Thursday, December 13, 2012

Acts 2: Understanding Pentecost: "Normal" in Acts? (Part 3)

First I must make fun of myself, my post-evangelical community, and my burnt out Pentecostal schoolmates for looking for something "normal" in the Book of Acts. Can anything in the Bible be considered "common place" or "acceptable" by rational modern society? Really?

But our insecurities and inadequacies about how an authentic experience with the Holy Spirit should look are not unique to the average church attender. These same fears bleed over into academic debate among the best scholars.[1] They even become arguments between entire denominations. So rest assured, you are not the only one feeling defensive over whether your experience (or lack thereof) passes the scrutiny of a not so nebulous spiritual establishment.

While the Bible does not intend to answer all of our modern questions, getting to the bottom of why  Luke even mentions the Holy Spirit is very possible. Until we understand why the Holy Spirit is important to the purpose of Acts we will not know what was meant to be emulated.

Many people approach the Book of Acts as if its purpose is to be a history book of early church growth which we must replicate. We want Luke to be an unbiased researcher and observer of facts for facts sake. We picture him as a news reporter or journalist giving us the play-by-play daily life of the church. History, however, is not the purpose of Acts, it is its literary form or genre.

While scholars are more careful (a little anyway) to nuance the difference between genre and purpose, the mistake that many scholars make is to prioritize the theology behind the history as the purpose of the book. To be sure, Luke does have a theology that he is building his narrative upon, but we are mistaken if we think that his end goal is for us to derive a list of doctrines. Accepting the truth of the gospel about Jesus does take a prominent role in Acts, but in every chapter Luke hints at a specific church problem.

Scholars are used to describing the theology of the open letters of the New Testament as 'occasional' or 'situational' in that they address specific circumstances in specific churches and are not exhaustive theological treatises. In the letters which Paul writes, he mentions a fraction of his theology. The little bit that we do get he employs to address specific problems and practices in the early church.

The problem in Acts is a controversial practice which shapes, colors, and indeed determines every detail that Luke mentions. It is widely known that ethnically the early church was predominantly Jewish and that very quickly this changed as Gentiles flooded into the church. Here we might be tempted to understand Luke's purpose as documenting this transition, and some have.[2] But Luke is not merely documenting the acceptance of Gentiles. We start to see half the story when we realize that Luke is defending it. The rest comes into perspective when we realize that he is defending it from believers in the church! There was enough Jewish nationalism within the 1st century church that the missionary efforts of Philip, Peter, and Paul all among Gentiles were not allowed.

My proposal here is that Acts, despite is historical form is actually just as 'occasionally' motivated as the rest of the New Testament epistles. In other words, there is an on-the-ground problem he is writing about. Luke draws upon his larger theology to address a controversial missionary practice in the church. Entering into this debate is the purpose of the Book of Acts.

Before I delve into how Luke wears his purpose on his sleeve we need to value this as the inspired message for us today. The big take away from all this should be that once we figure out how Luke uses his pneumatology in real life practical terms, we should be constrained to utilize his statements about the Spirit in the same way he does. I believe that as we investigate this debate that we will find it is far from dead. It is relevant today.


[1] Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts. Hendrickson, 1996. This is a great example of a great critical scholar who seriously engages and challenges Pentecostals and Evangelicals.

[2] Even Gordon Fee slips into this trap, "Although Luke's 'broader intent' may be a moot point for some, it is a defensible hypothesis that he was trying to show how the church emerged as a chiefly Gentile, worldwide phenomenon form its origins as a Jerusalem-based, Judaism-oriented sect of Jewish believers, and how the Holy Spirit was ultimately responsible for this phenomenon of universal salvation based on grace alone." Gospel and Spirit. Hendrickson, 91.

No comments:

Post a Comment