ACTS OF THE APOSTLES (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). By Ronald J. Allen. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. Xvii +233 pages.
I once taught a class at a Bible college with the course name: History of Christian Beginnings. The focus on the class, however, was even more specific than the history of Christian beginnings. It was a course focusing on the Book of Acts. For many in the Stone-Campbell Movement the Book of Acts is “the” history of the early church. It is the place we go to discover the true foundations of the Christian faith – post Jesus’ death and resurrection. This course carried both a bible and a history designation – with the assumption that a student transferring from that college might be able to use it to fulfill a history requirement – should it not be needed to fill a biblical/religious requirement. Most biblical scholars today are a bit skeptical about how much “history” the Book of Acts offers us. Just recently the institution sponsoring the Jesus Seminar gathered to determine the date of the Book of Acts. They opted for the second century, moving this book much further from the days that Peter and Paul walked the earth.
One could spend hours debating the historical veracity of the Book of Acts, but the Book of Acts is clearly more than history (no matter where you come down on the question of historicity). While many commentators of the past focused on the question of history and how the book told the history of the church, this is very much a theological work (something often lost by readers who want this to be a book of history). Luke has a story to tell Theophilus. It’s a story that begins in the gospel and continues on in this second volume. Many excellent commentaries have been published in recent years, but the focus of this commentary written by Ronald J. Allen, is on the way in which it can be preached.
Ron Allen is, like me, a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He teaches in the areas of preaching, Gospels and Letters, at Christian Theological Seminary, and has authored or co-authored more than thirty books. As a Disciple, he is heir of that Stone-Campbell tradition that values the Book of Acts as a central text. In writing this commentary for preachers Ron is intent on making clear that this book isn’t simply about things that happened back then, but when properly interpreted has a word for the contemporary church. The commentary itself is a contribution to a new series of commentaries from Fortress Press. The intention for this series is that a lectionary preacher will have a resource that not only discusses the lectionary text, but places it in context. It is also designed to move the preacher from the past into the present.
In the preface, Ron writes that the “main theme of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts is the coming of the Realm of God – the confidence that God is seeking to restore the present old and broken world so that all things will fully manifest God’s purposes for all to live in love, peace, justice, and abundance” (p. xi). The commentary keeps this theme ever before the reader. Recognizing the relationship of the Gospel with the Book of Acts, Ron suggests that the taken together the two books form a “giant chiasmus.” The Book of Acts serves as the second half, but it has its parallel in the Gospel. Together the two books speak of God's inauguration of the realm of God. While the Gospel tells us how God introduces the realm in the ministry of Jesus, Acts shares how the realm is expressed in the life of the church. With this understanding in place, Ron structures the commentary around Acts 1:8; the passage in which we find Jesus commissioning the apostles (and successors) to pursue the spread of the Realm of God beginning in Jerusalem, and then outward through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth.
The commentary begins with an introduction in which we are provided details such as discussions of the structure, theological understandings, context, authorship and date. On the later Ron accepts the traditional dating of 85-90 CE. While discussing the background to the text itself, Ron denotes his own social location and theological assumptions. He acknowledges that the point of the commentary is not to push his own theological views, but he also recognizes that his own theology will emerge in his interpretations. With that in mind he notes that he has been influenced by process theology, affirms God’s unconditional love for all people, and while God is present in every moment, God does not have absolute power. He notes his differences with Luke, especially in regard to Luke’s division of history “into two discontinuous ages.” He also doesn’t accept Luke’s presupposition that God can or will bring history to an abrupt end. Additionally, he rejects the idea that God “intentionally causes pain or harm.” This is important to interpreting texts like the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. While he doesn’t believe that God causes anyone to suffer, he does acknowledge that we can suffer the consequences of decisions and actions.
Having offered an introduction to the text, methodology, and theology, he begins the task of looking at the texts themselves. While concerned about how Acts is used in the Revised Common Lectionary, he offers a commentary on the entirety of the Book of Acts. In part this is due to the need to put the lectionary selections in context, but also because he believes that there are significant portions of the text of Acts that do not make it into the lectionary and deserve to be lifted up by preachers.
The commentary begins with a look at Acts 1:1-2:13, wherein Ron sees the introduction of the theme of the Realm of God. It is in this section of Acts that the commission to spread the good news of the Realm across the world is given, a vision confirmed by the Ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit on the gathered community on Pentecost. From this point on, the commentary is guided by outline provided in Acts 1:8. In the course of the commentary, Ron Allen offers commentary, pulling out themes and ideas that the preacher might find helpful in preaching. He also provides words of guidance about how the texts fit into the lectionary, and discusses where this particular passage connects to its parallel in the Gospel. Regarding the latter, the Ascension of Jesus forms the centerpiece of this crossing pattern. Whereas the Gospel moves toward the Ascension, the Book of Acts moves away from it. As the reader of Acts and reader of the commentary come to the end of the story, we discover that there is no clear ending. We’re not told what happens to Paul, thus, the twenty-ninth chapter of Acts is the ongoing story that that has been written by Christians down through the ages as they (we) have joined with God in sharing the good news that God has inaugurated the Realm.
Besides the analysis/discussion of the text, which he divides into four parts -- The coming of the Realm of God; “You will be my witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea;” “ You will be my witnesses in Samaria;” “You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth” – he provides the reader with four appendices. The first provides in compact form a description of the chiastic structure of Luke-Acts. The second appendix offers a table that correlates the lectionary readings from the Gospel with the Book of Acts. This should prove very helpful for preachers wanting to make use of these connections in their preaching. In the third appendix, Ron offers suggestions for putting together series of sermons. A series might focus on representative texts, or perhaps certain characters such as Peter, Paul, or Tabitha. Or a series could look at various themes that are present in the book. These are offered in recognition that the lectionary leaves much of the book untouched. While he believes that the best way to catch the narrative structure is to move methodically from beginning to end, he recognizes that this is not workable in most congregations. In the final appendix we’re provided with an annotated bibliography, providing the reader with options for further reading. In providing this list, the preacher is offered books that cross the religious spectrum from Evangelical to Roman Catholic.
The analysis is thoughtful and fair. The homiletical pointers are appropriate and helpful. Preachers will find this commentary helpful, and if this early contribution is a sign of what is to come, preachers will want to consult these commentaries, wherever they happen to be on the theological spectrum. While Ron is on the liberal/progressive side of the spectrum, his theology and his preaching is deeply rooted in the text of Scripture. He points out the problems and the concerns. He notes his disagreement with Luke where he feels it necessary. Still, this doesn’t diminish the love of the text or of the need to bring the text to faith communities. Additionally, as is true of all of Ron's commentaries, he assiduously provides guidance as to the dangers of reading the text in an anti-Jewish manner, pointing out problematic passages and interpretations. This is indeed an excellent resource for any preacher seeks to take up the text of Acts in the pulpit. But even the non-preacher should find this intriguing and useful.