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The Book Of Acts by William R. Cannon


Before his election to the episcopacy in 1968 United Methodist Bishop William R. Cannon served as Professor of Church History and then Dean of Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Other books by Bishop Cannon include The Gospel Of John, Jesus The Servant, and The Book Of Acts. The Book Of Acts, Copyright 1989 by W.R. Cannon, published by Upper Room Books. This material prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.


Introduction


P>Luke was the first person to write the history of the beginnings of organized Christianity. He composed the Acts of the Apostles before the close of the first century, when all the events he describes took place. No one else attempted to do what he did until the fourth century. As an historian, he is unique among all the writers of the New Testament.

The Acts of the Apostles gives us a chronological account of the development of Christianity from the resurrection and ascension of Jesus to the arrival of Paul in Rome. Why the account stops where it does, no one knows. It could be that Luke wrote the Acts while Paul was still alive and thus was able to solicit the apostle's advice about and criticism of his manuscript. If this were the case, then Acts has to end where it does, for it would have taken the two years that Paul stayed in his own house in Rome for these transactions to take place (Acts 28:30). But this is not likely. There are enough differences between Luke's understanding of Paul's position on certain matters and the apostle's explanation of them to make us doubt that Paul ever saw Luke's manuscript or had anything to do with its composition.

Perhaps Acts ends where it does because the rest of Paul's career was spent in Rome and was so well known to the gentile Christians that anything else said about it would have been redundant. But, then, there were Paul's converts in all the other cities where he had preached throughout the empire. How could they be expected to know the details of his stay in Rome and his execution? The most obvious answer would be that Luke did not know these facts and that he had to stop writing when his information ran out. But this cannot be a satisfactory explanation either, for we know from Paul himself that Luke was still with him in Rome when he wrote his last Epistle just before the end of Nero's reign (2 Tim. 4:11). In all probability, Luke witnessed Paul's execution.

We must admit that it is not now possible to say why Acts ends where it does. It covers a span of more than thirty years and provides us with a thorough knowledge of the origin of Christianity. That is all we have a right to expect of it.

As early as the nineteenth century, German scholars of the Tubingen School accused Luke of an ulterior motive in writing Acts. That motive was to present to posterity a harmonious and unified picture of Christianity by playing down all controversies and differences of opinion, especially those between Peter and Paul, the one the protagonist of Judaism and the other the champion of the rights of the gentiles. This school of thought contended that Acts is an unreliable account of New Testament Christianity, that Luke picks and chooses events at will, that he conceals more than he discloses, so that the picture he gives us of what happened is truncated, partial, incomplete, and even distorted.

If this were the case, it would be reasonable to expect Luke to promote the interests of Paul over those of Peter and to support the gentiles against the Jews. After all, Luke was a gentile, he was the companion and friend of Paul, and he wrote to commend Christianity to the Greeks and Romans. But in the few places we are able to detect differences between what is said in Acts and in other books of the New Testament, those dissimilarities are between Luke and Paul. There are some apparent differences between Acts and the Gospels as well, but none have come to light between Luke and Peter. Maybe the Tubingen School thought Luke toned down Paul to placate Peter. More likely than not, however, the slight differences we find between Luke and Paul in their accounts of the same events are due to ignorance on Luke's part, his lack of knowledge of the intricacies of Jewish law and custom, and his failure to comprehend nuances in Paul's theological interpretations. After all, Luke was a physician, not a theologian.

The reality of the situation is that the Tubingen School had no other comprehensive historical document to set against Acts. All its scholars could do was take bits and pieces of information scattered about in the Pauline Epistles to support their contention. If we are to have any comprehensive chronicle of the early history of Christianity, we have to take Luke's account and treat it reliably, for that is the only one there is.

To be sure, we can scrutinize it at points where it collides with passages in Paul's Epistles; we can take its readings in conjunction with readings from the Gospels when they overlap; and we can collate and also criticize in an effort to understand and evaluate. When we do this, I am persuaded that it is possible to harmonize one passage of scripture with another when we really try. The Acts will stand up favorably with any other historical document from antiquity. It is much safer to accept and use its contents historically and to rely on its author than it is to substitute the speculative opinions and imaginary findings of academicians. Facts are more reliable than hypotheses.

Luke is an historian, but he is an evangelist as well. Where Peter and Paul evangelize by preaching and itinerating as they proclaim the gospel throughout the Roman Empire, Luke evangelizes through his writing, for he believes that one of the best ways to disseminate the gospel and expand the church is to tell the story of how Christianity got started and the heroism and devotion that have characterized its progress thus far. The Gospels tell the matchless story of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles recounts the inspiring deeds of his apostles. The Holy Spirit is the protagonist of the book of Acts just as Jesus is the protagonist of the Gospels, for the Holy Spirit enables the apostles to do all that they do in the name of Christ. The Acts of the Apostles could just as well be called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is referred to almost fifty times in Acts, much more than in any other book in the Bible. Luke is the "Father of Christian History and the Evangelist of the Holy Spirit."

 

Questions For Reflection and Study

  1. Why do you think it has been important through the centuries to have Luke's history of the beginnings of organized Christianity?

2. Does it bother you that Luke may deliberately have presented New Testament Christianity in a flattering light? Does this possibility lead you to believe that Luke's account may be unreliable? Why or why not?

3. How do you account for the differences between events related in Acts and in Paul's Epistles? Are these differences important? Why or why not?

4. In what ways do you feel that the Acts can be justifiably called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit?

5. Luke evangelizes through his writing rather than preaching. Do you think both forms of evangelism are still effective today? Are they both necessary? Which form is most helpful to you personally? Why?

 

 

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