The Book of Acts as Theology

Theo LukeThere is a third element of the book of Acts which cannot be ignored. Luke is a theologian and his book is telling the reader about the work of God in the world. He has wide variety of theological interests, such as how God’s plan is unfolding in history, or the movement of the Holy Spirit as the gospel moves into new areas of the world. Darrell Bock’s recent The Theology Luke/Acts demonstrates that Luke had many theological interests which run throughout these two books and there are dozens of books on Luke as a Theologian.

Luke’s theological agenda is the main reason he writes Acts. While he does preserve history in an appealing and entertaining fashion, his main point to present a particular theological agenda. Does recognizing the fact a biblical writer has a theological perspective mean he is “non-historical”? Not necessarily, but there are some thinks Luke simply never addresses which are a matter of historical interest because they are not helpful for his theological agenda. For example, Galatians 2 seems to indicate a great deal more tension between Paul and Jerusalem than Acts 15. If all we had was Acts 15, then we might assume Paul and James worked through some minor differences and found an equitable solution. Galatians indicates Peter and Barnabas were both pressured by James to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentiles. Luke emphasizes the unity of the church at the time of the Jerusalem council; Paul emphasizes his independence from Jerusalem in his letter to the Galatians. Both are accurate, albeit both men write with different theological and apologetic reasons.

I want to suggest here at the beginning of a long series on the book of Acts that the final verses of the book may very well be the “theological statement” for Luke/Acts as a whole. In Acts 28:31-31 we are told Paul taught “freely and with boldness” because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. The disciples of Jesus all endure trials and persecution as the boldly proclaim the gospel, including two who are killed on account of their testimony (Stephen in Acts 7 and James in Acts 12). Paul spends quite a bit of time under arrest in the book, often in Roman custody but occasionally he is subject to mob-rule (he is beaten and left for dead in Lystra, the mob at Thessalonica, the riots in Ephesus).

Paul also faced opposition from Jewish Christians who want to impose the Law on Gentile converts. From the letters, Paul sees these threats from “insiders” as potentially more damaging to his churches than persecution from civil authorities. Galatians makes it clear that if the Gentiles accept this “other gospel” then Paul’s efforts have been in vain. Divisions and factions in Corinth threaten to destabilize what was potentially Paul’s most successful established church!

But at no point in the book of Acts is the gospel itself restrained.  Peter might be put in prison, but the Gospel is still free. Stephen and James may be killed, but the Gospel is still free. Paul may spend years under house arrest, yet the Gospel is still going out to the whole world.

By looking at the last line of the book of Acts we see how Luke wanted to end the story.  The idea that God is fulfilling the great story of redemption in the work of Jesus is a major theme of his two books. Luke 1:1 states that his purpose for writing was so that Theophilus might have an accurate record of the “things which have been fulfilled among us.” The gospel of Luke concludes with the same idea: Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture (Luke 24:44-49).

Acts begins with Jesus telling the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and await the coming Holy Spirit which the Father promised to send (Acts 1:4).  This promise appears in Luke 3:15-17, but is drawn from the Hebrew Bible as well (Joel 2:28, Jeremiah 31:31-33). Acts is the story of how the fulfillment of God’s promise works its way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, ultimately to Rome itself.

I think this “theology of mission” holds the book of Acts together and may explain why Luke omitted some details we would have liked to have known about. Since unity of the church is important for Luke’s view of Gospel spreading throughout the world, he is less likely to give all the details of factionalism in the early church. Are there other illustrations of this theological agenda to be found in the book of Acts?

The Book of Acts as Story

In the previous post I briefly discussed the problem of Luke as real history. I used the analogy on a film based on historical events. Luke was forced to select from a wide range of events those which fit his over all agenda and adapt what he did choose to fit the format of a short book.

It is obvious that Luke writes his story as just that, a story. There are elements of the book included in order to enhance the story from the perspective of literature. He intends to tell an interesting story, with foreshadowing and surprising twists. These rhetorical elements are not simply flourishes added as an after-thought; they are essential to the way Luke “does history.”

Saint Luke iconPerhaps the best example of this is the dramatic introduction of the main character of two-thirds of the book. At the end of Chapter 7, Saul is introduced as “approving” the stoning of Stephen. Luke then drops him from the narrative for a chapter to create tension.  The reader knows show this shadowy figure is, but Luke wants to build anticipation for Saul’s introduction. In chapter 9 Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus and is told he will be the “light to the Gentiles,” yet the plot line is dropped. Luke tells a series of stories about Peter before picking up the thread of Paul’s ministry in chapter 13. This is the work of a story-teller, teasing his readers with hints and foreshadowing of what we know must be coming.

This way of writing history employs a number of rhetorical principles common in history writing in antiquity. Philip Satterthwaite lists elements such as selection and arrangement of material as methods common in Greco-Roman histories. Luke selected some material and ignores the rest. For Luke, who Paul is and how he came to be a part of the Jesus Movement is important, what Thomas did after the resurrection is of no interest at all. By arranging the stories as he has, Luke highlights the importance of Paul for his overall agenda.

In fact, Craig Keener points out that rhetorical techniques were pervasive in ancient historiography (1:131). Although historians sought to restrain themselves, no one opposed good rhetorical technique in history writing. While Polybius was accused of over-using rhetoric to stress the importance of his topic, ancient writers all used literary conventions in order to write a history that was pleasing to the reader.

This makes sense, since no one really wants to read the raw facts of history. A history writer always struggles to find a way to fairly present dry facts in a compelling way. This is why children learn more about history from educational cartoons than their history textbooks. Telling a story of a child who witnesses the events of the American Revolution is more compelling than memorizing a list of facts drawn from American history.

There is some range of opinion for how well Luke was trained in rhetoric. While scholars like Satterthwaite think Luke was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions (337), but Richard Pervo thinks Luke’s use of these styles would be considered rather unrefined to most educated Greek readers (Keener, 139). Keener explains Luke’s use of rhetoric by observing that his target audience is not necessarily the elite historian. In fact, there was no “professional historian” in the first century who would have naturally read a book like Acts. No one will place Luke’s book in the same category as the classic Greek historians, but he does work very hard to create a compelling story in order to present the expansion of Christianity.

One implication of Luke’s use of contemporary Greco-Roman conventions for writing “history as story” is that his original readers would have understood his presentation as a legitimate history, even though it might not qualify as history in the modern sense of the word. I suspect one’s faith commitment to Scripture will have a bearing on this issue, but to what extent does this view of “Luke as Historian” differ from contemporary understanding of history writing? Does it limit (or exclude, some would say) the book of Acts as a source for understanding the church in the first century?

Bibliography: Satterthwaite, Philip. “Acts Against the Background of Classical Rhetoric.” Pages 337-80 in The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting, Volume 1. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993.

 

Book Giveaway – The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, edited by Richard Bauckham and Carl Mosser (Eerdmans, 2008)

Bauckham, Gospel of JohnSummer is over and it is time to get back into the swing of a new semester.Actually, I just finished teaching an Early Fall OT Survey course for freshmen, so I have been swinging things for a while. But I still want to celebrate the beginning of a new school year with the traditional Reading Acts book giveaway. As regular readers know, I occasionally purchase a book and when I put it on the shelf I discover I already owned the book. Although this is embarrassing (and possibly a sign of old age), it is good news for readers of this blog since I usually set the book aside for a giveaway.

First up this year is a volume of essays on The Gospel of John and Christian Theology edited by Richard Bauckham and Carl Mosser (Eerdmans, 2008). According to the Eerdmans website, the book is now out of print, although print on demand copies are available. The essays in the collection were first presented at the first St. Andrews University Conference on Scripture and Theology in 2003. This explains the diversity of essays in the book from biblical studies to theology, including “big names” such as Rowan Williams, Miroslav Volf and Jürgen Moltmann.

Here is the table of contents:

  • Johannine Dualism and Contemporary Pluralism, Stephen C. Barton
  • Johannine Dualism and Contemporary Pluralism Miroslav Volf
  • Christianizing Divine Aseity: Irenaeus Reads John D. Jeffery Bingham
  • Anglican Approaches to St. John’s Gospel, Rowan Williams
  • Glory or Persecution: The God of the Gospel of John in the History of Interpretation, Tord Larsson
  • The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel; From What Perspective Should It Be Assessed?, C. Stephen Evans
  • The Fourth Gospel as the Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, Richard Bauckham
  • Bridging the Gap: How Might the Fourth Gospel Help Us Cope with the Legacy of Christianity’s Exclusive Claim over Against Judaism?, Stephen Motyer
  • Anti—Judaism, the Jews, and the Worlds of the Fourth Gospel Judith Lieu
  • “The Jews Who Had Believed in Him” (John 8:31) and the Motif of Apostasy in the Gospel of John, Terry Griffith
  • “The Father of Lies,” “the Mother of Lies,” and the Death of Jesus (John, 12:20-33), Sigve K. Tonstad
  • The Lazarus Story: A Literary Perspective, Andrew T. Lincoln
  • The Raising of Lazarus in John 11: A Theological Reading, Marianne Meye Thompson
  • The Lazarus Narrative, Theological History, and Historical Probability, Alan J. Torrance
  • The Prologue of the Gospel of John as the Gateway to Christological Truth, Martin Hengel
  • The Testimony of Works in the Christology of John’s Gospel, Murray Rae
  • On Guessing Points and Naming Stars: Epistemological Origins of John’s Christological Tensions, Paul N. Anderson
  • Narrative Docetism: Christology and Storytelling in the Gospel of John, Kasper Bro Larsen
  • “The Truth Will Set You Free”: Salvation as Revelation, Anastasia Scrutton
  • God in the World—the World in God: Perichoresis in Trinity and Eschatology, Jürgen Moltmann

To have a chance at winning this book, leave a comment with your name so I can contact you if you win. I will randomize the names from the comments and select one winner at random.  There are no geographical limits, I will ship this book to the winner where ever they live.

I will announce the winner (and the next giveaway) on Friday morning, August 31, 2018.

Book Giveaway – Paul Borgman’s The Way according to Luke (Eerdmans)

To celebrate the beginning of a new school year I thought I would give away several books. Hopefully this happens to other people, but I occasionally purchase a book, and then when I put it on the shelf I discover I already have the book. Although this is embarrassing (and possibly a sign of old age), it is good news for readers of this blog.

First up is Paul Borgman’s The Way according to Luke: Hearing the Whole Story of Luke-Acts (Eerdmans, 2006). I accidentally bought two copies of this excellent study of the Luke and Acts together as a literary work. Joel B. Green said “In this exploration of Luke’s literary art, Paul Borgman displays his significant gifts as sensitive reader and trusted guide. Although fully engaged with contemporary study of Luke-Acts, he is no slave to ‘the experts’ as he demonstrates again and again how Luke’s narrative works to shape our grasp of Luke’s literary and theological agenda. Biblical studies is the richer on account of this sort of interdisciplinary work.”

To have a chance at winning these books, leave a comment with your name so I can contact you if you win. I will randomize the names from the comments and select one winner at random. I will announce the winner (and the next giveaway) on Wednesday, August 30.

Book Giveaway Winner – The Romans Debate, edited by Karl Donfried

romans-debateIt is time to draw a name for The Romans Debate, Revised and Expanded Edition (1991, Baker Academic). This book is a brand new paperback (with a remainder mark) and is my own copy.

There were 24 people signed up (I allowed only one entry per person). I took each of your names, sorted randomly and then pasted them into Excel. Random.org gave me a number between 1-28, and the winner is…..

Rubén de Rus

Congratulations to Rubén, better luck next time for the rest of you. Rubén should contact me privately with his shipping info, I will get the book out tomorrow.

I at least one more book to give away, so look for another post later today.