Monday, February 22, 2010

How Today’s Church Should Interpret the Principles and Patterns in Acts

Ben Zemmer

Acts is a unique and important book in the New Testament canon. In it are accounts and narratives of the early days of the Church. The large amounts of narrative often frustrate interpreters who would like to draw direct lines from the New Testament books to the present. While making those connections is both possible and necessary, it is first essential to approach the text biblically giving great care to let the text speak for itself.

On the road to biblically exegeting Acts, many have fallen by the wayside thinking that Acts is primarily about historical events while some think the apologetics and leading personalities are the main focus, while still others see the intent of Acts as inspirational literature (Fee and Stuart 1982, p.88). These points may all be true to some extent, but true justice to the text consists in using biblical tools to examine Luke’s intent guiding the narrative at hand. Those who proceed without caution here often end up with inconsistent interpretations of the text and sometimes even extreme misapplications of it. The authorial intent of Luke is largely evident in the principal thrust or meaning of given narratives often indicated by emphasis and repetition in the text (Fee and Stuart, p.96).

The book of Acts when closely examined yields a pattern of six large sections bookended by Luke’s short summaries of the progression and outward movement of the Word through the church by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:41, 4:4, 5:14, 6:7, 8:12, 9:31, 11:24, 12:24, 13:49, 14:21, 16:5, 19:20, 28:31). For some it may be problematic that Acts ends in such an apparently abrupt manner without recounting what happened to Paul in Rome or any of the rest of the Disciples for that matter. When looking at the book of Acts from the perspective of these six divisions it becomes clear that Luke’s cohesive theme in Acts is the outward movement of the Gospel – the Word in the hearts of the redeemed by the working of the Holy Spirit.

With this larger picture in mind, tackling the smaller narrative portions is not quite as difficult. In most cases, Luke frames narrative as illustrative of the greater principal and pattern of God’s work in the Church. Hence, nearly all but the principals and patterns are normative, unless that same illustrative form is confirmed by other biblical texts as being binding on the believer (Fee and Stuart, p.97). “Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is merely narrated or described can never function in a normative way” (Fee and Stuart, p.97). Another way to look at it would be to delineate the function and the form in the narratives. The function is the indicative that undergirds actions and methods while form is the imperatives – the applications of functions (Getz 1984, p.38). Functions are clearly evident in the text. “It is not possible to absolutize something that is not described; that is always incomplete; and that is always changing from one setting to another” (Getz 1984, p.38). This method of weighing the Scripture against itself is exceedingly rich and helps prevent incorrect presuppositions to cloud what Luke is saying in the book.

The road to faithfully interpreting Acts is not an easy one, but it is possible. One of the best policies to follow, if one does not understand a given text, is to keep reading. The Word is living and active. The Holy Spirit will complete the task for which he sends out the Word into our hearts.

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