Acts: The question of historical precedent

These are my notes on Chapter 6 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Almost everything said in chapter 5 applies to Acts as well. However, most Christians don’t read Acts in the same way as 2 Samuel, hence the need for a separate chapter.

While we seldom think of OT histories as serving patterns for our lives, we do so with Acts. This chapter aims to offer some hermeneutical suggestions for the problem of biblical precedents.

The exegesis of Acts

Many people come to Acts wanting to know what the early Christians were like so that they may inspire us or serve as models.

Acts as history

The Hellenistic historiography of the time was written both to encourage and to entertain (i.e. to be good reading) and to inform, moralise, or offer an apologetic. Luke-Acts does this, but there’s also divine activity going on in the story. This divine activity begins with Jesus and continues with the Holy Spirit.

Exegesis of Acts therefore includes not only purely historical questions like, “What happened?” but also theological ones such as “What was Luke’s purpose in selecting and shaping the material in this way?”

If Luke’s intent was to lay down a pattern for the church at all times, then we need to ask different hermeneutical questions as compared to if that wasn’t his intent.

The first step in exegesis is to read and make observations. Make note of such things as key people and places, and recurring motifs.

Acts: an overview

Natural divisions in Acts are given by Luke’s summary statements in 6:7, 9:31, 12:24, 16:4 and 19:20. In each case, the narrative seems to pause before taking off in a new direction.

On the basis of this Acts can be divided into 6 sections, starting in Jerusalem and ending in Rome. Here’s how each section contributes to this movement:

  • 1:1-6:7 – The church in Jerusalem. Everything is Jewish, from the sermons to the opposition. Early believers continued associating with the temple and synagogue.
  • 6:8-9:31 – The first geographical expansion carried out by Greek-speaking Jews. The catalyst for this expansion is Stephen’s martyrdom.
  • 9:32-12:24 – first expansion to the Gentiles (Cornelius and the church at Antioch)
  • 12:25-16:5 – First geographical expansion into the Gentile world, with Paul in leadership. There’s Jewish rejection of the gospel and the Jerusalem Council (non-rejection of Gentiles)
  • 16:6-19:20 – Expansion of the gospel westward into Europe. More Jewish rejection and Gentile acceptance of the gospel.
  • 19:21-28:30 – Events that move Paul and the gospel to Rome.

Notice that at every key juncture and in every key person, the Holy Spirit plays the absolutely key role. This forward movement did not happen by human design but because God willed it and the Holy Spirit carried it out.

Luke’s purpose

A few observations:

  1. The key to understanding Acts seems to be Luke’s interest in the movement of the gospel from its roots in Jerusalem and Judaism to becoming a worldwide and predominantly Gentile phenomenon.
  2. This interest in movement is corroborated by what Luke does not tell us, such as the spread of the gospel in other geographical areas. There’s no mention of Crete (Titus 1:5), Illyricum (Romans 15:19) or Pontus, Cappadocia and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).
  3. Luke doesn’t seem interested in bringing everything into uniformity. Water baptism sometimes precedes, sometimes follows baptism in the Spirit. Baptism in the Spirit is sometimes accompanied by the laying on of hands, sometimes it isn’t.
  4. That said, much of Acts is intended by Luke to serve as a model. But the model is not so much in the specifics as in the overall picture.

The hermeneutics of Acts

The main question is: do the narratives in Acts function as precedents for the later church? The problem that arises in answering this is the selectivity applied by Christians over the centuries.

Some general principles

The authors’ [Fee & Stuart] hypothesis is that Luke’s intent was to show how the church emerged as a chiefly Gentile worldwide phenomenon from its origin as a Jerusalem-based, Judaism-oriented sect of Jewish believers, and how the Holy Spirit was directly responsible for this.

Thus the specific details in the narratives are mostly incidental to the narrative and not normative.

  1. The word of God in Acts that may be regarded as normative for Christians is related primarily to what any given narrative was intended to teach.
  2. What is incidental to the primary intent of the narrative may indeed reflect an inspired author’s understanding of things, but it does not have the same didactic value as what the narrative intended to teach.
  3. Historical precedent, to have normative value, must be related to intent.

Some specific principles

  1. It is probably never valid to use an analogy based on biblical precedent as giving biblical authority for present-day actions. For example, God graciously condescended to Gideon’s fleece, and He may do so for others, but there is no biblical encouragement for such actions.
  2. Although it may not have been the author’s primary purpose, biblical narratives do have illustrative and “pattern” value. However, if one wishes to use a biblical precedent to justify some present action, one is on safer ground if the principle of the action is taught elsewhere.
  3. In matters of Christian experience and practice, biblical precedents may sometimes be regarded as repeatable patterns—even if they are not understood to be normative.
    The decision as to whether certain practices or patterns are repeatable should be guided by the following considerations. First, the strongest case can be made when only one pattern is found and when that pattern is repeated within the NT itself. Second, when there is an ambiguity of patterns or when it occurs only once, it is repeatable only if it is in harmony with what is taught elsewhere in scripture. Third, what is culturally conditioned is either not repeatable at all, or must be translated into the new/differing culture.