donderdag 21 februari 2013

Review of: J. Bradley Chance, Acts (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2007; in: Interpretation

J. Bradley Chance, Acts (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2007.

Review in: Interpretation 2009 63: 192
Review door: Matthew L. Skinner
Gevonden op:

by J. Bradley Chance
Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Smyth & Helwys, Macon, Ga., 2007.
562 pp. $60.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-1-57312-080-7.

OVER THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO in an article in Interpretation, Paul Minear expressed a concern that the book of Acts was becoming theologically unintelligible to American Christians. Modernity and its robust skepticism made Luke's depiction of the "persistent purpose of God" appear far-fetched to many; moreover, assertions of providential design and accounts of apostolic signs and wonders in Acts could "lead to supercilious rejection of both Luke and his early readers" ("Dear Theo: The Kerygmatic Intention and Claim of the Book of Acts," IntU.l [1973]: 150). Minear therefore summoned Interpretation's readers to convene fresh theological conversations with Acts, conversations that creatively mediate faithful dialogue between the people of God today and the word of God, as Acts bears witness to it.

Although his commentary never refers to Minear, Bradley Chance seems impelled by similar concerns. Chance, who teaches at Missouri's William Jewell College, writes that his chief aim is to explore the theological contours of Acts. For him, this means focusing on the story Luke tells, drawing insights and lessons from the narrative depiction of God and God's activity among the human participants in the drama. The commentary is less about deducing Luke's theological or kerygmatic agenda for his time and more about fashioning a creative engagement with a scriptural account of God and God's agents in a way that attends to both the text and twenty-first century Western worldviews.

Chance therefore frequently highlights aspects of Acts that raise questions about relating the divine will and human freedom. When God orchestrates events either obtrusively or subtly—ranging from Philip's strange encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch to Paul's custody as an opportunity to bear witness in Rome—Chance presses readers to understand God as participating within the world as a party to its history. Incorporating proposals from process theology and open theism, he finds Acts especially congenial to views that set providential design and human participation in a creative, integrated tension. Quoting Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, whom he cites often, Chance asserts, "God works with the world as it is in order to bring it to where it can be" (p. 439). His exegesis takes aim at simplistic and overbearing understandings of divine sovereignty that hold sway in many popular readings of Acts. These are the same kinds of understandings that make Acts problematic for other readers, and that are easily overwhelmed by the modernist skepticism that Minear identified. Most impressive is Chance's ability to make his theological case in language that nonspecialists will find thoroughly accessible.

This accessibility is a main feature of the growing Smyth 8c Helwys Commentary series. Directed toward students and churchgoers willing to dive into a hefty volume, the commentary does not assume its readers possess more than a little knowledge of the relevant first-century historical context and the terminology of critical biblical scholarship. Sidebars, printed in contrasting color and font and sprinkled throughout the text, provide additional information on linguistic matters, historical backgrounds, and interpretive questions. The series preface insists that this contributes to a "user-friendly" layout for a "visual generation." What some users find amicable, however, others nevertheless may experience as distracting.

The Smyth & Helwys format requires Chance to separate "commentary" on a section of biblical text from "connections" he draws between the text and the contemporary church. While the "commentary" sections provide a competent and thorough overview of the Acts narrative, they do not enter into explicit conversation with a wide range of other interpreters. The sparse endnotes and numerous sidebars (perhaps an effort to maintain a "user-friendly" resource), direct readers to only a limited amount of secondary sources, mostly Bible dictionaries and a small sampling of comprehensive commentaries that are at least ten years old (commentaries by Joseph Fitzmyer, Luke Timothy Johnson, John Polhill, and Ben Witherington receive the most attention). Some pivotal interpretive issues that could intrigue many students of Acts are simply underdeveloped. For example, there is little sustained attention given to the sociopolitical consequences of the gospel in various cultural settings, particularly as portrayed in Acts 16-19. Also, Chance's consistent claim, echoing Ernst Haenchen and others, that Luke portrays Christianity as nonthreatening to Roman interests, is more assumed than demonstrated.

To add substance to his exposition, Chance reads the Acts narrative in light of other material from the first-century world, including the Pauline corpus. Although he occasionally notes the difficulties in reconciling the messages of Luke and Paul, for the most part Chance finds complementarity if not consistency between their theological claims. Considering the theology of Acts in concert with the book's literary and historical facets, Chance explains how Luke could have exercised certain creative freedom and still been a legitimate historian, but he usually abstains from issuing his own opinions in debates about the historical veracity of the events Luke depicts. He clearly states that weighing in on those debates is not his aim, and he rightly regards most of them as dependent on speculation determined by an interpreter's theological and methodological presuppositions. Still, the commentary often must acknowledge specific exegetical controversies concerning history or Luke's possible use of sources. When it does so, it briefly cites voices from opposing perspectives, showcasing only hyper-credulity (usually represented by Ben Witherington) and hyper-skepticism (Gerd Lüdemann often fills this role), and then drops the matter. Such an approach may be efficient, but it is akin to watching the old CNN show Crossfire: one finds nearly polarized opinions but is hardly invited either to appreciate the nuances of the issues on the table or to grasp their implications.

Chance reserves the right to remain noncommittal on many historical matters in order to keep the commentary concentrated on its main aim. He is hardly unaware that the narrative and theology of Acts exist amid questions of historiography and genre, considerations of the first-century social milieux, and the book's long reception history. Although the commentary de-emphasizes those topics to facilitate a creative engagement with the God and gospel of Acts, it would be a loss were some readers to conclude that historical considerations have little bearing on the theology of a biblical narrative. Perhaps an unstated intention also guides Chance's commentary: to divert readers from getting locked into an exegetical task that possesses merely penultimate value yet captivates many interpreters, namely, assessing the degree to which Acts reflects tendentiousness as a report of ancient history.

Because they are the commentary's most noteworthy feature, Chance's theological proposals are the rightful focus for any evaluation of his book. He deserves credit for taking seriously the challenge of describing for a broad range of readers how Acts might inform Christian faith, piety, and ministry today. As mentioned, the working out of God's purposes is a prominent and thoughtful piece of Chance's theological discussions. The "connections" section of each chapter draws theological lessons from Acts around other topics such as the inclusion of women in the life and leadership of churches; the nature of Christian devotion, character, and obedience; the task of bearing witness to nonbelievers; the practice of baptism and its connections to the Holy Spirit; and the ways in which people respond to the call of God. Although each of these issues pertains to a wide variety of faith communities, taken together, they suggest a particular concern for a Baptist milieu, perhaps the context of the commentary's intended audiences.

Also worth noting is Chance's reading of the relationship in Acts between the adherents of the gospel and those Jews who reject or oppose it. As seen especially in the commentary's attentive discussion of Acts 13, Chance associates this aspect of the story with accounts of Gentiles who respond positively to the gospel. In all cases, among all audiences, the gospel encounters mixed and sometimes unexpected reactions. When Acts includes harsh judgments to or about Jewish characters, it does not denounce Judaism as a whole but calls out the specific "characters who embody the kind of exclusive spirit that resists the universal gospel" (p. 419). Even the ending, including Paul's words to the Jews of Rome, underscores this mixed reaction. For Chance, this is nothing new, for the story of God throughout Scripture is fraught with instances of resistance and rebellion. But, again in Acts, even as God's representatives scold this opposition, God remains ever faithful.

Chance's commentary, therefore, pursues many of the weighty theological questions that Acts can raise for contemporary believers. It will be a helpful resource for Christian readers and communities who seek continuity between their experiences of faith and Luke's high-spirited story of the early church.

Matthew L. Skinner
Zie ook:

Geen opmerkingen:

Een reactie posten