NACC Ė July 13, 2000 Jon A. Weatherly
Louisville, Kentucky Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary
Workshop Cincinnati, OH
THE WRITERíS VERSUS THE READERíS PURPOSE: INTERPRETING ACTS THEOLOGICALLY
From its inception the Restoration Movement has emphasized the book of Acts. Our program as we have defined itóto restore the faith and life of the primitive churchónaturally draws us to the book that narrates that life. Though we eschew the term "theology," often by simply substituting "doctrine," what in fact we have done is to interpret Acts so that we can construct theology from it. Having heard the popular-level evangelical dismissal of Acts as containing "history," not "doctrine," we have protested that it indeed is as much a source of doctrine as any other New Testament book, sometimes even treating it as first among equals within the New Testament canon.
Not surprisingly, the pressing ecclesiological issues of the last two hundred years have largely determined our theological interpretation of Acts. We have asked the book to answer the questions that plague us at the moment. Those questions have changed as our circumstances have changed, and so our list of doctrines that Acts "teaches" has grown with each question. Having first asked Acts to address issues like baptismís relation to salvation or the local congregationís autonomy, later we added questions about the genuine reception of the Holy Spirit or the proper organization of world missions. As other issues arise, the Restoration Movementís typical first question is, "What does the book of Acts have to say on this subject?" Our expectation that our questions will find answers in Acts, given enough careful study, is apparently boundless.
In this approach we are not alone. As Gordon Fee reminds us, "By and large, most sectors of evangelical Protestantism have a Ďrestoration movementí mentality. We regularly look back to the church and Christian experience in the first century either as the norm to be restored or the ideal to be approximated." Such appeals can be found in an ecclesiastical range from Pentecostals, insisting that speaking in tongues is the normal experience of those who receive the Holy Spirit, to Episcopalians, arguing that reception of the Spirit at confirmation is established by its reception after laying on of hands in Acts 8 and 19, to various Christian socialists, who find the Jerusalem churchís sharing of goods to be normative.
Whatever the particular question or the conclusion, the interpretive assumption behind this common approach is that what the book of Acts narrates, it asserts as normative for the church. Coupled with this assumption is an interpretive objective: to address a particular issue of contemporary concern. Christian readers of Acts generally seek precedents in the text, accounts of particular events that as the first instance establish what God wants done thereafter, or more particularly, what God wants done in a matter of current controversy. I can illustrate how the assumption and the motive in tandem drive this approach with a contrary example. Of all the conclusions drawn from the "precedents" of Acts, I know of no serious assertion that Christian missionaries ought to travel only on foot, in wagons drawn by draft animals or in sailing ships, even though those modes of transportation were the only ones employed in Acts, aside perhaps for Philipís mysterious journey to Azotus. Certainly we have a "pattern" here: the text is consistent on this point, even more so than it is on other issues where readers do insist that Acts "teaches" something or other. What is missing on this issue is the interpreterís desire to have a particular question answered. Christians have scarcely been troubled or divided by the ethics of missionariesí transportation modes.
This observation raises what I consider to be the crucial question: as we put a question to Acts, how confident are we that the author of Acts expected his narrative to be able to answer that question? The Restoration Movement has, of course, never assumed that all the Bible or any part of it is capable of answering every question that we might ask it: we confess that where the Bible is silent, we are silent. We must first ask, then, about what does Acts actually speak, and about what is it silent? An extended narrative like Acts will inevitably touch on various matters that are incidental to the point that the text and its author seek to make. Despite the attention given to details of seafaring in Acts 27, for example, one would hardly conclude that the author expected the book to be read as giving advice on sailing. Yet surely the author meant to say something with this section of the narrative. Where does the author set down the boundaries of his intention?
We are not, of course, the first interpreters of Acts to understand that its theological message ought to be the message intended by the author. In his highly influential commentary on Acts, J. W. McGarvey does this very thing. In contrast to F. C. Baurís hypothesis that Acts sought to synthesize the warring factions of Petrine and Pauline Christianity, McGarvey offered that the "design" of the author is obviously "to set forth to his readers a multitude of cases of conversion under the labors of apostles and apostolic men, so that we may know how this work, the main work for which Jesus died and the apostles were commissioned, was accomplished." Lest we think that McGarvey offered this conclusion without warrant in the text, we must observe that he analyzed Acts thus: "If we extract from the book all accounts of [conversion], together with the facts and incidents preparatory to and consequent upon each, we shall have exhausted almost entirely the contents of the book." As a subsidiary purpose, McGarveyís author sets forth "the apostolic method of organizing the individual congregations of the believers." Here, however, he cites no specific analysis of the text to justify seeing this purpose as a part of the textís design. Concluding his discussion, McGarvey allows that "other subordinate purposes" probably exist as well, but that these two indicate that the book was purposefully written.
As I read his celebrated analysis, I fault McGarvey not for neglecting the authorís purpose but for construing it inadequately. Though narratives of conversions obviously occupy a good portion of Acts, they probably do not constitute as much of the book as McGarvey allows. To cite but one example, fully one quarter of Acts is given over to Paulís imprisonment (chapters 21-28), during which the text narrates only a single successful episode of conversion, and only incidentally at that (28:24). Though McGarvey might protest that Paulís imprisonment is a consequence of his conversion of Gentiles, I would rejoin that by itself this observation hardly explains Lukeís devoting a quarter of his book to the subject. In fact, it is hard to conceive of any narrative about the church, composed as it is of converts, that could not be construed as accounts of conversions or the events leading to or following from them. Furthermore, if we understand McGarvey to see Acts as setting forth by repetition in the narrative a pattern of conversion that indicates a clear ordo salutis, the contents of the book must be judged to have done so imperfectly. Anyone who has read Acts with an eye to this issue has observed that there are apparent exceptions to the pattern of conversion in the narrative. If we assume, as I assure you I do, that Acts 2:38 sets forth a programmatic statement on conversion at the beginning of the book, then we must observe that the apostles or 120 receive the Spirit either before or apart from baptism in the name of Jesus, that the Samaritans receive the Spirit well after baptism in conjunction with the laying on of hands, that Cornelius and household received the Spirit prior to baptism, that the text does not make clear either whether Apollos received the Holy Spirit apart from baptism in the name of Jesus or whether he was so baptized even after being instructed by Aquila and Priscilla, and that the Ephesian "disciples" receive the Spirit, like the Samaritans, immediately after the post-baptismal laying on of hands. Indeed Acts is full of conversions, and narratives of conversions are clearly important for the authorís pursuit of his purpose. But the book is not only filled with much more than conversions, it also narrates conversions with what has been characterizedówith some justificationóas a lack of consistency.
Now before some of you begin sharpening your knives, let me assure you at this point of my conclusion on this issue. I believe that McGarvey and others were still utterly correct in concluding that the author of Acts understands baptism in the name of Jesus to be a regular and normative part of Christian conversion. To put it differently, in Acts as in the rest of the New Testament, baptism is done so that one becomes a Christian, not because one is already a Christian. What I would offer is that making this point about baptism is probably not a part of the authorís purpose and so not a part of the primary theological message of Acts. I draw this conclusion first from what I have already noted: the many questions that the text of Acts raises if it is read with the object of finding a completely consistent pattern of conversion. Second, I can understand that phenomenon by considering the probabilities of the authorís intention in his situation: because it is highly unlikely that the question of how one is converted to Christianity arose in the first century church in the same way that it arises in our centuries, it is highly unlikely that the author crafted his narrative to answer our particular questions directly. The author of Acts writes to answer questions, but this question is probably not among them.
So if the author of Acts is not answering this question, what question is he answering? We are not in a position to offer some innovative and radical method for approaching this problem. We can only continue to do what interpreters have sought to do in the past: read the text carefully with an understanding of the broad circumstances and issues at the time of writing, looking for points of emphasis and coherence that reveal the issues that the author expected his book to address. For Acts, a large book, this is obviously a large task, made larger by the fact that Acts is written as the second volume of a two-volume work. So all we can do here is sketch out some of the leading features that suggest an answer to this question. But this sketch offers a reasonably clear idea of the authorís expectations.
Before offering this sketch, I must address one more potential objection. We have traditionally read Acts as a book of history, and the most cogent understanding of the bookís genre places it somewhere in the range of ancient historical monographs or biographies. Does this carry the implication that the author simply writes what happened, without imposing on the historical events some extraneous interpretation? Two related observations will answer this objection. The first is the realization that all historical narratives involve, through the process of selection of episodes and details to narrate, the authorís interpretation of events. We cannot, therefore, separate the events from the historianís interpretation of them. At best we can suggest alternative interpretations. This is not to say, however, that all interpretations of history are equally valid. Those that offer more coherent and comprehensive explanations of the relevant data are to be preferred over less coherent and comprehensive explanations. Secondly, to assert that the author of Acts, if he interpreted events theologically, therefore distorted those events or offered something alien to the events themselves, is to make not only an interpretive move that ignores the impossibility of history without interpretation but also a theological move that locates revelation more in the divinely empowered event than in the divinely inspired inscripturation of that event. Such a move is, I would assert, incompatible with biblical statements on revelation and inspiration and unnecessarily reductionistic. In fact, if we understand a revelatory event only through the account of an inspired author, then the inspired authorís interpretation should presumably be the object of our interpretation of the text. Or to put it differently, inspiration assures us not that the text narrates events without interpretation but that the interpretation of the event in the text is the divinely inspired interpretation. It is this theological conviction, in fact, that drives our quest to understand what the biblical authors are saying.
What, then, does Acts tell the reader about its purpose? We go first to the prologue of Acts and its companion prologue in Luke. Of the many observations one might make about these prologues, a few are especially crucial for our quest. One is that the author sees the subject matter as "things that have been fulfilled among us" (Luke 1:1) implying at least that the purpose of God is somehow accomplished in the narrated events. A second is that the intended perlocution of the narrative is knowledge of the "certainty" of the things that the reader has been taught, namely, of the gospel (Luke 1:4). The prologue of Acts then links itself firmly to the Lukan Gospelís prologue with reference to the "first book" that was concerned with "all that Jesus began to do and teach" [emphasis inserted]. By themselves, these notes are no more than suggestive or provocative. But when they are read or reread with knowledge of the narratives that ensue, they indicate something of the authorís purpose. Luke would have the reader see the story of Jesus, already known to the reader at least in part, as the account of the fulfillment of Godís purpose in the world. Further, he would have the reader experience a firm confidence about that interpretation of the life of Jesus. Presumably, then, something exists that would otherwise prevent or undermine such confidence. Moreover, Luke sees the story of the early church as the continuation of the story of Jesus, and so the continuation of the fulfillment of Godís purpose.
We can move from this starting point by noting some of the more prominent features of the rest of the narrative. Unmistakable to the reader of Lukeís Gospel is the sudden shift from a medium-brow literary style in Luke 1:1-4 to a dialect reminiscent of the Septuagint in 1:5 and following. Not only does the tone shift, but so does the subject matter: everything that ensues is intensely Jewish. The Lukan infancy narratives breathe the air of Second-Temple Judaism with its social and religious institutions, the piety of its people, and its hopes for the future. In that setting, these narratives announce the fulfillment of those hopes as articulated in Israelís Scriptures. In the rest of Lukeís Gospel, one is never far from quotations of or allusions to the inscripturated promises of God. And the same is true for Acts. Briefly, I will note a few biblical concepts to which Acts lays claim. Most prominent among these are christological claims: appropriations of Israelís sacred texts to identify Jesus as the promised Davidic king, Abrahamic seed, and Isaianic suffering servant. In Peterís Pentecost address, Davidic christology, undergirded with reference to the Psalms, is the explanation for a second biblical motif: the pouring out of Godís Spirit on his people (Acts 2:17-36). This event, per the oracle of Joel, signals the empowering of the people of God to live in the age of fulfillment. It is, in other words, Israelís promised restoration. But in the purpose of God, it is not limited to Israel. The divine promise is to pour out the divine Spirit on "all flesh" (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17). Thus, when a series of events that could come only from the hand of God leads Peter to preach the gospel to Gentiles (Acts 10:1-11:18), their extraordinary conversion signals the fulfillment of yet another promise: that in the age of fulfillment, at Israelís restoration, the God of Israel would become the God of the nations as well (Isa 42:6; 49:6; etc.). Those who believe in the true Messiah of Israel are therefore empowered by the Spirit live out the redemptive purpose of God in the world (Acts 2:42-47; 4:31-35). Within the community, they fulfill the biblical ideal for Israel by their common life (Deut 15:4; Acts 4:34). Beyond the community, they fulfill the purpose of God to make himself known among all the nations (Acts 1:8).
The message of these appropriated biblical motifs is reinforced by the parallels between Lukeís Gospel and Acts. Jesus is emphatically identified in both books as the divinely appointed Christ, the climax of Godís work in the world. In Lukeís Gospel, he performs various characteristic acts: he teaches, heals, casts out demons, raises the dead, and encounters opposition, eventually deadly opposition in the form of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. In Acts, followers of Jesusómore particularly Peter, Stephen and Paulósimilarly teach, heal, cast out demons, raise the dead, and encounter opposition, especially from the Sanhedrin, and all in the name of Jesus. These parallels connect the followers of Jesus to him, but particularly in two respects. One is in the divine program of redemption. Jesusí teaching, healing, exorcising and raising the dead are all aspects of work that fulfills Godís redemptive purpose and promises (Luke 4:18-19; 7:22; Cf. Isa 61:1-2). The same is therefore true for his followers, commissioned and empowered as they are for this task. But surprisingly and ironically (from the human point of view), this divine redemptive program incites bitter opposition. That opposition may even appear to have the upper hand. But again with irony, the very climax of that opposition fulfills the divine purpose, as Jesus dies and is raised in Jerusalem (Luke 9:22; 44-45; 18:31-34; 24:25-27). Likewise, his followers experience the same kind of opposition, but it likewise ironically fulfills the divine purpose. The death of Stephen and its aftermath prompts the spread of the gospel beyond its geographical and ethnic confines in Jerusalem (Acts 8:4; 11:19), even transforming a leader of the persecution to a missionary, himself persecuted (Acts 9:1-30). Paulís persecutions move him forward to preach in new cities as he leaves behind clusters of converts (e.g. Acts 13:51-14:7). His most extensive experience of persecution, his arrest in Jerusalem and the aftermath that takes him to Rome, proves to be a fulfillment of Godís purpose (Acts 23:11) as Paul is not only protected by his enemies but enabled to bear witness before "Gentiles, kings and the sons of Israel" (Acts 9:15), finally preaching "boldly and without hindrance" (not a description expected of one in Roman custody) in Rome itself (Acts 28:31).
Within the structure of these parallels, the reader of Acts repeatedly reads of the same event, or the same kind of event. The conversion of Cornelius is recounted three times in Acts (10:1-48; 11:1-18; 15:7-9), underlining emphatically Godís intention to receive Gentiles into his people through faith in Jesus without circumcision. Likewise, Paulís Damascus Road experience is narrated three times (9:1-19; 22:5-16; 26:12-18), not only signaling the triumph of Jesus over his chief persecutor but the absolute necessity for Paul to believe in Jesus and to preach the gospel to all if he is to be faithful as a Jew. Other conversion narratives are not repeated, but the recurrence of them is obviously significant, though perhaps not in exactly the way McGarvey conceived the significance. Acts narrates few "ordinary" conversions. These are noted mostly by way of summary (2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7; 11:21; 12:24; 13:48-49; 14:1; etc.). Instead, it focuses on the exceptional ones, conversions that underline the nature and scope of the gospelís salvation. Thus, we read about the conversion of despised Samaritans (and the vanquishing of a magician; 8:5-24), an exotic Ethiopian (8:26-40), a Roman proconsul (and the vanquishing of yet another magician; 13:6-12), a prosperous businesswoman (16:13-15), a Roman jailer (16:27-34), and a pair of Athenian sophisticates (17:34). What strikes the reader is not the regular pattern by which these move from the old life to the new but the range of people whom the gospel converts. Also striking is the fact that conversions, particularly those that are not so much narrated as summarized, generally are paired with episodes of persecution. So, the stunning response to Peterís preaching in Acts 2-3 is met with the persecution of Acts 3-7, and the itinerant ministry of Paul characteristically produces faith in some and rabid opposition in others. Indeed, the bookís last narrated episode underlines this juxtaposition: "and some were persuaded by what was said, but others disbelieved" (28:24), a state of affairs that Paul explains by quoting Isa 6:9-10 (Acts 28:26-27), a text similarly used by Jesus (Luke 8:10).
Now, just as Luke cannot narrate without interpreting, so I cannot summarize without interpreting. Consequently, my interpretation of these phenomena of Acts may already be apparent. But I will make it explicit. The narrative of Acts identifies the followers of Jesus as the true people of God in an environment in which they might appear to be anything but that. They are the true people of God because they follow Godís Messiah, have received Godís Spirit, and do Godís will, specifically, as a community of radical generosity, incorporating people of all nations and proclaiming the salvation wrought by the God of Israel to all nations. However, they might not appear to be the true people of God because the "Messiah" they follow was crucified by the lawless Romans (Acts 2:23). They might not appear to be the true people of God because they represent only a fraction of ethnic Israel (e.g. Acts 14:1-7) and incorporate uncircumcised Gentiles (Acts 15:1-33). They might not appear to be the true people of God because they are virulently opposed by the religious leaders of Israel (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42; 6:9-8:3; 21:27-28:31). They might not appear to be the true people of God because everywhere they go, they incite trouble (e.g. Acts 14:5-6, 19-2016:16-40). They might not appear to be the true people of God because their most noteworthy leaders have been jailed (Acts 12:3-17; 21:27-28:31) and even executed (7:57-60; 12:1-2). But for Luke, all these "might nots," viewed through the lens of Scripture, especially Scripture as read after the resurrection of Jesus, appear as fulfillments of the divine purpose rather than contraindications of it. Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus accomplished his purpose as Messiah per the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27). Thus, the churchís small numbers in Israel is consistent with the remnant status of the true people of God throughout Israelís history (Psalm 2:1-2; Acts 4:25-26; Isa 6:9-10: Acts 28:26-27). Thus, the incorporation of Gentiles as Gentiles is the fulfillment of Godís stated purpose for the end times (Amos 9:11-12; Acts 15:16-18). Thus, the trouble that the Christians incite (and in fact it is not they but their opponents who incite it) is part and parcel with the experience of Godís people in the past and for the future (Acts 14:22).
This, then, is the "pattern" of the church that Acts sets forth. The followers of Jesus are not merely a "sect spoken against everywhere" (Acts 28:22), one of many odd groups on the fringes of Judaism (cf. Acts 5:35-39; 21:38). A long series of extraordinary events confirms that God has fulfilled his promises in a surprising and remarkable manner in Jesus of Nazareth. As a result, the focus of his activity in the world is a small but growing band of believers in Jesus of Nazareth. In their lives God is fulfilling his purpose of the ages.
If this summary represents a decent approximation of the writerís purpose for Acts, we can be sure that many of the questions that we have posed to the book are not on the writerís agenda. Are the answers that we have derived therefore illegitimate? In many cases, I suspect that they are. However, in other cases we may have arrived at legitimate answers by means that were flawed, but not fatally. Here I would suggest that at points our questions have prompted us to look at concepts that the writer of Acts assumes more than asserts. These assumed concepts were widely held and uncontroversial among Christians at the time that Luke wrote Acts. He could therefore expect the reader to assume them as he read. The text, therefore, at points will reflect such concepts without stating them with the clarity, precision or emphasis of its primary assertions.
Baptism is one such concept. I aver that Acts was not written to tell readers the proper mode, subject and purpose of baptism. One cannot but notice the near ubiquity of baptism in Acts, but at the same time one cannot but notice the near absence of any theoretical explanation of it. Further, when we know that theological controversies about baptism arose centuries later, we can hardly expect the writer of Acts to have addressed them directly. However, it would be unfair to say that the book therefore reflects no consistent understanding of baptism at all. If baptism was indeed an uncontroversial subject in the early church, we can expect the New Testament as a whole to reflect the churchís unanimity on the subject, and we can expect Acts to be a part of that unanimity. We can therefore ask what the statements of Acts imply about the understanding of baptism that the author assumes, even though his purpose is not to assert that understanding.
Two texts in Acts imply clearly enough what that understanding is. To the surprise of no one in this room, I will begin with Acts 2:38. Discussion of this text has finally reached a point where we can assert a scholarly consensus about it: that the syntax of this verse asserts that baptism in the name of Jesus results in forgiveness for sin and reception of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, to connect forgiveness and the Spirit only to "repentance" not only strains the sentence structure unduly but also obscures the image of cleansing that was probably most prominent in the action of baptism itself. To this assertion, however, more needs to be added. First, the act of baptism itselfóa dipping or plunging into water, not self-administeredówould most obviously have been understood by first-century Jews, familiar with self-administered lustrations, as signifying the cleansing of or forgiveness for sins effected by God himself. In the context of Christian proclamation, that cleansing fulfills the promise of Israelís restoration of the end-time. This perspective drives the entirety of Peterís Pentecost speech, especially in light of the last verse of the Joel quotation that begins it: "And it will be that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Acts 2:21; Joel 2:32). The ensuing speech asserts the authority of Jesus, crucified but now vindicated and exalted by his resurrection, to pour out the Spirit on his followers. The repentance that Peter calls for is most directly connected to the hearersí turning from their former rejection of Jesus to acknowledge the authority granted him by God (v. 36). Thus, to be baptized in his "name" and so receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit echoes the closing line of the Joel quotation, so that to be baptized in Jesusí name, acknowledging him as Lord, is to call on the name of the Lord to be saved. This connection is all the more clear when we note that the awkward shift from the second person plural "repent" (metanoesate) to the third person singular "each of you must be baptized" (baptistheto) creates a closer parallel with the third person singular "all who call" in v. 21, with the indefinite pronouns pas ("all") in the former and hekastos ("each") in the latter supplying similar universal force. As v. 39 continues the point, the extension of the promise to "your children" and "all who are far off" again recalls v. 17 with its "sons," "daughters," and "all flesh" as recipients of Godís Spirit. The community thus formed by receiving the word and being baptized evinces its Spirit-filled life by means of the activities described in vv. 42-47. The contrast between Johnís baptism in water and the coming baptism in the Spirit (Acts 1:5) now has its resolution as those baptized in water in the name of Jesus receive the fulfillment of Johnís promise about the coming greater one. Luke has arranged his narrative, it appears, to identify Jesus as the "Lord" on whose name one must "call" to be "saved" and who gives the promised Holy Spirit, both preeminent elements of the promised end-time restoration of Israel and fulfillment of Godís purpose. Acts 2:38 serves to identify baptism as the occasion or means of such calling on the Lord Jesus. But the identification is in itself uncontroversial and so is made without extensive argument, though with little ambiguity as well. Appearing as it does at the beginning of Acts, however, it serves as a programmatic statement for the rest of the book.
The same connection is implied by Acts 22:16, where the first command "be baptized" is followed by a second "wash away your sins," the image of the second clearly drawing upon the image of the first. The participle that completes this utterance, "calling on his name," is clearly enough not an action separate from the one previously described but a further explication of it. Baptism here serves as an act of cleansing insofar as it is the baptizandís submissive plea to the Lord for cleansing (cf. 1 Pet 3:21). As the image of cleansing is implicit in the act and the identification with Jesus is patent in the setting, the statement is again left undeveloped but appears to be unambiguous.
But apparent ambiguity about baptism does arise elsewhere in Acts. In 8:16 Samaritan believers receive the Spirit only after Peter and John lay hands on them and pray for them; baptism "in the name of Jesus" does not bring this outcome. The argument that the faith of the Samaritans was somehow defective suffers both from Lukeís description suggesting the opposite (they "believed" and "received the word," vv. 12, 14) and from the remedy, prayer and laying on of hands, not addressing the problem in any direct way. While I am sympathetic to the viewpoint that Luke refers here to the withholding of some visible manifestation of the Spirit rather than the gift of the Spirit per se, I believe that his absolute expression cannot be so tidily limited. But neither does this text indicate that Luke does not understand the Spirit normally to be received in connection with faith and baptism. The second clause in this verse should probably be understood not as the cause of the Samaritans not having received the Spirit but as a concession: although they had received baptism, which normally results in the reception of the Spirit, in this unusual case they were only baptized in the name of Jesus, that is, without the concomitant receiving of the Spirit. If we understand that in Acts Luke recounts conversions with full narratives when something exceptional about them demonstrates the ongoing work of God through the church to fulfill his promises, not necessarily to establish by narrative repetition a specific ordo salutis, then the exceptional nature of this episode as far as the Spiritís reception is coherent. For Luke it underlines the unity between Jewish and Samaritan followers of Jesus, demonstrated by the apostolic prayer and laying on of hands, and provides the occasion for the decisive confrontation between the apostle Peter and the sorcerer Simon. Such issues are almost certainly more important to Luke, for whom baptism is not an issue of controversy as it is for us. No wonder, then, that he resolves them with greater precision than he does the baptismal irregularity, which did not touch his readersí concerns. They could be expected to infer the concessive force of the clause that troubles us today.
Similar remarks can be made for Corneliusí reception of the Spirit prior to baptism in Acts 10:47, recounted in 11:16-17. The entire episode is shot through with exceptional circumstances that underline divine intervention to bring the Roman centurion Cornelius into the community of Jesusí followers. The response of Peter to the pre-baptismal reception of the Spirit (and its dramatic manifestation) is only coherent in the narrative if Corneliusí experience is outside the norm, one that recalls the foundational and exceptional Pentecost event (11:16-17) and not garden-variety conversions. For Luke, the issue is circumcisionís place in conversion, not baptismís; hence, his narrative focuses attention on the former and ignores what one might infer, entirely against the grain of his time, about the latter.
Likewise, the unusual case of the twelve "disciples" in Ephesus (19:1-7) assumes that the ordinary experience is to receive the Spirit as a consequence of baptism in the context of faith in Jesus. Paulís question about their baptism (v. 3) can have little relevance to their ignorance about the Spirit unless Paul assumes a connection between baptism in Jesusí name and receiving the Spirit. Paulís assumption stands without explanation in the text because Luke expects his readers to make the same assumption. The recognition that followsóthese are followers of John the Baptist who know little or nothing about the coming greater oneóprobably explains the term "disciple" with which these are first described. Luke apparently uses the term there from the limited perspective of Paul rather than his ("omniscient") perspective as narrator. To Paul these at first appear as "disciples" of Jesus, though they prove to be disciples of John soon converted to following the coming greater one. The account thus serves to underline the testimony of John about the one who brings the Spirit in contrast to Johnís ministry of preparation. The assumption that reception of the Spirit normally is the consequence of baptism in the name of Jesus is reinforced by the narrativeís outcome. Paulís laying on of hands (v. 6) probably serves as an adjunct to the act of baptism, understood as a supplicatory "calling on the name of the Lord," rather than a supplement to it. But for Luke, such matters are not the focus. He is interested in the submission of Johnís disciples to the Christ of whom John prophesied, with results that confirm Johnís testimony and Jesusí identity.
What, then, does this episode tell us about the preceding one concerning Apollos? It has been widely observed that Apollos appears in the story in a more salutary condition: he has been instructed and so teaches accurately about Jesus, either by the power of the Holy Spirit or with a zealous manner of presentation (zeon to pneumati ["fervent in S/spirit"]). His one explicit defect is knowing only the baptism of John, and though instructed by Paulís associates on this subject and subsequently joining with them in their mission, he may or may not have responded to that teaching by being baptized in the name of Jesus. Lukeís silence, in contrast to the following pericopeís explicit detail on the baptism of the twelve, is taken by many as the equivalent of denial. For them, Apollos is not baptized in the name of Jesus because he already has the Spirit, demonstrated by his fervent and accurate preaching, while the twelve are baptized because they have no knowledge of the Spirit, let alone evidence of the Spiritís presence. I would suggest, however, that Lukeís concern is again less to clarify the relationship between baptism and the reception of the Spirit in such narratives than to portray the ongoing, expanding unity of the church under the authority of its messiah, the one about whom John the prophet testified. That faith in Jesus issues quickly in baptism with the result of receiving the Spirit is the norm assumed by Lukeís narrative. Exceptions and silences (including the baptism of the twelve or 120 at Pentecost) are indifferent for Luke as long as the identity of the church as the one people of God under the divine authority of the one messiah Jesus is central. He cannot be expected to anticipate readers being confused by his not addressing such silences: the matter was uncontroversial and the episodes in question were exceptional.
With these controversial texts so understood, I want to turn briefly to another text, cited differently in soteriological controversies in Acts, that similarly reflects the authorís purpose. The image of cleansing inherent in baptism is probably exploited by Luke in Acts 16:33, on the way to making a larger point. The Roman jailerís late-night washing of the Jewish prisoner Paulís wounds, certainly a remarkable action in such a social context, is followed immediately by his baptism by Paul. With the next scene of a shared table, Luke drives home his point that the Roman jailer and the Jewish prisoner are now united in a relationship of mutual love through the gospel. The promised cleansing by God has been realized, with the effect that traditional barriers are overcome. With such thematic fish to fry, can the author legitimately be expected to have anticipated readers, centuries later, taking the statement 16:31, silent on baptism, as implying its exclusion from conversion-initiation?
So, I hope that my conclusion on baptism in Acts is clear. Luke, like all the early Christians we know, understands baptism as something that one does to become a Christian. By conceding that this concept is not one that he seeks to assert, however, we can clarify the significance of the alleged inconsistencies of Acts on this point.
More broadly, I hope that what I advocate concerning the theological reading of Acts is clear as well. Our first question of the text ought not to not be about any specific issue or practice but about the perspective embedded in the text on the significance of the narrated events. Having grasped that, at least approximately, we may be in a position to discern what the author assumes about various other issues, as we have here for baptism. Sometimes, we may still get answers to our pressing questions. But we must be ready to admit points where we encounter silence.
But is the church therefore left adrift without the guidance of the narrative "blueprint" or compendium of example stories that we have assumed Acts to be? To the contrary, I believe that our ecclesiastical course is more precisely set if we read as I suggest. If Acts mostly narrates how to do evangelism and do church, then it addresses significant but relatively narrow questions. It helps the church reform its practice in areas of internal or sectarian dispute, or at least it helps believers choose an ecclesiastical manifestation that most closely approximates the narrative blueprint. But if those outcomes have not been as widely successful as some once hoped, we may not be surprised if our reflection here tells us that we were misreading the book from the start. However, if Acts is a book about where and how Godís work is being done in the world, it addresses much wider questions that go to the core of our view of God, the world and ourselves, providing answers that sharply distinguish the gospel from its competitors in the public marketplace. If I might lapse into testimony, these questions that I find Acts to address are for me profoundly stimulating and challenging, even revolutionary. To identify the church as the extension and augmentation of the work of God in Jesus (Acts 1:1), to see its mission as bringing the light of the God of Israel to the pagan nations (Isa 24:6-7; Luke 2:32; Acts 26:18, 23; 28:28), to see its generous communal life as embodying the ideals of God for his people (Deut 15:4; Acts 4:34), to understand it as opposed by the power structures of this world but supremely empowered by the Spirit of God and so victorious in ways seen and unseen (Acts 4:23-31; 28:31 and passim), and to see all of this as the means by which God is subjecting the world to his beneficent universal authority until his final, triumphant act (Ps 110:1; Acts 1:11; 2:34-39)óall of these are to see ourselves as the church and life in general in a way that compels the daily taking up of the cross to follow Jesus, the losing of life that is the finding of true life (Luke 9:23-24).
So perhaps the writer of Acts does want us to see a blueprint in the narrative. It is shaped like a cross.