What Kind of Book Is Acts?
1. Acts Is a Story
Like the Gospels, Acts is a narrative. Does it differ from the Gospels? You will remember that we described the Gospels as theological(or more specifically christological) biographies. The evangelists wrote with two central purposes in mind: (a) to tell about Jesus, and (b) to send a message to their readers by the way they arranged the individual stories into a larger story. Because of the close connection between Luke and Acts, we can expect these two books to have much in common when it comes to literary type. That is indeed the case. Much of what we said about how to read the Gospels applies to Acts as well, including the two main interpretive questions. The primary difference is that the Gospels concentrate on one person, Jesus of Nazareth, while the story in Acts focuses on several key church leaders, mainly Peter and Paul.
2. Acts Is Theological History
As Luke widens his angle from Jesus to the early church leaders, he moves from theological biography in his gospel to theological history in Acts. Luke is a historian who composes a reliable record of what happened in the outreach of the gospel. We should not assume, of course, that Luke approved of everything that happened. As in the Old Testament historical books, people sometimes did things God did not endorse. When Luke describes something that happens (e.g., Paul’s quarrel with Barnabas in Acts 15:36–40), we need to resist the temptation to turn this into the approved plan of God.
As well as being a historian, Luke is also a theologian who tells his story for the purpose of advancing the Christian faith. Is it possible to be both a historian and a theologian? We believe it is. All history writing is selective (i.e., you can’t possibly tell everything that happens) and is written from some faith perspective. Historians are not neutral observers without any belief system. They are human and have a point of view just like the rest of us. Their viewpoint (including some faith perspective) influences the way they interpret events, select what to include, and shape their story. In Acts, Luke gives us accurate, reliable history, but he has selected and arranged his material for theological purposes.
In the speeches of Acts, for example, Luke tells what really happened (history) for theological purposes. Speeches make up approximately one-fourth to one-third of the entire book, making Acts truly a continuation of “all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). We should not suppose that all of the speeches of Acts are verbatim accounts since (a) Luke was not present to hear every speech, (b) he possessed no tape recorder, and (c) they are far too short to be complete transcriptions. As an example of this last point, in Acts 3 Peter began preaching shortly after 3:00 p.m. (3:1) and quit sometime that evening (4:3), but Luke takes only fifteen verses to capture Peter’s lengthy sermon (3:12–26). The speeches are reliable summaries of what was actually said. Luke does not create them out of thin air, but he does paraphrase in ways that advance his theological purpose of telling the story of God’s salvation.
Luke shapes his story for theological purposes, but how are we supposed to discern those purposes as we read the book of Acts? To put it more generally, how do we locate theology in a story? We use many of the same principles that we used to find theological principles in the Gospels. We ask the standard narrative questions, pay attention to instructions from the author, concentrate on direct discourse, and so on.
Perhaps the single most helpful guideline for grasping the theological truths of Acts is to look for repeated themes and patterns. In the major themes of Acts you can see Luke working out his theological purposes. When you find Luke’s theological purposes, you also find the heart of his message to his original audience and to us. We turn now to survey some of the major themes in Acts.