Acts: Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible

Robert J. Cara

"This is not your father's commentary, uh, Oldsmobile." Pelikan's Acts is the first available in the new series, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. This series is projected to have 40 volumes and has been highly promoted at various scholarly conferences. This commentary series is designed to be unique; and certainly, Acts is like no other modern scholarly commentary.

First a word about the series: The general editor, R. R. Reno, states, "The central premise in this commentary series is that doctrine provides structure and cogency to scriptural interpretation. We trust in this premise with the hope that the Nicene tradition can guide us" (p. 16, series preface). Reno well understands that this series is in utter contrast to presuppositions held by traditional critical-commentaries. Perhaps overstating it a bit, Reno notes that "what makes modern study of the Bible modern is the consensus that classical Christian doctrine distorts interpretive understanding" (p. 12, series preface).

The projected writers in this series come from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and various Reformation traditions. Also, they are not "biblical scholars in the conventional, modern sense of the term," but have a grasp of the "Christian doctrinal tradition" (p. 14, series preface); that is, they are not Old and New Testament professors, but history and systematic theology professors. Projected writers include a diverse group such as Stanley Hauerwas, Scott Hahn, Ellen Charry, Kevin Vanhoozer, Robert Jenson, John Behr and Timothy George. Concerning the authoritative relationship between Scripture and tradition, i.e., the question of sola scriptura versus magisterial teaching, the series takes no position (p. 15, series preface).

Jaroslav Pelikan, emeritus Professor of Church History at Yale, is the author of Acts and probably the most well-respected Church history professor in the academic world. His previous writings include two monumental works, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (5 volumes) and Credo, Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition ( 4 volumes). He is also known for his influential work, The Vindication of Tradition. I assume that Pelikan was chosen for the book of Acts because Acts and Pelikan are both very interested in Church history.

The format of Acts primarily consists of three two-page theological discussions per chapter of Acts. Hence, there are 84 (28 chapters in Acts times 3) of these brief theological discussions. The 84 discussions are each prompted by the text of Acts; however, many times there is a very loose connection to Acts. These theological discussions usually include mini-lessons in Church history, usually with an emphasis on early Church history. Representative example titles of the theological discussions include "Mary the Theotokos," "The Laying on of Hands," "Credo: 'The Rule of Faith,'" "Visions and Private Revelations," "The Language of Justification," "'The Uncreated Light' as a Divine Energy," "Ascetic Discipline and Self-Denial," and "'Due Process.'" In addition to the discussions, there are very brief comments on a few verses per chapter of Acts concerning the original meaning. Yes, "this is not your father's commentary."

From what theological perspective are Pelikan's comments? He explicitly references that the "Nicene-Chalcedonian Faith" is his "a posteriori organizing principle for the exegetical task" (p. 28). As one would expect knowing Pelikan's career and is evidenced in the theological discussions, he is very aware of doctrinal nuances in the Lutheran, Reformed, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions. On the many issues that these traditions agree, Pelikan also virtually always agrees.

Late in life, Pelikan has moved into the Eastern Orthodox communion. Acts is dedicated to "my liturgical family at Saint Vladimir's" (p. 5). Issues oriented toward Eastern Orthodox abound in the theological discussions. They include apophatic (negative) theology; use of the LXX; Adam/Christ parallel to Eve/Mary; Andrew as missionary to the Black Sea; to be orthodox is to have both correct doctrine and correct worship; James, not Peter, presided over the apostolic counsel; divine images and the 7th ecumenical council; theosis doctrine; "One, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church"; and Monophysite Church verses Eastern Orthodoxy. Pelikan does not always conclude that the traditional Eastern Orthodox view is correct, but he always has sympathy for it.

Other conclusions from Pelikan that readers of Reformation 21 might find interesting include: a good discussion of "religions affections" primarily using Jonathan Edwards and Calvin; "visions and special revelations" have not ceased (p. 187); ex opere operato and the sacrament of penance have good biblical foundations; implication that sola scriptura is wrong; although on justification the Reformation went too far at some points, generally they were correct; a good Christus Victor discussion; correctness of doctrine is seen as a distinctive of the Church. Pelikan advocates for the "possibility" of a "universal restoration/salvation" in Christ based on Acts 3:21 (pp. 66-68, 72-73).

To add to the unusualness of this commentary, Pelikan uses for his base Greek-text of Acts, the "Western" text (Boismard's edition, normally manuscript "D"). The Western text is about 10% longer than the traditional Greek text of Acts. Virtually all translations of the Bible do not follow the Western text. Pelikan does not claim that the Western text was the original, but that it was "one final form" of Acts that at least a part of the Church used for a time (p. 34). Since the Church used it, it is justified. This is suspiciously similar to traditional Eastern Orthodox arguments for the canon.

Although Pelikan did not make many comments about the original meaning of the Acts, when he did, I noticed that he was well aware of a variety of issues current in Luke-Acts scholarship.

Brief evaluation and critique: Although I am ultimately disappointed with Acts, I was fascinated as I read it. This fascination is probably due to my personal interests. At one level, I liked the emphasis on the early church in his theological discussions. Convenient for me,

Pelikan references the early Church fathers using primarily ANF, NPNF1, and NPNF2. I was constantly looking up interesting passages that he referenced. I also enjoyed his orientation toward Eastern Orthodox views, not that I agreed with them, but I teach regularly at a Protestant seminary in Ukraine that is surrounded by a nominal Eastern Orthodox culture. Another aspect that fascinated me was that Pelikan, a famous scholar in the secular world, is boldly claiming that the Trinity and the two-natures of Christ are true. Would he have gotten tenure if this book had come out 40 years earlier!

My primary disappointment is Pelikan's lack of theologizing (1) within the book of Acts itself and (2) with other biblical books. He too quickly goes to Church history/doctrine, and he does not use it to better illumine the biblical text. To be honest, I did not really gain additional insights into the theology of Acts, excepting maybe Pelikan's emphasis that the book of Acts has a significant concern for correct doctrine.

Another problem is Pelican's decision to use the Western text of Acts. Although it made me often refer to my Greek-text apparatus, it is a mistake.

When this series was announced, I was fairly excited about it. I was looking forward to more theologizing with the text of Scripture than most critical, and many evangelical, commentaries provide. Although the church history angle was fascinating, Acts, for my taste, simply has too much of it for a "theological commentary on the Bible." I am hoping that the subsequent volumes in this series will not follow the pattern of Acts.

In sum, I personally enjoyed reading Acts due to the early Church and Eastern Orthodox emphases. However, I was disappointed because this "theological commentary on the Bible" did not illumine well the theological aspects of the book of Acts itself. If one were studying the book of Acts, I would not recommend this. However, if you are interested in what a famous Church historian with Eastern Orthodox tastes thinks about 84 topics more-or-less related to the book of Acts, this is a fascinating read. Acts is not your father's . . . .

Jaroslav Pelikan - Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005
Review by Robert J. Cara, Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC