Acts: Brazos Theologial Commentary on the Bible | Book Review


In the nineteenth century, Ferdinand Christian Baur founded the so-called “Tubingen School” of New Testament interpretation. Using the Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, Baur argued that Luke synthesized the thesis of Petrine Jewish Christianity with the antithesis of Pauline Gentile Christianity into early Catholicism. On this reading, Acts was a second-century work of doubtful historical value.

Baur’s interpretation and dating of Acts, along with its deprecation of the book’s historical value, largely has been rejected by New Testament scholars, though many continue to posit a fundamental discontinuity between earliest Christianity and the patristic theological consensus achieved by the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (A.D. 325/381) and the Chalcedonian Definition (A.D. 451), alongside the forms of worship and spirituality that became institutionalized during the same period. The thesis of Jaroslav Pelikan’s Acts, which he describes as “the most radical presupposition of all,” is that “the church really did get it right in its liturgies, creeds, and councils—yes, and even in its dogmas.” In other words, “in the transition from ‘apostolic church’ to ‘church catholic’ the church somehow continued to be ‘apostolic,’ as well as both ‘one’ and ‘holy’ and therefore that this Nicene-Chalcedonian faith may legitimately provide an a posteriori organizing principle for the exegetical task” (28).

To demonstrate the utility of this approach, Pelikan structures his commentary around 84 loci communes as those theological topics appear in the narrative of Acts, rather than as they appear in systematic order. For example, the creed begins with the phrase “I /We believe”, then outlines the object of belief in three articles corresponding to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the third article also containing ecclesiology and eschatology. So, though “I/We believe” comes first in systematic order, Pelikan discusses it in his comments on 12:7, 24:24–25a and 26:18. He discusses first-article (Father) topics at 17:24–29, and 19:28; second-article (Son) topics at 1:11, 2:31, 3:18, 5:29b, 8:30–31, 14:11–15, 20:28b, and 25:11; and third-article (Spirit, church, eschatology) topics at 2:1, 5:3–4, 2:42, 4:32,  21:9–10, 22:16, 22:27, and 23:8. This list of Acts passages is representative, not exhaustive. A patient reader could rearrange Pelikan’s discussion of these loci communes in creedal order.

The value of approaching Acts in this way is that it highlights the theological character of the book and shows how Christian tradition built on Luke’s language and concepts over time, not to mention the language and concepts of other biblical authors. Approached this way, the continuity between apostolic Christianity, early Catholicism, and the patristic consensus becomes evident. For example, Pelikan discusses Acts 2:42 under four headings: doctrine, fellowship, “breaking of bread”/sacraments, and “prayer”/liturgy. The first two headings in Greek are didache and koinonia, the terms Luke uses and which also appear in the tradition. Though Luke does not use mysterion (the Greek term for “sacrament”) for “breaking of bread,” which in other contexts in Acts is a common meal, not the sacrament, in 2:42 it seems sacramental, especially when paired with “the prayer”/”the prayers,” depending on which textual variant one adopts. “The interrelation between these four criteria, and particularly between the first two (defined in modern ecumenical usage as ‘faith and order’ …), would dominate all subsequent efforts to understand the unity of the church and the divisions within Christendom, as well as the efforts to obey the imperative of Christ’s prayer ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17:21)” (60).

The downside of Pelikan’s approach is that history swallows exegesis—history here meaning the reception of Luke’s text over time as opposed to the meaning of Luke’s text in its own time. Such an approach is valuable, but it also brackets careful, synchronic exegesis, word study, and the like, with the result that it diachronically reads the tradition backward into the text. Tubingen’s overemphasis on discontinuity between early Christianity and early Catholicism was an error in one direction; the danger is that Pelikan’s approach, in less skillful hands, will commit the same error in the other direction, overemphasizing continuity, as if the road between the Jerusalem Council and the ones at Nicea and Chalcedon were straight, flat, and easy.

To be sure, a case can be made that the patristic consensus is the organic development of seeds planted by Luke and other biblical authors. But it must be kept in mind that the tradition grew not only out of the biblical seed, but also in a post-biblical ground. Both seed and culture contributed to the plant that bloomed, but the culture may have thwarted the growth of some of the seed’s roots and fruits. For example, in his comments on Acts 21:9–10—which names Agabus and Philip’s four daughters as prophets—Pelikan writes, “It does not seem possible on the basis of the existing documentary evidence to date with any precision the decline (or even eventual disappearance) of this distinct ‘prophetic’ office from the range of ministries in the church. But the evidence does suggest that the Montanist movement … was a major factor in bringing such a change.” During this same period, he notes, the term “prophets” in the New Testament came to be interpreted as “biblical prophets, not prophets in the church.” Moreover, the apostolic and prophetic foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20), came to be understood as referring to “the authority of Scriptures … though only in the context of the total system of authority and continuity, which included the authority of tradition … of the ministerial and episcopal office […], of the creed as rule of faith […], and of the councils of the church […]” (226, internal citations omitted). One wonders whether the demise of prophecy happened so organically, as Pelikan seems to claim, or whether emerging institutions simply crowded out charismatic gifts, then justified their growth by retroactively redefining terms. Given the persistence of charismatic gifts throughout church history, not to mention the persistent tensions between institution and charisma, the relationship between Scripture’s starting point and tradition’s destination is anything but smooth, let alone inevitable.

Still, there must be continuity between Acts and early Christianity, or there would have been no reason to retain the book in the New Testament canon. So, yes, “the church really did get it right”—though not easily, not smoothly, and not in every detail, which is why there are still disagreements among those who affirm the Nicene Creed, and why it is important to recur to Scripture as the touchstone of theology. And while a commentary like Pelikan’s is valuable for showing continuity between early Christianity and the patristic consensus, traditional exegetical commentaries still constitute the greater need of readers. For such exegesis, one must look elsewhere than this book.

Book Reviewed
Jaroslav Pelican, Acts, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, ed. R. R. Reno (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005).

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