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The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit Series


The Hermeneutics of Lucan Historiography

Wed, 14 Apr 2010 - 10:28 AM CST

Part Two in a Pentecostal Hermeneutics series of guest lectures given at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri.

By Roger Stronstad

In my previous article, “Trends in Pentecostal Hermeneutics,” I observed that Pentecostal hermeneutics is inseparably linked to the message of the Book of Acts. I also observed that four hermeneutical strategies control the interpretation and application of Lucan pneumatology within Pentecostalism: (1) pragmatic, (2) genre, (3) pneumatic, and (4) holistic (which includes genre within it).

Since Luke-Acts constitutes 25 percent of the New Testament, which is an amount greater than the combined writings of any other author, the problem of genre is of immense importance, not only for Pentecostalism, but also for New Testament studies as a whole. In spite of its immense bulk, however, Luke-Acts is traditionally assigned a lesser place in the hermeneutics and theology of the New Testament.

All too often interpreters fail to permit Luke to have an independent voice. For example, in regard to genre Luke is often read as though he were Mark. Similarly, in regard to his pneumatology, Luke is often read as though he were Paul.

In this discussion of the hermeneutics of Lucan historiography I will: (1) examine and clarify the genre of Luke-Acts as historical books, (2) survey two contrasting approaches to Lucan historiography, and (3) submit an alternative approach to the hermeneutics of Lucan historiography.

The Literary Genre Of Luke-Acts

For the most part the literary genre of the books of the New Testament is easily identifiable. Paul and others, for example, wrote 20 or so epistles that are identified as such by their prescript, the circumstantial character of their content, and their subscript. John wrote the Apocalypse, or Revelation (Revelation 1:1), which also has stylistic affinities with the epistle (1:4), and which he designates as a prophecy (22:7,10). The anonymous author of the Epistle to the Hebrews identified it as a “word of exhortation” (13:22), which might simply describe its hortatory content, but which is more likely to identify it as a synagogue style homily (compare Acts 13:15). Mark wrote “the gospel of Jesus Christ” (1:1). Though it has some similarities with contemporary biographies, memoirs, and acts, the Gospel of Mark is a new, distinctly Christian, literary genre.

Though the first volume of Luke’s two-volume work is traditionally identified as the Gospel of Luke, and his second volume as the Acts of the Apostles, Luke himself identifies his work as historical narrative. This at once separates his genre from the epistles, the apocalypse, and the homily, and also somewhat distances his work from the gospel genre. This is particularly significant if, as most scholars believe, Mark’s gospel is one of the sources Luke used for his account “about all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1).

In the prologues that preface each of his two volumes (Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1–5), Luke gives both stylistic and verbal clues to the identity of the genre of Luke-Acts. Luke’s first clue is stylistic; he conforms to the conventions of his literary models. On the one hand, following the custom of dedicating books to distinguished persons, Luke addresses his work to Theophilus. On the other hand, at the beginning of his second volume his preface recapitulates the first volume.

The book Against Apion by Josephus, the Jewish historian and contemporary of Luke, is an interesting parallel. Just as Luke addresses Luke-Acts to his literary patron, the most excellent Theophilus (kratiste Theophile), (Luke 1:3), so Josephus addresses Against Apion to his literary patron, the most excellent Epaphroditus (kratiste andron Epaphrodite, 1.1). Similarly, just as Luke recapitulates book one in his second prologue, writing, “The first account (proton logon) I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach … ” (Acts 1:1), so Josephus also recapitulates book one of Against Apion, writing, “In the first volume (proterou Bibliou) of this work, my most esteemed Epaphroditus, I demonstrated the antiquity of our race … (II.1). In writing Luke-Acts, then, Luke, no less than Josephus, is following the style of his literary models.

In his two prologues Luke not only conforms to the style of his literary models, but he also identifies his writings by two terms, diegesis and logos (Luke 1:1; Acts 1:1), which place Luke-Acts in the tradition of historical writing, both sacred and secular. In his prologue to his overall work (Luke 1:1–4), Luke classifies his writings as diegesis; that is, account or narrative. This is a hapax legomena, that is, used but once in the New Testament. Therefore, we must examine other Greek literature for help in determining its meaning.

The word is used from Plato onward, including the first century Jewish writers, Philo and Josephus. However, in the light of Luke’s demonstrable dependence on the Septuagint, we do not have to go further afield than this translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. There it has a variety of meanings: tale1 (Deuteronomy 28:37), byword (2 Chronicles 7:20), riddle (Ezekiel 17:2), and discourse (Sirach 8:8,9).

More relevant to Luke’s usage, the anonymous author of 2 Maccabees describes the five books of Jason of Cyrene, which he proposes to epitomize into a single book, as “narratives of history” (tes historias diegemasin, 2 Maccabees 2:27). Moreover, diegesis, “is used ter [three times] in the letter of Aristeas to Polycrates (1,8,322) to describe the ‘narrative’ he has to unfold.”2 It is this latter usage in Aristeas and especially 2 Maccabees which most closely approximates its meaning in Luke’s prologue; namely, to imply a full narrative.

In his prologue to Acts (1:1–5) Luke identifies what he has written earlier as his “first account” (proton logon, 1:1). In his commentary on the Greek text of Acts, F. F. Bruce informs us: “Logos is used for a division of a work which covered more than one papyrus roll. … Luke and Acts covered one papyrus roll each.”3 As used here by Luke, however, logos means more than simply “first papyrus roll.” It also points to the genre of Luke-Acts. In similar contexts, such as in the earlier historian, Herodotus, for example, logos means either a complete historical work (Her. 2.123;6.19;7.152), or else one section of such a work (Her. 1.75;2.38, and others). In language similar to Luke’s, Herodotus writes about “the first book of my history” (en to(i) proto(i) ton logon, 5.36), or “the beginning of my history” (en toisoi protoisi ton logon, 7.93). Thus in these contexts not only does logos mean papyrus roll, but it also means narrative history, whether viewed in whole or in its parts.

In the Septuagint, moreover, logos often translates the Hebrew dabar, which can mean either “word” or “thing,” to mean both “act” and “chronicle.” Concerning David, for example, we read: “Now the acts of King David (logoi tou basileos David) from first to last, are written in the chronicles of Samuel the Seer (en logois Samoel tou blepontos), in the chronicles (logon) of Nathan the prophet, and in the chronicles (logon) of Gad the seer” (1 Chronicles 29:29).

Similarly, the acts (logoi) of Rehoboam and other kings are written in the chronicles of the prophets (2 Chronicles 12:15, and others). Indeed, as designating the “acts of X” logoi is synonymous with praxeis, and as designating the “record of Y” logoi is synonymous with biblio(i) (2 Chronicles 13:22).

Obviously, this evidence means that the genre of Luke-Acts is historical narrative. In terms of style and vocabulary, Luke-Acts has affinities with the histories of Josephus and Herodotus on the one hand and, in the Septuagint, with the Hellenistic Jewish history, written by Jason of Cyrene and epitomized in 2 Maccabees, as well as with the sacred history, First and Second Chronicles.

To sum up, Luke is a historian and Luke-Acts is history. This means we can no longer continue to classify Luke’s first account simply as a Gospel and Luke as an evangelist. Luke himself does not give us these options. Whereas Mark claims to have written a Gospel, Luke claims to have written a history. Thus Mark is an evangelist, but Luke is not; Luke is a historian, but Mark is not. Therefore, to identify Luke’s first book as a Gospel, as is traditionally done, is to read Luke as though he were Mark. It is time for the church to read Luke as the historian of redemptive history.

Approaches To Historical Narrative

Those who spar over the use or abuse of the narratives of Acts for Pentecostal theology sit in one of two corners. The Pentecostals with their pragmatic hermeneutic are in one corner; their opponents, who advocate scientific methodology, are in the other corner. As we have seen, Pentecostals look to the Book of Acts for their theology and the biblical pattern for their 20th century experience. Thus: “The doctrines of the Holy Spirit that are popularly known as “Pentecostal” are those that apply to contemporary experience that is in the pattern of Acts chapter 2 and subsequent New Testament practice.”4

Though this hermeneutic seems self-evident to Pentecostals some hard-hitting criticisms have been aimed at Pentecostal pragmatism. The heaviest blow is that this pragmatic Pentecost-as-pattern hermeneutic is considered to be a “general disregard for scientific exegesis and carefully thought out hermeneutics.”5

This is not the knockout punch its advocates think it is. The use of the narratives of Acts by Pentecostals may apparently fall short of scientific exegesis; it may be unsophisticated and perhaps even somewhat popular and naive. It is, however, reminiscent of the Pauline principle of interpreting historical narrative. To identify the Pentecostal interpretation of historical narrative as the Pauline principle is not mere conceit. In other words, just as Paul believed that “all [Old Testament] Scripture [the narratives of Genesis as well as the Laws of Deuteronomy] is inspired by God and profitable for teaching … [and] for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, NASB), so Pentecostals similarly believe all (New Testament) Scripture—the narratives of Acts as well as the theology of Romans—“is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, … [and] training in righteousness.”

Moreover, just as Paul believed that “whatever was written in earlier times [that is, the Old Testament] was written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4, NASB), so Pentecostals similarly believe that whatever was written in Acts, as well as in the Gospels or the Epistles, was written for our instruction. Further, just as Paul believed the experiences of Israel “happened to them as an example (tupos),and they were written for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:11), so Pentecostals similarly believe some of the experiences of the apostles happened to them as an example, and they were written by Luke in Acts for our instruction.

Admittedly, this may appear a popular and naive approach to the interpretation of historical narrative. It emphasizes the art more than it does the science of hermeneutics. It is the approach of the person in the pew more than of the professor at the podium. But if it is a naive approach, it is a naivete that has apostolic precedent, a naivete which is sanctioned by Paul’s similar treatment of historical narrative in the Old Testament. A caveatis in order here. Though Pentecostals take it on the chin for their approach to the interpretation of historical narrative, scientific exegesis in itself is far too rationalistic, narrow, and limited a methodology. As Dr. Bruce Waltke in his article, “Hermeneutics and the Spiritual Life,” observes: “The scientific method … is appropriate for understanding the text, but it is inappropriate for the principle aim of Christian understanding of Scripture, the knowledge of God.”6 Thus, in spite of its disadvantages of naivete and danger of excesses, the Pentecostal hermeneutics of historical narrative has this advantage over scientific exegesis, namely, it definitely brings the Christian to the (experiential) knowledge of God.

The second approach to the hermeneutics of historical narrative either strips historical narrative of all didactic or instructional value, or else it radically limits its normativeness for contemporary Christian experience. John R. W. Stott typifies the former approach. In response to what he calls “a recrudescence of ‘Pentecostalism’ in non-Pentecostal churches,”7 Stott wrote his booklet, The Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit. In this booklet, he outlines three introductory points for dealing with the issues raised by this “recrudescence of Pentecostalism”:

“First, the purpose of God, … is to be discerned in Scripture, not in the experience of particular individuals or groups.

“Secondly, this revelation of the purpose of God in Scripture should be sought in its didactic, rather than in its historical parts. More precisely, we should look for it in the teaching of Jesus, and in the sermons and writings of the apostles, and not in the purely narrative portions of the Acts.

“Thirdly, (our) motive … is practical and personal, not academic or controversial.”8

In the sense that it reinforced many in their opposition to Pentecostalism, Stott’s booklet was widely influential and frequently reprinted. In spite of its popularity, however, it was impotent to stem the “recrudescence of Pentecostalism in non-Pentecostal churches,” namely, the neo-Pentecostal or charismatic movement. Indeed, a decade after the publication of The Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit it was rumored that Stott had fallen victim to Pentecostalism, and he published a rewritten and expanded version to correct this false rumor in 1975. Significantly, the second edition of Baptism and Fullness maintains the cornerstone principles of the first edition; namely, Stott’s antithesis toward charismatic experience and his opposition to the use of historical narrative for didactic purposes.9

Gordon D. Fee is an example of a scholar who radically limits the normative or precedent value of historical narrative. Though not as extreme as Stott’s principles, Fee’s principles for interpreting historical narrative, which he outlines most fully in chapter 6, “Acts—The Problem of Historical Precedent,” of How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth, appear to be little more than a sophisticated echo of Stott.10 His main thesis “is that unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is merely narrated or described can never function in a normative way.”11 This assumption—and it is nothing more than an assumption—echoes Stott’s denial that historical narrative might have any didactic value. Fee hedges this general assumption about by three specific principles:

1. It is probably never valid to use an analogy based on biblical precedent as giving authority for present-day actions.

2. Although it may not have been the author’s primary purpose, biblical narratives do have illustrative and, sometimes, “pattern” value. … A warning is in order here. For a biblical precedent to justify a present action, the principle of the action must be taught elsewhere, where it is the primary intent so to teach.

3. In matters of Christian experience, and even more so of Christian practice, biblical precedents may sometimes be regarded as repeatable patterns—even if they are not not to be regarded as normative.12

Fee also insists: “It is a general maxim of hermeneutics that God’s Word is to be found in the intent of Scripture. This is an especially crucial matter to the hermeneutics of historical narrative.”13

For the remainder of this paper it will be my purpose to demonstrate a different approach to the interpretation of historical narrative from that which is typified in the principles of Stott and Fee. I will demonstrate that, for Luke, historical narrative can and does have a didactic purpose or instructional intentionality. Therefore, I will not here engage in a critical dialogue with the hermeneutics of historical narrative that are espoused by Stott, Fee, and others, especially since I have done it elsewhere.14 Nevertheless, before moving on, I must register three complaints against this hermeneutic.

First, I must insist on the obvious fact, which, nevertheless, has escaped their attention; that is, Luke and Acts are not two separate books which the interpreter is at liberty cavalierly or capriciously to interpret independently of one another. Rather, they are in fact two halves of one work and must be interpreted as a unit. No other hermeneutical approach to historical narrative fulfills or satisfies Luke’s stated intent for his writings (Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1–5).

Second, I must protest the methodology that insists that historical narrative can only have didactic value when its message is taught elsewhere, specifically in the teaching of Jesus, or in the sermons or writing of the apostles. Ultimately, this methodology means that Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or John may instruct the contemporary Christian, but that Luke, because he chose to write historical narrative, neither intended to instruct the church nor will be allowed to instruct, the contemporary church, whatever his intention might or might not have been.

It is a monumental irony that Luke, the author of 25 percent of the New Testament, is allowed no independent status among the recognized teachers in the New Testament by Reformed hermeneutics and so-called scientific exegesis. This muzzling of Luke, on the misapplied principle of the analogy of faith, is as serious as Luther’s contempt for the Epistle of James, and the Reformed interpretation of the apostasy passages in Hebrews. These classic perversions of the principle of the analogy of faith—and I include the muzzling of Luke in this classification—illustrate the readiness of interpreters to deny the intended message of biblical authors when it does not conform to their existing beliefs. Not only do the epistles of James and to the Hebrews deserve better treatment than this, but so do the narratives of Luke which we commonly call the Gospel and the Acts.

Third, the hermeneutics of historical narrative that are advocated by Stott and Fee raise several fundamental questions. For example, concerning Luke’s narratives about the Holy Spirit, who determines authorial intent—Pentecostals or non-Pentecostals? Who determines what is primary and what is secondary? Who is authorized to adjudicate between Pentecostals and their opponents whether or not Luke may teach 20th century Christians about their experience of the Holy Spirit?

Certainly the way these interpreters of Luke muzzle the message of the most prolific author in the New Testament gives us little confidence in their ability to adjudicate the answers to the questions. Moreover, the surveys of the current issues in Lucan studies by C.K. Barrett, W. Ward Gasque, Robert Maddox, and I. Howard Marshall15 quickly alert us to the possibility that the hermeneutics of historical narrative is far more complex than Stott, for example, is willing to acknowledge.

To sum up, I would insist that the hermeneutics of historical narrative which Stott, Fee, and others espouse—despite embracing much that every thoughtful Pentecostal must endorse—is to be rejected. Nevertheless, to the extent that their hermeneutic has the salutary effect of keeping Pentecostals and others from the all-too-common tendency to allegorize, moralize, add/or spiritualize historical narrative, their strictures are to be heeded, if not applauded. But, more importantly, there is an alternative, more productive approach to the hermeneutics of Lucan historiography, an approach which recognizes that Luke modeled his historiography after the pattern of biblical-Jewish Hellenistic historiography and, therefore, that he used narrative in different ways. The use was specifically to introduce key theological themes, on the one hand, and, once having established those themes, to establish, illustrate, and reinforce those themes through specific historical episodes, on the other hand.

The Hermeneutics Of Lucan Historiography: A Modest Proposal

In his preliminary remarks on the hermeneutics of Acts in How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth Gordon Fee complains that Christians do not read Acts in the same way they read the histories of the Old Testament. He writes: “Most Christians do not read Acts in the same way that they read Judges or 2 Samuel, even if they are not aware of it. … We seldom think of the Old Testament histories as setting biblical precedents for our own lives. On the other hand, this is the normal way for Christians to read Acts. … And this is precisely our hermeneutical difficulty.”16

This complaint implies that it is wrong for Christians to read Acts differently than they read Judges. In regard to the message of the Old Testament histories, this is a startling and perplexing complaint. Of course, Christians do not think of the Old Testament histories, such as Judges, as setting biblical precedents for our own lives. And properly so. After all, these narratives describe Israel as a theocracy-monarchy, with geo-political borders, living under the Mosaic covenant. Christians, however, do think of Acts as setting some basic precedents to their lives because Acts is the history of Christians, rather than of Israelites, in active service. Naturally, and properly so, they do apply the history of Christians to themselves differently than they apply the histories of Israelites to themselves.

In a sense which is different than Fee intends, his complaint is valid. In regard to the style of the Old Testament histories, I intend to demonstrate that Christians need to read Luke-Acts in the same way they read the histories of Israel. This is because I hope to demonstrate that Luke modeled his twofold narrative of the origin and expansion of Christianity along the lines of Old Testament narrative. The Old Testament narratives are episodic and function, either individually or in combination, as exemplary, typological, programmatic, and paradigmatic elements in the narratives. In fact, when we as Christians read the narratives of Luke-Acts in the same way we read the narratives of Israel, then our understanding of historical narrative will be radically different from what Fee himself advocates.

In general, the histories of Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, not only consist of the reports of dialogues, speeches, and a variety of figures of speech (such as parables), they also, and more commonly, consist of episodes. An episode is an event or incident which is complete in itself, but which also forms part of the whole, The narrative is the report of these dialogues, speeches, and episodes. Some narratives are formulaic. The histories of the kings of Israel, for example, are often little more than the formula: X did evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the sins of his father Jeroboam.

Furthermore, the six major episodes in the book of Judges are narrated according to the fourfold formula: sin, servitude, supplication, and salvation (Judges 2:11–23). Most narratives, however, report the episodes in their historical particularity. Whether formulaic or historically particular, the narratives give the pertinent facts. According to the author’s purpose, or intent, they give the reader the who, what, when, and where of the episode. The narratives also, implicitly or explicitly, give the historical and theological explanation of the narrative—the how and the why. In addition to the episode itself, and its narration, there are also the questions: Why did the author record the event, that is, what historical and theological message does the author intend to convey? Also how does the individual episode fit into the overall structure of the narrative? When viewed from the perspective of authorial literary-historical-theological intent, the episodes, or narratives, primarily function in one of four ways. They may have an exemplary, typological, programmatic, and paradigmatic literary-historical-theological function.

Why were some episodes included and others excluded from the narrative? Most commonly the answer to this question is that the episode simply illustrates, or is a specific example of, the author’s theme. For example, in his prologue the author of Judges describes the history of Israel as a generations-long cycle of sin, servitude, supplication, and salvation (Judges 2:11–23). Beginning with the judge, Othniel, the body of the narrative gives six specific examples to illustrate this cycle of history. Similarly, the author of Samuel gives two examples each of Saul’s disobedience (1 Samuel 13,15), of David’s loyalty (1 Samuel 24,26), and David’s kindness (2 Samuel 9,10). The second example illustrates or reinforces the first example. As these examples illustrate, many episodes were included in the narrative for their exemplary function.

Other narratives exhibit a typological relationship between episodes. In a typological relationship there is historical correspondence or a pattern between two or more historically independent episodes. The parting of the Red Sea by Moses (Exodus 14) and the Jordan River by Joshua (Joshua 3,4) are examples of this, made explicit by the author of Joshua (Joshua 4:14,23). Similarly, there is a typological relationship in the transfer of the Spirit from one leader to another, that is, the transfer of the Spirit from Saul to David (1 Samuel 16:13,14) and from Elijah to Elisha (2 Kings 2:9ff.). The vantage point of typology is retrospective, that is, it looks back to a historically analogous and relevant episode from earlier times. Of course, it is God, the Lord of history, who gives the typological correspondence between historically independent episodes. The historian, however, occasionally may be consciously aware of the typological relationship between the past and the present and shape his narrative accordingly.

Not only do some narratives exhibit exemplary and typological functions, but others exhibit a programmatic function. Such a narrative contains a strategic announcement or episode that is programmatic for the whole. The programmatic element points to the wider reality, or else points to the unfolding of future events. Thus, in contrast to the retrospective vantage point of a typological narrative, the vantage point of a programmatic narrative is often anticipatory or prospective.

For example, the transfer of the Spirit from Moses to the 70 elders of Israel (Numbers 11:25ff.) has two programmatic elements. On the one hand, this report of the Spirit informs the reader of something he is not told elsewhere in the narrative—namely, that Moses was a charismatic leader; that is, he administered Israel by the power of the Spirit. On the other hand, the transfer of the Spirit from Moses to the elders anticipates or is programmatic of the future time when “all of the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29, NASB).

The transfer of the Spirit from Elijah to Elisha (2 Kings 2:9ff.) is a further example of the programmatic function of the narrative. In other words, apart from the historian’s report of the transfer of the Spirit, the reader would never have known that each of these two prophets was charismatic. Yet, as the narrative reports, Elisha requests a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:9) and the sons of the prophets recognize that the spirit of Elijah rested upon Elisha (2 Kings 2:15). Thus Elijah’s ministry, with its miraculous manipulation of nature, raising the dead and multiplying of food (1 Kings 17:1,16,22), is programmatic for the subsequent ministry of Elisha, his successor (2 Kings 2:14; 4:34,42).

Finally, some narratives have a paradigmatic function. That is, a paradigmatic narrative is one that has normative features for present or future ministries. For example, just as Moses ministers in the Spirit, so the elders as his colleagues must also minister in the Spirit. Moreover, just as Elijah ministered in the power of the Spirit, so Elisha as his successor must also minister in the power of the Spirit. However, because of wide diversity of leadership in Israel (for example, the sacerdotal, the political, and the prophetic), and also because of the change in leadership offices as Israel’s history advances (for example, elders, judges, kings), the paradigmatic function is rare in Old Testament narratives.

In summing up, some observations are in order. In the first place, it is evident that there are few so-called “purely narrative portions” in the histories of Israel. Rather, the narratives have a complex function. This is as true if the function is simply illustrative or exemplary as it is if the function is either typological, programmatic, or paradigmatic. Second, as the examples of the Moses and Elijah narratives show, any given narrative may have a combination of functions. In other words, the narratives seldom function simply as types, programs, or paradigms. Third, because history advances, an episode that may have a programmatic or paradigmatic function when it is first reported may develop a typological function from the vantage point of subsequent history. Fourth, statistically insignificant elements, such as the single reports that Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha have the Spirit, have a significance that transcends the merely quantitative, because they are programmatic.

I have briefly, if inadequately, examined this data of Old Testament historiography because it lays the foundation for an examination of Lucan historiographical principles. In general, Luke modeled his historiography after Old Testament historiography, In particular, the fourfold function of Old Te

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