The Acts of the Apostles
William W. Klein's review of "The Acts of the Apostles" by David G. Peterson
David G. Peterson. The Acts of the Apostles. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans; Nottingham, UK: Apollos, 2009. lv + 790 pp. Cloth, $65.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-3731-8.
Each entry that emerges seems to solidify the reputation of the Pillar series as a premier guide to reading the New Testament books today. Peterson’s Acts contribution certainly confirms this judgment. Moving through Acts’ twenty-eight chapters in two to three-verse chunks, Peterson treats the reader to lucid explanations, judicious insights, and his considerable command of the important literature on Luke’s second volume. Peterson is a research fellow at Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia, and previously composed the book, with I. Howard Marshall, Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts. His commitment to biblical theology shines through this monograph.
Peterson’s aim is not merely to exegete Acts, but also to show how Luke’s goal to edify and encourage the growth of the early church can inform ministry today. Peterson focuses attention on such areas as: the ministry of the Holy Spirit, divine guidance, miracles, the nature of the gospel, priorities for mission, the character and purpose of Christian gatherings, the relevance of the Old Testament, and Christian attitudes towards Jews. This makes for lively engagement throughout the volume, even where the reader may differ with Peterson on precisely how Acts might inform contemporary issues. [As an aside, the author and publisher may at some point regret the decision to employ the tniv as the base translation given Biblica’s and Zondervan’s recent decision to cease its publication in favor of a revised niv.]
The commentary’s introduction takes up the standard topics. Peterson sides with tradition in assigning authorship to Luke. He tentatively adopts the early date of ad 62-64 for the writing and interprets the book as the intended sequel to the third Gospel. As to its genre, Peterson agrees with Witherington in placing it within the category of Hellenistic historiography. He places high value on its historicity, in the end preferring the phrase “confessional history” (borrowed from D. Marguerat, First Christian Historian). The commentary includes a helpful section on “Character, Structure, and Purpose” that concludes in this way: “Luke’s attempt to outline the continuity between Christians and Israel and between the events of Jesus’ career and OT prophecies was an important aspect of his response to criticism of Christianity that may have been made, both by Jews and by pagans” (p. 39). The introduction section concludes with almost fifty pages devoted to the theological contributions of Luke’s narrative, including (along with the more predictable entries) miracles and magic and the demonic.
The commentary itself very helpfully brings to bear many crucial insights and tactics of literary criticism (particularly narrative criticism) along with the more common textual, lexical, and grammatical procedures. His discussions are typically fair and employ both recent and time-honored resources to illuminate Luke’s treatise. I was impressed that Peterson takes pains to rethink many standard interpretations and not merely accept simple explanations. He regularly shows the several ways that a feature in Luke’s narrative might be understood (for example, see his discussion of 8:2), and then brings his skills to bear to argue for the better or best alternative.
Obviously, this review can survey only a few samples of Peterson’s accomplishments. Perceptively, he notes that Luke was convinced of the historicity of the events he portrayed observing, e.g., that Luke wrote for “… people in the Greco-Roman world, where belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus was just as difficult as it is for skeptics today” (p. 105). Peterson opines that the gift of tongues (intelligible languages) at Pentecost is different from the sort of tongues mentioned in 1 Corinthians. Concerning the problem of the Samaritans’ conversion and the magician Simon Magus, Peterson concludes that the Samaritans were convinced by the truth of Philip’s message, not that they were necessarily truly converted, which leads Peterson then to conclude that Simon was never really saved, though Luke says, “Simon himself believed and was baptized” (8:13). The Ephesian “disciples” were not believers in Jesus until Paul explained the gospel to them, after which they were re-baptized (19:1-7).
Let me close this review with a few instances in which Peterson caused me to raise my eyebrows, at least a bit. He interprets God’s foreknowledge as the actual determination of events in advance. So God determined the players’ roles in Jesus’ crucifixion (2:23) without diminishing those players’ responsibility for their actions—a typical Calvinist explanation. Peterson’s Calvinism also surfaces clearly in his explication of Acts 13:48-52, where he says, “…God uses the gospel to call out his elect and to save them” (p. 399). Then, “… God enables some to believe through the proclamation of the gospel” (p. 400). While this is the viewpoint of many observers, I found something strange about Peterson’s exegesis here. While he favorably cites scholars I. H. Marshall’s and Ben Witherington’s works throughout the commentary, at these points those Arminian scholars are nowhere to be found in the footnotes, as if there were no other ways to understand what Luke says. This stands apart from most of his deliberations where he does consider other explanations and defends his position. In a startling example of eisegesis Peterson states, “… we may assume that wherever resistance to the message is recorded, Luke believed the Lord had not yet acted in grace and power to enable belief” (p. 404). May we? In fact Luke explains that the Jews rejected the word of God and judged themselves unfit for eternal life (13:46). I guess this shows how we all see what we want to see in texts and may wish to ignore other ways of seeing things.
Some readers might quibble with Peterson’s assessment of the phenomenon of baptism in the aftermath of Lydia’s conversion (and drawing on the other examples of household conversion in Acts). In assessing what Luke means that the members of her household were baptized (16:15), Peterson opines that this likely included infants, thus justifying the later practice of infant baptism. Can Peterson really assume that entire households were baptized without any basis in their personal faith in Christ? Would Paul baptize an infant or slave in a household, simply assuming that one was elect and before God opened their hearts to believe (according to Peterson’s stance on election)? I doubt an exegete coming from a tradition supporting believers’ baptism would draw this conclusion. This is even more surprising given Peterson’s explanation of the meaning of baptism surrounding Paul’s conversion in 22:16. He says, rightly, “Baptism expresses repentance and faith because it is a means of calling on his name” (emphasis his; p. 603). How might infants then call on Jesus’ name?
These reservations are not meant to overturn the overwhelmingly positive response I have to what Peterson has accomplished in this commentary. We are in his debt.
William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament