Reading Acts with the Reformers
By Timothy George
In 1622, just two years after the Pilgrims had set sail for Plymouth, John Donne preached a sermon on Acts 1:8 to the members of the Virginia Company, another group of New World adventurers. He applied the text of his sermon—“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”—directly to his audience:
The acts of the apostles was to convey that name of Christ Jesus, and to propagate his Gospel throughout the whole world. Beloved, you too are actors on this same stage. The end of the earth is your scene. Act out the acts of the apostles. Be a light to the Gentiles who sit in darkness. Be content to carry him over these seas, who dried up one Red Sea for his first people and who has poured out another red sea—his own blood—for them and for us.
Today, few preachers and fewer commentators would have the courage or imagination to do what Donne did—to get inside the biblical text as a participant-observer and to wrestle with it until the walls which separate our own time from that of the apostles become transparent (to paraphrase Barth’s depiction of Calvin on Romans). Despite the hermeneutical habits of localism, perspectivalism, and constructivism, the dictum of Benjamin Jowett is still the lex legendi for many who pursue the academic study of Scripture. The aim, Jowett said, of unbiased exegesis is to “clear away the remains of dogmas, systems, controversies” which have become “incrusted upon” the text of Scripture through the tradition of the church. In other words, we need to liberate the Bible from its churchly bondage so that we can read it “just like any other book”—as if it were possible to read any book just like any other one!
What we often call today the “theological interpretation of Scripture” is an important corrective to the reductionism inherent in the so-called historical-critical study of the Bible and the various mythologies it has spawned. But no less important is the revival of interest in the history of exegesis, which is exemplified in four major commentary series all begun during the past two decades: the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Brazos Press); The Church’s Bible (Eerdmans); and two series in sequence from InterVarsity Press: the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.
While each of these four commentary series has its own scope and emphasis, they share the assumption that the Bible is meant to be read in the context of the Church’s preaching, worship, and prayer. As believers today seeking illumination from the same Spirit who inspired the sacred Scriptures long ago, we are summoned to “read alongside” the fathers and mothers of the Church, the schoolmen and reformers, the monks, martyrs, and missionaries who saw themselves as “actors on the same stage” with the apostles and first disciples of Jesus.
The recently released RCS volume on Acts has been edited by Esther Chung-Kim, a Methodist who teaches at Claremont McKenna College, and Todd R. Hains, a Lutheran scholar at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. They have brought together in this volume an impressive chorus of exegetical voices from the Reformation era. This “chorus,” with its many high, low, and off-notes, sometimes sounds more like John Cage than J. S. Bach. But, for all their dissonance, these commentators, like John Donne, approached Acts not only as a record of what had happened in the distant past but also as a narrative about the continuing advance of the Gospel.As the editors put it in their introduction:
We today much prefer to parse and interpret every nuance of the debut performance; our early modern commentators, however, understand themselves as building on the reception of this original performance, and consequently recognized their own contributions as part of the broader Christian tradition of interpretation.
The Muratorian Canon in the second century referred to Luke’s unique narrative of the earliest church as “The Acts of All the Apostles,” but it is hardly that. The apostles as a group are not the main focus of Luke’s narrative. John appears but does not speak. Peter walks off the stage halfway through the play and never returns. Paul pursues his Odysseus-like itinerary throughout the Mediterranean world and finally makes it to Rome—but not without many dangers and tumults along the way, including trials, riots, narrow escapes, beatings, betrayals, an earthquake, and shipwreck. Paul lived the theology of the cross before he wrote about it and finally fulfilled it in his martyrdom under Nero. The prime actor in the Book of Acts is the Holy Spirit, and the key event is the day of Pentecost, which accounts for the prominence of Acts among Pentecostals to this day.
With the advent of printing, the age of the Reformation was an exciting time of exegetical ferment. Editors Chung-Kim and Hains allow us to hear a wide range of distinctive voices on Acts. The priesthood of all believers is echoed in Luther’s paraphrase of Paul: “In Christ there is neither Greek nor priest.” A Carthusian who has been in the order for forty years, Luther wrote, should be regarded no higher than a maid who carries grass to the cows. Calvin’s two-volume commentary on Acts is one of the most complete in the history of Christian exposition, matched only by John Chrysostom’s fifty-five homilies on Acts, which he presented as archbishop of Constantinople in 400. For Calvin, Acts is far more than a lively account of Christian origins. It is a living picture of the Kingdom of Christ: “If we turn our eyes to this book, we shall feast them not on an empty picture, as Virgil says about his Aeneas, but on the sound knowledge of those things from which we must seek life. . . . This is the best refuge for consciences, where, amid those tumults and commotions by which the world is shaken, they may rest at peace.”
We are not surprised to find Erasmus the Renaissance philologist included in the company of Reformation commentators on Acts. But what about Thomas de Vio (Cajetan) and Johann Eck? These two early Catholic opponents of Luther had a full life after 1519. Their later pastoral and exegetical work approached that of their former adversary in some respects. For example, they stressed a more “literal” approach to the Bible and made the sermon central to Christian worship. Many Anabaptist leaders also appear in this commentary including Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgrim Marpeck, Menno Simons, Michael Sattler, and Dirk Philips. Their readings of Acts challenge both Catholic and Protestant lines of interpretation on a host of issues—on the proper order of faith, repentance, and baptism; on how the community of goods mentioned in Acts 4 was to be enacted in the Church of their day; and on the significance of church discipline and excommunication.
In the extant sources of the sixteenth century, the voices of women are largely subdued. But Katarina Schütz Zell is an exception. This remarkable woman was the true mother of the church in Strasbourg, and she maintained a public career unparalleled by any other female Protestant leader in the Reformation. When her husband Matthew Zell died in 1548, she spoke along with Martin Bucer at his graveside offering pastoral care to those who mourned their former pastor.What Luke wrote of Apollos in Acts 18:24 is also true of Katarina: She “was mighty” (KJV) in the Scriptures.
For those who think that the Protestant reformers had no place for allegory in their interpretation of the Bible, the Lutheran exegete Johann Spangenberg turns the storm and shipwreck in Acts 27 into an allegory of the Sturm und Drang of his own time. The ship in which Paul sits, he says, is Christendom; the sea is the turbulent world; the swells and stormy winds are the diverse afflictions believers must face on every hand. “So then, we should learn from this passage that in our misfortunes, fears, and troubles—whether we are in water or on land—we should always place our trust and confidence in God. For He alone is the hope of the entire world and the distant seas.”
As much at odds with one another as Reformation (not to say patristic and medieval) exegetes could be, they do not rival the contradictory construals of critical scholars today. In fact, what is remarkable about the Reformation expositors is how much common ground they do share—despite their sharp disagreements. Protestants, Catholics, Anglicans, and Anabaptists alike agreed that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that it is to be rightly read in light of the historic rule of faith, that its correct interpretation requires a trinitarian hermeneutic, that its proper habitat is the prayer and worship of the Church, and that its study is a means of grace. The RCS volume on Acts presents coherence undergirding conflict.
The Book of Acts is the only New Testament writing that ends with an adverb: ak0lut0s, “unhindered.” Paul’s evangelical odyssey has led him from Jerusalem to Rome. He is under house arrest, still in chains, but able to proclaim the Good News of God’s kingdom, “no man forbidding him” (KJV), “with all boldness and without hindrance” (NIV). This is the end of Acts, but not its conclusion. For, as Eugene Peterson has written:
The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus. It continues in the lives of those who believe in him. The supernatural does not stop with Jesus. Luke makes it clear that these Christians he wrote about were no mere spectators of Jesus than Jesus was a spectator of God—they are in on the action of God, God acting in them, God living in them which also means, of course, in us.
Published at FirstThings.com, 5/5/14
is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.