Theological leanings and Acts 15

After a week of studying theology and one team meeting bandying about a bit of (in my opinion) a speculative theological interpretation of Acts 15 (see Andrew’s blog for details) I’ve been wondering about how to balance the excitement I feel at new “special knowledge” interpretations of old passages.

On the one hand I think there’s lots to learn from better understanding the original culture and context of passages and grappling with different nuances of the original languages – and on the other I have a high view of God’s sovereignty and the perspicuity of scripture (the idea that God teaches truths clearly through his word).

So I wonder what place new theological ideas grounded in particular and special knowledge (as opposed to general knowledge and a plain understanding of the text understood in the context of the Bible rather than in the context of history) has when it comes to application.

Because I’m now all about nuance and balance I have come up with this fence sitting position where you can own both the perspicuous reading of a passage and the more historically and theologically nuanced position at the same time – unless they are in direct conflict with one another.

The example I’m thinking most about is the Acts 15 passage that Andrew wrote about. Acts 15 is a little story where the church leaders are called on to decide how Gentile converts to what is essentially the continuation of the Messianic Jewish faith should conduct themselves. Some Jews want Gentiles to circumcise themselves and obey the law – but the church leaders decide this is unnecessary because salvation is through grace, not the law.

But they do give the Gentiles some ground rules – rules that have been traditionally understood as relating to how Gentile and Jewish Christians could share “table fellowship” – ie eat together as brothers – while not causing one another offense.

Kutz’s position (based on someone else’s position) on Acts 15 is slightly more exciting. The Gentile Christians are given a list of four things they are not to do as Christians. They can’t eat food sacrificed to idols, food strangled, food with the blood still in it, and they can’t engage in sexual immorality. These requirements tie in to the Levitical law (and in Leviticus also apply to gentiles sojourning amongst believers). The exciting new bit is that this may well have been shorthand for not participating in first century idol temple worship. All of the prohibitions address elements of that practice.

I would argue that the everyday Christian believer throughout the last two thousand years would understand this passage on the basis of table fellowship – I don’t think the new argument is convincing enough to do away with this perspicuous understanding – it is enough to nuance it though. We can better understand that these actions were synonymous with the worship of idols, but that doesn’t negate the understanding that Gentiles should be avoiding that conduct in order to stay in fellowship with Jewish believers.

In conclusion, I think it’s a case of “both” not “either”. And I wonder how this is going to work out as we continue to grapple with new and exciting ideas. I think the temptation can be to throw out the old understanding when we come up with something better, rather than improving our understanding of the old. And I don’t know what that does to two thousand years of church history which if you’re a trinitarian and Calvinist is Holy Spirit inspired and God ordained.


Nathan says:

Hi Stuart,

Hopefully that's a case of poor writing rather than poor thinking.

I guess I'm specifically considering this Acts case – where unless you've read about the culture of idol temples and the specific theological papers that suggest the four instructions are actually one instruction not to take part in the worship of idols at pagan temples – you're left understanding the passage on the basis of Leviticus (and probably Romans and 1 Corinthians where Paul elaborates on idol worship, conscience and food sacrificed to idols).

I'm wondering if by adding this "special knowledge" based on an understanding of the culture you're at risk of diminishing the place of Biblical theology.

At some level we should be trusting that the Bible as God's word sovereignly delivered to us will explain all that we need to understand of the passage without resorting to sociological history that not everybody has access to. Though that sociological stuff is interesting and can add to our understanding…

Does this make more sense?

Stuart says:

Glad college is already pushing you to think a little. I'm a little bit worried about the line, "the text understood in the context of the Bible rather than in the context of history". Texts in general don't tend to make a lot of sense outside their historical setting. I would expect that as our knowledge of Bible times increases, new light will continue to be shed on passages.

Stuart Heath says:

I guess I’d say that it’s okay to be left with a puzzle. To my mind, the Acts 15 case is very difficult (much like Paul’s being ‘under a vow’ in Acts 18). I think there are numerous lines in the Bible which remain puzzling (e.g. the lawless one in 2 Thess 2; baptism for the dead in 1 Cor 15, and so on). Presumably these things were clearer to the original readers/hearers, but internal references in the canon itself aren’t necessarily going to help you.

I’m relaxed about that. I figure I don’t need to know. But I think it’s an error to push perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture to think that somehow the Bible can be understood without reference to history and culture. If we need history and culture to understand various bits of the Scriptures, then it only stands to reason that as we better understand history and culture, some bits of Scripture will open up for us, too.

I don’t think God in his sovereignty preserves us from all errors, either — plenty of heresies emerged very early on :)

Nathan Campbell says:

Absolutely – I don’t think perspicuity does away with error – but I wonder what the implication is when it comes to preaching a passage like this… Are we suggesting that anyone who hasn’t considered the somewhat speculative cultural understanding of the passage is doing their parishioners a disservice by going with the obvious reading of the passage (ie table fellowship)?

The logic and application of Acts 15 doesn’t really rise or fall on the idea so it’s all a bit of a philosophical moot point anyway – but I suspect there’s a temptation for those of us who are theologically inclined to be a little bit elitist when it comes to our new and exciting understandings of passages. And I’m mindful of not getting to the point where I think everything that has ever been taught about a passage throughout history is wrong on the basis of educated speculation… especially when there are equally valid interpretations that don’t require such a speculative jump (ie laws specifically referring to the cultural matter at hand as is the case in Acts 15).

I also don’t want to suggest that I think that is the case in this situation with Andrew and Kutz and Acts 15.

Further – I am wondering if insisting on a black/white one or the other type dichotomy removes the ability for God to engage in nuance or complexity. This is one of the issues that crops up over and over again when arguing with atheists who reduce any issue pertaining to Christianity (or any passage of the Bible) to a simple “one reading fits all” understanding that is mostly ridiculous.

Why do we assume that God will only put one big idea into one passage and not ten equally compelling and complex ideas?

The “one big idea” idea is a tool for better communication and preaching – not a tool for better understanding of a passage.

Stuart Heath says:

I couldn’t agree more on the ‘one big idea’ idea. Sadly, I feel like we’re in the minority :)

And if I were teaching the passage, I wouldn’t go into any speculation on it. (And I agree that some people seem to be unnecessarily titillated by novelty.) I’d be spending most of my time on thinking through concrete applications. Because that’s what I think the point of big-group teaching is. (This is a different question, though, from what I might do if I were exegeting the passage, say for a college essay. The two activities bear very little relation to one another.)

Incidentally, notice what a power of work I have to do to explain ‘table fellowship’, which is culturally alien to us.

It's been a good discussion on this topic, and I don't disagree with your point in theory. I too am suspicious when a traditional reading is overturned by some hypothetical historical reconstruction that isn't available to the average reader.

What I'm not sure about, is if that case applies to the Acts 15 situation. This is a passage that has always caused some difficulty in interpretation. Although I was previously a holder of the 'table fellowship' position, I was never particularly satisfied with that position because of the inclusion of sexual immorality in the list of things being banned. Having read Kutz's essay this morning, I think I am correct in saying that there have been a few different interpretations that go back a long way, and so in this situation some historical work is bringing clarity to a passage that has never really been understood, rather than reversing an interpretation everyone always thought was clear.

In addition, I'm not sure I'd want to say that Acts 15 is about BOTH table fellowship and Idol Temples. But I would want to say that both those issues are of concern to the new testament, and so it's not wrong to talk about them, but I'd rather do it in 1 Cor 8-10 than in Acts 15
My recent post Swype touchscreen keyboard

Nathan says:

In addition, I'm not sure I'd want to say that Acts 15 is about BOTH table fellowship and Idol Temples. But I would want to say that both those issues are of concern to the new testament, and so it's not wrong to talk about them, but I'd rather do it in 1 Cor 8-10 than in Acts 15

I'm not sure I understand the objection – it seems idol worship and table fellowship are logically linked (particularly when it comes to eating together if the food is tainted by idols) in the 1 Corinthians passage.

[…] in February I wrote about my commitment to letting Scripture guide our interpretation of Scripture – which I’m still pretty committed to theologically. But I was pretty dismissive of the […]