Prof Scot McKnight
Acts conference Stellenbosch
18-20 May 2009
The audio file of prof McKnight’s presentation can be down loaded here
Our aim in these sessions is work on two fronts: the Book of Acts and the missional task of the Church, especially in South Africa. South Africa has done very well, I might observe, on the “turning water into wine” front. I must confess that sometimes we theologians and academics have successfully turned the “wine back into water.” Only when academics work with both pastors and lay folks will there be any chance of preserving the wine and the wineskins.
I speak as a North American Protestant, and I speak from an evangelical context. There was a time, at least so I thought, that the one thing all orthodox Christians agreed on was the gospel. But issues have arisen in the last generation that have shifted so many factors that the gospel itself is in need of careful clarification and even re-examination. Not only has the gospel of our fathers lost currency for many postmoderns, there are a number of potent proposals on the table that, if given centrality, could re-arrange everything the church does – in the whole world. I will swipe the words of Brian McLaren, an American emergent leader, and call what is going on deep shift and, if Brian really is accurate that there is a deep shift, everything must change.
This shift has been going on in the academic world for two generations, ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I now want to examine the deep shift that is at work.
I want to mention ten elements in this shift and this shift leads us Protestants back to the New Testament to start all over again. I can’t develop these, so let me mention them briefly. First, understanding the work of God as missio Dei. I am one of many who learned this from David Bosch but missio Dei is involved in important ways in all areas of New Testament study. Second, heaven. Most Christians’ perception of heaven derives more from Platonism (or NeoPlatonsim) or Dante or John Bunyan or stories heard in sermons than the Bible or the ancient Jewish world, and the recent book by Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, rooted as it is in his larger book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, is re-arranging how we understand both life now and life then in much or earthy categories. Third, conversion. There has been a holy disquietude in many circles with the “altar call” and “decision” approach to conversion. There has also been disquietude about the rather bland socializing processes at work in many liturgical/catechetical traditions, with some clear calls to re-examine the whole conversion process. And this not only as a result of careful studies on the process of conversion, but also because we have become more aware of Jewish proselytism and the potency of nurturance into the faith. Fourth, reading the Bible as Story has lifted the veil for many. Instead of distilling the propositions and forming a systematic theology, the power of story has led many to see the Bible’s narrative arc as the Bible’s theology – and the implications are at the heart of the deep shift.
Fifth, Jesus’ kingdom vision. The so-called Third Quest embraced a Jewish Jesus more than the generation that read Joachim Jeremias ever could have, and this led more and more theologians and pastors to make “kingdom” central to preaching, to teaching, and to missional work. The shift from a Pauline-Romans framing of the gospel to a Jesus-kingdom gospel can be staggering for some. Sixth, somewhere along the line church was being deconstructed at the same time it was being reconstructed. Careful, and some not so careful, studies about “church” and about “denominations” and about “institutional religion” are leading to both reformulations of what “church” is and to rearrangements of what church will be. Seventh, sin. I have heard so many refreshing things about sin in the last decade that is hard to know where to begin, except to say this: the older, Reformed sense that sin can be reduced to moral rebellion leading to guilt before an all-holy God has been expanded to systemic and personal proportions. Three books that brought this home to me are by N. Plantinga, Not What’s Supposed to Be, Ted Peters, Sin, and Mark Biddle, The Riddle of Sin. A potent deconstructive force came from women who argued that if sin is defined by males, are women being held in check by such male definitions? Need I say it? The moment one reframes “sin” one reframes more elements than we have time to enumerate. Eighth, Jesus. In the 1980s historical Jesus flew into orbit at an alarming pace, and it seemed every month a new Jesus arrived on the scholar’s doorstep. Those were heady days. Once the dust settled, we realized that Jesus re-framed involved both a reframing of “gospel” and, in fact, a reframing of “Christianity” itself. Ninth, justice and justification. Someone stood up, and I think it probably all goes back to Krister Stendahl, and boldly suggested that we can’t divorce “justification” from “justice.” Well, this little suggestion was a nightmare for some, especially the more conservative wings of the Reformed crowd. Presto! We had the New Perspective and that meant lots of changes, not the least of which involved the meaning of “gospel” as somehow involving the inclusion of Gentiles. The tenth element is gospel itself. What does it mean?
Everything changes when the first nine shifts lead to a re-examination of gospel. But, as Protestants we want to go back to the Bible and see what the Bible says. Whether we frame our doctrine as sola scriptura or prima scriptura, the result is that we want to put our finger on the text and ask, “Where is it written?” So, in the time that remains, I want to go back to the earliest Christian “gospelers” and see how they understood gospel. When we are done I will offer some missional reflections and trust that I will not burst the old wineskins, unless of course they were meant to burst.
Acts and the gospel: general remarks
The story of Acts, which is part two of a two-part narrative, is the story of the gospel marching from a hideout in Jerusalem, with just a Jewish folks gathered out of both fear and hope, to a hideout in Rome, with a man named Paul who had absolutely no fear and more than enough hope to sustain him but still going toe-to-toe with his fellow Jews. One might say that Paul himself realized the potency of a resurrection gospel in the teeth of Roman opposition while the earliest Jerusalem followers of Jesus were pondering just what that resurrection of Jesus might mean for them because Rome was breathing down their necks. It’s the story of gospeling as Luke takes us from Jerusalem to Caesarea Maritima to Syrian Antioch (cf. 11:19-21) to Pisidian Antioch to Athens and then on to Rome. If we weren’t so familiar with the story of this little Jerusalem community, we might want to turn it into a Hollywood movie: it is the story of a struggling sect gaining both identity and boldness to such a degree that, like Nelson Mandela, it took on the powers and brought them to their knees. Well, yes, Paul hardly brings Rome to its knees, but that Roman citizen from Tarsus hardly saw captivity as an obstacle to reaching Rome with the gospel, even if he is still involved with intramural debates with fellow Jews before he gospels Gentiles (cf. 28:23-29 then 28:30-31).
One has to wonder if Nero is mocked when Luke tells us, in a VIP triumphal entry like description, that swarms of Christians welcomed Paul into Rome (Acts 28:11-16). He is in chains, he claims, “for the hope of Israel” (28:20). The injustice of it all, along with Paul’s living above it, are palpable and probably indicate that the charges against him were considered by Rome to be unjustified. In almost Stoic-like fashion and with more than touch of irony on the part of Luke, Paul seems totally unconcerned with physical danger. He spent his days in prison, in almost philosopher-like fashion, with Jewish crowds gathered at his door as he “witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus” (28:23). And there is nothing short of bravado in the tone of Luke’s final verse when he says that Paul “proclaimed the kingdom of God [cf. 1:3] and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (28:31; cf. 2 Tim 2:8-9). Some prisoner, I want to say to myself. Imprisonment in Rome is not Robben Island, but one can say that imprisonment can turn a single voice into an empire-wide declaration. Act 1:8’s prediction of the gospel going “to the ends of the earth” has now been fulfilled and so has the preaching of kingdom by John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 3:3; 4:18-19).
Anyone who knows the history of Israel knows that Jonah is the typical response to the Gentiles in ancient Israel – for Israel was not what today is called a missionary religion. That the earliest Christian movement became not only a missionally-shaped movement, expanding the gospel from synagogue to synagogue across the Roman empire, does not surprise anywhere near as much as does the overt extension of the gospel to Gentiles. There has been much study on the rise of the missionary impulse among early Christians, and there have been all kinds of explanations of what precipitated it – not the least of which are things like persecution and the glory of Gentile Godfearer responses in synagogues – but the issue is how the earliest Christians responded to the success. Not all of them thought it was such a good idea. We need not detain ourselves for this discussion except to observe that it is the extension of the gospel through gospeling to Rome that occupies the attention of the Book of Acts.
This is how the Book of Acts closes and one of the most important things we can keep in mind when we read Acts is that this text is overwhelmingly missional in design. Many angles can be taken on this missional hermeneutic of Luke, but I will take one pass through this text by examining the theme of gospeling in Acts. Gospeling is connected, of course, to gospel so I will also be making suggestions about how the gospel was understood in Acts and then I want to close off with a few bold marks of my own about the implications of early Christian gospeling for gospeling today.
The gospel of Peter
Instead of pursuing a tedious, however valuable, inductive display of the gospeling in Acts and how each gospeling sermon responds to its context and fits into the literary plan of the Book of Acts, I want to offer some highlights of the gospel preaching of Peter, Stephen, and Paul. We scholars like to cover our backsides lest we be taken by surprise, so just let it go without discussion that I am not equating the words of Acts with a transcript of Peter’s words. History-writing and reporting of speeches held to different standards then but neither do I want to suggest that Luke, or – to cover my backside yet again – whoever wrote this book, just made things up. The style is Luke’s, the substance more or less not. I suspect Peter and Stephen and Paul would, upon reading this book, say, “Well, yes, I detect what I said in what you have written, Mr. Luke. But may I edit?”
I begin by quoting the most pregnant of summaries of Peter’s gospeling, now found at Acts 5:29-32:
Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! [cf. 4:19] The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you [cf. 2:36; 3:14-15; 4:10] killed by hanging him on a cross [cf. Deut 21:22-23]. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
It is tempting to say it is all here, but that would be an exaggeration but not by much. What have in this summary is (1) an appeal to the Story of Israel now come to fulfillment in the Story of the Messiah, and we see this in the “God of our ancestors”. This theme is more than a “gospeling” theme; the scriptural plan of God coming to realization in Jesus Christ, in fact, is central to the whole framing of Luke-Acts. (2) The ground-breaking and Story-transforming significance of the resurrection of Jesus; (3) a pointing of his finger at those who crucified Jesus, and here Peter lays blame on “you” and the “you” of that context is the Jewish priestly establishment (cf. 5:17-28). With the cross and resurrection now factored into the summary, Luke moves to (4) the act of God in raising Jesus to an exalted place to vindicate and establish him as the “Prince and Savior” of Israel; (5) the movement from cross to resurrection to exaltation leads to the statement that God did this “that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins.” Neither “forgive” nor “repentance” are neatly defined, but we me might speculate that Peter means repentance from the sort of things we read about in both John the Baptist and Jesus and in the trial of Jesus and that would mean that forgiveness refers to wiping away infidelity to the covenant God has made with Israel. Finally, (6) Peter lays claim to being a witness (martyres) alongside the Holy Spirit, who has been given in Pentecost-like fashion to those who “obey” God.
Peter gospels a number of times in Acts, including Acts 2:14-39, 3:12-26, 10:34-43 and 11:5-18. One could say that the summary in Acts 5:29-32 is the text and the sermons just mentioned are the midrash but the midrashes clarify a number of details and bring into bold relief the gospel of Peter. First, Peter emphasizes the Story of Israel as the God-ordained Story that pointed to and comes to completion in the Story of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, in Acts 2:13-21, Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32 and Pss 16:8-11 and 110:1. These texts essentially return to the Tanakh in order to point forward to what has happened in Christ and at Pentecost. In fact, one’s hermeneutic might be that Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost led the earliest Christians to re-read and re-interpret Tanakh from a singularly new perspective. In Acts 3:22-23, Peter quotes Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19, here showing that Jesus is the expected Prophet to whom one must listen or suffer extirpation. At Acts 3:25 he quotes Genesis 22:18 or 26:4 to establish the Abrahamic origins of the gospel, unwittingly evidently bringing an anticipation of the Gentile mission and use Abraham in a way that Paul will find handy in his own writings. Finally, in Acts 10:43 Peter finishes off the gospeling event at Cornelius’ house by saying that “All the prophets testify about” Jesus Christ. Thus, as Ulrich Wilckens made clear in his monograph on the missionary speeches of the Book of Acts, the gospeling sermons of Peter and Paul are designed to take the saving events of Jesus and make them word events – and each turning point in Acts must make this clear. They make clear the salvation-historical significance of Jesus in Israel’s Story and God’s plan.
Second, Peter’s gospeling involved telling the full Story of Jesus Christ, including his life, his death, his resurrection, his exaltation, the gift of the Holy Spirit and his second coming. The reason we have to say this is because the three Great Traditions of the Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism have more or less converted the life of Jesus into Good Friday. Not so in the early gospeling where we see the whole life of Jesus – not just his incarnation and not just the cross. Perhaps the clearest example is Acts 10:36-42:
You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.
This text is not quite complete, but if one adds together what we find in Acts 2:22-35, 3:13-15, 19-21, and 10:37-42, we discover that Peter preached the whole Story of Jesus as Messiah. The gravity of emphasis in Peter’s gospeling, like others in the Book of Acts, is the resurrection, which of course implies Good Friday but is more than that. When Peter and John were imprisoned in Acts 5 (actually in Jerusalem), the angel miraculously released them so they could go back to the Temple and give this message: “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life” (5:20). This “life” is probably, as C.K. Barrett observes, the life Jesus gives because he is the “Author of life” (3:15). In other words, we are looking at an angel directing them to announce resurrection gospel. Alongside this resurrection emphasis, though, is a clear blaming of the temple establishment for rejecting Jesus, and a good example of this is 3:13-15. It needs to be observed in passing, especially for those of us who draw our ideas from the Reformation, that Peter’s gospel has no atonement theology at work in it. Jesus lived and died and was raised, and that’s enough for Peter. Those who repent and who believe and who get baptized are forgiven and get the Holy Spirit, but Peter does not tell us how.
In addition, Peter’s gospel is not just the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. For Peter, Pentecost, which must be connected to the ascension and exaltation of Jesus, means divine power for the Story of Jesus and his people. The exalted Jesus sends the Spirit (2:33). Even if there is a theological reason for neglecting the Holy Spirit – after all the Spirit bears witness to Jesus Christ instead of to the Spirit (cf. John 15:26) – there are no reasons for missing how important the Spirit is to the Book of Acts. From 1:8 on, the Spirit shapes everything important: Jesus had the Holy Spirit (10:38), Pentecost brings the Spirit for all (2:1-4), the Spirit endowed prophesies and visions and dreams (2:17-18; 11:28; 13:4; 21:11), and the repentant believer receives the Spirit along with forgiveness of sins (2:38; 5:32; 8:15-17; 10:44-47). For our purposes, gospeling is Spirit-inspired witness to Jesus when done right: “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31; cf. 6:10; 7:55; 13:4, 9; cf. 16:6-7; 19:6).
A word about Pentecost.
It both prompts the first gospeling in human history and becomes paradigmatic for what gospeling can accomplish. In brief, Pentecost and its gospeling creates community of all kinds of people and it does this because Pentecost re-establishes the covenant as the new covenant, undoes Babel (Gen 11:1-9), challenges Jerusalem- and Alexander-the-Great- and Rome-based empire structures that are rooted in various forms of conformity, and Pentecostal gospeling forms an embodied reality of koinonia that transcends national and language differentiation, not by abolishing distinction but by transcending distinction to form a unity within diversity (2:5-12, 42-47; 4:32-35). The image then is of multiple languages and peoples all praising the same God. Furthermore, Pentecost and its gospeling create a new social network. Ah, Pentecost was the first form of Facebook and Twitter. A pastor and cyberspace friend of mine from South Africa, Tom Smith, wrote me to say that David Bosch had observed that the theme of the poor disappears when we move from the Synoptics to the Book of Acts. Well, yes, I thought to myself. I suppose there’s truth to that. But, perhaps it is wiser to think that Pentecost and Spirit-empowered community life replaces concern with the poor because they both encompass concern for the poor as a community of goods and through almsgiving and transcend them by extending Jesus’ concerns to include Gentiles.
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.
And in Acts 10:34-38, where Peter justifies gospeling Gentiles like Cornelius, we read:
I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
Peter reads a Bible that leads him to see God at work guiding the Story of Israel into the Story of Jesus, who is Israel’s true King and the Lord over all (cf. Also 2:39; 3:25-26; 10:44-47; 11:16-18). Peter knows this because God raised Jesus from the grave. There are other terms used for Jesus by Peter, including servant (3:13), the holy and righteous one (3:14), the author of life (3:15), and the prophet (3:22-23). But these supplement his two major terms, Messiah and Lord.
It is here that we need to pause to observe again that gospeling Gentiles was a radical step – even if it is anticipated in Acts 2:17-21 and 3:25 in Peter’s sermons, implicit in the Hellenist Stephen, and if Philip’s gospel encounters with the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch reveal the direction we are headed once we get to Paul, it is Peter’s gospeling of Cornelius, with angelic softening of Peter’s reluctant covenant heart, that forms the crucial breakthrough. The gospel is been set loose from this episode on. It will find its home in the center of Rome, the epicenter of the world for Luke-Acts.
Fourth, Peter’s gospeling includes the call to respond. In the Book of Acts one might make a distinction between apologetics and gospeling on the basis of whether or not there is a call to respond. As we will see shortly, Stephen’s speech has no such call to respond, but in four of Peter’s gospeling events we see this summons to respond. There are three integrally related acts for Israelites and Gentiles who respond to gospeling: they are to believe and to repent and to be baptized.
Peter summons people to believe in Acts 10—11. Notice 10:43 and 11:17:
All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?
After Peter explains the event of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost through the lens of the Story of Israel, and that means Joel 2:28-32 (Hebrew 3:1-5) and two Psalms of David, Luke tells us that the folks who heard Peter “were cut to the heart” and asked what John the Baptist’s audience asked, “Brothers, what should we do?” (2:37; cf. Luke 3:10-14). Peter’s words are famous (Acts 2:38-39):
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.
In Acts 3:19-21, Peter says:
Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.
And in Acts 10:47-48, while Peter was still preaching, the Holy Spirit came down afresh on the audience, extending Pentecost to Gentiles, and Peter asked this question:
Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
Acts 2:38 achieves a balance in the two matters of repentance and baptism, which I take to be instances of faith. Acts 3 mentions only repentance while Acts 11 focuses on baptism and does not mention repentance. Those who’d prefer not to mention repentance can appeal to Peter as can those who prefer repentance. And those who prefer adult baptism can appeal to him, too, while those who prefer paedo-baptism cannot. (I shall not develop this point in this audience.) One more: those who want to keep baptism as nothing more than ritual symbol will struggle with Peter’s clear connection of baptism and forgiveness in Acts 2:38 (cf. 10:47-48). (I will appreciate it if you don’t bring this up with me.) In light of the Lukan two-volume story, though, one would have to say that repentance – from the days of John the Baptist to the days of the apostles – is the expected response, along with baptism as the embodiment of confession, incorporation into Christ and the community by faith, and the washing away of sins. These two are expressions of faith in Jesus Christ as trust in who he is and as God’s redemptive agent.
As an aside, had you asked either Beverly or me to speak about missional and the Book of Acts about two decades ago, both of us may have focused on conversion and proselytism since we were at work on that topic at that time. Hearking back to such discussions and studies, I mention that Peter does not mention circumcision when it comes to the proper response to the gospel when he gospels the Gentiles in the context of Cornelius. While the sketch of what was required of proselyte conversion to Judaism is not entirely clear, one thing that would have been nearly impossible to avoid for a Gentile male was circumcision. That act was the “seal” of the covenant in Jewish thinking (cf. Gen 17) and it cannot have been missed had Peter permitted Gentile conversion into the Jesus community without requiring the kosher blade. That the issue emerges in Acts 15 does not surprise; that it does not emerge in Acts 10—11 does surprise. Luke has perhaps washed history clean of that debate so he can assign the necessity of circumcision to his opponents, or perhaps circumcision was as necessary as we think or, which is how Luke tells his story, Peter saw the gift of the Holy Spirit on these folks and said, “If repentance and baptism draw the Spirit down from the heavens then we need nothing more.”
Fifth, Peter’s gospeling made promises to those who did respond properly. While some today see “gospeling” as no more than declaring the Story of Jesus or that Jesus Christ is Lord, Peter sees gospeling as something that is shaped toward an audience and that summons individual persons to respond for salvation. There are a few terms Peter uses when he gospels for what a proper response brings. Repentance and baptism bring forgiveness of sins (2:38; 3:19; 10:43), they bring the Holy Spirit (2:38-39; 10:44-47; 11:16-18), they bring what Peter calls the “times [plural] of refreshing” (3:20) and which is probably best understood as ongoing realizations of God’s gracious redemption and relief as seen in such things as forgiveness and the power of the Spirit and miracles and the spiritual-social solidarity of Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35 as well as the ongoing expansion of the gospel to include even Gentiles. I mention one more. In Acts 10:36 we read this: “You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.” Here Peter says he “gospels peace.” This peace comes “through” or “by” Jesus Christ. I take this expression to be a twin to some Pauline theology and so read it as the kind of peace between Jews and Gentiles that was both anticipated in the Abrahamic blessing (Gen 12:1-3) and yet never worked out pragmatically until the incorporation of Gentiles into the community of Jesus. This more sociological instead of existential or personal sense of peace, that is, a peace both with God and with others, ushers us into the New Perspective on Paul, where there is given a more corporate and history-of-redemption framework for understanding early Christian thinking.
To summarize: for Peter (as presented by Acts), gospeling involved telling Israel’s Story as one that pointed to and came to its fulfillment in the life and death and resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ, along with the gift of the Pentecostal Spirit, it involved pointing clearly to the central significance of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, it involved summoning his audience to repentance and baptism and faith, and it involved promising them that such a response would bring forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, “times of refreshing” and peace. More could be said, but this is probably enough for now.
We turn now, briefly, to Stephen’s “gospeling” event.
The gospel of Stephen
Bible scholars have long been educated into a method of reading the Bible called salvation history (what the Germans call Heilsgeschichte). As a college student I became aware of salvation history by reading George Ladd’s A New Testament Theology and by reading Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology. What has continued to amaze me over more than three decades of biblical study is how little impact salvation history has on evangelism or what I prefer to call “gospeling.” Instead of trotting out Israel’s Story when the gospel is explained, most tend to narrow everything down to personal sin and to personal guilt and to personal redemption and to personal response. Fine and good, I say to myself, but why can’t that happen the way it happened among the earliest Christians, at least as sketched in the Book of Acts?
If anyone in the New Testament confirms the gospel is a narrative arc as found in Israel’s history as Israel’s Story, Stephen does as he creates an indictment and polemic against his accusers. Stephen “gospels” without summoning people to respond with faith, repentance and baptism and he does so by showing that God can bring good out of evil because God’s plan goes on. In the context of the Book of Acts, one will want to observe that the heated rhetoric of Stephen’s speech begins a break with the Judaism of Jerusalem: Stephen is a Hellenist, Stephen leads to the conversion of Saul, and from that time on the gospel begins to spread to the Gentile world. Because Stephen’s intent is not to draw out a response, most prefer today to call Stephen’s speech an apology or say it is a piece of apologetics. In fact, Stephen’s speech is accusatory and didactic apologetics. If he partly defends himself, he concludes not with an appeal to see his innocence but with a powerful set of words that accuse his opponents of covenant infidelity. So much then for “gospeling.” And, yet, within that accusatory speech we glean the gospel of Stephen, about which now I want to make just a few remarks.
First, from front to back Stephen’s gospel is a narrative of Israel’s Story as it comes to its climax and fulfillment in the Story of Jesus. Stephen traces Israel’s Story from Abraham to Joseph to Moses and to Solomon (7:2-47). Solomon sets him off, and he turns into a rant against the Temple establishment (7:48-50). This leads him, in deuteronomic fashion, to situation Jesus’ death into a context of the leaders’ covenant infidelity, a trait Stephen finds typical (7:51-53).
Second, in line with Peter – and with Paul as we are about to see – Stephen understands the Story of Jesus through the lens of an unjust crucifixion that was reversed with power when God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to the right hand of God (7:52, 55-56). At the core of early Christian gospeling, or at least the core of early Christian thinking about what had happened to Jesus at the hands of the Temple establishment, was the unthinkable: God had taken a dead body, made it come back to life, and had exalted that very person to his right hand at the Throne of God. Stephen’s perception, unlike Peter’s use of psalms of David, emerged from Daniel 7’s exaltation of the Son of Man before the Ancient of Days and Luke has Jesus standing at the right hand of God, perhaps a way of saying that Jesus is rising to enact judgment (cf. Isa 3:13).
Third, like Peter, Stephen’s gospel theology works with a christology, and Stephen’s combines Son of Man – here a title of exalted authority – with Peter’s prophet-like-Moses (cf. 7:37). In addition, Jesus is the “Righteous One,” a term designating Jesus’ utter innocence (7:52).
Once again I return to the beginning of what we said about Stephen: Stephen’s defense, instead of appealing to the audience to repent and to trust Jesus and to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins etc, turns on the audience in potent, rhetorically-abrupt language that condemns the Temple establishment and blames it for covenant infidelity. One is led to wonder if some early Christian gospeling faced a fork in the road and, at times, turned into a shouting match of accusation against those who had crucified Messiah Jesus. Perhaps it is wiser to back off that and say that inherent to gospel theology was condemnation of those who had betrayed Jesus. The potency of the theme of reversal – in the “you killed him but God raised him up” language – probably reveals social tension and memory of emotional exchange.
The gospel of Paul
We might remind ourselves once again that the Book of Acts is Luke’s account and it was Luke who sketches the gospeling of Peter and of Stephen and of Paul. Luke-Acts scholars have for a long time pointed out the noteworthy Lukan style features that are found in these speeches. Sometimes, however, there is an implicit logic at work that moves like this: Speeches are in a style; that style is Luke’s; therefore, they are not Peter’s, Stephen’s or Paul’s. In other words, there is a logic that suggests if something is stylistically Lukan its substance is both Luke’s and not the purported gospeler. This logic, however, fails. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, might give us a first-hand account of his life, but something said by Desmond Tutu about Mandela might not only be Tutu-style but also substantively factual or accurate. Hence, Lukan style does not disprove historical accuracy in the substance that has been stylized. Furthermore, the intent of Luke might be to report the intent of Peter or Stephen or Paul even if Luke creatively constructed what was said. I say this simply to say that the issues here are complex and simple answers cannot satisfy the historian or the preacher.
All this to make two points: first, that the style of Peter’s gospeling and Paul’s gospeling are similar and, second, there are some notable differences. This might not help the historian much in determining if he or she can lay all the weight on Lukan creativity, but it does make the historian honest if not also a bit more humble.
Now to Paul’s gospeling of the gospel.
First, Paul’s gospel is essentially that of Peter and, in some ways, that of Stephen. The basics are the same: we find the Story of Israel coming to a climax and fulfillment in the Story of Jesus (13:17-22, 32-37), though Paul’s Story of Israel is more positive than Stephen’s. We find a similar focus on the death of Jesus as an act of injustice (13:24-25), with Paul shifting blame slightly toward the people (13:27-28), and the resurrection as an act of God’s vindication of Jesus (13:30-31, 32-37). And this gospeling of Paul leads to, or is rooted in, a christology in which the vindicated Jesus is seen as the Davidic Savior (13:23, 33-37). And, Paul’s gospeling leads to a summons to repent (13:40-41) for the forgiveness of sins (13:38-39). In the two major gospelings of Paul in Acts (13:16-41 and 17:22-31), we do not hear tones of the exaltation of Christ to the right hand of God and we hear nothing of the gift of the Holy Spirit. But one would be hard-pressed to deny that Paul’s gospel is much the same as Peter’s. That both refer to Psalm 15:10 notably connects the two apostles (cf. Acts 2:25-28; 13:35).
Second, Paul’s gospel is more emphatically adapted to and for Gentile audiences. Peter leaned toward and then learned that the gospel was for Gentiles; Paul had discovered that to be true and was now pushing the gospel into the Gentile world. His theological platform was composed of a scriptural understanding of history and a relentless commitment to monotheism in the face of being charged with belief in “foreign divinities” (17:18), precisely what got Socrates executed – in connection with this very spot!
Even a Gentile audience did not stop Paul from seeing the sweep of history through the scriptural Story of Israel. We need to exercise caution here: the audience of Paul’s gospeling in Pisidian Antioch (13:16-41) was “Israelites and God-fearers.” We can assume they knew enough Scripture to know what Paul meant, but on the Areopagus and in the premier city of Greek reknown, where Paul is clearly gospeling to Gentiles with no knowledge of Israel’s Scriptures, Paul tells history through the lens of Israel’s history – minus the election and covenant stuff. To use modern jargon, Paul showed his “seeker sensitive” inner self. He observes idols, assumes monotheism and tells us that God is creator, appealing no doubt to Genesis 1—2, and that this God does not dwell in physical structures, and this sounds much like Stephen’s defense (cf. Acts 7:48). Further, he appeals again to Adam in the “from one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth” (17:26).
But clearly Paul is adapting the gospel to his audience. I would point to two features of how Paul adapts the gospel on the Areopagus, the holy of holies for Greek culture, wisdom and philosophical greatness. Athens was then not what it had been, but it is in such a context that Paul focuses on God as the invisible creator of all of creation and who is therefore common to all religions (17:24-30), and he appeals to what I call an “inner apologetic” and one is not far from the truth in arguing for this as a praeparatio evangelica. By this I mean that there is something in each human being that gropes for God and that groping instinct comes from God and leads to God. Paul discerns this groping in the idols around Athens, especially the one “To an unknown god” (17:23). Thus, Acts 17:27-28 which climax in a quotation from the 3d Century BCE poet, Aratus:
So that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
Paul’s words – as Luke constructs them – are notable. As Luke Timothy Johnson has put it: Luke “simply shows Paul picking up the inchoate longings of this ‘exceptionally religious’ people and directing them to their proper object.” My own travels to both Pompei on the Amalfi coast and to Ostia Antica, Rome’s 1st Century port, impressed upon me the constant presence of altars and shrines and temples and overt religiosity. This threat to both Jewish and Christian monotheism was abundant, and it called forth constant responses in the Jewish literature, not the least of which would be early Christian gospeling like what we find in Acts 17.
Adaptation runs through the whole gospeling event. Most notably, Paul does not speak directly either of Jesus Christ or of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ when he is on the Areopagus. His words, because they express gospeling, need to be quoted. From Acts 17:30-31:
While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
The apostle Paul of Galatians and Romans and 1 Corinthians doesn’t ever seem to drop the cross from the gospel, but the Paul of Acts 17:30-31 does. To quote Jimmy Dunn: “In short, the christology is subordinated to the theology; the developing christological distinctives of Christian faith are subordinated to the prior task of winning appropriate belief in God.” Still, the entire weight of the gospel message is carried by the resurrection as an act of the one God. It needs to be observed that Paul’s notion of “resurrection” is not re-cast in terms of the Platonic “immortality of the soul,” and N.T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God made this point over and over. Resurrection as “life after life after death” is not the same thing as the immortal soul carrying on after it escapes from the body. What Paul says about resurrection was not a touchstone with the Athenians; it was a sharp-edged difference.
Resurrection can be given too much attention. The actual weight is carried by christology of which the resurrection is part and which proves that God is with this one man. Paul’s words are that God will someday judge the whole world “by a man whom God has appointed” (17:31). Resurrection, no doubt, implies death – and in the narrative arc of Luke-Acts that death is the crucifixion – but it is noteworthy for a gospeling passage that Paul does not mention the crucifixion and there’s not a trace of an atonement theory at work in his gospeling in the swirl of heady Athens. One element in Acts 17, namely that God will finally administer justice through the one who suffered injustice (17:31; cf. 11:28), leads me to think the narrator of this text thinks of the death of Jesus as something dished out with injustice by the Jewish Temple establishment and for which the philosophers on the Areopagus were not being held accountable (just yet). This might explain why he does not bring up the crucifixion – it simply wasn’t their problem. Another approach, one that disperses sin in different directions for different people, is that of Richard Pervo: “The error of ‘the Jews’ in killing Jesus is comparable to that of the Greeks for failing to recognize the true God.”
Third, Paul’s gospeling summons his audiences, Israelites, God-fearing Gentiles and curious Athenian philosophers, to believe and repent. In Pisidian Antioch, Paul summons the audience to believe, and here Paul, surprisingly enough, sounds very much like Paul:
Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (13:38-39).
This NRSV translation actually does not do justice to the Greek text and so I mention that the word “justification” is used here. I translate it thus: “Let it be known to you, [my] male brothers, that through this person forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. [And] by this one person everyone who believes is justified [even] from all those [sins] from which you were not justified by the Torah of Moses.” Not only does this sound like Paul’s famous anti-works-of-the-Law rhetoric, but also like Romans 4:25 justification is tied to resurrection. I have digressed just a bit, in part to indulge in inner meanderings about the New Perspective, which in Tom Wright’s form does not tie justification enough to personal forgiveness of sins but also to make the point clearer: the proper response to the Pauline preaching, like that of Peter, is to believe.
And to repent. While the warning at the end of the Pisidian Antioch gospeling (13:40-41) does not mention repentance directly, it does appear in Acts 14:15-17 and especially in what he says to the philosophers on the Areopagus (17:30). The Athenians’ groping is not enough. Paul wants that groping to become what it wants to be: a grasping that generates repentance. Now that God has brought history to this point and now that everyone knows, everyone must repent to be granted forgiveness of sins (cf. 13:28-39), which could be a major fourth point about Paul’s gospeling. Forgiveness is what is granted to those who respond properly to the gospel.
Tucked between Paul’s Pisidian Antioch gospeling and what he declared on the Areopagus is Acts 15’s decision that Gentile believers and repenters did not have to be circumcised. Paul played some role in that debate, but the bigger role he had was to distribute the Jerusalem Council’s decision to the churches outside Jerusalem (15:22-35). Again, the point needs to be emphasized: in Acts, circumcision is not required for conversion.
A final point, and one that perhaps deserves some emphasis. Neither at Pisidian Antioch nor on the Areopagus does Paul call his audience to baptism. Paul himself was baptized (cf. 8:18; 22:16) and in other settings baptism followed response to the gospel (16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:3-5). But it is a strange curiosity that Paul does not demand baptism in these two gospeling sermons. And neither does he call them to be circumcised – a sign that the Paul of Acts goes along with the Jerusalem compromise in Acts 15.
Fourth, summaries of Paul’s gospeling shed light on the big picture of Paul’s gospel. One might point to other passages, but at least these passages could be summaries of Paul’s gospeling:
This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection (17:18).
I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21 as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus…. 25 And now I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again. 26 Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God (20:20-21, 25-27).
Resurrected Jesus says: “I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (26:17-18).
After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: 23 that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (26:19-23; cf. 24:21; 25:19; 26:6-7).
In my estimation, the focus of Paul’s gospel is summed in Acts at 28:20: “For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”
What to say? Paul’s gospel from these summaries is (1) about the Story of Israel coming to fruition in the Story of Jesus [cf. 26:22-23] and (2) this Story of Jesus is shaped through the crucifixion but especially his vindicating resurrection, and (3) the appropriate response is to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus.
Gospeling in Acts and Gospeling Today
The task of evangelism, what I am calling “gospeling,” is no less demanding and difficult today than it was in the time of Peter and Stephen and Paul. It also in no less need of creative adaptations to audience. Perhaps what we need more of is the boldness (Acts 2:29; 4:13, 29, 31; 28:31) that came upon them through a fresh blowing of the Spirit. Perhaps the absence of resurrection theology in much of gospeling today is to blame for the lack of boldness. At any rate, we need to recover more of that early Christian resurrection gospel and we need less of the theodicy-like focus the Anselm and the Reformers gave to atonement theories.
What then is the gospel? The Book of Acts leads me to conclude that the gospel is (1) the narration of the Story of Jesus – his life, his death, his resurrection, his exaltation, and his coming again – in the context of the Story of Israel, and Luke’s ending of Paul’s life by attempting to persuade the Jews that their Story was fulfilled in Jesus shows just how important this theme was (cf. 28:17-28). (2) It involves an exalted christology where Jesus is seen as suffering, saving, ruling, and judging. (3) Furthermore, gospeling is incomplete until it summons those who hear the gospel to repentance, to faith in Jesus Christ, and to baptism. (4) That gospel promises forgiveness and the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.
The gospeling of Acts deserves to be the comparing point for modern day gospeling. A few comparisons are in order: Perhaps the most astounding observation is that the Book of Acts has no atonement theology at work in the narration of the death of Jesus in gospeling (but cf. 20:28), and this stands in bold contrast to the gospel summary of 1 Corinthians 15:3: “that Christ died for our sins according to Scripture.” We’ve got death, we’ve got Scripture, and we’ve got forgiveness of sins – after the narration of resurrection and exaltation – but we have no reflection in these gospeling events on atonement. It cannot be said, therefore, that the gospeling sermons of Acts are based on the early Christian gospel tradition of 1 Corinthians 15. They seem to be independent, and one might say that Luke’s theology ran alongside, but not within, that creedal perception of the gospel.
Neither Peter nor Paul focus on God’s wrath, and they don’t describe redemption as an escape from hell. But judgment is not far away from their gospeling work. Just what the “problem” is that they see resolved in the gospel is worthy of serious re-consideration. One can infer from the promises – forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit – that the problems were sin and the absence of God’s power. But we would be mistaken to see this in purely individualistic terms. Peter’s summary in Acts 5:29-32 sees forgiveness for “Israel.” Another comparison comes to mind: the rock-solid foundation for much of gospeling today is that God loves us, and this has been made famous in evangelists like Billy Graham whose example has been multiplied almost infinitely. One sometimes hears this more in terms of “grace” than love, but the point remains the same: gospeling begins with the comforting message that God loves us. But that has nothing to do, though it can be assumed, in the gospeling texts of Peter and Paul. I don’t know what to make of this, but some doctoral student could chase this down for our benefits. A third comparison comes from the modern to the ancient: there is much to-do today about the anti-imperial slant of Luke’s theology and Paul’s theology. What strikes me is that there isn’t really much about this in either Peter or Paul, though one might argue that the blame the gospelers lay on the temple establishment is anti-imperialism. And Paul’s address at the Areopagus, bringing up as it does the idols, might be used to further the anti-imperial agenda of Paul and see it as inherent to the gospel. I’ve become fascinated with this recent trend in scholarship, and I think here of Richard Horsley and N.T. Wright, but I’m to this date not convinced the anti-imperial theme was nearly as conscious as these scholars are suggesting.
Gospeling, as the pages of the New Testament unfold and as the Church’s tradition takes shape, involves at least these features:
First, there is a reason why the first four books of the New Testament are called Gospels. Mark, who I believe is at the bottom of the Gospels’ well, called his book a “gospel” and, whether or not that was the reason, the Church called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John gospels. They did – and I don’t think enough folks think about this in this manner – because the gospel is the narrative of Jesus’ Story and therefore the four Gospels are gospeling events. We gospel whenever we read, teach, or preach the Gospels. The four Gospels, therefore, take Paul’s classic gospel propositional lines of 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (20-28?) and fill them in.
Second, I believe both Eucharist and Baptism are gospeling events. I appeal here to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:26: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Eucharistic gospeling occurs on the part of the ingester of the bread and wine – that person, in appropriating the Lord’s body and blood, proclaims (katangello) the Lord’s death until the coming of Christ. And Romans 6:1-11 clearly connects baptism to both the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism, therefore, embodies and therefore announces the gospel – it tells the Story of Jesus’ death and life.
Third, the classic creeds of the Church, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition hang their ideas on a narrative re-telling of the Story of Jesus, sometimes without enough attention to the context of Israel’s Story. It is not possible here to discuss the connection these creeds have with 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (20-28?), but they are rooted in that listing of events as a creedal formulation of how to state gospel. These creeds are, therefore, gospeling. I maintain the view that teaching the creeds is teaching the gospel and I maintain that fidelity to these creeds is required to be faithful to the gospel – for it was the gospel that was fleshed out in the creeds.
Fourth, the church calendar – in its various forms and in various ways – gospels the gospel. If it begins with Advent and then prepares for Good Friday/Easter by teaching the life and teachings of Jesus, and then on to Pentecost, and in some traditions opens up during summer for more looks at the life of Jesus, then we can say that the calendar is a form of gospeling because it is designed to tell the Story of Jesus.
Finally, the rub. Far too much of gospeling in the church is no more than 3/4ths of the gospel we find in the Book of Acts: we get plenty of narrative about Jesus, plenty of promise of forgiveness (and heaven too), plenty of christology, but not enough of the call to respond with repentance and faith. Baptism, alone, does not do because baptism is not alone in the earliest gospeling. Baptism brings to fruition one’s faith in the Lord Jesus and one’s repentance – it is a death to sin and a new life to Christ.
Third, at work in both Peter’s hermeneutic of reading Israel’s Story and the Story of Jesus is a potent, if comparatively primitive, christology. Let me say this from a different angle: if one reads the Story of Jesus as the climax of the Story of Israel, one comes to Peter’s christology. What do we find? Both Acts 2:36 and 10:36-38 bring Peter’s hermeneutic to this point: Jesus of Nazareth, the one who lived and died and who was raised, is both Messiah of Israel and Lord of Israel (and the whole world). Thus, Acts 2:36: