Ecclesial Revision in the Book of Acts

In our study of the book of Acts (which meets on Sunday afternoons at St. Mark’s in Austin) we have waded through many details. We have “gotten down and dirty” and delved into the gritty particulars of the story.

Because we have engaged in this hard work, I think we are now in a position to begin to discern some larger patterns in the narrative (what Alfred North Whitehead called “a simplicity on the far side of complexity”).  One of these patterns which we have seen and discussed repeatedly is the outward expansion of the Jesus movement from Jerusalem, through “Judea and Samaria” (1:8), to Rome, a city which embodies “the ends of the earth” or the outer reaches of the realm of the Gentiles or the “Greeks.”

Presupposed by this theme is the more basic one of “Jewish versus Gentile,” which, again, we have discussed deeply and widely.

But these two themes (outward expansion to the ends of the earth and the cultural tensions between Jew and Greek) are connected to a third: revision of the predecessor religion of the people of the God of the Jewish Scriptures.

The church today is full of people who advocate revision of various kinds. (One thinks of the issue of “open communion” as well as the ordination / consecration of openly homosexual presbyters and bishops.)

There are, however, two kinds of revisionists (at least potentially or in theory): there are those who, in their advocacy for change, are motivated by and rely upon sources external to the tradition (for example, the values of our Western, secular, post-Enlightenment culture) and those who are motivated by and rely upon sources within the tradition of Christianity or, within that, of Anglicanism.

While it does seem to me that revisionists of the first kind are fundamentally misguided right from the start, it nevertheless remains the case that there is a place for revision within the Christian tradition. In fact, the case can be stated much more strongly: the religion of the New Covenant in Christ is itself a drastic, radical, and shocking revision of something prior.  The process of this revision, in fact, lies at the heart of the story told in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.

Given this, it seems that a revisionist can rightly analogize from the revision narrated in Acts to other revisions which might be needed today. (Henry de Lubac, in fact, thinks this way in chapter VII  of his Catholicism. See here.) This would be the second kind of revision, motivated by and relying upon sources inherent to the tradition. Unlike secular revision, this kind should be respected and deeply engaged with.

The book of Acts, in fact, provides us with a set of criteria for revision in the Church. How did it come about that the Gentiles were included in the New Covenant of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures without having to become Jewish (ie, without having to be circumcised and having to observe the other ceremonial and cultic practices of the Jewish people such as festival keeping and various food laws)?

There are several factors which hold in the narrative, and which the text is at pains to emphasize, in the developments narrated in Acts:

1.    Confirmation by the larger body.
2.    Confrontation by undeniable phenomena (ie, Gentiles speaking in tongues).
3.    Scandalous, uncontrollable surprise.

These three factors will be elaborated upon in upcoming posts.

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