Review by Garwood P. Anderson
Among the very few things on which our diverse church can agree is the sorry state of biblical literacy. The complaint comes, not unexpectedly from biblicist precincts, that lay people lack sufficient familiarity, and clergy sufficient facility, with the Bible’s narratives and precepts. Meanwhile, on the “left” comes the rejoinder, not without basis, that the self-styled advocates of scriptural authority construe its contents selectively and self-interestedly, and especially that biblical cries for justice go unheard in favor of a too tidy account of “orthodoxy” and an unreflective fortification of the status quo. And from the academy comes the more recent observation that the standard academic approaches to Scripture are so mired in historical and comparative questions that the results are scarcely useful to the Church at all.
That there is not only a problem but even a crisis is agreed by most. And that there need to be resources to reinvigorate the Church’s engagement with Scripture is a matter of common sense. Surely we ought to be able to bridge biblical scholarship to address the practical life of the Church and formative needs of her clergy and members. But here the picture complicates, for it turns out that the task of producing such resources is more difficult than might be supposed. If, as some allege, biblical scholars are not carrying out an agenda useful to the Church, then it will do little good to translate their results into a more accessible form. But “amateur” reflections too often perpetuate interpretive “urban myths,” for good reason long abandoned in the guild. With the deceptive difficulty of the task in mind, here we sample some recent, diverse offerings on the Lukan corpus which seek and succeed to various degrees to fill the gap between biblical scholarship and the Church.
The Gospel of Luke
By Frederick W. Schmidt. Morehouse. Pp. xvi + 124. $18
The Acts of the Apostles
By C.K. Robertson. Morehouse. Pp. xiv + 113. $18
Credit is due the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and Morehouse Publishing for launching a series, Conversations with Scripture, which aims to bring the fruit of biblical studies to persons “who have little or no experience in reading the Bible.” The two entries reviewed here — The Gospel of Luke by Frederick W. Schmidt and The Acts of the Apostles by C.K. Robertson — illustrate both the difficulty and the promise of the task. Within about 100 pages, these guides offer an orienting introduction and sweeping commentary of the texts at hand, to which is added a concluding discussion guide. Schmidt chooses to engage the Gospel thematically, while Robertson surveys the story of Acts in order. In this case, the latter proves more successful.
While Schmidt’s thematic choices — belonging, tradition, authority, eschatology and ethics — are at least defensible, one does not get the sense that the gospel is entirely well accounted for under these headings; a criticism, I suppose, that could attach to any such attempt. What makes Schmidt’s approach unique is his instinct to build a spiritual formation edifice upon an implicitly redaction critical platform, and I experience some disease in the combination of behind-the-text problematizing (reading Luke for its Sitz im Leben) with in-front-of-the-text praxis (reading the text for Christian spirituality), without a sufficient or obvious bridge between the two.
Perhaps because it is the less adventuresome, Robertson’s treatment of Acts is the more satisfying of the two. This concise volume is a serviceable companion to the text, in places deft in its observations and summaries. For example, in commenting on the breakup of Paul and Barnabas, Robertson gives a sympathetic read of both characters, noting that the regrettable disagreement is nonetheless redeemed for the mission: “It was the end of an era, but certainly not the end of the story” (p. 68).
Neither volume, however, quite strikes me as a “conversation” with Scripture. Rather, the diminutive guides read more like broad introductions with a hope that a conversation might follow. But the reader is not frequently encouraged to make something of the text herself, or to puzzle, or to dialogue. True, this is the explicit intent of the concluding study guide, but even there the engagement is primarily with oneself rather than with the scriptural text or even the foregoing interpretation. And regrettably, both texts, but Schmidt’s especially, are riddled with dubious, if not even mistaken, assertions and surmises and not infrequent typographical errors (the transliteration of Greek words is consistently idiosyncratic and almost never correct), the cumulative effect of which is an unfortunate dilution of reader confidence.
Luke: The Gospel of Amazement
By Michael Card. InterVarsity Press. Pp. 269. $18
By way of contrast, one might consider a surprising entry from Michael Card, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement from the new Biblical Imagination Series by InterVarsity Press. Card will be better known to many as one of the more thoughtful artists of the contemporary Christian music scene. Known for some time as a biblical “hobbyist,” Card was a protégé of the late evangelical New Testament scholar William Lane. So, while lacking the scholarly pedigree of Schmidt or Robertson (both holding a Ph.D.), Card still shows himself competent and informed as an interpreter of Luke. True, there is nothing here for New Testament scholars; nor, I think, should preachers look here for primary guidance. But in its straightforwardness and simplicity of presentation — the running biblical text followed by an exposition of modest length — Card’s exposition provides an uncomplicated guide to this gospel that well serves the novice reader. And, more importantly, both the format and the commentary keep the text at the center. Unsophisticated, and sometimes not entirely convincing, the book is still wholesome in its overall effect and represents a model of the sort of thing that would serve newly inquisitive readers.
By Justo L. González. Westminster John Knox. Pp. 308. $35
In his recent addition to Westminster John Knox’s Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible series, noted church historian Justo González offers an accessible commentary with deeper scholarly roots. The “theological commentary” is a post-critical genre in the making, with either biblical scholars stretching past exegesis to theology (e.g., Eerdmans, Two Horizons) or theologians reclaiming the art of exegesis (e.g., Brazos Theological Commentary and the Belief series). The results so far are mixed — or at least the evaluation of them in the eyes of various beholders — and it remains to be seen whether these more theological engagements with Scripture will commend themselves as something more than alternatives to traditional historical-critical counterparts.
The “theological” in González’s case comes in punctuation by interesting asides regarding the history of interpretation or the reception history of the text (or its parallels). Many pages display an illustrative or provocative boxed text quoting an interpreter or theologian, ranging from Church fathers to recent feminist or liberationist interpreters, which may or may not have much to do with González’s own train of thought. Not new to the commentary genre, the accomplished Church historian shows himself a steady hand with the biblical text. Luke is a fruitful vineyard for González, as themes of justice, eschatological reversal, and honor of the marginalized — thoroughgoing Lukan themes — rightly find emphasis in the commentary. In this case, the history of interpretation and reception provides useful ballast for a treatment that could otherwise skew orthopragmatic and insufficiently Christological. In the end, I think it best to see this as a (recommended) supplement to the more substantial exegetical offerings of Joseph Fitzmyer (Anchor/Yale), John Nolland (Word), and Luke Timothy Johnson (Sacra Pagina), which will serve preachers and teachers of the gospel with illustrative material, food for thought, and an assurance that Luke’s social vision will not be obscured.
Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church
The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians
By Luke Timothy Johnson. Eerdmans. Pp. 198. $23
Johnson’s most recent foray into Luke-Acts is not a commentary, but rather an orientation to the Lukan corpus with the goal of enlivening its function in the contemporary Church. Johnson musters his considerable Luke-Acts expertise to make a scholarly but non-technical argument that both the Christology and ecclesiology of Luke-Acts are “prophetic.” Luke casts Jesus consistently in prophetic terms — especially as the prophet like unto Moses (Deut. 18), but also as heir of Elijah and Elisha and as one carrying the prophetic mantle in word and deed. The argument is not new (one thinks of David Moessner, Lord of the Banquet [2nd edn., 1998]), but convincing nonetheless.
Luke (Christology) and Acts (ecclesiology) being joined inseparably, it follows that what Jesus is the Church is as well, and of the Church’s prophetic prototypes and function in Acts there can be little doubt. Moreover, again as is often noted, the structure of Luke-Acts depends upon a promise-fulfillment scheme, both in relation to the Old Testament and internal to the two-volume narrative itself. But these non-controversial observations hardly exhaust Johnson’s point. He wants to say that under the rubric “prophetic” falls not only the function of promise or prediction but a way of life, an embodied alterity which in word, deed, and being calls the world to account. In particular, this Lukan Church will embody a prophetic spirit of shared wealth, itinerancy, prayer, and servant leadership: themes abundantly attested in both Luke and Acts. While I find myself quibbling just a bit with the convenience of this flexible definition of “prophetic,” the vision offered here is salutary and decidedly true to Luke-Acts. Indeed, precisely because it comes from this committed Roman Catholic scholar, the dynamic and quietly subversive picture of a Church as alternative koinōnia in self-conscious continuity with the Prophet, Jesus Christ, is a word in season.
Garwood P. Anderson is professor of New Testament and Greek at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
For Further Reading
Don’t sell your Fitzmyer! And add at least J. Nolland or L.T. Johnson, or perhaps Joel Green (New International Commentary on the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1997). Read Johnson’s Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church, especially the later chapters, and sit with it, asking what a Spirit-endowed, Lukan-shaped church might look like. Let J. González enrich and supplement the week-by-week with reflections on the Church’s history and vocation. For expert guidance through the many Lukan parables, get K. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Eerdmans, 2008; see TLC, Oct. 12, 2008). A useful companion to Snodgrass’s exegesis will be Eugene Peterson’s Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (Eerdmans, 2008), now in its second (and I think improved) edition and worth picking up and pondering if you missed it the first time. Inhabiting his characteristic pastoral wisdom just might inspire more of the artful truth-telling for which he is justly famous.