Handling Acts Responsibly

Several people have commented to me that the blogging through Acts has slowed down of late. Partly that's just busyness, but mostly it has been that I have been struggling with how to apply narrative authentically. Here are some of the questions in my mind:

  • How do we apply Acts with expectant faith to produce worship in our hearts, without either (a) absolutising and normalising astonishing one-off miracles or (b) historicising those same miracles and making them to be of purely historical interest such that we don't expect God to work mighty wonders today?
  • Why does Luke put in one-off accounts of things that are clearly not meant to be repeated, when they don't form a major part of the story, but we know he never wastes his words? If it's in, then it's in for a purpose other than pure interest value, regardless of how minor it may seem

I know some easy answers to those questions, but I am not sure they are wholly satisfying. For example:

  • The miracles - and the narrative more generally - are there to authenticate the apostles (Paul in particular), and via them the apostolic message and doctrine. Therefore they are entirely historical and the whole point is God attested his message. The correct response to such accounts is therefore not to have expectant faith for God to work obviously supernaturally, but to trust the Bible. Conside this comment from one well-known commentator regarding our relation to Acts:

"[the apostles] were the ones appointed by Jesus to give authoritative testimony to him before there was a canon of the New Testament. Now we have no such apostles, but we do have the New Testament as a result of the apostolic testimony."

The same writer continue with a paragraph that reveals his (at one level correct) concern: 

"It seems to me that a biblical-theological approach will make us cautious about either trying to abolish miracles from the contemporary scene or asserting their normality in the life of the congregation. I would have to say that being reserved about miracles while going all out to proclaim the gospel is far better than making miracles into the gospel"

Well, OBVIOUSLY. And obviously we trust the Bible, but I don't find these arguments persuasive, because the miracles simply aren't presented in that way in Acts. They are much more signs of the gospel than they are signs for authenticating scripture. And obviously we want to proclaim the gospel rather than turn authenticating signs of the gospel into the gospel

But this is simply a matter of category mistake. We are being asked to accept that the only two options are (a) those who are cautious about miracles and who are wholehearted proclaimers of the gospel or (b) those who are expectant of miracles but who confuse them for the gospel. In other words caution about miracles is seen as a means of protecting gospel belief and gospel proclamation. No prizes for guessing what that will do to any hermeneutic of Acts. It will make us cautious to the point of dismissal because the commentator thinks that if we expect God to work wonders then we are likely to throw over the gospel. (By the way I haven't chosen a one-off way out there commentator, that's a pretty normal take on the subject).

At the risk of being way too simplistic, I wonder if something like the account of the resuscitation from death of Eutychus in Acts 20 is there to produce or reinforce faith in a wonder-working God for Theophilus, the first recipient of the book. I have no doubt that the account of this astonishing event in Troas would have done the rounds like wild fire. Accounts of amazing miracles produce several different reactions: some always scorn them, some always accept them unthinkingly, others sit on the fence in the absence of reliable testimony, but for them the account neither produces faith, nor damages it. 

In Asia a little while ago I met some witnesses to an extraordinary miracle, who I can't doubt the credibility of. The miracle in question was one I had heard about thousands of miles away in the UK, but had no opinion on, lacking relevant data and credible witnesses. If anything I was inclined to be a little cynical. My default was to disbelieve rather than believe. Not after meeting these people. Their testimony made me worship with faith.

In the instance of Eutychus what Luke takes an account that may have produced a similar range of reactions and adds his authoritative eye-witness testimony to say "God really did do this, it isn't some myth that is attaching itself to the gospel by means of chinese whispers." 

My problem with applying via the "caution-over-miracle" method is precisely that it invites hearers to be cautious about expecting God to act, anticipating that in all likelihood he won't. Therefore they don't see any reason to pray for him to, or yearn for him to.  Whatever we might want to say about the interpretive principle at work, that's got to lead to faithless application of the biblical text, little expectation of God, and a low level of spiritual hunger. I am more tempted to say "we may not have accounts of the supernatural work of God in our lives like this one. But we give thanks for this one, and we can all tell of other wonderful - and in some cases miraculous - things that God has done for us, for our amazement, our wonder and to excite us with his saving acts in Jesus."

Praying with you for wisdom on how to read and apply Acts for God's glory in our lives and his supernatural power for conversions and building the Church.