October 26, 2008

A Reply to the Questioning Christian

Filed under: Scripture — William Witt @ 6:12 am

D.C. Toedt (aka The Questioning Christian) is one of the regular contrarians who hangs out at TitusOneNine, Kendall Harmon’s blog. D.C is a lawyer who regularly raises doubts about the historical reliability of the New Testament–especially when it comes to either miracles or the historic doctrines of the church. In a recent discussion over at TitusOneNine, D.C. raised the following objection:

If we’re to believe Acts, it’s abundantly clear that the apostles regarded Jesus as a mortal. They thought he was a special mortal, to be sure: in their minds, his resurrection proved that he had been designated by God to return Real Soon Now as Israel’s liberator. [Evidently they were wrong about that.] But there’s nothing in their reported early preaching that even hints they thought Jesus was God Incarnate. The standard orthodox response is that it took the church awhile to come to that conclusion. OK, fine: then the conclusion is far from self-evident — and it’s not at all unreasonable for others to conclude otherwise.)

I responded rather hastily, “Sorry, D. C., you’re wrong.” This resulted in a few interchanges at the end of which D.C. left this challenge:

Many of you think the apostles always believed a high christology, but Acts clearly suggests otherwise — which raises interesting questions that William Witt and others seem afraid to confront.

Not one to back down from a challenge, I promised D.C. to get back to him, but when I finally finished my response, I realized it was way too long to post as a blog comment, so I’m putting it as a post on my own blog in hopes that some find it valuable.

One of the causes for frustration in the current discussions between the orthodox and revisionists in the mainline churches these days (especially on the blogs) is that so often the debates are between an uncritical orthodoxy and an uncritical revisionism. Many of the orthodox seem under the impression that critical biblical scholarship is essentially unchristian, and always leads (or will inevitably lead) to heresy. Many revisionists endorse a kind of popularist uninformed version of biblical scholarship that amounts to little more than a philosophical prejudice that “miracles don’t happen” combined with a search for “gotcha” difficulties. In my opinion, both of these approaches represent a kind of na├»ve epistemological fundamentalism that has its roots in the Enlightenment, specifically in the Cartesian methodology of doubt and a “foundationalist” or “methodist” rationalism. (Perhaps more on this later some other time.) A single difficulty is thought to uproot the entire faith, so “conservatives” launch an all out attack against any recognition of genuine diversity or plurality or development in the Scriptures as attacks on Christian faith, while the revisionists regard such diversity, development, or pluralism, as definitive arguments against orthodoxy.

Both sides seem oblivious to the history of what I would call “critical orthodoxy.” There has been for at least a hundred fifty years a careful and thoughtful application of historical and literary method to studying the Bible that has led not to doubt, but confirmation of orthodox faith. I think of the work of scholars like B.F. Westcott, Walther Eichrodt, Sir Edwin Hoskyns, Joachim Jeremias, Oscar Cullmann, C.F.D. Moule, and, more recently, Brevard Childs, N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, and Ben Witherington. While not a biblical scholar myself, but a systematic theologian, I have learned much from those who are. I offer the following as a reflection of “critical orthodoxy.” It must be kept in mind that all readings of the development of New Testament christology are interpretations. We have only the canonical documents, and any reading of what lies behind the documents is largely speculation. We can look at what Paul writes in his letters. We can look at what Luke writes in his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. From this we can extrapolate something like Paul’s christology or Luke’s christology. We cannot say with certainty what the christology was that preceded either Paul or Luke–although some scholarly speculations are more certain than others. We can be fairly confident, for example, that Paul is quoting an earlier christological hymn in Philippians 2, so the christology there is earlier than Paul. What scholars do is provide plausible reconstructions based on the evidence. There are at least four variations in such recent attempts at reconstruction of the development of the church’s christology in current NT scholarship.

1) The first is something like what D.C. suggests above. The earliest Christians endorsed something like an adoptionist christology. Jesus was a man who received a new status because of the resurrection. It was only later (perhaps as late as John’s gospel) that an incarnational christology came into being. (There may have been various stages in this development, with some scholars suggesting that Christians pushed the moment of adoption from the resurrection back to the baptism by John the Baptist, then to the conception by Mary, then finally to pre-existence.) This is largely the argument that James Dunn made in his Christology in the Making (Eerdmans, 2nd. edition, 2003). Such an interpretation might be called “evolutionary.” That is, one kind of christology (“adoptionist”) evolved into another kind (“incarnational”) over time. Raymond Brown also argued a position something like this in his Introduction to New Testament Christology (Paulist, 1994) as did Wolfhart Pannenberg in Jesus — God and Man (Westminster, 2nd ed, 1983). (The problem with this position is that it conflicts with the evidence that the earliest christology in the New Testament–Paul’s–is a high christology.) Interestingly, Dunn seems to have backed down from this earlier position, and moved in a more conservative direction in his later Theology of Paul the Apostle (Eerdmans, 2006).

2) The second view would be called developmental. This is the position argued for by C. F. D. Moule in his The Origin of Christology (Cambridge U Press, 1979). The crucial question for understanding the origin of christology has to be the relation between Jesus’ own self-consciousness, the significance of the resurrection, and the continuity of the relation between the two in the post-resurrection church’s own understanding of Jesus’ identity. Moule argues that the evolutionary understanding is mistaken–presupposing without argument or evidence that the high christology of the NT is in fundamental discontinuity with the actual self-understanding of Jesus. Rather, claimed Moule, a developmental view is demanded by the evidence. That is, the church’s christology is in direct continuity with the self-understanding that the earthly Jesus already had before the resurrection, and is a more explicit spelling out of what was at least implicitly there all along.

Moule points to four titles applied to Jesus in the gospels that he believes go back to Jesus himself: Son of Man, Son of God, Messiah, Lord. He finds particularly significant the parallel between the LXX use of kyrios to translate the Hebrew Tetragammaton, and the very early consistent application of kyrios to Jesus–particularly the consistent transfer to Christ of OT passages that originally refer to God, e.g., Phil. 2:10, Rom. 14:11, Heb. 1:10, etc. 1 Cor. 8:6 and Col. 1: 16 ff postulate a cosmic Lordship of Christ, identifying him with the Divine Wisdom of the OT, and also as the Creator. There is a clear connection between this cosmic Lordship and the resurrection of Christ in such passages as Rom. 14:9.

Moule then points to Paul as exhibit A in his argument that the church’s christology was a high christology from the beginning, a consistent development of the earlier christology held by Jesus himself. Moule focuses particularly on Paul’s notion of corporate personality as exhibited in his “in Christ” language. For Paul, the risen Christ is more than an individual, but has a universal all-embracing presence. He is described in language that parallels the kind of language that Scripture applies to God.

3) A third approach emphasizes the complex variety of christologies found in the New Testament. Jesus is talked about in different ways at different times in different contexts, often by the same author. So there are Son of Man christologies (the synoptic gospels), exaltation christologies that focus on the resurrection, Adam-Christ christologies (Rom. 5, Phil. 2), cosmic Creator christologies that focus on the pre-existent Christ’s role in creation (Colossians 1-2), Suffering Servant christologies, incarnational christologies (John 1), Scripture fulfillment christologies, kyrios christologies that focus on Jesus as Lord, Messianic christologies, wisdom christologies, second coming christologies. An older example of such an approach would be Oscar Cullmann’s The Christology of the New Testament (Westminster, rev. ed, 1980). The sheer variety and overlap (both in the same and between different authors) makes it difficult to trace development.

4) A fourth approach would be the canonical approach. This approach focuses on the final text of Scripture as the church has received it, and generally refuses to speculate about the pre-canonical history of the text. It is the final form that is Scriptural and authoritative, not the attempted reconstructions of historical-critics, which are highly subjective, and often mutually contradictory. We have the writings of Paul, the gospels, the catholic epistles, and Revelation. We do not have any immediate access to either the historical Jesus, or the development of Christian theology in the early church apart from the canonical texts. The late Brevard Childs of Yale and Richard Hays of Duke basically follow this approach.

How do these four approaches relate to the problem of the speeches in Acts that D.C. refers to in his question?

It needs to be kept in mind that the earliest writings of the New Testament are neither the gospels nor the Book of Acts, but the writings of Paul, and Paul’s writings contain the highest christology anywhere in the New Testament. Uncritical readings of the New Testament (both conservative and revisionist) often do not appreciate the full implications of the fact that Paul’s writings are the earliest New Testament documents we have, and that Paul’s christology and soteriology precedes the synoptic gospels. The synoptics presume this early christology and soteriology throughout (as is evident in the very first verse of Mark’s gospel–the earliest). Was there a development from a very early christology that could be read as adoptionist? Perhaps. (I’ll address this later.) Scholars believe that Rom 1:4 cites an early Christian “creed” in which Jesus is “declared to be the Son of God” by his resurrection. But, if so, such a christology would have had to have been very early indeed, because it had already been superseded by a completely incarnational christology by the time that Paul was writing his letters, a matter of a mere two decades. Paul himself saw no tension between this creedal statement that points to Jesus’ resurrection and his own completely incarnational Christology. In Philippians 2, Paul speaks of Christ pre-existing in the “form of God”; in his resurrection, Jesus receives the “name above every name–at his name “every knee will bow” and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (kyrios). The latter is a direct quotation from Isaiah 45:23. Paul is clearly applying to Christ a passage that in its original context applies to Yahweh–the God of the Old Testament.

D.C. claims on his blog that “Jesus is Lord didn’t mean Jesus is God.” He is correct that kyrios is a word that can be translated “master,” and is sometimes applied in the New Testament (particularly in forms of address) to ordinary human beings. That is an interesting but irrelevant observation. Context determines whether kyrios is being used simply as a form of address, or is rather an applying to Jesus of the divine name, i.e., the Septuagint translation of YHWH. During his earthly ministry, Jesus is often addressed as “Lord” in the gospels in a way that is parallel to what D.C. suggests. However, the majority of New Testament scholars (I am tempted to write “all,” since I am unaware of any who suggest otherwise) agree that after the resurrection the term is applied to Jesus in a manner equivalent to YHWH.

Thus biblical scholars often distinguish between a relative and an absolute use of kyrios as applied to Christ. It is the latter only that is relevant to this discussion. The citation of Isaiah 45:23 in Philippians 2 is a clear example of this. In another classic example that shows that the NT writers understood this distinction between a relative and an absolute use of kyrios, Paul in 1 Cor. 8:5-6 distinguishes between “many gods” and “many lords,” yet insists that for Christians, “there is one God the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

As Paul draws a direct parallel between the roles of God the Father and the Son in creation in the above passage, so, in Colossians 1, he develops a cosmic christology in which the pre-existent Christ exists not only (as in Philippians) in the “image [or form] of God,” but is also the agent through whom God (the Father) creates the world. Paul tells us in Col. 2:9, “In [him] the fullness (pleroma) of deity dwells bodily.”

So there is no question that the highest christology is found in the the earliest writings of the New Testament (Paul’s epistles) and it is a christology that applies to Christ the name and attributes of the God of the Old Testament.

How then do the speeches in Acts relate to all of this?

First, the book of Acts is written later than Paul’s epistles, and it is a witness primarily of Luke’s christology–a later christology than Paul’s. Acts is the only historical account we have of Paul’s activity–apart from the Pauline letters. Luke clearly regards Paul’s ministry as authoritative and definitive. The narrative of Acts is about the spread of Christianity from an originally Jewish community to a Gentile community–and this culminates with Paul in captivity in Rome. The “we” sections in Acts indicate that the writer was either with Paul, or incorporated material of one of Paul’s companions into his narrative. So the author of Acts (whom we call Luke) sees no conflict between his own theological views and those of Paul. And, as mentioned above, Paul’s christology is one of the highest in the New Testament.

Second, it is important to remember that Acts is the second volume of a two-volume work. Though separated in the canon, Luke-Acts was, from the point of view of its author, a single narrative. Assuming that the authors of New Testament writings were at least as intelligent as their contemporary readers, we have to assume that Luke saw no inconsistencies between the christology of his gospel, and what he wrote in Acts.

Third, since the rise of redaction criticism, NT scholarship has recognized that the gospel writers are not merely cut-and-paste compilers, but authors in their own right. Through the arrangement of their material, and their own editorial interpolations, they have not only incorporated the theological bent of their sources, but have also contributed their own emphases. For example, Mark’s gospel recognizes from the first verse that Jesus is the Son of God, yet throughout, Mark’s emphasis is that Jesus’ Sonship is hidden within his role as the Suffering Servant. What it means to follow Jesus is to take up one’s cross, just as Jesus did. Luke’s particular emphases include a geographical structuring–his gospel tells the story of a journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, while Acts tells the story of the journey of the gospel from Jerusalem, to Samaria, to the “ends of the earth.” In both Luke and Acts, Luke speaks of God’s activity in terms of the presence of the Holy Spirit, an emphasis not found in the same way in the other gospels or in Paul. Luke also thinks more specifically in terms of a salvation-history. The time of the Acts of the apostles is the intermediate time between the time of Jesus as the center of God’s activity in history, and the present time of the church. The christology in Luke-Acts is primary evidence for Luke’s christology, and only secondarily evidence for the christology of the earliest church.

Fourth, the speeches in Acts have presented a special kind of problem for NT interpreters, who have to ask (and try to answer) the following kinds of questions:

1) To what extent are the speeches primarily historical reconstructions of actual sermons preached by Peter and others, based on Luke’s sources? To what extent are they summaries of much longer materials, and, how has Luke’s own theological perspective affected their arrangement and emphasis? (Each sermon in Luke’s gospel can be read in only a minute or so; so they can hardly be word for word accounts of the sermons as actually preached.)

2) To what extent has Luke been influenced by the style of speeches contained in the histories of the ancient pagan writers who were his contemporaries, e.g., Thucydides, who composed summary speeches to put in the mouths of historical figures at important events, i.e., what they “might have said.” (For a contemporary parallel, think of the kinds of dialogue that appears in modern docudramas, films based on actual historical events that must provide spoken dialogue for reconstructed scenes, films as diverse as war and political dramas (Tora, Tora, Tora; Midway; Thirteen Days), heroic adventures (Braveheart), biting political commentary (W., All the President’s Men), even reconstructions of the gospel or lives of saints, (Jesus of Nazareth, Mel Gibson’s The Passion, Franco Zefferelli’s Brother Son, Sister Moon). Such docudramas may vary in their historical faithfulness, but the creation of imagined dialogue does not in itself falsify the presentation of the story. In fact, a too faithful presentation of dialogue would make for a tedious recounting. Unlike All the President’s Men, a film that faithfully reproduced every word of Richard Nixon’s tapes would be a box office disaster.

3) To what extent are the speeches compositions that reflect Luke’s own theology? That is, are they material for the christology of the earliest church or for the christology of Luke? Or, rather, is it even a legitimate question to attempt to reconstruct the historical events behind the canonical texts, since it is the final canonical text that is authoritative for the church, and all such reconstructions are hypothetical and subjective?

Not surprisingly, critical scholars (whether orthodox or revisionist) have embraced positions that have tended to emphasize some variation of positions 1-3) or a combination thereof.

1) C. H. Dodd wrote the most important and influential book embracing the position that the speeches in Acts provide important historical evidence for the christology of the earliest church in his book The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments (Harper, 1962). Dodd argued in his book that the speeches in Acts are summaries of the earliest missionary preaching (kerygma) of the church. This kerygma was intended primarily for outsiders and needed to be distinguished clearly from the teaching (didache) of the church, which consisted primarily of doctrinal and moral teaching, and was intended for insiders. The kerygma consisted of a summary of certain historical events (the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, his exaltation to God’s right hand, and his coming again in judgment); claims about the fulfillment of prophecy within an eschatological framework (the prophecies are fulfilled, and the New Age has begun with the coming of Christ); claims about Jesus’ identity (he is the Son of David, the risen Lord, the Messiah, the Son of God); a basic ecclesiology (the presence of the Spirit in the church is the sign of God’s presence); a call for repentance.

Dodd argued that the content of the kerygma can be reconstructed from materials in the Pauline and other epistles (Petrine and Johannine epistles, Hebrews), the speeches in Acts, and the synoptic gospels, which are basically expanded narratives of the original kerygma.

At the same time that the speeches in Acts accurately summarize the content of the earliest apostolic preaching, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that the kerygma does not represent the entire gospel. It is a minimal summary addressed to outsiders. The kerygma does not contain such essential theological teaching as the doctrines of grace or justification, the full teaching of the church about the incarnation, a developed ecclesiology, the sacramental theology of the church.

2) C.F.D. Moule (already mentioned) wrote one of the most important (and frequently cited) essays about Luke’s use of his sources in “The Christology of Acts,” in Studies in Luke-Acts, ed. Leander E. Keck and J. Louis Martin (Fortress, 1966). Moule begins by acknowledging a point made frequently in modern NT studies, and one I acknowledged above, that the gospels are theological documents reflecting the faith of their writers and communities. One possible conclusion from this acknowledgment would be that the gospel writers were not interested in providing a faithful historical account of the pre-resurrection Jesus as he really was, but were rather presenting Jesus as the risen Lord of the later Christian church. IOW, they are nothing more than propaganda pieces.

Moule notes a significant difference in the christology of Luke’s gospel and Acts. Both acknowledge Jesus as Lord (kyrios. However, in the gospel, the human characters in the narrative neither refer to Jesus as kyrios, except in the vocative (kyrie)–nothing more than a respectful form of address. (The single exceptions are angels and the narrator himself, who are “in the know.”) After the resurrection, and throughout Acts, this changes completely. From Luke 24:34 on, the disciples freely apply the term kyrios to Jesus in a way that they did not do before the resurrection. Moreover, they clearly understand this in an absolute sense. Jesus is not merely one Lord among many, but “Lord of all” (panton kyrios) (Acts 10:36). There is now a regular exchange between kyrios used of God, and kyrios used of Jesus. There is also the phenomenon of the frequent variations on the expression “call on the name of the Lord” (epikaleisthai to onoma), which, in its first citation in Acts 2:21 is a quotation from Joel 2:32 referring to Yahweh, but which, through the rest of Acts (7:59, 9:13-14,21; 22:16) clearly equates the name of Jesus as the Lord who is being called on.

The key point is that Luke acknowledges a clear distinction between the recognition given to Christ during his earthly ministry, and the full recognition that Jesus is kyrios after the resurrection. (Moule traces similar differences in the way that characters in Luke-Acts apply titles like “prophet,” “Son of Man,” “Savior, and “Son” to Jesus, before and after the resurrection.) The resurrection plays a crucial role, not in Jesus’ identity–both the angels and the gospel narrator acknowledge Jesus’ true identity from the very beginning (Luke 1:32), but in his vindication. The risen Lord is identical with the earthly Jesus, but before the resurrection, his identity is hidden. Moule addresses specifically the question of two different Christologies, an “adoptionist” christology (Acts 10:38) representing a primitive Palestinian christology, and a later well developed Hellenistic christology (“He is Lord of all,” 10:36). Given the significance of the resurrection, there simply is no reason to presume any incompatibility here. In the resurrection, this Jesus of Nazareth, who was “anointed with the Holy Spirit,” and “who went about doing good” is recognized for who he was all along–“the Lord of all” (panton kyrios).

This also indicates that Luke is a careful historian. He does not credit the pre-resurrection disciples with a post-resurrection Christology–though he (as narrator) is willing to do so.

3) Joseph Fitzmyer has a discussion of “Lucan christology” in his commentary on The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX) (Anchor Doubleday, 1979). For Luke, there are four phases in Christ’s existence: virginal conception until baptism, baptism until ascension, ascension until parousia, the parousia itself. (Fitzmyer notes correctly that Luke says nothing about Jesus’ pre-existence or incarnation). Fitzmyer discusses Luke’s use of kyrios in an absolute sense, noting (as did Moule) that he “retrojects” this title back into the time of Jesus’ ministry, including the first phases of his earthly existence. Fitzmyer notes: “In using kyrios of both Yahweh and Jesus in his writings Luke continues the sense of the title already being used in the early Christian community, which in some sense regarded Jesus as on a level with Yahweh.” Fitzmyer says of the title “Son of God,” that in Luke, it “attributes a unique relationship with Yahweh, the God of Israel. . . . Luke does not intend that Jesus should be recognized as God’s son merely in the adoptive sense in which a king on God’s throne would be called his son . . . ” He says further, “Luke might even be suggesting that Jesus is God.”

Fitzmyer states that “we shall never know” how the process of the revelation of Jesus divine sonship took place in the ministry of Jesus, and in the gospel tradition. What we can do is trace “various stages” or “phases of awareness” as the NT writers gradually recognized the implications of that revelation.

4) In his The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 1998), Ben Witherington suggests that in the speeches in Acts, Luke follows the custom of Thucydides and others of rendering speeches in their own words and style. While we cannot assume that Luke created the speeches, he did make his source material his own, in such a way that recovering his sources is “difficult if not impossible.” If Luke followed the pattern of Thucydides, we can assume that he provided accurate and adequate summaries, especially if he was able to consult with those who heard the speeches first-hand.

The similarity between the speeches in Acts may suggest the use of a basic kerygma or testimonia by various early Christian preachers. (Witherington here refers to Dodd’s The Apostolic Preaching.)

Witherington notes that kyrios is the most frequently used christological title in Luke-Acts. The quotation from Ps. 110:1 in Acts 2:34 shows that Luke equally applied kyrios to both God and Jesus. Expressions like “Day of the Lord,” “angel of the Lord,” etc., refer to God. Expressions like “Word of the Lord” refer to Jesus.

The key to understanding Luke’s use of kyrios is the “narrative framework” in which he views christological matters. What Luke says about Jesus depends on which stage in Jesus’ career he has reached at that moment in the narrative. (Witherington cites Moule’s article to indicate the significance of the resurrection for indicating whether Jesus is called kyrios by the narrator or by others.)

Witherington insists that it is a misreading to interpret Luke’s language in Acts 2:36 as adoptionist. Luke uses his language in a way that “suits his narrative.” “It was not that Jesus became someone different from who he was before, but that he entered a new stage in his career.” After the ascension, Jesus assumed a new role. He did not fully assume the roles of Lord and Messiah until after the resurrection. According to Witherington, “The Lord Jesus is able to do what he does because he is who he is.” The roles he assumes at various points in the narrative are the appropriate ones for him to assume at that time: “Luke’s primary concern is with presenting a narrative christology that tells the story of Jesus from his birth until his present exaltation to heaven and his reign from there as Lord of all.”

5) H. Douglas Buckwalter writes of Jesus as “The Divine Saviour” in Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts (Eerdmans, 1998). Buckwalter draws attention to the sheer diversity of christological images in Acts. Jesus is portrayed as God’s instrument in salvation-history, as Saviour, as Lord, as Messiah, etc. Buckwalter believes that two common elements unite the various christological images: first, Luke describes Jesus’ divine status; second, Luke points to the way the earthly and heavenly Jesus are instructional for discipleship.

Buckwalter describes the way in which Luke draws parallels between the exalted Jesus and the OT depiction of God. The exalted Jesus pours out his Spirit on the church, and provides it guidance. As the Spirit’s presence describes Yahweh’s immanence in the OT, so, in Acts, the Spirit’s presence is equated with the immanence of the risen Jesus. As Yahweh gave visions and provided guidance to Israel in the OT, so the exalted Jesus appears in visions in Acts and provides guidance to the church. As the OT associates salvation with the name of the Lord (Joel 2:32), so Luke in Acts associates the name of the Lord with the exalted Jesus. Buckwalter notes: “With Luke’s description of the work of the exalted Jesus in Acts, one cannot easily dismiss the impression that he intended his readers to view Jesus’ heavenly ministry as similar to Yahweh’s.”

Buckwalter concludes his essay by arguing that Jesus models in Luke-Acts a new understanding of Lordship. The Lord is one who “waits on tables,” not one who seeks personal glory. Buckwalter concludes: “it is arguable that Luke considered Jesus as Yahweh’s co-equal and co-regent.” Yahweh is distinguished from everything else by the way he providentially brings about salvation according to his will. The exalted Jesus “appears on equal footing with God” by doing the same thing. However, Jesus is not only a deity who is all-knowing, and all-powerful, but the kind of deity who serves rather than is served. Jesus acts as does the Father, and does what the Father does.

6) Brevard Childs presents a highly original discussion of the purpose of the sermons in Acts in both his The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction (Fortress, 1984) and Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: An Introduction (Fortress, 1992). Childs criticizes current Acts scholarship for trying to find the decisive factor for interpretation in “some force behind the biblical text.” To the contrary, “The book of Acts sees itself in direct continuity with the Gospel of Luke.” The key to interpretation is to understand this continuity, which is related by a “conscious pattern of promise and fulfillment.” The decisive new factors in Acts are, first, the presence of the Spirit, and, second, the “word of God” as the vehicle for the witness of the Spirit (Acts 4:4,29,31; 6:4,7; 8:14; 10:44; 11:1). The “word” which is preached is “in the name” of Jesus (4:30, 10:43, 16:18). For Luke, the “name of Jesus” is the way in which he is present to the church after the resurrection. The “preached word” unleashes the power of the risen Christ. The Spirit is the bridge between the earthly Jesus of Luke’s gospel, and the ascended Lord of Acts.

The preached sermons in Acts show “how the preached word functions as the means of actualizing the present significance of the gospel.” There is a consistent pattern: a) the sermon summarizes the life of Jesus culminating in his death; b) these events occurred according to God’s plan, not by chance; c) God raised Jesus from the dead and vindicated him; d) Christ is alive and reigning with God; d) the sermon closes with a call to repentance.

Consistently, the sermons connect to the previously written gospel of Luke by portraying Christ as “belonging both to the past and the present.” As in Luke, Jesus’ life is portrayed as a series of historical events, in which he “went about doing good,” (Acts 10:38), was crucified and killed (Acts 2:22), was raised and appointed Lord and Christ (2:36). On this basis, he is recognized as “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Luke portrays this salvation as being in continuity with the mighty acts of God in the Old Testament. The proofs from prophecy that appear in the sermons are consistent with the same way Jesus is portrayed in Luke’s gospel.

Although Childs does not state this explicitly (because he was not addressing this question), the crucial point for christology would be that the christology of the sermons in Acts is a short summary of the christology of Luke’s gospel, and must be read as entirely consistent with it.

The above is not at all an exhaustive summary of contemporary critical scholarship on the book of Acts and Luke’s christology, but I think it is sufficiently representative to address D.C.’s questions.

So, first:

Many of you think the apostles always believed a high christology, but Acts clearly suggests otherwise

In light of the summary of Acts scholarship above, I think it fairly evident that Acts does not “clearly suggest otherwise.”

If the sermons in Acts represent accurate summaries of the apostolic preaching (kerygma) of the church (as Dodd and those who follow him argue), then they represent at most some of the key themes in the public proclamation of the church. These are precisely the themes we would expect the apostles to emphasize in a Jerusalem setting right after the crucifixion of Jesus: 1) A narrative summary of Jesus’ ministry; 2) the crucifixion of Jesus by the Jewish religious leaders and the Romans–the chief scandal to both a Jewish and Gentile audience; 3) the vindication of Jesus’ mission by his resurrection–the Jewish leaders and the Romans were wrong; 4) Jesus’ exaltation as Lord (kyrios) and Messiah–God has declared Jesus in the right after all; 5) the presence of the Kingdom and Jesus’ coming again in judgment–the eschatological setting in which this all makes sense; 5) the fulfillment of prophecy–Jesus’ mission and message were not in contradiction to God’s promises to Israel, but were rather its fulfillment; 6) a call to repentance.

Dodd argues persuasively (and in detail) that these same six points are found in early material (through creedal summaries and quotations) not only in the sermons in Acts, but throughout the epistles and other NT writings, and that they provide the narrative structure around which the gospels are written.

At the same time, the kerygma does not provide a complete and comprehensive account of the early church’s theology. It is kerygma, not didache. The six points do not provide a detailed discussion of christology, soteriology, pneumatology, grace, sacraments, or ecclesiology. Nor do they provide a detailed discussion of Christian moral teaching. However, this doctrinal and mora teaching didache is found elsewhere in the NT, and it is evident in the earliest writings.

The apostolic preaching in Acts says little about christology, but insofar as the preaching in Acts touches on christology at all, it indicates a high christology. Jesus is kyrios and Messiah, and the coming judge. Parallel material elsewhere (e.g., in Paul) and also in Luke-Acts indicates that kyrios and other titles (like Son of God) are understood in an absolute sense. kyrios means that the risen Jesus exercises the same functions as, and has the same dignity as the God of the Old Testament.

If, however, we acknowledge (as all contemporary critical NT scholars do) that Luke-Acts is not only a historical record, but an intentional theological construction–Luke is not simply do cut-and-paste with his sources; he is a genuine author–then the sermons in Acts have to be understood as Luke’s own summaries of the christology of not only Acts, but also his gospel. One cannot understand the christology of the sermons apart from the entire narrative structure of Luke-Acts, and Luke makes it clear that Jesus is Lord and Son of God from the beginning. The disciples and others do not recognize him as such, however, until the resurrection. Jesus does not become Lord and Son of God at the resurrection; what was hidden during his ministry now becomes publicly manifest.

D.C. asks some other questions:

I presume you will grant that Acts has Peter and other apostles preaching from a low christology during the post-Pentecostal period.

If so, it necessarily implies one of three things:

1. that during the post-Pentecostal period, the apostles secretly held to a high christology, but preached a low one — which seems a dicey speculation at best, given their seeming willingness to brave death; or

2. that, during that period, those apostles who actually knew Jesus in life not only preached a low christology, but also believed it, arriving only later if ever at a higher one (except that we have little or no reliable evidence that those particular apostles ever did so, save arguably the Fourth Gospel); or

3. that Acts, regardless when it was written, mistakenly or incompletely describes the apostles’ preaching during that period — which raises the question: what else is incorrect in Acts / Luke, and by implication, the Markan- and other accounts on which Luke drew in writing his summary.

First, I do not presume that Luke in Acts has Peter and the other apostles preach a low christology. The apostolic preaching in Acts is at most a short summary of the central outline of what the early Christians preached–addressed to outsiders. It is not at all detailed discussion of everything the earliest church believed about Christ.

To borrow an illustration from a more contemporary setting–I have recently been reading a book written by Stephen Neill, the prominent Anglican historian, bishop and missionary, entitled Out of Bondage: Christ and the Indian Villager (Edinburgh House, 1930). It was written while Neill was a young man, and describes his missionary experiences in India. In a chapter describing mission strategy among Hindus, Neill states that the missionaries learned that the heart of their preaching had to be their story of Jesus as described in the gospels. Rural village Hindus were particularly struck by stories of Jesus’ exorcisms because spirit possession and exorcism are “real” experiences and common practices in Hindu village life. (Village Hindus have a very real fear of spirits, especially the ghosts of those who die violently–this is confirmed even in more recent accounts of Hinduism). What the missionary found unhelpful was preaching the high theology of the incarnation, and the doctrines of grace, etc., because until the Hindus knew the story of Jesus, they had no context into which to put these doctrines. It was only after potential converts seriously became attracted to the person of Jesus in the gospel stories that they could then have a context for understanding more abstract Christian doctrine. I would suggest a similar context for the earliest Christian proclamation. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection would have to be the central content of any preaching to initial converts. A fully explicated christology would come later.

So, (1) during the post-Pentecost period, did the apostles “secretly” hold to a high christology, while preaching a low one?

The earliest direct source we have for the christology of the earliest church is Paul’s writings, which contain a high christology. We have no way of knowing how completely the short summaries of the apostolic preaching in Acts represent the complete christology of the early church. We also cannot know (because we do not have access to Luke’s sources) how much the sermons in Acts represent Luke’s summary of his own christology. (We can compare Luke to Mark and Matthew because we have those texts.) For all we know, the earliest christology may have been a christology that centered on the resurrection, and the apostles only later began to think about the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for his ontological identity. Then again, their christology may have been a full blown incarnational christology from the beginning. We just don’t know, and we have no way of knowing–and it does not really matter. At any rate, a high christology is evident in the earliest Christians writings we have, and any speculation as to how it developed is simply speculation.

(2) Is it the case that the apostles knew that Jesus himself preached a low christology, and themselves believed a low christology, arriving only later at a high christology?

Again, we have no way of knowing how early christology developed. What we do know is that all of the canonical New Testament documents embrace a high christology, and these are the only sources we have for what the apostles believed. To delay a high christology until John’s gospel is a misreading of the evidence.

(3) Does Acts mistakenly or incompletely describe the apostles’ preaching?

Certainly Acts “incompletely” describes the apostles’ preaching. The actual sermons would have had to have been much longer than Luke reports. However, there is no reason to believe that Luke was “mistaken.” He is not attempting to describe the entire substance of Christian theology in his short summaries of the apostles’ sermons. The entire narrative structure of Luke-Acts provides us the content of Luke’s own understanding of the gospel. His accounts of the apostles’ preaching are at most short summaries of that gospel.

Moreover, even if one were to argue that Luke’s summaries of the preaching of the apostle’s preaching were largely his own compositions–parallel to other ancient writers like Thucydides–this would say nothing about the historical accuracy of the basic narrative of either Acts or Luke’s gospel, or, certainly, his sources. Comparison with Mark and Matthew indicate that Luke is actually very conservative in using his source material. As indicated above, his additions are primarily editorial, e.g., he more strongly emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit; his gospel and Acts follow a geographical outline. Moreover, his historical narrative in Acts can be compared to parallel discussions in Paul’s letters (e.g., the Jerusalem Conference). His knowledge of pre-70 AD Roman jurispudence and government has been confirmed by Roman classicists, e.g., A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Baker, 1963). There is no reason to believe that Acts does not provide a reliable historical account.

I conclude by citing what I had already written on TitusOneNine:

A more plausible interpretation takes into account the difference between epistemology and ontology. In the order in which we come to know things (ordo cognoscendi), knowledge comes first. However, at the level of ontological reality (ordo essendi), being is first. So, when a palaeontologist discovers a new species of dinosaur, the discovery takes place at a certain point in time, for example, some morning in October 2008. However, the species did not begin to exist at that time. It had already existed millions of years previously, and had long been extinct. At the level of the order of knowledge (ordo cognoscendi), the resurrection of Jesus was the point at which Jesus’ divine status was first known. Thus, in the passage Paul cites in Rom. 1:4, Jesus was “declared to be Son of God by his resurrection,” i.e., came to be known as such at that time. However, at the level of ontology (ordo essendi), if Jesus was known to be Son of God at his resurrection, then he had to have been ontologically the Son of God all along. And the Synoptics (including Luke) presume that throughout. So even though Luke in Acts 2 and elsewhere has Peter declaring the significance of Jesus’ resurrection to his hearers to confirm to them Jesus’ identity as the one in whom the promises of Scripture had been fulfilled, Luke had already made it clear that Jesus had been God’s Son (and kyrios) all along by virtue of his conception by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). Luke’s gospel presumes throughout that Jesus was the Son of God (and kyrios) during his entire ministry. He did not become Son of God (or Lord) at his resurrection. Moreover, Luke’s gospel depends on Mark, so Luke had to have been aware of Mark’s own high christology.

A helpful illustration of this point was made as long ago as 1926 by Edwin C. Hoskyns in “The Christ of the Synoptic Gospels,” Essays Catholic and Critical (SPCK, 1926). Hoskyns suggests that the crucial critical question is that of the relation between the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, and the Christ of St. Paul, St. John, and the later Christian church. Hoskyns compares the synoptic gospels with Paul and concludes that the synoptics presuppose a high christology throughout. The gospels consistently presume that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, but his christological identity is hidden in the suffering of the cross: “They do not involve the transformation of a human prophet into a supernatural Messiah, since the Marcan source itself implies a supernatural christology.” The contrast is not, Hoskyns claimed, between the “Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, but between the Christ humiliated and the Christ returning in glory.” The two-fold use of the title “Son of Man” illustrates this; before the resurrection, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Mark 9: 58); after the resurrection, the Son of Man sits at the right hand of God, and returns in glory (Mark 14: 62). It is the resurrection that ties the two together, and makes for continuity.

Luke is making the same point in Acts, and in his account the apostles’ sermons are summaries of this. It is not that Jesus was an ordinary human being, who received a celestial promotion after the resurrection; rather, from the beginning Jesus was the Lord (kyrios), the Son of God–and Luke lets his reader know this from the beginning of his gospel. However, Jesus’ Lordship and Deity were hidden in humility until the resurrection–he is the Lord who waits at tables. It is only after his resurrection, that Jesus is exalted to the right hand and his identity as “Lord of all” (panton kyrios) is finally recognized and proclaimed by his followers.


  1. I enjoyed your scholarly response to D.C. about the view of Jesus in The Acts of the Apostles. The citation by Kepha (Peter)
    in Acts 2 of Psalm 110 in the original Hebrew makes a distinction between the two lords which the LXX quoted by Luke
    does not. In the MT the first lord is Adonai, the customary substitution for the Tetragrammaton; the second lord is adoni, an expression always used for a human being. This is the sense in which Kepha uses it in Acts 2, as we can see when he tells
    the Jews in the same sermon, ‘Jesus of Nazareth was a man . . .’
    Since Kepha preached in Aramaic and not Greek, he would have been aware of the distinction between Adonai for Yahweh and adoni for Jesus, which was present in the Hebrew used in the synagogues. He would not have understood the second lord to indicate that Jesus was also Yahweh. No Jew who knew Hebrew could make such an error. There was no expectation among them that the Messiah would be divine from either this text or any other in their Hebrew Bible. And Luke himself by saying that Kepha preached in this same sermon that Jesus of Nazareth was a man (2:22) gives us the context in which to understand the sense of the second lord of the Psalm 110 (l09 LXX) quotation in Greek, which makes no distinction between the two lords. He also says that Kepha said that God has MADE Jesus Lord (2:36). This appears to indicate that God has made Jesus to assume the function of Lord at this time and does not indicate that Jesus was so in the same sense before this. Since in this sermon kyrios for Jesus does not indicate that he is God or Yahweh, it seems this is the sense we are to get from the other uses of kyrios for him in Acts. There is no indication in Acts that the apostles preached a new view of God to the Jews or Gentiles. Among the Jews, the preaching that Jesus was not only Messiah but also God would have been regarded as blasphemy and would have caused great controversy. Of such a controversy in Acts there is no trace. And Acts 20:28 as a proof that Paul called Jesus God has finally been discarded by several major translations such as the New Jerusalem Bible and the New Revised Standard Version.

    The first Gospel to clearly call Jesus God was The Gospel of John (20:28). According to the traditional interpretation of John 20:28, Thomas was the first to make this declaration. But the Acts of the Apostles does not indicate that this declaration was a part of the preaching of the apostles. Thomas
    does not appear at all in Acts neither does his declaration.

    I have long maintained that the Acts of the Apostles does not
    sustain the view that the preaching of the apostles put forward a new view of God for either Jew or Gentile. The use of kyrios
    for Jesus and the sense in which it is to be taken is given in its first use in Acts 2:26.

    Comment by Clifford Durousseau — June 8, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

  2. Correction: The last scripture reference should read Acts 2:36.

    Comment by Clifford Durousseau — June 8, 2010 @ 11:12 pm

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