ACTS: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. By Willie James Jennings. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xvii + 289 pages.
Karl Barth's Romans commentary was not only theologically provocative it disrupted theological business as usual. While rooted in the study of the text, it was and is a theological masterpiece. While theologians have been known to write commentaries (think of Calvin), most of the biblical commentaries are written by specialists, who look closely at textual and historical matters. While this is valuable, it is beneficial to the church for those who are trained as theologians to take up entire books of the Bible and engage with the text in an extended manner. It is a blessing when publishers will offer commentary series in which theologians have been invited to do just this, write commentary on scripture. One of these series is published by Westminster John Knox Press under the series name: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Among the most thoughtful and provocative contributions to the series that has been published to this point is the commentary on the Book of Acts written by Willie James Jennings.
The Book of Acts is a formative text for Christians. A companion to the Gospel of Luke, the Book Acts takes us from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Rome). It is the story of God’s creation of a people who extend the ministry of Jesus to the Gentiles. It is the story of a community that is guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It has been formative text for the Stone-Campbell Movement, of which I am part. Early Disciples, and many of their descendants looked to Acts for a blueprint for church order. It has also been the formative text for the Pentecostal Movement, who also found a blueprint, though a different one. Having spent time in this movement, I have experienced how it is used in normative ways. It is, therefore, a book of scripture requiring careful handling, and theological engagement.
Willie Jennings provides us with a reading of Acts that brings out elements of the story that I have missed, and I’ve taught this book at a college level. He brings theological expertise, but also his own experience as an African American man who has experienced empire and diaspora in ways I have not. While many biblical commentators try to bring a neutral voice, an academic voice, a theological voice will always come with a built-in perspective, one that is formed by context, experience, and theological commitments. We see this clearly present in this commentary. Jennings history includes studies at Calvin College and Fuller Seminary, as well as Duke Divinity School, where he taught for several years before moving to Yale Divinity School, where he currently is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies. I note his time at Fuller, we overlapped by one year, though to my knowledge we never were in class together. You can see in his writings a deep love of scripture and commitment to its authority, even as he is not afraid to challenge its reading. With scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson, he understands the difference between what is historical and what is history. That is, he understands that we needn’t accept everything as factual to receive truth from the text. His vision here is inviting us to gain wisdom for the journey from our engagement with the text.
At the very beginning of the commentary, Jennings writes that "the book of Acts speaks of revolution." That's provocative. It’s radical. It is a book about revolution, because the Holy Spirit is a disruptive force. (p. 1). This is the story of God in action, moving by the Spirit, engaging humanity along the way. As for history, the book of Acts invites us into a particular form of history, not a history of monuments, but as a story that invites us toward God's future.
Jennings takes us on a journey through this revolution of the Spirit, moving from ascension to Paul’s arrival in Rome. He exegetes the text in conversation with specialists, as one would expect, all the while offering what he can do best and that is offer theological analysis. The story that gets told in this biblical book, and the commentary itself, concerns the birth of a faith in the context of empire, more specifically the Roman Empire. This empire seeks to "shape the world in its own image" (p. 5). This is what empires seek to do, they seek to mold societies to fit their preconceived visions and needs. Religion will play a part. Having just finished a biography of Fr. Junipero Serra, I saw this play out in the expansion of the Spanish Empire into California. We’ve seen this occur with every empire, from the dawn of time to the present. This is one of the best theological examinations of empire and its effects that I’ve read.
This word about empire is important not only to understand the past, but the present as well. Empires demand assimilation. Rome sought to assimilate the peoples within the borders of its empire. We see in this story the effects. We see the effect of assimilation on Jews living in the empire. Some, like Herod became fully Roman. Others, living in the diaspora sought to protect their identities against all challengers, putting them on a collision course with this emerging Christian community, which was deemed a threat to their ability to live as Jews within the empire. On diaspora, Jennings writes: "diaspora means scattering and fragmentation, exile and loss. It means being displaced and in search of a place that could be made home" (p. 6). You can understand why a movement that seeks to engage the Gentile community might be perceived as a threat. This leads us to one of the important themes of the book, the joining of Jew and Gentile. It is the formation of a people caught between empire and diaspora. But, it is also the story of God's desire for fellowship with humanity.
With that concern, the journey begins. It is the story of a movement of the Spirit that confronts nationalism and tribalism. It is a challenge to empire and its attempts to constrain the Spirit. Jennings will address throughout the book our attraction to the nationalist fantasy that seeks to form us. It is a word that is especially pertinent to the American situation, which seeks to build walls, draw borders, and protect status quo for the powerful. So, we take the journey that leads to Pentecost and beyond, until eyes are opened through visions and experiences for Peter and then the call of Paul. All along the way we see encounters with the powers that be, attempts to constrain the Spirit, but which are consistently overcome.
In the postscript to the commentary, Jennings writes that in the end what we see is the emergence of a different form of assimilation from the one envisioned by empire. There is a joining of Jew and Gentile here, but not in a way where uniqueness and difference are eliminated. He speaks of a form of assimilation in which "out of love and desire, disciples take on the ways of others. Disciples allow themselves to be assimilated for the sake of love; they do not demand or request others to be assimilated to them" (p. 255). In this segregation is overcome not by pressing everyone into one mold, but letting our differences flow from one to the other in the Spirit. Again, this is an important word for the church today. Segregation will not be overcome by trying to assimilate everyone into the majority culture. We will seek to hold on to our distinctives. That is, a good thing.
It is difficult to describe fully the nature of a biblical commentary. All I can really do is invite others to take up the commentary and engage the text in conversation with this particular conversation partner, one who sees things in the text I never saw before, and having taught the book of Acts in a college setting as well as a congregational one, having read a number of very good commentaries, I still missed aspects of the story, which Jennings brings out, and which I find helpful.
One element of this commentary series, which I especially like, are the occasional "Further Reflections," that appear regularly in the commentary. Through these extended essays, the authors, in this case Willie Jennings, can take up elements of the story that have important theological implications. Among the topics covered are "Christians, Jews, and Nationalism," "Marriage, Money, and Discipleship," Evangelization and Loving Difference," "Word of God against Word of God," "The Seduction of Segregation," "Intercultural and Interracial Life," "Christian Witness against the Prison," "Citizenship and Struggle," and finally, "Alternative Space and Alternative Desire." These essays provide rich theological work, that invite the reader to stop and ponder the meanings developed.
I highly recommend both this commentary and the series in which it appears. There are great riches to be found, especially for preachers, who are called not only to exegete an ancient text, but to bring a word for today that is rooted in the text.