judaism” in my survey of Acts 1-12.  I look forward to using some of Rapske’s insights when I return to Acts in the Spring semester.

Eckhard Schnabel presented a paper on “Fads and Common Sense: Reading Acts in the First Century and Reading Acts Today.”  He summarized seven different approaches to Acts, from the historical, literary, and narrative criticism, to the more radical approaches of feminism and post-colonialism. He rightly criticized any commentary on Acts that ignores historical issues, although it is possible that come criticism of recent Acts studies and overly interested in historical issues is well-taken.  I would certainly categorize my self as overly-interested in the historical details (over against the literary and sociological approaches) and find the warning to attend more closely to Luke’s theology a challenge.  Nevertheless, Schanbel’s conclusion is that no one method can fully unpack the book of Acts, a blending of any (or all?) of the methods is required.  I was handicapped for this paper in that I did not get a copy of his bibliography which was distributed.  There were a number of studies mentioned that I need to browse.

The final paper of the consultation was Jeff Hubing on the “Purpose of Acts: A Literary Study.”  Hubing argued that the prologue of Acts ought to include 1:1-22, not simply the first three verses.  The programmatic statement in 1:8 is a the center of this pericope and the whole unit is a “resumptive prologue” reminding the reader of what the author as already said (in Luke 24) and what he will be saying in the rest of the book.  This is something like “how did we get here, and where are we going.”  To a certain extent this is like the “programmatic statement” in Luke 4, Jesus reading Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth.  Hubing did an excellent job showing that the key vocabulary in Acts 1:8 (spirit, power, witness) is scattered throughout the book, but especially at key points.

Once again, the Luke / Acts Consultation provided four challenging papers which were all worthy of the conference.  I look forward to reviewing this material as I continue to work in Acts.