One of the tendencies in any theological tradition is to develop a canon in canonem (“canon within a canon”). The Anabaptists have the Sermon on the Mount, or so they claim. The Reformed supposedly have Romans. Catholics will always (falsely) accuse Protestants of reading Paul at the expense of James and Protestants will always (falsely) accuse Catholics of reading James at the expense of Paul. Some progressives have gone so far as to overtly embrace this propensity by calling themselves Red Letter Christians. To a certain degree, this tendency is inevitable regardless of tradition. Yet it can hamper our ability to engage in effective biblical interpretation.
One example of this canon in canonem occurs in Fleming Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. To caveat, Rutledge is brilliant and the book is absolutely worth the read. I have the utmost respect for her as a theologian and writer. Yet she makes one interpretive decision I found difficult to justify. Her argument is premised on the fact that St. Paul’s theologia crucis (“theology of the cross”) is effectively the template for the Church’s Gospel proclamation. Yet then she claims, “Many Christians do not realize that the authentic voice of Paul is not found in the book of Acts, and as a consequent the atypical speech about the unknown God in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) is given too much prominence.” The conclusion then is that, “The preaching attributed to Paul in Acts is not much like the preaching of Paul himself, which we know firsthand from his letters. We all have to choose which to emphasize, Acts or Paul’s epistles.” So the canon in canonem, the locus of Paul’s “real” message, lies in the undisputed Pauline epistolary literature at the exclusion of his purported sermons in the book of Acts.
Perhaps this is a minor quibble but this view is problematic in a way that has the real impact of detracting from a holistic understanding of Paul. Of course, theologia crucis is central to Pauline theology: “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2; NRSV). Yet is the methodology of picking Paul’s epistles at the expense of his preaching in Acts really wise?
The Methodology Problem
The development of biblical texts is a fascinating thing. Scripture did not fall out of the sky. Through many different authors over a long span of history, the Holy Spirit moved and worked to create what we now acknowledge as the canon of Scripture. Modern academics who study the developments of the text use what is known as source criticism, a field which rose to prominence in the late 1800s and emphasizes the speculation about what unknown sources lie behind the text. For example, Julian Wellhausen developed what is known as the Documentary Hypothesis (also known as J, E, D, P) to explain the sources which later redactors wove together to construct what is now called the Pentateuch. Scholars of Isaiah split the book into two sources, referred to as I and II Isaiah. New Testament critics have long been discussing the Q Source which is the basis for portions of the Synoptic Gospel traditions.
On one hand, these methods can be helpful as they can shed light on certain issues concerning a book’s context, structure, or content. Yet at the same time, it is a highly speculative “science.” Rarely is there scholarly consensus about which sources are employed when or how much the redactor adapts the original sources for their editorial goals. As a reaction to the underlying uncertainty woven into these forms of criticism, a reaction developed known as canonical theology, spearheaded by the venerable Brevard Childs. While acknowledging the fact that the text certainly developed through various processes, Childs shifted the locus of interpretation from the study of the evolution of the text to its final form as it stands in the canon as authorized by the Church.
Interestingly, Rutledge acknowledges and embraces this shift away from the “higher forms of criticism” in her work, “There has been a marked shift in academia, little noted thus far by the ordinary person in the pew, but offering much hope for the ordained or lay Christian who is really interested in mining the Scripture for a faith that will stand the test of these times. In recent decades we have seen a turn toward a more literary style of interpretation that gives greater prominence to the text as it stands, and to the canon of Scripture as a whole.” Yet her impulse to de-emphasize the role of Acts 17 in her reconstruction of Pauline theology hearkens back to the older forms of criticism which are prone to a skeptical parsing of the text rather than a genuinely canonical approach.
The Literary Agenda of Luke vs. The Literary Agenda of Paul?
Of course, Rutledge is absolutely right in the sense that Luke’s work in Acts does contain literary shaping and is most likely not “pure Paul,” at least in the modern sense of the term. Yet, we also know Luke took care to faithfully utilize his sources, “just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,” (Luke 1:2). This care would most certainly apply to Acts, the second piece of his duology. Besides, it appears Luke had either gone with Paul on some missionary journeys or drew heavily from the eyewitness testimony of someone who did (see the reference to “we” throughout the book). So did Luke select and emphasize the components of Paul’s preaching that reflected his own literary agenda? Absolutely.
Yet the literary purposes of Luke-Acts and Paul’s missives are remarkably homologous. The book of Luke ends where Acts begins: the Ascension. At this critical juncture, Jesus commissions the Church by proclaiming (Acts: 1:8), “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” The rest of the book demonstrates how this is accomplished as the Gospel expands in concentric patterns. It begins with the Holy Spirit being given to the fledgling Apostolic Church (1:1-2:13). After which, the Gospel is delivered to the Jews (2:14-5:42). Then, the Hellenistic Jews, a group which would have been marginalized by the orthodox Jewish sect, are included in the Community of the Faithful (6:1-8:2). Then Philip brings the Gospel to the Samaritans who, according to Jewish consensus, were deemed “half-breeds” (8:4-25). Finally, this rapid expansion of the Gospel from the Jewish apostles to outsiders is culminated in the conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch (8:26-40). The book also includes stories revolving around the same theme of inclusion including the council at Jerusalem (15:1-21) where it was determined that the Gentiles did not have to embrace the Jewish ethnic identity markers of dietary laws and circumcision largely at the behest of St. Paul. It is telling that Luke ends his duology with Paul arriving at Rome, symbolic of the pervasive spread of the Gospel to the “end of the earth” (28:17-31).
Paul’s writing reflects a similar concern for the inclusion of non-Jews in the kerygmatic community of the Church. In Romans 9:22-24, Paul makes it clear that the God’s plan includes the incorporation of gentiles into the Church: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (emphasis added). The Gospel is in a sense about racial reconciliation to St. Paul. Namely, in the Pauline epistolary corpus, his audience tends to be mixed race communities of Jews and Gentiles grappling with how to live together in spite of their ethnic differences. It is for this reason he stresses that the Gospel transcends categories of social difference: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:28-29). His point being, these ethnic barriers fall away in light of the Gospel. God’s universal intentions articulated in the Abrahamic promise (Gen 12:2-3), “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Acts and the writings of Paul both have similar purposes. Through his narrative, Luke demonstrates how the Gospel spread to incorporate both Jews and Gentiles in the covenant family of God. Similarly, the core of Pauline writing is aimed at the congruous goal. In his work, Paul is interested in providing pastoral oversight to his multiethnic congregations about how they can live together peaceably.
Romans 1 and Acts 17
Yet, there is the very real issue of attempting to fit together two disparate passages like Acts 17 and Romans 1. Paul’s rhetorical methodology in Acts 17 is aimed at conveying “his respect for the Athenians’ obvious religious devotion,” even going so far as to make the claim that “God is near every person, accessible to all.”
Yet in Romans 1, Paul’s tone is radically different than the open-minded and more inclusive posture he exhibits at Athens in Acts 17. While God may be knowable to people through creation (Rom 1:19-20), humans “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him but became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (Rom 1:21-23). As a result, God gave them up to their own self-degradation (Rom 1:28).
So which of these is the faithful representation of Paul’s thinking? At first glance, it is easy to see where Rutledge is coming from because they seem discordant. Yet their respective contexts should make us see them as compatible. In Acts, Paul is willing to address the pagans on their terms so that they might hear the Gospel. This fits in with what Paul says about his own evangelistic strategies per 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Paul’s sermon at Athens serves as a narritival embodiment of this missional principle. He was willing to adapt to his audience when preaching the Gospel. So it should not be surprising that he was willing to compliment the Athenians for their religious impulses, their altar to an unknown god, and even quote their own poets (Acts 17:28). Paul aptly demonstrates the important principle that evangelism requires a preacher to speak in ways their audience can understand.
Yet this does not contradict Romans 1 which makes the general statement that, though God is knowable through his creation, humanity has suppressed knowledge of him. If anything, the audience’s reaction to Paul’s sermon at Athens substantiates the crux of Romans 1 (Acts 17:32-34). Some of his audience scoffs at the concept of resurrection, which N.T. Wright points out is the distinguishing principle of Christianity from mainstream thought in the Greco-Roman world. Others filibuster, wishing to hear from Paul again from the topic. Yet, it appears a small number did convert upon hearing his proclamation of the Gospel. So the narrative account of Paul’s teaching in Acts 17 harmonizes well even with the staunchly anti-pagan diatribe in Romans 1.
The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge is a brilliant book worth reading. Her work should be cherished by generations of Christian theologians moving forward. Yet this assertion that Paul’s theologia crucis must be pitted against Luke’s presentation of Paul’s sermon in Acts 17, while well-intentioned, seems problematic. It can be resolved through a canonical approach rather than a critical one. Instead of pitting the representation of Paul in Acts against his literary corpus, we should seek to harmonize the two. In so doing, we can learn valuable lessons about maintaining a robust theologia crucis while simultaneously discerning how to tailor our proclamation of the Gospel to a culture that desperately needs to hear it.