Friday, November 20, 2015

The Theological Purpose of the Book of Acts: Part 2

If, then, the purpose of Luke's second volume, the Book of Acts, is about how the gospel crossed ethnic barriers so that the initial community of faith, which was exclusively Jewish, gradually broadened its scope so that it also included non-Jews in the circle of God's chosen people, then this greatly affects the way one reads the narratives. It means that while the Book of Acts indeed may have something to say about salvation, what it says about salvation is corollary to the main issue, and therefore, must read as a corollary. Does the Book of Acts say something about how a person is set right with God? Certainly it does in a series of incidents and reflections that are intertwined with the main story, this crossing of ethnic boundaries between Jew and Gentile. Indeed, there are more than thirty descriptions of people accepting the Christian faith, and a survey of how Luke describes these salvation accounts is instructive:

 Jews at Pentecost:  Faith/repentance/baptism (2:37-38, 41)

Jews in Jerusalem:  Believed the message (4:4)

Jews in Jerusalem:  Believed in the Lord (5:14)

Priests in Jerusalem:  Obedient to the faith (6:7)

Samaritans:  Believed the message, accepted the Word, baptism (8:12, 14)

Simon of Samaria:  Believed, baptized (8:13)

Ethiopian at Gaza:  Belief, baptism (8:36-37)

Saul at Damascus:  Baptized (9:18)

Jews at Lydda & Sharon:  Turned to the Lord (9:35)

Jews at Joppa:  Belief in the Lord (9:42)

Gentiles at Caesarea:  Belief, received the Word of God, baptism (10:43, 47-48; 11:1)

Greeks at Antioch:  Believed, turned to the Lord (11:21)

Sergius Paulus in Cyprus:  Believed (13:12)

Jews in Antioch:  Believed, converted (13:39, 43)

Gentiles in Antioch:  Honored the Word of God, believed (13:48)

Jews & Gentiles in Iconium:  Believed (14:1)

Gentiles in Derbe:  Put their trust in the Lord (14:21-23)

Gentiles in Asia Minor: God opened the door of faith (14:27)

Gentiles in Asia Minor:  Converted, heard the message of the gospel and believed, purified by faith, saved by grace, turned to God (15:3, 7, 9, 11, 19)

Lydia & household in Philippi:  Opened her heart, baptized, believed (16:14-15)

Jailer & household in Philippi:  Believed, baptized (16:30-34)

Jews & Greeks in Thessalonica:  Were persuaded (17:4)

Jews & Greeks in Berea:  Believed (17:12)

Greeks in Athens:  Repented, believed (17:30, 34)

Jews & Greeks in Corinth:  Persuaded, believed, baptized (18:4, 8)

Achaia: By grace believed (18:27)

Jews & Greeks in Ephesus:  Heard the Word of the Lord, believed (19:10, 18)

Jews in Jerusalem:  Believed (21:20)

Gentiles: Turned from darkness to light, received forgiveness (26:18)

Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea, Gentile nations:  Repent and turn to God (26:20)

Jewish leaders in Rome: Convinced of the message (28:23-24)

         Clearly, the basic response to the gospel is faith. Luke's language is especially instructive, and while he describes the event of salvation in various ways, his intended meaning is that the message of salvation is primarily something one believes and embraces rather than something one does as a religious ritual. Repentance and baptism are mentioned occasionally, but Luke’s favorite descriptions of those becoming Christians is simply that they believed the gospel. This doesn’t make repentance and baptism unnecessary, but it does show that Luke’s basic purpose in this book was not some sort of three-step plan for how one should be saved—or at least it if was, he managed to miss most of the opportunities to talk about it, which seems absurd.

        Hence, readers of the Book of Acts should not be scouring its pages as though it were the most important book in the New Testament for how one should be saved. This is not primarily what Luke is writing about, and any attempt to truncate the book along these lines violates a basic hermeneutical principle and skews the narratives along artificial lines. Rather, while Luke does offer insight into how he understood the event of becoming a Christian, such information is secondary to  his essential reason for compiling these narratives, which was to show how the gospel widened the Jewish circle so that God's ancient promises that the nations would be saved had actually been fulfilled in the life of the early church.


  1. Dan: I have been writing a reply to your post by surveying several of the major academic theories about the purpose and origin of the book of Acts. This has turned into a much “larger” project that I intended, so I think I will share it in a blog post in the future.

    I do want to make a couple of comments about the temptation to create a “canon within the canon”—that is, identifying a particular doctrine as the “center” of the Christian faith. When this is done, all else becomes secondary. All else must rotate around this center and no other ideas have real meaning unless they reinforce or augment this central premise. The result is a one-dimensional understanding of biblical religion and a tendency to misread the Bible to “see” what you want to see. (To be so existentially invested in a single doctrine makes any disagreement sound fraught with error at best and demonic at worst.)

    There is a great example of this in mainstream Protestantism of the Lutheran-Augustinian tradition with its proclamation of “justification by faith” as Christianity’s center. The language of “by grace ALONE” and ‘by faith ALONE” witnesses to the absolutism of this conviction – even though the wording and conception of anything ALONE is not apparent in a plain reading of the New Testament and has often lessened the importance that good works have in Christian commitment. (I am not even sure that justification is the “center” of Paul’s theology much less the entire New Testament message.) The NT witness is simply too rich to be portrayed one-dimensionally.

    In his struggle with medieval Catholicism, Luther read his situation back into the New Testament (and many Protestants as his children continue to fight the battles of the 16th century today even though those battles have long been laid to rest). For Luther, Judaism of the Bible was a lifeless religion of ritual and repetition, dominated by the same sense of self-justification (self-salvation) that Luther – rightly or wrongly – saw in his contemporary Roman Catholic Christians. The Pharisees became the ringleaders of Jewish hypocrisy, reveling in their self-righteousness and asserting their religious authority over others – not at all unlike Luther’s depiction of the Roman Catholic clergy of his day.

    I am not saying this to bash Luther or Augustine—there would be no western Christianity without either of them. But I am trying to make the point that a one-dimensional commitment to any biblical doctrine, no matter how true or worthy, colors the way one reads the scriptures. The Protestant “canon with the canon” misrepresents Judaism which always was, and still is, a religion of election, covenant, and grace. There is a clear continuity between the Old and New Testaments: the God of Israel is the God of Jesus. To dismiss first century Judaism as a “corruption” of the historic Hebrew faith is to not take the complete biblical witness seriously and to fail to see Jesus as the ultimate expression of the Hebrew prophetic tradition and the Christian movement as first, and foremost, a “Judaism” among the other Judaisms of the first century. This is an historical – not just theological – reality.

    This is why the “new perspective” on Paul and the more recent “Paul within Judaism” studies are so important. They attempt to reaffirm the essential “Jewishness” of Jesus and earliest Christianity and battle against the almost Marcionite misreading of New Testament that sets Christianity at odds with its Jewish roots.

    And this leads me back to apostolic Pentecostalism and the book of Acts.

    1. Joe, your comments about creating a "canon within the canon" are well expressed, and there are all sorts of ways this has been done, as the history of the church attests. When Luther, at the time holed up in the Wartburg Castle, published his translation of the German Bible and inserted the word "alone" in his translation of the New Testament so that it read "faith alone" in the actual translated text, even some of his supporters were uncomfortable, not the least of which was Melancthon. It was one thing to interpret Paul's theology as salvation by "faith alone", but quite another to translate it thus in the text of the Letter to the Romans, especially since the word "alone" was not in the Greek text. I'm generally in agreement with Luther that faith alone saves, but I would qualify it, as have others, in the following way: faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.

  2. The oneness Pentecostals have also created a “canon with the canon”—the Acts 2:38 shibboleth by which all other scriptures must be interpreted, accommodated, and sometimes ignored or dismissed.

    The “Gospel-Acts-Epistles” scriptural division promulgated by S. G. Norris argued that the Gospels tell the story of Jesus BEFORE Christian salvation and the Epistles describe the obligations of Christians AFTER salvation. “No one is ever saved in the Gospels or the Epistles,” Norris bluntly stated. In his view, only the book of Acts is the book of salvation. So if you want to know how to be saved – read Acts and ONLY Acts. (Interestingly, David Norris of Urshan Graduate School of Theology – the grandson of the now departed Elder Norris – revisits the “Gospels-Acts-Epistles” approach to scripture in his “apostolic hermeneutic” which gives priority of the Luke-Acts tradition over all other biblical books. See David Norris, I Am: A Oneness Pentecostal Theology.)

    The Acts 2:38 hermeneutic is just another “canon within the canon” that hears the “full gospel” ONLY in the 3 imperatives that Peter made of his Jerusalem audience on Pentecost—repentance, water baptism with the name of Jesus verbally invoked over convert, and Spirit baptism (as understood inside the apostolic Pentecostalism)—and, in turn, refuses to hear any and all evidence (including biblical evidence) to the contrary.

    The Acts of the Apostles is an important witness to the maturing of Christianity in the first century and its movement away from Palestinian provincialism into an empire-wide missionary faith. The two-volume Luke-Acts offers the evangelist’s perspective on how a purely Jewish sectarian group limited largely to the Galilee transitioned into a world-spanning missionary movement appealing to Palestinian Jews, diaspora Jews, and Gentiles across the Mediterranean basin WITHOUT abandoning its ideological roots in the God of Israel.

    But whatever the Acts of the Apostles is, it is NOT the “book of salvation” any more than any other canonical text. All New Testament books were written by Christians for Christians. Not one was addressed to non-Christians. Not one had greater evangelistic appeal than any other. To isolate one book – as the apostolic Pentecostals do with the book of Acts—as the sole clear witness of the divine imperatives for Christian conversion is an offense to the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ, interpreted by apostles and prophets of old, and codified in the whole of sacred scripture.

    1. Amen and amen! I remember one preacher (whom I shall leave anonymous) saying all he needed in order to be fully equipped for ministry was the Book of Acts and one of the verses on pastoral authority. Such a statement even makes Marcion look nearly innocent!