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Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’: Misunderstanding Acts 15

By Christopher Seitz

Editor’s note: In yesterday’s post Jeff Boldt exposed the way in which ‘This Holy Estate’ falls back upon the rhetoric of Gentile inclusion to justify canon change, and that, as it does so, it attempts to conceal the fact that it has failed to fulfill its initial claim: that it will demonstrate how same-sex marriage and heterosexual marriage are analogous. In today’s post, Christopher Seitz examines the claim that embracing same-sex marriage is analogous to Gentile inclusion by investigating the grounds for this claim as it unfolds in the Book of Acts.

“The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises” (Article VIII).

When Christians read the Old Testament it is very easy to adopt a perspective in which the covenant people are placed on par with ourselves, en route, however, to something they do not enjoy fully in their time as narrated. We relate to them, and identify with them as the main actors in a story, but see them as “behind us” in time and, as such, not yet where we are. This model assumes a developmental grid of improving evolution.

Worse is the instinct to conflate the people of Israel with those Jesus upbraided among his own people, given that the Scriptures are the corrective agent he appealed to: “You leave the commandment of God and hold fast the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). “You search the Scriptures … it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). “They drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4).

Israel enjoyed Christ under signs and figures, just as the Christian church today enjoys Christ through Word and Sacrament. For different dispensations, different modes of manifestation. “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

It has become popular to replace this conceptuality — everywhere present in the history of interpretation — with a one-dimensional developmental model. So when it comes to the “Council of Jerusalem” in Acts 15 — now popular in discussions about same-sexuality — we end up with a strange historicist interpretation: God gave the Law. Jewish Christians in Acts then set it aside, because they were prompted by the Holy Spirit. And by analogy, so too we now set aside whatever scriptural injunction — in Old Testament or in New — previously held by the Church because the Spirit is leading us into 21st-century “New Truth.”

The narrative structure of Acts and the actual ruling of Acts 15 shows this evolutionary conception (almost reflexive with the rise of natural sciences) to be void of theological sense: this is one reason why texts like John 14:17 and 14:25 or Acts 15 were through the entirety of the history of interpretation never read through an evolutionary lens.

Acts is about the manifestation of the Holy Spirit: first to Jews at Pentecost then to prominent Jewish proselytes like the Ethiopian eunuch who worship in Jerusalem and study Holy Scripture; then to devout God-fearers like Cornelius renowned for alms-giving and prayer; and at last to Gentiles who are among the circumcised and hear the word proclaimed. The ministry of Paul, “apostle to the Gentiles,” is almost exclusively conducted from the synagogue, even when Paul is constrained to do otherwise. The decision to proclaim Christ only to Gentiles —without the Scriptures of the covenant people — is nowhere on the horizon of Acts, even as the final chapter shows Paul struggling “to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the prophets” (28:23).

When we look closely at Acts 15 we see an unusual ruling, at least superficially. Some of the circumcised want Gentile believers — whose Christian convictions were never in doubt, given the manifestation of the Holy Spirit — to be circumcised and “to keep the Law of Moses” (15:5). Peter makes the case for the work of the Holy Spirit among them as adequate and not requiring circumcision in addition (15:7-11). Wider consensus is forthcoming as Paul and Barnabas and then James speak up. The Old Covenant prophets (Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah) are called upon to testify that this Gentile embrace of Christ is what God from of old proclaimed (the “plan of God” or “mystery” referred to in Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians). Texts are cited formally: “it is written” (15:16-18). A first iteration of proper conduct for Gentile believers is then set forth.

Before turning to the admonition proper, note the explanatory gloss at verse 21. “For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” This is hardly a good example of what setting Moses aside might look like. Rather, the implication is that Moses is adequate to address the situation and indeed has done from “early generations” and “in every city” where he has been, is now, and will continue to be preached (so also Acts 28:23 cited above).

The four prohibitions (pollutions of idols; porneai; meat killed without letting out the blood; and blood itself), as has been noted by others, do not obviously refer to “Noahic” injunctions, though a history-of-religion explanation can be summoned at various points. Rather, the context for this particular foursome is better sought from the Law itself, strictly speaking, as this is also the context of the discussion.

A close reading of Leviticus 17-18 gives the answer, and precisely those sections that would be relevant in the context of a discussion of conduct for Gentile believers, whom the prophets Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah foresaw, as was declared at 15:15. The slaughtering of animals in Leviticus 17 deals not only with proper conduct for the covenant people but also those “strangers that sojourn among them” (17:8,10,15). “If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off” (17:10). Blood must be properly drained (17:13) by both Israelite and sojourner in the midst. Israel and sojourner are not to eat what dies of itself or is torn by beasts (17:15). The sexual conduct expected of the sojourner and the Israelite is set forth in Levicitus 18.

For these reasons, to call the decision of the gathered a “fresh formal ruling” might give the wrong impression, even as it is in this general ambit. It is rather a penetration into the Law of God as this now takes form in the context of Gentile conversion. Gentile Christians are to avoid specific contact with blood, pollutions of idols, and porneai because long ago the Law of Moses saw fit to describe Israel’s life in such a way that it anticipated Gentile association. The synagogue is one such prominent context in the period in question, once the diaspora has become a general reality. So those gathered in Jerusalem dispatch men to work with Paul and Barnabas and send them out with a letter that summarizes their admonitions for Gentile Christians (15:28). The Holy Spirit gave a goodly insight into how Scripture, and the Law of Moses as such, was to function in a context the prophets long ago anticipated. Far from setting Scripture aside, the logic of Scripture’s word is sought for a context of Gentile association occasioned by the work of the one Cross of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

To turn the discussion and decisions of Acts 15 into an analogy for modern “spirit discernment into New Truth” is not just exegetically faulty, but runs almost exactly against the grain of how the Scriptures, the Law, and the Holy Spirit are effectively at work in Acts 15 and in Acts as such.

The problem is not just that a non-biblical account of evolutionary development runs interference, preventing many from hearing Acts 15 in its proper register. A related issue is that we fail to understand the character of covenant life on the terms of election and adoption. Gentiles are not an “advanced” species in relationship to God in Christ, and so able to look on the Scriptures of Israel, and the life of God with a people, as though they are superior observers and know which parts they might use to affirm New Truth, and which to let go. Once this reflex comes into play, it is hardly surprising that the entirety of Scripture — Old Testament and New — will become an arena for simply picking out what helpfully lines up with the “New Truth” being claimed.

Paul is correct to remind Gentiles that they were once strangers to the covenant life altogether, and as he economically puts it “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). Those brought near by Christ are “sojourners in the midst of Israel,” worshipers of Israel’s King and God’s only begotten Son.

Therefore, in Israel’s record of that life, we are privileged to see the intimacy of a relationship that in time became ours to share in him as well. We are privileged to be brought near. And we learn as a bonus that the Old Covenant record had our names in it as well, on terms God had prepared from before the foundation of the world.

To flatten the distinction between (a) elected and covenanted people and (b) adopted sons and daughters and then to read the Old Testament as though we are the former instead of the latter is to mistake the work of God in Christ and to misunderstand what Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians — among other New Testament witnesses — are in fact saying conceptually and really about the divine mystery at work in sacred Scripture. That includes the Law of Moses as it reveals its purpose in the context of Acts 15.

The Rev. Dr. Christopher Seitz is senior research professor of biblical interpretation at Wycliffe College, Toronto.

The introduction and links to other essays in “Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’” may be found here

The featured image comes via St Joseph’s Vanguard.


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