Monday, June 01, 2009

Rethinking It All: The Primacy of Acts

When thinking about the ideas of simplicity and clarity in theology, one quickly runs into a fasinating doctrine from the Reformation: the perspicuity of Scripture. Perspicuity means clarity (why they don't use that much more clear word is beyond me) and has to do with the idea that the necessary things to believe for one to be a part of the people of God are accessible to anyone. I love this idea, but too often our understand of what we must believe for salvation is clouded by centuries of minutae from systematic theology: justification, the innards of trinitarian speculation, whatever eschatology we call home, etc. Instead, looking at Scripture, it is (with a few exceptions that prove this rule) a story -- exactly the story that we need in our postmodern/modern malaise and loss of certitude, exactly what we need to found and sustain a community such as I describe in the last post. In other words, what is necessary to believe is the mighty acts of God. These are relatively clear and point the way to being explained by the apostles in the New Testament. In that regard, if we are to reassess and understand New Testament theology, how it connects to the Hebrew Bible, and how the whole story fits together, primacy in interpretation must be given to Acts: the perspicuity of Scripture practically demands it.

However, how well do we know Acts? In some ways, due to its classification as a "historical" book, it often is slighted or ignored: where are its great discourses into Christology? Or Justification? Or any other doctrine that props us up against our theological enemies? Usually, when people start reading Acts, they begin to notice that their theology doesn't stand up to it, so they say that Acts is "early", "primative", "undeveloped", "not a credible witness", "perfunctory", "not normative" or something of the sort. Acts does not have a high christology, or concentrate very much on justification, and seems to up end any eschatological speculation (why, after all, does Peter say that his audience was in the last days? More on that anon). Acts humbles overly spiritual and overly intellectualized theologies both, and therefore gets tossed in the dust bin. Even if a Church or denomination claims to be centered on the "Word of God", rarely is Acts preached through or even mentioned -- except maybe to note the ostensible tension between it and Galatians, with Galatians always coming out on top as being Paul's "more mature thought". Whenever data that doesn't fit hits an entrenched worldview, it is often ignored or belittled until the evidence mounts so high as to create a paradigm shift or a breakdown of the sacred canopy. I know this because I do it myself, hence the need -- the desparate need -- for rethinking, for Arabia. Acts must send us to Arabia, to hear with fresh ears and to see with fresh eyes the magnalia Dei, the wonderful works of God.

Key, it has become clear to me, is the disciples question in the beginning chapter. "Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?" Often times, at least in all the commentaries I've read and all the sermons I've heard, this is considered a juvenile or completely off-base question: how, after all, can the disciples still be thinking and speaking in such earthly terms? How can they consider Israel important at all since the Messiah has come? But notice that Jesus does not chide them or say "O you of little faith" which was his common way of addressing their former failure to understand: "It is not for you to know the times and eras that the Father has set by his own authority, but you shall be my witnessess in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth." In other words, they had not asked a wrong question, but the answer was not going to be given to them at that time. However, if we understand a little bit of the basic Jewish eschatology of the time (and I'm thankful for )Mark Nanos for bringing this obvious point to my attention), we know that the restoration of Israel from exile, to its position of God's wise stewards of Creation and ruler over the nations, was expected before the Gentiles could come into the true worship of the one God. Note the prevalance of this theme in Jeremiah 30-33: Israel is restored to God's favor, then the Gentiles worship alongside of them.

What happens in the book of Acts is that through the proclamation of Jesus as "Lord and Christ" (code, as it were, for the functions that the Messianic King was to have -- Anointed One over Israel "Christ" and Lord over the Gentiles), Israel is being restored: their sins are forgiven, the Spirit of God rests on them instead of the Temple, and the are united with the Messiah. The tricky part comes when Cornelius believes and receives the Holy Spirit, just like the Jews. This is unexpected, as it is generally believed at this time that the Jews will have a precedence over the Gentiles in the Kingdom -- lord to servant, if you will. For the Gentiles to become full members of the people of God, to become children of Abraham, they will -- in the mind of some Christian Jews -- be circumcised and take the full burden and privelege of Torah upon themselves. Not so say Peter and James and Paul, but instead they must comport themselves like changed Gentiles, "righteous Gentiles" in the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15). But the point is, since Israel is restored through the work of the Messiah and the proclamation thereof, the Gentiles can come into the Kingdom as equal participants, not as "second-class citizens" (basically the argument of Romans and Galatians). This is why Paul's ministry continues throughout to be "to the Jew first and also the Greek" -- Israel must be restored, then the Gentiles can enter in alongside as equals, both vindicated (justified/acquited) as God's people based on their faith in the Lord Messiah alone.

Reading Acts in this way, with the dual focus on the restoration of Israel and efficacy of the witness "unto the ends of the earth" calls for a rereading of the epistles: how do the situations and controversies in Acts find their expression in Paul's dense rhetoric in his letters; how about Peter; or John? Once situated thusly, I've been finding in my reading that the epistles make a lot more sense -- they speak to genuinely first century issues -- not to fourth century or even sixteenth century ones. That does not make them any less relevant, though. We live in a storied world, where Acts (not to mention Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, etc.) makes up a vital chapter in our corporate history -- denying its validity would be tantamount to saying that because we don't relive the American Revolution constantly, it must not be important (which maybe the British wouldn't mind?). Such a devaluation of history in the Church bespeaks a prevalent and pernicious gnostic influence: only the timeless is important, history is important only if it teaches us lessons for today. May it never be in God's Church! Instead, we continue the narrative of Acts in our local parishes: we are witnesses, not to "personal conversion" but to the resurrection of the Messiah, to the restoration of Israel, to the in-gathering of the Gentiles to the true worship of God. What Jesus "began to do and teach" continues, by the Spirit he and the Father share, in the workings of the Church qua Church in the world today -- there is no need to relay the foundation of the Messiah and his apostles, but to build the Temple of God upon it (I Corinthians 1-3). Many of the lessons in the book, of course, do have contemporary relevance, especially since the arrogance of Jew over Gentile has been radically reversed in Church history: instead of Gentiles needing to become Jews, often times it is Jews that must become, not Jewish followers of the Messiah, but Gentiles!

It is high time for us to reconsider the role of Acts in our thought, actions, and worship as the people of God.

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