The Fragmentation of Christian Perspective- with special attention given to the Book of Acts (3/4)

The Fragmentation of Christian Perspective- with special attention given to the Book of Acts (3/4)



*Note:  This is the longest of the four parts, with two excursus at the end.  It is probably best tackled section by section rather than in one sitting.

With part 1 and part 2 in the rear view mirror we march forward into deep waters.

“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,”[1] but what are the essentials?  While both R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur can share a pulpit to give their differing positions on baptism (infant vs. believers baptism respectively), and speak at the same  conferences, the fact remains that if R.C. Sproul were faithfully attending MacArthur’s church he still would not meet the requirements for membership and therefore could not join.  While the general concept of baptism is necessary in order to be unified with the essentials of historic Christianity, it is not enough to create unity at the local level.  For some churches this holds true as well if potential members are not say Pre-millennial, or if they do not share the Young Earth Creationist perspective, or whatever particular distinctive that denomination values.    

This all begs the question, what do we mean by unity?  Of course, unity does not mean uniformity, we get that much.  But what are we after?  Is it global Christian unity we want?  Is it Protestant Christian unity?  Is it Evangelical Christian unity?  Is it unity within one’s faith community (i.e. denomination)?  Is it unity between faith communities?  In all of this what are the boundary lines, the outer limits of unity with other groups?  For example, while I might march against abortion with Roman Catholics (moral unity), or stand with them against certain governmental policies (political unity) I would not likely join them in worship at mass (spiritual unity).

One helpful contribution to the whole mess is Kevin Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority After Babel (previously reviewed).  He promotes what he calls a “mere Protestant Christianity” based on the five solas of the Reformation as the defining boundary markers.  Whereas many blame the modern Christian fragmented perspective on the Reformation, claiming it has produced 33,000 denominations (note, even the National Catholic Register refutes this), Vanhoozer rightly argues instead, “Protestantism is not the virus that divides and attacks the body; it is the antibodies that set to work attacking the body's infections (e.g. late medieval Roman Catholicism).”  Others such as Reformed Theological Seminary’s Michael Allen, and Scott Swain are likewise on board tooting the horn of Reformed Catholicity.  This vision does go a long way in answering the call for unity among Protestants and it should not be ignored.    

Since Steve Brown specifically highlighted hermeneutics as a core source of Christian division within and between faith communities and even between individual Christians, we turn our attention in that direction for the emphasis of this article.

The Need For An Evangelical Hermeneutic - Asked For & Answered

The Reformation attempted to get the church back home and made many significant and needed strides, yet somewhere along the road she was kidnapped by the Age of Enlightenment with its scientific rationalism and deconstruction of spiritual truth that supposedly unshackled humanity from the tyranny of religion.  Historian Roy Porter rightly summarizes Immanuel Kant’s definition of the Enlightenment, “Mankind’s final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error.”  Much of today’s church now remains even more lost in the aftermath of these epochs - deaf, dumb, and blind in the relativistic wilderness of a Postmodern world.  

Walter Kaiser’s call in the 80s for a “hermeneutical Reformation” is precisely with this backdrop in mind. “The crisis upon us at the moment,” he asserts in his article Evangelical Hermeneutics, “is the result of the Kantian and neo-Kantian climate” produced by, among others, Friederich Schleiermacher.  After surveying the key principles and problems in interpretation among Evangelicals he calls for “…a restatement of the Reformation principles for our generation” (the very thing Vanhoozer et. al. are doing!).  He sees Evangelicals as,“woefully divided on hermeneutical systems.”  Too often tending “to mimic many of the systems already existing in the nonevangelical world without always reflecting critically on that usage.”  In a related blog entitled The Conservative Threat To Biblical Inerrancy we gathered representative examples of this kind of Evangelical-Critical Scholarship so rampant in the seminaries today.

One author rightly notes that by-in-large postmodernism’s solution is to remain silent, and yet, “…this strategy of acquiescence only cooperates with hermeneutical fragmentation by renaming “confusion,” which no one wants, with a term everyone wants, “diversity.”  Liberal theology loves diversity, but cannot escape its consequences.  Professor Scaer at Concordia Seminary observes,

The fragmented results of liberal exegetical thought in the nineteenth century were a negative cause in the rise to Neo-Orthodoxy in the twentieth century. It offered a relief to the fragmented biblical results by providing that unified theology that the critical scholars were incapable of producing. Today narrative theology may also have been looked upon as an attempt to provide a unified theology in the wake of form criticism, which fragmented the Gospels into molecules and atoms.”[2]

Liberal scholarship functions with a “hermeneutics of suspicion” and drops that standard like an anvil upon any interpretation that pushes up from its depleted soil bed.  Within the conservative realm, the “hermeneutics of tradition” are more often at play demarcating the boundary lines of the kind of diversity allowed on the theological playground.

Kaiser shines a light on the path ahead with his contribution of “Legitimate Hermeneutics” and his reminder of the key distinction between sense and significance (and we might add “referent” as a needed contrast as well).  Fee and Stuart helpfully distinguish between primary doctrines and secondary doctrines to help readers identify essentials from non-essentials.[3]  Kaiser’s call has been and is currently being answered.         

The Need For A More Punctilious Evangelical Hermeneutic

Evangelicals want more than tradition, they want hermeneutical rules, yet these rules produce an array of misunderstandings themselves.  E.g. “Interpret the unclear in light of the clear.”  But what exactly is “clear”?  And to whom?  Clear to the author who gave it?  Clear to the audience who received it?  Clear to someone today?  And could what we label as “unclear,” in one passage and in need of explanation actually be manifestly “clear” to someone else or another faith community (and vice versa)?  Surely the shortest verse in the English Bible is clear, “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35).  Its sense is indeed clear (Jesus cried), but not its significance.  It is only two words, yet we wonder, why did Jesus weep? Was he sad because Lazarus died? Was he sad because of the devastating effects of death (often used this way at funerals)?  Was he sad over the lack of faith in his people?  Or, was he in fact angry over the lack of faith he witnessed in those supposedly possessing God’s truth, but too blind to trust in God’s power?  All have been put forth as explanations yet all cannot be accurate.[4]  Which one is the clearest exactly?   

Or consider an even more obvious verse:  “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering….” (Gen. 22:2).  Interpreted according to the plain sense it creates a contradiction in God’s Word for Abraham had more than one son by this time, Ishmael was born first and now a teenager (Gen. 16:11).  The New Testament authors make the same “mistake” calling Isaac the “only begotten son” too (Heb. 11:17-19).  Here neither the sense nor the significance is patently obvious.  However, a contextual reading of Genesis reveals that the referent is not merely to Isaac, but to the fact that he was the only son of promise (Gen. 17:15-21; Gal. 4:34).[5]  Scripture is replete with examples like this easy to find on the many “Bible contradiction” websites if one is so inclined.       

So this “rule” needs clarification itself.  If Christians are not careful it is easy to exalt one section of Scripture above another, almost as though one portion is more authoritative which in many ways implies more inspired.  We see this effect in the minds of many in the pew who believe that the “red letters” of Jesus’ words are more trustworthy or more important than the rest of Scripture.  When there is an apparent conflict between Jesus’ words and another biblical author the layperson might be heard to say, “I’m going to side with Jesus on this one.”  Scholars do the same thing of course in a fancier way, some pitting Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom of God against Paul’s Gospel of justification as though we have to choose one or the author.  But if “All Scripture is God breathed…” then all biblical authors and all biblical genres are equally Spirit directed and Spirit filled therefore equally infallible, inerrant, and inspired.   

Bible teachers have an answer to this impasse and offer yet another “rule” to further guide biblical interpretation saying, “Interpret the descriptive in light of the prescriptive.”  That is, interpret the narrative portions of Scripture in light of the Bible’s commands.  For example, Daniel prayed three times a day (descriptive), so must we as modern Christians do likewise?  Well, is there an explicit command (prescription) anywhere in Scripture to do so?  If not, then the answer is no. 

Notice this tends to assume in practice…

(a) that all commands in Scripture are “clear,” and all narrative stories are “unclear,” in need of clarification (a proposition challenged by the mere fact that more than 70% of the Bible is narrative – God evidently thought this a clear way to communicate!),

(b) that the commands of the Bible are really what’s authoritative (i.e. like the red letters of Jesus) while all narrative is merely illustrative, and

(c) that stories by themselves do not contain any imperative force as warnings, encouragements, or models to follow (something Paul would vehemently disagree with so, 1 Cor. 10:1-13).

Like the one before it, it is easy to quote, but harder to apply inside the matrix of biblical interpretation.  For example, what happens when the two categories overlap and Scripture describes something that is being prescribed?  After all, the entire Bible is history and can therefore be viewed from this perspective.  The letter of 1st Timothy describes Paul’s prescription to the church for the care of widows.  Was this just something for the Church at Ephesus?  Is some or all of this binding on subsequent NT churches?  How do we know?  More contentiously, is Paul’s injunction against women teaching in Ephesus (1 Tim. 2:12), a description of his own views or a prescription for all time?  That single question has created voluminous works. 

There are also some things that are prescribed in the Bible, say for example in the Old Testament, that from our vantage point today as Christians are merely descriptions no longer binding upon us (e.g. civil and ceremonial law), and yet other things that were prescribed that are considered binding (e.g. the moral law; except the fourth commandment – that was a prescription for Israel, but a description for us!).  And there are some places where a direct prescription is for us only a description of historical events that hold no weight or authority in our lives (think of Paul’s command to “bring the cloak I left you,” in 2 Tim. 4:13, or, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” in 1 Tim. 5:23, both of which are imperatives). 

Evangelical scholars have recognized the difficulty here and rightly prefer to see the prescriptive as the guardrails for interpreting the descriptive narratives.  In other words, the emphasis lands on a more positive note:  does praying three times a day like Daniel go against any known, clear, and explicit command?  If not, then by all means “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).  Here the descriptive narratives are allowed to invite one to journey through the biblical story and the prescriptive functions as the guard rails to keep us from going off the road into an interpretive ditch of subjectivism where any story can mean anything we want. 

This is far more helpful because it introduces a system of checks and balances into one’s exegesis, yet it remains only valid in so far as each description and prescription is anchored to a particular author and his intended meaning.  Only by seeking the author’s intended meaning can we keep from falling off a cliff into a sea of theological pluralism where all interpretive views are equally valid, none better or worse than another, none stronger or weaker.[6]  But what do we mean by an author’s “intent”?  Therein lies the rub!   

While Evangelicals agree that seeking the author’s intended meaning is the rightful goal of faithful biblical interpretation it should not escape our attention that each of those words remain highly contentious:  “author” (God vs. human intention vs. narrative character and how do they relate?), “intended” (Geisler lists four definitions) and “meaning” (Kaiser quotes Baily who finds 10 levels of meaning).  Once the interpretive chain is untangled authorial intent can and should then be lowered as an anchor against the postmodern storm.  

The Need For A More Consistent Evangelical Methodology

Here we simply observe that while Protestant Evangelicals agree on the same basic foundational hermeneutical principles we nonetheless still arrive at wildly different conclusions of the biblical text.  Some of this is to do underlying presuppositions (e.g. Dispensational vs. Covenant Theology, paedobaptism vs. creedobaptism), but much has to do with different methods of applying those same interpretive rules as well. 

Consider the debate about the ordination of women for example.  Pick up a mainstream egalitarian book and compare the starting point to a standard complementarian work.  The egalitarian author will often begin demonstrating their case in the Old Testament descriptive narratives with cases like Deborah, Huldah, etc. as exemplars of godly female leaders then move to the New Testament through all the female contributors in the Gospels and Acts.  By the time one arrives at the pivotal text in 1 Timothy there is almost no way anyone can deny the valuable contribution of women in ministry (nor should we!), but this has the effect of framing one’s bias naturally against Paul’s injunction limiting women from “teaching or exercising authority” over men in the church (the context there is pivotal).[7]  Clearly then, Paul must be saying something different, otherwise he is disagreeing with the full weight of God’s holy pure Word!  Complementarians on the other hand tend to begin right in the didactic literature of 1 Timothy 2:12 and its context before going anywhere else.[8]  Both end up speaking past one another though they may hold the same commitment to the inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of God.  Which method is most accurate to the author’s intended meaning?  Why?  And how do we talk to each other not through each other (perhaps with each other is even better)?[9]   

In addition to agreeing on the same interpretive principles, presuppositions, and method, we need to gain some unity of mind concerning what counts as a valid versus an invalid interpretations, and a strong versus a weak argument according to the rules of logic.  How many of us know, for example, that a weak argument can be true and a valid argument can be false?  By and large Christian colleges, courses, classes, churches, pastors, give little to no attention to teaching their people how to think logically.  Os Guinness’ Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, James W. Sire’s Why Good Arguments Often Fail, John Piper’s Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, as well as R.C. Sproul’s curriculum The Consequences of Ideas, are all needed contributions to Christian reasoning.  In fact, and sadly, most Christian leaders have never taken a formal logic course in their career (to begin to fill that gap see The Great Courses) or even a single philosophy course.  If the leaders are ill equipped to demonstrate robust thinking, then our people will be as well and the divide will only grow larger between individual Christians and faith communities.  This is all the more evident as we turn to the driving wedge for many modern churches, the book of Acts – a test case for all of this so far.              

Is The Book Of Acts A Major Culprit In Fragmentation?

In Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart’s landmark book, How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, they remark:

In fact, it is our lack of hermeneutical precision as to what Acts is trying to teach that has led to a lot of the division one finds in the church. Such diverse practices as the baptism of infants or of believers only, congregational and episcopalian church polity, the necessity of taking the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, the choice of deacons by congregational vote, the selling of possessions and having all things in common, and even ritual snake handling (!) have been supported in whole or in part on the basis of Acts.

The two big confusions whipping up the storm seem to be (1) assumptions concerning the nature of Scripture especially as it relates to the genre of historiography, (2) the role of the author’s intent.  Since Luke-Acts make up 25% of our New Testament it is incumbent upon the church to have at least provisional answers to these two issues.  Doing so may very well point the way forward for Advent Christians in particular.

Problem #1 for Acts - Assumptions Concerning Historiography

It seems there is a predominant view within Christendom that if a biblical author is recording history then that is all they are doing ipso facto and nothing more can be derived from their teachings.  This is frankly weird.  All the Bible is history, or as we say, His-story.  There are no trivial details preserved in Holy Scripture.  Rather, it is all intended for our instruction in some way (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:3-4).  The distinction Christians need to make is between history that happened and history that was recorded for our benefit.  These categories arise from Scripture itself.         

In 1st Corinthians 9 Paul quotes an obscure verse from the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” (v 9).  Then he asks, “Is it for oxen that God is concerned?  Does he not certainly speak for our sake?  It was written for our sake…” (vv 9-10).  God spoke through Moses to write a law most modern Christians would throw away, yet Paul meditates on what God really wants to communicate through Moses and to whom he wants to communicate to.  For Paul then, God’s intended meaning through Moses was not just history, but something more, something written down for all generations, for all time and therefore relevant.           

In the next chapter Paul shows no hesitation about using the Old Testament as a means of instruction and teaching even to Gentile Corinthians.  After summarizing the Exodus story and Israel’s punishment for 40 years he says in 1 Corinthians 10:6, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” Here he means that Israel’s disobedience and subsequent consequence was a warning for the Corinthians who were heading in the same direction.  On the surface this might lead New Testament Christians to believe that everything that happened in Israel’s history was therefore “for us,” but Paul makes a necessary distinction between history that happened and history recorded.  He continues using Israel as an example citing incidents from Numbers 25 where 23,000 were killed in one day, how they were bitten by serpents, and how they grumbled and were cut down by an angel of the Lord.  Then he concludes in v 11:  Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.  All the things that happened to Israel were indeed an “example” to the nation historically and had they never been recorded they would have been merely something that happened for them for that time.  But biblical authors led by and filled with the Spirit of God recorded these particular events and omitted others.  We do not know everything about Israel, or Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Ruth, Jael, or Jesus (Jn 21:25), etc.  We only know what any given author chose to write down, but whatever they chose to record was “written down for our instruction.”  Of course, this makes sense, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  If something is Scripture, regardless of whether it is poetry, parable, apocalyptic, prescriptive, descriptive, or anything else - if it is Scripture it exists to make us complete to do the work of God.   

This is Paul’s standard view on the Old Testament.  In Rom. 4:23 he cites the story of Abraham being called by God and believing God’s promises.  God’s response was that “he credited it [Abraham’s faith] to him as righteousness.”  Thus, Abraham did not work for his salvation, but believed by faith; the very point Paul wants to communicate.  This was not just some private chat between God and Abraham.  If that were the case it would be history happened, but of no consequence to anyone beyond that conversation.  Rather, Paul says, “But the words, “it was credited to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also” (v 23).  The fact that Moses wrote this incident down and explained it means that it exists for our instruction.  Moses and of course God wanted us to get more out of this story then merely a few details, it becomes the very origin for justification by faith alone!      

Again, Paul says in Romans 15:4, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction (didaskalia = teaching), that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”  So, Scripture gives us warnings, encouragement, hope, and essentially then “everything we need for life and godliness” through the promises contained therein (2 Pet. 1:3) precisely because those inspired were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

So, the question especially when reading any kind of narrative in the Bible is to ask, “Is this a warning?”  “Is this an encouragement?”  “Is this an exemplar to follow?”  And to carefully reason to the conclusion.  Never ever are we allowed to simply relegate something to “history” as though it has no value or power in our lives!  When it comes to the book of Acts, Luke is not merely writing history, something most scholars now recognize.  He has chosen to record some things and omit others concerning the spread of the Gospel through the church (Acts 1:8) and its relevancy for future generations.  Like Paul looking back on Scripture we can look back to Luke and likewise say, “it was written for our instruction.”  Roger Stronstand’s conclusion is most salient here,

“If for Paul the historical narratives of the Old Testament had didactic lessons for New Testament Christians, then it would be most surprising if Luke, who modeled his historiography after Old Testament historiography, did not invest his own history of the origin and spread of Christianity with a didactic significance.” 

If The Details Matter, The Story Matters All The More

One major and often overlooked implication of all this is that there are no incidental details in Scripture, if by “incidental” we mean unimportant (i.e. often the connotation in regular speech, though if we mean “secondary” then that is certainly true).  When it comes to Scripture nothing is mere history, every recorded word and event matters.  Jesus paid such close attention to the verbal aspect of Scripture that he could prove the future resurrection (Matt. 22:23-33) and his own deity (Jn. 8:58) using nothing other than the tense of a single verb.  The Apostle Paul argued that Old Testament promises were given to the Messiah (and therefore He can give them to whom He wills) based on nothing more than the fact that Moses wrote down the singular “seed,” rather than the plural “seeds” (Gal. 3:16).  Jesus had previously used this same idea to embed the doctrine of the Trinity within Matthew’s Great Commission passage, “…baptizing in the name (sg) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” (i.e. one name, three persons – an argument we should note, the Jehovah Witnesses do not have an answer to!).   

Jesus said, “the scriptures cannot be broken,” (Jn.10:35) and “every jot and title must be fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18) demonstrating the highest possible view of God’s Word.  Everything written in the Bible is there to teach us something – the quest then is to encounter God in the cleft of His Word and let its variegated beauty change us to reflect His glory.    

The Purpose Of Stories (i.e. historical narrative)

Make no mistake, Luke was most certainly a historian par excellence, but let us not forget, “His view of theology led him to write history” (I. Howard Marshall).  Luke therefore invites the church in every generation to read and be transformed by his story in some way.  But then again, this was God’s intention for the Bible as a whole.  N.T. Wright rightly asks, “how can a story, a narrative, be authoritative?”  He offers this beginning insight which he develops further in his article How Can The Bible Be Authoritative:

“Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation.  Somehow, this authority is also wielded through his people singing psalms.  Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus” (emphasis mine). 

Scripture makes “tyrannical” demands on the reader says Vanhoozer in The Drama of Doctrine.  The Scripture stories “seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.”[10]  Biblical stories have authority and they are powerful. 

Commands tell us what to do. 

Propositions tell us what to believe. 

invite us to step through the wardrobe into another world and be changed.  Why do we so often miss this?  Because as two other authors explain in The Drama of Scripture,

“Many of us have read the Bible as if it were merely a mosaic of little bits – theological bits, moral bits, historical-critical bits, sermon bits, devotional bits.  But when we read the Bible in such a fragmented way, we ignore its divine author’s intention to shape our lives through its story….Hence, the unity of Scripture is no minor matter:  a fragmented Bible may actually produce theologically orthodox, morally upright, warmly pious idol worshippers!” (emphasis mine).    

The Bible as “Story,” is a challenge to our Evangelical hermeneutic because traditional scientific hermeneutics derived from the Enlightenment offer no substantial way to ascertain transforming truth from narrative passages.  Craig Keener rightly points out,

“The fact that our traditional method of extracting doctrine from Scripture does not work well on narrative does not mean that Bible stories do not send clear messages.  Instead, it suggests that the way we apply our traditional method of interpretation is inadequate because we are ignoring too much of God’s Word.”[11]

Keener goes on to situate the New Testament in its cultural context and reminds us that “everyone understood that narrative conveyed moral principles.”  Something evidently greatly forgotten by the modern world.       

Most Christians, however, seem far more concerned with asking, “Do I have to do X or Y?”  Or, “Is X or Y binding on me, my church, the larger Christian community?” Rather than, “How can I be transformed by this passage, pericope, parable, or story?”  Sometimes this is asked with good intentions seeking to know God’s will precisely in order to obey it.  Far more often I fear, it is asked with a motive for minimalism that avoids spiritual challenges and deeper life transformation because it is so focused only on the lowest common denominator of what is “required” to remain in the faith.  Inner attitude aside, either way the answer is found in the next big problem with interpreting Acts.

Problem #2 for Acts – The Hermeneutics of Historiography

Fee and Stuart lay down their assumption clearly, “Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normative (i.e. obligatory) way – unless it can be demonstrated on other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way.”  The debate around Acts often gets stuck in the mud hole of the prescription vs. description debate.  Pentecostal scholar Roger Stronstad carried on a debate with fellow Pentecostal theologian Gordon Fee about this very topic both in private and in print.[12]  Stronstad doubles down arguing for a prescriptive Lucan historiography (esp. The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke), while Fee pushes back against this in Gospel And Spirit and recruits another to write their landmark article arguing for limitations addressing the “problem of biblical precedent” later on (Acts:  The Question Of Historical Precedent).  Since an array of groups come to Acts arguing that some practice or another is mandatory for modern Christians, Fee and Stuart lay down six hermeneutical principles to determine whether something really is binding or not.

Helpfully they distinguish between primary and secondary levels of doctrine placing precedent always in the secondary level.  E.g. Communion is primary; it must be practiced by all faithful Bible believing churches, though how often it is practiced is a secondary matter.  All biblical churches must meet for corporate worship as a primary practice, though what day they meet, at what hour, for how long, is secondary (so Col. 2:16). 

An historical precedent is an Apostolic pattern that is laid down that should not be changed by anyone in any time for as long as the church shall live (by analogy a “legal precedent” functions as rule of law until overruled).  In this sense, only if a pattern can be shown to be tied to the author’s intention does it then demand the church’s obedience today (i.e. it must be done this way not simply that it may be done this way).  That is, “if it can be shown that the purpose of a given narrative is to establish precedent, then such precedent should be regarded as normative” say Fee and Stuart.  Since the authors use the word “precedent” in different ways and with different connotations we prefer to use the more precise legal term of a binding precedent.[13] 

Fee & Stuart – Misunderstood and Misappropriated

Now, while the authors allow for the concept of a binding historical precedent deduced from the practices of the early church, by the end of the article they find none that strictly qualify.[14]  “The problem with all this [i.e. hermeneutical principles],” they say, “is that it tends to leave us with little that is normative…”  Sometimes Fee and Stuart are mishandled and cited in favor of the legitimacy of deriving a specific binding precedent from the book of Acts (e.g. Despite quoting Fee and Stuart three times, the intended Advent Christian Encyclical Reading Acts As Normative:  A Blueprint For Today, appears to have missed this crucial point). 

In a personal interview with Dr. Gordon Fee he agreed that his intention was to communicate that it is the principles that are binding not the specific practices.  When asked, “Does it surprise you that some are using your article to support and argue for making a particular precedent normative,” he said, “That makes no sense at all!  We live in a radically different world than Paul experienced.  We have to adapt.”[15]  When Dr. Doug Stuart was asked that same question he said simply, “Yes, they are misunderstanding the chapter for sure.”[16]  

So, while the category of a specific historically binding precedent grounded in authorial intent does exist in theory, it remains untenable in praxis as one would have to climb an exegetical Everest to show why Luke intends one particular practice to be binding (e.g. meeting only on Sundays, meeting only in homes, celebrating the Lord’s Supper only as a meal – all things I enjoy mind you) and not others (e.g. the necessity of speaking in tongues, tongues as an indicator of a second work of grace (à la Pentecostalism), communal living, choosing leaders by lot).  So far, such attempts have been weighed and found wanting by both evangelical scholarship and the wider evangelical world.

Fee & Stuart – Rightly Understood & Applied       

So, what do Fee & Stuart find then?  They find patterns that were normal for the first century church but caution that we “not confuse normalcy with normativeness in the sense that all Christians must do a given thing or else they are disobedient to God’s Word.”  Some of these patterns are certainly repeatable for the church today.  While they give no term to this, I have termed it persuasive precedent following the legal analogy.  In Judicial rulings a binding precedent holds up the prescriptive law and must be overruled by special justification in order to lose its power, persuasive precedent, on the other hand, holds primacy and the utmost influence in legal proceedings though it is not formally binding even if nearly all of the time judges rule in its favor.[17]  

This is crucial to a precise understanding of how to interpret the Book of Acts.  They say, “biblical precedents may sometimes be regarded as repeatable patterns – even if they are not understood to be normative.”  A key example of this is the selection of minority leaders in Acts 6 to solve the growing racial tension.  They say, “such a procedure makes such good sense one wonders why anyone would fight it.  After all, why innovate with human wisdom when we have examples of people led by the Spirit already?  They go on to rightly observe, “That is, for many practices there seems to be full justification for the later church’s repeating of biblical patterns; but it is moot to argue that all Christians in every place and every time must repeat the pattern or they are disobedient to God’s Word.” 

The issue then, is discernment not disobedience.  Church plants worldwide for the last 2,000 years have given primacy to corporate worship gatherings on Sunday rather than other days, why?  There is no command for this in the Bible.  Yet, any reading of the NT reveals its rich resurrection symbolism as “the Lord’s day.”  This paired with early church practice created a starting point and natural path to follow (Fee and Stuart argue the same can be said about the mode of baptism as well).    

Certainly, more can be developed here and must be developed if we are to heal the wounds on the church caused by various exegetical missteps down the hermeneutical staircase.  One welcome balm is Andy Chambers who believes we lost our way interpreting Luke-Acts with the rise of the historical-critical methods that developed out of the 19th century Enlightenment.  He says in Exemplary Life:  A Theology Of Church Life In Acts,

“I believe Luke deliberately chose positive aspects of church life for inclusion in the summary narratives.  He did this in order to present his portraits of church life as a positive example for readers to study and emulate in their own churches.  For Luke, the summary narratives describe what life could be like in an exemplary church.”  

            The summary narratives he references are Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; and 5:12-16. 

He quotes Ben Witherington who notices these repeated elements as well calling them “possible rhetorical indicators for Luke that these behaviors should be normative for the church.” Chambers goes much farther in providing in-depth exegetical analysis and evidence throughout his book.  In chapter 7 he lays out his finished work, 24 statements describing what the exemplary church should look like according to Luke’s intention which he then contextualizes for the 21st century church into principles for application.  (Note: the Advent Christian Encyclical previously referenced, Reading Acts As Normative:  A Blueprint For Today, fits best in this category as Twitchell essentially admits on p. 9 and 12). 

Apostolic Traditions As Persuasive Precedents

How did the Apostles organize such a diverse church of Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles into anything consistent from region to region?  Paul gives us the answer when he commands the Thessalonian Church to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us,” (2 Thess. 2:15).  “Traditions” is something he repeats enough that it should make an impression upon the modern reader today (2 Thess. 3:6; 1 Cor. 11:2, 16, 23-24, 34; 1 Cor. 14:33-34).  These are not the traditions of men mind you (Mark 7:1-13; Gal. 1:14), but the traditions of the Apostles as they were guided by the light of divine revelation through the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:2; 13:47).  Interestingly, while Christ commanded the Apostles to baptize their disciples and perform the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, the Apostles never actually, at least explicitly, command the church to repeat these patterns, but then again, they don’t have to.[18]  The pattern of their lives and ministry were the model that they expected future generations to replicate (Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9; 1 Cor. 4:6; 11:1).  This includes the summary narratives, but extends beyond them we believe to encompass e.g. the appointing of elders (plural) in every church (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5), meeting frequently for serious dialogical teaching (Acts 2:42; 4:33; 5:42; Acts 19:9-10; 20:7, 20), committing to the preaching of the Gospel, being dedicated to meeting together regularly on the Lord’s day for worship (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Heb. 10:25; Rev. 1:10), and celebrating the Lord’s Supper as a supper, a shared meal later known as the agape feast (Acts 2:42; 20:7; Jude 12; 1 Cor. 11:17-34).

Interestingly, each of these paradigmatic Apostolic traditions fit Fee and Stuart’s criteria for repeatable patterns“the strongest case can be made when only one pattern is found and that pattern is repeated within the New Testament itself.”[19]  Of course, in any of these primary vs. secondary levels have to be fleshed out, deeper principles need to emerge, and contextualization still needs to happen. 

The Pauline Cycle As Persuasive Precedent

Roland Allen’s groundbreaking work in Missionary Methods:  St. Paul’s or Ours, shows us that the Apostle to the Gentiles was not just making it up as he went along but had a definitive plan and strategy for making, maturing, and multiplying communities of faith all across the Roman world.  When combined with David Hesselgrave’s work Planting Churches Cross-Culturally:  North America and Beyond (where he lays out in detail the Pauline cycle, demonstrating its exegetical foundations and real life in-the-field practical application), it creates a double knockout punch against nearly all modern forms of cross-cultural church planting.  So far, it appears to be the most effective church planting model the world has seen (see Prezi walk thru, or this 31 page outline pdf).  It is the exemplar par excellence to follow, and therefore one can make a case that we should only deviate from it with serious reflection and good cause.

Persuasive Precedent Conclusion

In the final analysis, the persuasive precedent view argues that Luke’s intent in Acts is to give the church for all generations a paradigmatic model, an exemplar summum in all these ways, yet more than even that it recognizes that Acts is meant to be a story that shapes us, molds us, makes us into Christ’s church through the power of what theologian Stanly Grenz calls the “paradigmatic narrative.” In Essentials of Christian Theology he writes,

“A paradigmatic narrative is a set of events that connects the community and its participants with the past and the future.  Through their appropriation of these events, succeeding generations understand themselves in relationship to past experiences of the community and in anticipation of a future that will mark the actualization of the community’s ideals.  By functioning in this manner, a paradigmatic narrative is not merely a collection of occurrences in history, for this narrative has the potential to create a meaningful present.  A paradigmatic narrative fuses past and future with the present in a manner that calls forth a new world in the here and now, so that the community that inhabits this world takes its identity from, and becomes the contemporary embodiment of, the paradigmatic narrative itself.”       

While he goes on to apply this concept to the whole counsel of the Word of God which shapes the Christian community, one may apply it equally with single minded focus just to the book of Acts so that any modern church that encounters the ancient church’s story becomes so enamored by it, so captivated, that it enters the story and lives out its own chapter in the modern world.

Are These The Only Perspectives on The Book Of Acts?

We have two more to introduce, but this is a good point to put them on a gradation to understand how they unfold a bit.

 Let us catch our breath and summarize what we know so far:

Prescriptive – All of the principles and practices of the early church must be followed as normative in the church today (though in practice Pentecostals et. al. are highly selective here). 

Binding Precedent – Only the principles and practices tied to the author’s intention must be followed by the church today as normative (existing in theory not praxis).    

Persuasive Precedent – The principles and practices of the early church that can be shown to be a repeatable pattern, tied to the author’s intended meaning, and providing multiple lines of evidence, should hold the title of optimus princeps (“the best ruler”) over the church unless something else can be shown to be superior.

Now we introduce the final two categories for understanding the book of Acts: 

Principlism – While the specific practices of the Apostles are not binding for us today, they were nonetheless led by the Spirit in a special way in order to build Christ’s church so that it would be strong enough to attack the gates of Hell (Matt. 16:18), therefore the underlying principles that motivated and moved them are still binding on us today. 

The hermeneutics of principlism typically centers on its application to Old Testament narrative or Law (so J. Daniel Hays, Walter Kaiser), but it can be applied to any narrative of Scripture making Acts an ideal candidate.  Kaiser uses the ladder of abstraction to translate these principles into the modern setting.  He envisions two ladders leaning against one another making an “A”.  One moves up the ladder from the cultural practice to the underlying principle at the top and then back down the other side to the theological or moral principle to end with the practical expression in today’s culture.[20]  This allows the interpreter to take otherwise culturally frozen practices like say, an ox treading out the grain (Deut. 25:4), and pull out the underlying principle and apply it to paying the ministers of the Word (1 Cor. 9:9-12; 1 Tim. 5:18).  As Kaiser points out, Paul could have easily appealed to Deut. 24:14-15 which explicitly taught, “Do not take advantage of a hired man…pay him his wages.”  But Paul does not think like modern Christians.  If all Scripture is “written for us” then one text is just as good as another as long as one has the tools to pan through the silt to find the gold.

This holds promise to get through some serious theological blockades Christians set up for one another.  If we identify the principles correctly (and to be fair, many do not) then we can move up and down the ladder of abstraction to find reasonable expressions of it in our own time and culture.

Take the example of the participatory nature of the early church (1 Cor. 14:26).  Sovereign Grace churches take this seriously structuring their Sunday morning service around that idea allowing members to share visions, dreams, insights, or ask questions during the main preaching time (but in an orderly fashion).  We have suggested elsewhere the role dialogical preaching/teaching could play in realizing this principle too.  More could be suggested of course. 

Cultural Assonance or Dissonance As Key To Rightly Applying Principlism

Take special note here, this need not always mean the cultural expression will change or that it must.  If a culture practiced head coverings, kissing as a greeting, and foot washing, and they meant essentially the same thing as they did in the 1st century cultural context then the principle and the practice both align like the minute and hour hand on a clock at high noon.

Only when there is cultural dissonance on a particular practice does the principle begin to move away from the practice and point in a different direction (e.g. Paul’s penchant for open air kerygmatic preaching will not work so well in North Korea, but the principle must still be carried over, i.e. the need for evangelism).[21] 

Sometimes we are too quick to assume dissonance instead of reason through our context. E.g. From the beginning of Acts to the end we are told the early church met “daily”, laying down a pattern for church life that historically extended for the next few hundred years well beyond the NT.  As anyone in ministry knows, we cannot build a Christ-community without time together.  Yet, this principle of frequency can be expressed differently today.  In some city churches where the population is dense and travel is easier (i.e. very similar to 1st century cities which Paul evangelized), they can and do offer early morning prayer groups daily, or study gatherings daily during the lunch hour, whereas a rural church with people more spread out may offer those same things only 1-2x weekly.

Two further guidelines that may help us move from ancient text to modern context is to ask: (1) Is this principle taught anywhere else in Scripture?  (2) Is this principle consistently expressed?  One blogger helpfully shows how these very criteria can be used to navigate the book of Acts when it comes to team leadership in the Church vs. solo pastor model (he concludes that team leadership is the principle), and the necessity of speaking in tongues to be a Christian (not an actual principle he determines).

Final word on principlism:  The is the perspective of missional CPMs (Church planting models) and the internet is filled with representations like…

The degree to which any of these articles and books actually identify the substrata principle correctly and then rightly find a modern expression is suspect however, and the reader will find the need to cross-reference each so called “principle” with Hays and Kaiser to validate it hermeneutically.  E.g. Campus Crusade for Christ misappropriates principles from the book of Acts to further their own movement when they ought rather to be used to plant and further the church.  Others wrongly cite Acts 2-5 as illustrating the principle of socialism which they believe the church has ignored.  Still, when done properly it unlocks new territory for the modern Church to explore (See Excursus A for the application of principlism to the house church network movement). 

Descriptive – The Enlightenment sought to understand the Bible as a human work which meant seeing it as history and therefore asking only historical questions of it.  Soon, the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” became two completely separate persons.  Once again, Friedrich Schleiermacher is at the head of the storm with his insistence on a thoroughgoing historical-critical exegesis of the Bible.  One summary of his works rightly notes, “Theology, for Schleiermacher, should be descriptive, not prescriptive.”[22] Eventually this came to mean the Bible needed to be hand shucked of its myth and legends so that the kernels of history could be seen, appreciated, and planted in new soil to bear new fruit.  While Evangelical Christians do not go so far, the insistence of many that Acts is merely history with little to no relevancy for our lives today comes from the same poisoned crop.  However, even before Schleiermacher the Reformation’s big blunder (especially Luther and Calvin) was in reading the Great Commission as descriptive pertaining to what the Apostles had already fulfilled, leaving no prescriptive charge for the church to do likewise (the Anabaptists being the exception).  This was a major contributing factor in why it took nearly 300 years before William Carey launched the modern mission’s movement.  A costly hermeneutic indeed! (But see Excursus B for the fuller story).   

A Splint for Healing The Fractured Book of Acts

So, where does all of this leave us?  Farther down the rabbit hole then when we first began?  Yes, but this new world is so much more exciting than the one we left behind! 

Truth be told, most readers will never be convinced of a prescriptive hermeneutic unless someone can provide a serious tour de force apologetic for its grounding and application.  This isn’t to be dismissive, just realistic.  Even Pentecostal scholarship now leans more in the direction of precedent in light of Fee and Stuart’s article, arguing instead that it was Luke’s intent to teach a charismatic theology by laying down his narrative stories about the baptism of the Spirit as precedent for subsequent generations.[23]  Still, mainstream evangelicalism does not buy binding precedent as legitimate either.      

Most reasonable Christians will be convinced of the inadequacy of a purely descriptive approach too, and will hopefully want to distance themselves from its liberal agenda and anti-biblical perspective (so 2 Tim. 3:16).    

That means that the vast majority of believers will likely land in one of these two remaining camps:  persuasive precedent, or, principlism

Many will be attracted to the generalities and freedom that principlism affords, however, exclusive reliance on this standpoint ignores Luke’s intended meaning revealed through his structure and themes (something we do not have the space to address, but just about any commentary will do[24]) and in practice often results in an uncritical missional pluralism that sees all sincere attempts of building Christian community as valid paths to the same destination of doing church.   

Persuasive precedent on the other hand does include the use of principlism while also providing a consistent interpretive grid for the entire book of Acts and still maintaining its story narrative thus avoiding cherry picking principles out of context.  It avoids the downfalls of a purely descriptive approach by following a biblical-theological model grounded in Scripture, but also the inconsistency of a purely prescriptive one too (since all attempts end in a failure to provide the exegetical breadcrumbs for others to follow).  Unlike binding precedent, it refrains from viewing its expression as the right one while all others are wrong, but it also avoids an ecclesiastical pluralism that does not take God’s word seriously. 

The Final Need - Hermeneutical Humility

Hence far we have not discussed preunderstanding, personal bias, epistemological concerns, or the hermeneutical spiral.  Yet, this lengthy conversation demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt the need to be, “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (Jam. 1:19).  Vanhoozer calls for interpretive virtue.”  Such virtue requires, he writes, “a renewing not only of the mind but alas of the whole being; it requires a work of transforming grace, reorientation to truth.” While we must be confident in our biblical studies and let them form convictions in us, we must also step back and remember that we are not Jesus, we do not know or comprehend everything.  We cannot see or experience everything from every angle.  The scholarly, pastoral, or devotional reader always faces “the ever-present temptation to make idols of our interpretations,” hence the need for humility because “humility is the virtue that constantly reminds interpreters that we can get it wrong,” instructs Vanhoozer.     

While most people tend to think of the interpretive process like a cone that eventually comes to a set definable end where all the data is in and all conclusions are absolute, I tend to think of it as a simple funnel where we move from the wide mouth of ignorance to something narrower and accurately knowledgeable, but always open to seeking the truth.  Whether that truth supports my theological system or causes calamity for it, whether it makes me feel good or deeply troubled, whether it challenges, consoles, or crushes, it will in the end always set me free. 

Vanhoozer adds to all this the need for faith, hope, and love, in the hermeneutical endeavor as well as honesty, openness, attention, and obedience.  The interpreter is called to always stand “under” the meaning and force of the text rather than “over” it; understanding rather than over-standing, he explains.  Spurgeon said, “There will be three effects of nearness to Jesus:  Humility, happiness, and holiness.”  Since all are needed for the interpretive task and the interpreter let us wade into the deep waters of His love and invite others in to join us in humble hermeneutical conversations.


Excursus A: The House Church Debate – Is It The Property or the People That Matter Most? 

Excursus B: The Ease and Effectiveness of Acts Style House Church Plants


Excursus A:  The House Church Debate –

Is It The Property or the People That Matter Most?

The ongoing debate between house churches vs. house church networks vs. small groups is a good test case for principlism.  Painting with broad brush strokes here we can see that the established church came to realize the importance of small intimate gatherings especially with the rise of the small group movement.  At first they rejected such a notion in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, then resisted it in the 50’s and 60’s, then eventually relaxed into and saw its benefits in the 70s and 80s.  When that eventually plateaued, many left to find a similar expression in the house church movement.  Now that has plateaued too and many are moving to the house church network movement for that same expression of intimacy and growth.  Those within the institutionalized church are on a similar mission to discover how to revitalize their small groups.  All have realized at least two things:  (1) small gatherings are essential for a biblically balanced church, (2) any gathering of believers will die on the branch unless they are seeking upward, inward, and outward movement (all three directions are necessary).  That is, movement towards God, towards one-another, and towards the lost. 

House churches and small groups lost their kick in large part because they became so inwardly focused.  The church wanted to build a highway to heaven to lead people into deeper communion and greater outreach through all these expressions, but what they ended up with, as others have pointed out, were nicely manured cul-de-sac communities that did not go anywhere.  If the house church network model so in vogue today (e.g. Franchise Chan and the Neo house church network, Larry Kreider, BILD) ignores this history they too will wither away and die.  Such is the nature of any movement say sociologist.  The solution is to find the driving principles more than the particular practice and let those principles find the right soil to grow in.  The issue is not house church vs. institutional church per se (both are buildings after all!), but the people that proliferate them.  In that sense, small groups can become dynamic missional communities even if they never become house or cell churches (and we believe that is the principle). 

One passionate author gathers some important statistics claiming that Evangelical Churches have failed to gain an additional 2% of the American population in the past 50 years.  “In other words,” he says, “we are not even reaching our own children.”  In fact, we are not reaching a lot of people.  Only 4% of those born between 1977-1994 are Christians making them the most unchurched generation in America.  So, when Charisma News lists 5 of the fastest-growing churches no one has ever heard of, pointing to Jeremy Johnson’s move to LA to plant a church in a nightclub as one of them (he had to remove the stripper poles first of course), are we really going to debate whether his location is “biblical”?  In a coffeehouse, in a basement, in a building large or small, what matters most is casting the Gospel net far and wide and following Christ’s example to the ends of the earth!


Excursus B:  The Ease & Effectiveness of Acts Style House Church Plants

Many in various movements outside the institutional church would like to add the indispensable role of the home to the apostolic tradition we mentioned in this article, though this remains more contentious and different groups put different emphasis on its role (i.e. house church vs. house-network vs. cell church vs. traditional small groups vs. missional small groups). 

The home as essential began in Acts 2:46 with 3,000 new believers meeting both in public corporate gatherings in the Temple and private home gatherings, continued on with Peter and the 5,000 meeting publicly in Solomon’s Colonnade (Acts 5:12; 4:4) and also “from house to house” (5:41), and demonstrated even decades later where Paul is seen teaching among the crowds at the hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus (19:9-10) and also “house to house” (20:20).  The Sunday evening agape meal was corporate, a time when “the whole church” gathered together (1 Cor. 1:11; 5:4; 11:18, 20, 26; Rom. 16:23).  If recent studies are correct then the Church at Corinth collective referred to dozens of smaller house churches making up the larger network and hence made up of hundreds of Christians not just the 30-50 often claimed.[25]  This meant they would need a large enough space to conduct a corporate worship before proceeding back to receive instruction in smaller groups in homes.  At times these larger corporate gatherings probably were not practical as in the case of the amazing growth of the church at Antioch.  Again “church” here refers to the Church of Antioch as a collection of networked house churches that by AD 251 had more than 1500 widows on their care list, and by AD 300 doubling to 3,000 (imagine the resources of the church to provide this care).  Sometime in the 4th century Chrysostom estimated about 100,000 Christians were part of Christ’s church in Antioch.  One church identity, but distributed through many homes (hence the use of the formula “the church in the house of x”).[26]      

Rolland Allen’s premise in The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church And The Causes Which Hinder It is that the successful expansion and multiplication of the early church is derived precisely from Paul’s structure: “The churches of St. Paul established new self-supporting, self-governing and self-extending churches like themselves in the nearest towns and villages, not by fissure, but by spiritual procreation.[27]

The same spontaneous expansion can be seen during the Reformation’s house church planting phase.  Calvin commissioned four church planters to preach the Gospel to Indians in Brazil.  In 1555 Calvin planted 5 house churches in France.  Four years later there were 100 churches.  Three years after that 2,000 churches!  They did not all remain house churches, many grew into their own buildings reporting 4-5,000 on a Sunday morning, with some pastors preaching three times on Sunday to accommodate 5-6,000, another says 8-9,000 attended.  Calvin personally trained dozens of pastors and missionaries himself and Geneva would later send out 1300 Gospel herald/church planters.  It was Calvin who said, “A good missionary is a good theologian.”  Contrary to Mulholland’s oft heard critique that “William Carey did not launch the modern Protestant missionary movement until 275 years after the Reformation began. Virtually no Protestant missionary activity took place between 1517 and 1792,” the Reformation was a church planting missionary movement (it just happened to focus mainly in Europe rather than foreign nations, but then again Europe needed it!).[28]  As the movement grew and became more focused on the church building the movement slowed. 

We might also consider the phenomenal growth of the Methodist revival movement of 18th century England which was due in large part to its beginning in homes.  John Wesley called these “class meetings.”  Class leaders were normal people, they met weekly, prayed for each other, and held each other accountable to spiritual growth.  It’s said these in-home class meetings sustained the renewal over decades keeping the fires burning.  Wesley reached the masses and made leaders out of everyday normal people. Again, as the Methodist believers put more emphasis on their weekly church meeting in their buildings and less on the intimate personal encounters within their home, the revival movement began to decline.       

The ease and mobility of a house church in the ancient world carried with it the same advantages as it does in the modern one.  Charles Price, Director of Missions for the San Antonio Baptist Association, lamented that the typical cost to start a new church in North America is an astounding two million dollarsJim Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church of Orlando estimated, “Our two church plants are going to cost us about $2,450,000 over a three-year period.”  In contrast, house church plants typically cost next to nothing.   

Larry Kreider cites Fuller Theological Seminary’s study which discovered an alarming ratio.  If a church is 10 or more years old it typically takes 85 people to bring a single person to Christ (85:1 ratio).  A church between 4 to 7 years old had a ratio of 7:1 (for every 7 people in the church 1 person came to Christ).  In churches less than 3 years old, the ratio drops to 3:1 (for every three people in a church 1 person comes to Christ).  He concludes, “Planting new churches is the most effective way to reach more people.”  If that’s true, house churches properly designed and passionately motivated have an advantage here.

Two church planters in India started a church-planting experiment without church buildings, Sunday services, or paid clergy. They trained and sent young, lower-caste, church planters out. Within a few years, they had started 3,500 house churches involving 70,000 believers. By 2009, this had grown to an estimated one million house churches.           

Dr. David Zac Naringiye, African Professor in Uganda laments what he sees in his home country: “It is very disheartening to hear of unreached peoples in Kenya…when the church there is 100 years old.  Or, of unreached peoples in neighboring Sudan, when we’ve had churches in Uganda for more than a century.”  This is exactly what Rolland Allen is focused on fixing, the slow to no expansion of the Christian church that happens when we leave Spirit filled Apostolic methods (i.e. persuasive precedent) behind for modern ingenuity.       


Next:  Part 4 – Christian Worldview Fragmentation



[1] Falsely attributed to St. Augustine.  Historian Philip Schaff traces the slogan back to Rupertus Meldenius, a Lutheran Reformer in the 16th century (History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII: Modern Christianity and the German Reformation, p.650).  The Catholic Bulletin offers a few other possibilities, and one dedicated blogger traced it to a Catholic bishop turned Anglican turned Catholic again named Marco De Dominis in De republica ecclesiastica libri X (London, 1617) as the earliest known use.

[2] A Critique of the Fourfold Pattern in Concordia Theological Quarterly V 63:4, 1999:  275.

[3] Esp. p. 106-107.

[4] Our vote is for the latter since “deeply moved” translates a Greek word that means “indignant”, or literally, “to snort with anger” (Jn. 11:33; 38) and “troubled,” translates a word that means “to be agitated” (v 33).

[5] Defenders of the inerrancy of the Bible are sometimes too quick to offer a solution, e.g. sometimes appealing to the qualifier, “whom you love” to argue that Abraham must not have loved Ishmael.  This is a far stretch indeed for Abraham had previously pleaded for his son’s acceptance before God (Gen. 17:18) and he was disturbed by having to send him away (Gen. 21:12-13).  Others appeal to the wrong context observing that since Ishmael was sent away in the previous chapter Isaac can be technically considered Abraham’s “only” son in that respect (as though this works in any normal usage in any other context!).  Others try a more linguistic approach supposing that the Hebrew term for “only” (yachiyd) means “unique,” and in that sense “only begotten” highlights Isaac’s special nature, therefore all tension is cleared up (a claim contrary to the evidence see Judg. 11:34; Prov. 4:3; Jer. 6:26; Amos 8:10).  It is attempts like these that give fuel to unbelievers to call Christians disingenuous at best, liars and deceivers at worst.  We can and must do better (2 Tim. 2:15).    

[6] Lest the reader think I am mixing my metaphors here let it be known that my previously stated “road” and “guardrails” happens to pass by a great precipice overlooking the sea…at least, in my mind.  

[7] Kostenberger’s grammatical, historical, exegetical analysis in Women in the Church has still not been adequately answered when it comes to the two nouns “teaching and exercising authority.”    

[8] See Chapter 9 by Douglas Moo in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (full book online).

[9] Another example might be how young earth creationists (YEC) and old earth creationists (OEC) agree on the divine veracity of the Bible and sola Scriptura yet both weigh extrabiblical evidence differently.  They both have different starting orientations.  YEC give priority to their interpretation of the Bible first and then interpret all extrabiblical scientific claims through that grid (e.g. the genealogies in Genesis add up to 6,000 years thus there are no gaps and the earth is 6k years old no matter what extrabiblical evidence might suggest).  OEC view both “books” of God’s revelation (His Word and His world) as equally authoritative and only when each one is rightly interpreted then God’s general and special creation will not contradict (e.g. the genealogies in Genesis could be added up, but given the speed of light calculations based on all known math formulas indicating an old earth/universe, that would not be wise and hence there must be gaps or telescoping in the genealogies like there are in other genealogies throughout Scripture).  Either way method matters but is usually not discussed. 

[10] The Drama of Doctrine, P. 19, Quoting Erich Auerbach in Mimesis:  The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. 

[11] P. 212 in Gift and Giver:  The Holy Spirit Today. 

[12] Roger Stronstad, The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1984); Gordon D. FeeGospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 1991); Roger StronstadSpirit, Scripture and Theology: A Pentecostal Perspective (Baguio City, Philippines: Asia Pacific Theological Seminary Press, 1995). 

[13] On the one hand they relegate “precedent” to secondary level issues, and rightly so, yet at times these secondary level issues appear to carry normative authority (as when they argue for immersion as the mode of baptism), but other times they use “precedent” in a way that is not normative at all (as when they argue or the frequency of the Lord’s Supper being based on precedent and adding “surely it is not binding.”), or, they say precedent merely illustrates a principle (as when they discuss eating the showbread and plucking grain on the Sabbath) and still other times we are told that “biblical precedents may sometimes be regarded as repeatable patterns – even if they are not understood to be normative.”

[14] They do mention immersion baptism as a precedent for later churches though not strictly just because it is a pattern shown in the book of Acts, but also because of linguistic studies on the word “baptizdo” and other texts (Rom. 6:1-3).  

[15] Personal interview via phone to his NY home on 3/20/2018.  

[16] Personal interview via phone to his Gordon-Conwell Seminary office on 3/20/2018.    

[17] While Dr. Fee and Stuart would likely place themselves in the principlism camp, Dr. Fee did agree that this was a fair understanding of his repeatable patterns category (so n. 15).     

[18] E.g. Peter commands all people to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38) though we do not find any instructions to the church to “make sure you carry on this baptismal rule.”  We find Paul not commanding the church’s practice the Lord’s Supper but quite explicitly passing on the tradition with the expectation that they will (1 Cor. 11:23).  

[19] They continue, “Second, when there is an ambiguity of patterns or when it only occurs once, it is only repeatable if there is a divine command elsewhere, or, if it is consistent with what is taught elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Daniel praying three times a day).  Lastly, what is culturally conditioned is either not repeatable at all or must be translated into the new or differing culture.”

[20] William J. Webb envisions a single ladder moving from bottom to top in Slaves, Women and Homosexual:  Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis esp. p. 210 for a graphic representation, though the concept is the same.

[21] E.g. on foot washing (Jn. 13:1-6 esp. v 15).  The Mennonites and Anabaptist take Jesus literally viewing this as a third ordinance for the church.  If the emphasis Jesus intended was on humble servanthood (how it appears to be applied in 1 Tim. 5:10), however, then ironically these traditions that take the letter of His teaching rather than the spirit of it end up missing His entire point!  Churches will sometimes offer a foot washing ceremony and everyone leaves believing they have in some way fulfilled Christ’s intention for that command (and it is a command).  Rather, would we not benefit from gathering together and presenting real and serious needs of our people and in some way auctioning those needs off to others to faithfully and humbly serve them?  Do our seniors need their lawn raked?  Does someone with medical conditions need their house cleaned?  This I believe would honor Christ’s teaching and benefit the community far better than scrubbing someone’s toes!   

[22] See also note 33 in Christian Faith as Religion:  A Study In The Theologies of Calvin and Schleiermacher.  He created a three-fold division of theology where philosophical theology was normative, historical theology descriptive, and practical theology prescriptive.  Though as many have pointed out in practice practical theology remained a servant maid to the other two with little or no value to the local church.     

[23] Roger Stronstad has made a valiant attempt at the prescriptive in The Charismatic Theology Of St. Luke, but has failed to convince many outside of his own circle.  See also his article Lucan historiography for a brief sketch.  See also Menzies, Empowered for Witness.  

[24] E.g. Luke gives us six “progress reports” in Acts (6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30-31). Each of these sections shows the spread of the Gospel through the known world and its effects:  1-6:7 (Jews in Jerusalem), 6:8-9:31 (Greek Jews & Samaritans), 9:32-12:24 (Gentiles), 12:25-16:5 (Asia Minor), 16:6-19:20 (Europe), and 19:21-28:31 (Rome).

[25] So Caragounis, Button & Rensburg, Reed esp. 44f.

[26] Button & Rensburg argue for a distributive idea of ekklesia in The “House Churches” In Corinth JSTOR.

[27] P. 11.

[28] For a fairer treatment see the section “Protestant Missionary Concern,” in The Church In the Theology of the Reformers by Paul Avis esp. P. 174f, and/or Martin Luther and Evangelical Mission:  Father or Failure? 


The Fragmentation of the Christian Worldview (4/4)

The Fragmentation of the Christian Worldview (4/4)

International Missions: A Greater Focus on Unreached Peoples

International Missions: A Greater Focus on Unreached Peoples