Review – Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, vols 1&2

KeenerActsCraig Keener’s Acts: An Exegetical Commentary is a vast and incomplete piece of scholarship.  It is vast because in print form it is over 2100 pages.  It is incomplete because these two volumes only cover up to Acts 14:28.  For the purpose of this review, I am looking at the digital version on my Logos software.  I have not read every page, of course, so this is not a full scholarly review.

Keener is meticulous.  Anyone who has used his previous commentaries on Matthew, John and Revelation will know that.  This can be highly beneficial, or at times, frustrating.  Almost two-thirds of the complete first volume is introductory material covering such issues as genre (zeroing in on Acts as a work of ancient historiography), historical interpretation of Acts, Acts and Paul, the speeches, the author, audience, Luke’s perspective on women and gender, etc.

Once you get into the commentary proper, you start to see the fruit of his socio-historical approach.  The format and layout is relatively straightforward (i.e. no complicated internal structures that require skipping around to find what you need, but at the same time not much in the way of helpful textual layouts as some of the more modern commentaries are offering – such as Schnabel’s on Acts, for instance).  As well as relatively straightforward, it is also long.  Keener appears to have a meticulous tendency that leads to a massive project like this one.  Every detail is engaged and discussed.  Other scholarship is engaged and discussed.  At times it feels like everything is engaged and discussed.

This is where my having the works on Logos makes a difference to me.  Rather than flipping page after page and scanning tons of text, I can find what I want to access very quickly on Logos.  For instance, I can right click on the commentary and then select “search this resource.”  Then I can search in just this commentary with something as simple as “Stephen’s speech” and immediately have access to the 71 occasions Keener refers specifically to Stephen’s speech.

Equally, with a work of this magnitude, I find it helpful to have the table of contents showing on the screen.  Thus I can expand and contract sections to locate the specific section I want to see.  I can also get a sense of how long the section is before I just start reading (very useful in such a long piece of work).

I suggest that if you are preaching through a Bible book, then you should have access to a couple of the better commentaries on that book.  With Acts, I am putting Keener’s work into my top two or three resources to check (alongside Bock and Bruce, which are excellent and shorter!)

If you want to find out more, click here to go to the Logos page for this resource.

(Full disclosure: I am grateful to Logos Bible Software for providing the resource for this review.)

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The Challenge of Narratives 4: Acts

Unlike the Old Testament narratives, and in some senses, even unlike the gospel narratives, the Acts narratives should be easier to interpret and preach.  After all, this is now church history, not ancient Israel history.  But there is a challenge:

The challenge of “normativeness” – how are we to understand and apply descriptions of a unique season in history – the founding of the church?  Three comments on this:

1. Acts is not “mere history” – Don’t make the mistake of saying we shouldn’t preach from Acts because it is merely a historical account.  It is inspired theological Scripture.  It is as much theology as the epistles!  Acts is history, and it is more than that.  However,

2. Acts is not “all history” – some elements of the Acts story are unique and we shouldn’t presume that it is all normative for where we stand in that same history.  Possible examples include the following.  Should we be concerned that the apostles have died?  Should we be looking for qualified replacements?  Some sing that we need another Pentecost, but what are we suggesting about the work of the Spirit in the Church?  Should we expect Ananias and Sapphira-type church discipline to occur every time there is sin in the church today, or should we be learning from a unique event?  What about the “Gentile tongues” at conversion that are presented as a sign to the apostles at a key transition moment in the progress of the gospel?  Acts is not totally typical of all church history.

3. Acts is “all applicable” – Just because some of the events may not occur again, this doesn’t mean that the text is irrelevant (think about the crucifixion of Jesus, for instance).  All Scripture is useful, applicable, but the challenge is having the wisdom to discern how to apply it.  We need to consider Acts in light of the clear teaching of the epistles, as well as the progress seen within the epistles (consider the different emphasis in 1Corinthians as compared to the later Pastoral Epistles – both concerned with health in the local church, but a different emphasis).  Let’s be careful not to automatically use “Acts” labels for contemporary experiences that may or may not be the same thing as what occurred back then.

Acts is rich and fertile soil for study and preaching, but whatever your theology, I trust you’ll agree that it is not without its challenges!

Preaching As History Making

The book of Acts is a fascinating study.  It is the only inspired account of the birth of the church and early church history.  Yet like all of inspired Scripture, it goes beyond mere history.  While some are quick to oversimplify their categorization of New Testament genre into stories of Jesus (gospels), instructions for the church (epistle) and history of the early church (Acts), plus the apparently troublesome apocalyptic book of Revelation (their view, not mine), this is too simplistic.

Acts, for example, is an inspired historical document, and it is also inspired theological writing.  We do Acts (and ourselves) a disservice if we too quickly dismiss Acts as being non-normative or applicable for the contemporary church.  Equally, we get into confusion if we too quickly apply every element we choose and claim it is normative for all situations (most who over-quickly apply Acts tend to be selective in this approach).  We need to carefully consider the book of Acts with appropriate hermeneutical skill and submit ourselves to appropriate application of the whole text.

In Acts we find historical narrative accounts, and we find recorded speeches (or better, inspired summaries of speeches).  In fact, Walter Liefeld helpfully points out that while quoted speech typically serves in ancient literature as introductory to action, in Acts the speeches are the action.  In my spare moments lately I’ve been enjoying a personal study of the speeches of Acts.  Apparently (I rely on the arithmetic of others), in the roughly 1000 verses of Acts, roughly 300-365 verses consist of speech material.  Some of this is preaching, some is leadership speech, some is legal speech (not mutually exclusive categories).

Ben Witherington asks why Luke includes proportionately so much more speech material in his history than ancient writers like Herodotus, Tacitus, Josephus, Polybius, or Thucydides, for example?  His answer is worth considering:

“This is because Luke is chronicling a historical movement that was carried forward in the main by evangelistic preaching.  This distinguishes his work from that of these other historians who are more interested in the macrohistorical events involving wars, political maneuvering, and the like.”

Before we even give ourselves to consideration of appropriate hermeneutical principles for interpreting and applying the book of Acts; before we engage in rhetorical analysis of the speech material; or before we enter the debate about whether the speeches are accurate representation of the original speaker, or Lukan theology placed in their mouths, etc.  Before any of that engages our attention, let’s not miss the obvious.  The history of the early church is carried forward by the planned and impromptu speech of preachers.  Much of it is evangelistic, some is primarily to believers, some is perhaps opportunistic.  But this much is clear – the history of the church, in the early years, down through the years, and in these years, is carried forward in the preaching of those to whom God gives opportunity. Let’s allow that truth to soak into our souls, fire our hearts and ignite our ministries!