When I was first learning to preach the Bible it was common to hear people raise the question of whether we should preach the book of Acts as normative or formative. That is, is it intended to be primarily description of how God founded the church 2000 years ago through the apostles, or is it more of a general handbook of how to do it now as well as then?
The usual conclusion that was reached was that it primarily formative rather than normative and that therefore we do not necessarily expect God to act in similar ways today to what we read in Acts. The justification for this view being that it is inherently flawed to take a narrative of a particular situation and particular time and place and apply it by saying "what God did for Paul, God will do for me" (correct). And further that Acts is carefully structured to make a particular case as a whole about the gospel going to all the world (also correct). And therefore not to give general patterns of how to expect God to work (I no longer think this has to be correct). I believed the case and frequently taught in the past that Acts is formative not normative.
I am not sure I believe it any more. It seems to me to take several statements that are correct on their own, but to push them to a conclusion that is not necessarily warranted. Firstly, why should "formative or normative" be the only categories? It increasingly sounds to me like an argument that presupposes a case it wishes to make - namely that we need not apply today parts that we think are particular and historical in nature, especially the miraculous bits. I have heard the case made that very few miracles happen in Acts given the timescale that it covers, so as to make them inconsequential to the preaching of Acts. Therefore to preach very much about miracles is to ascribe to them a disproportionate weight that scripture doesn't. I hope I don't have to explain the flaws in this argument.
But more importantly why should formative and normative be exclusive categories? If God worked in particular ways to establish churches and the worldwide missionary endeavour, would it be so very strange if he continues to do so? Is it not better to say that what was formative for missions and church-planting should generally be normative for missions and church-planting? If we don't see it in our situations today, it is our situation and experience that needs to be aligned to the New Testament pattern, not the other way round.
The main difficulty I have with the formative-not-normative argument is that it leaves me with the freedom to decide which bits I should apply as relevant today and which bits I can avoid. I think Luke wants us to apply all of it. This post has been prompted by a discussion with a friend who was preaching Acts 13:13-52 on Sunday, which describes a lengthy sermon that Paul gave in Pisidian Antioch. My friend took the view that most of the sermon is descriptive of what was said on a particular occasion and that therefore was very hard to see how to apply today. He preferred therefore to take one or two key verses and concepts and explain and apply those rather than the whole. The more I look at the passage (see the next post) the more I feel my friend's concern. I think it is very long, and difficult to see how to apply with contemporary relevance. But I don't think we have the freedom to not try.
It might not be easy to do, but it is crucial to start with the assumption that it is given for us to apply to ourselves and our situation today, not that it isn't. If we believe that it isn't then we will perpetually cherry pick according to our preferences and prejudices. Obviously we all (rightly) have interpretive grids and principles we bring to bear on reading and teaching the Bible, it wouldn't be possible otherwise. But if we are to say that certain parts are less relevant to apply today or that the application of some parts differs significantly from Bible times (and in certain instances I would make both those cases), then we had better have extremely good reasons in the Bible for doing so. In the case of Acts I am not sure I have heard any.