Acts 20.28 from the Economic Perspective: Whose blood is it?

I have not had the chance to write about one of the topics that has interested me, the Godhead, but since there is a current discussion concerning this verse, I feel that it might a time to interject a bit.

Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.  (Acts 20:28 NKJV)

Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.  (Acts 20:28 NET)

προσεχετε ουν εαυτοις και παντι τω ποιμνιω εν ω υμας το πνευμα το αγιον εθετο επισκοπους ποιμαινειν την εκκλησιαν του θεου ην περιεποιησατο δια του ιδιου αιματος Act 20:28

I was not happy to find the NET had added the word ‘Son’ (RSV, NRSV, CEV, NJB), however, it impressed me that the NLT read,

“And now beware! Be sure that you feed and shepherd God’s flock–his church, purchased with his blood–over whom the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders.” (Acts 20:28 NLT)

The ASV, using the Westcott-Hort text (which does NOT underlie the current translations) says ‘Church of the Lord’. On this textual variant, the Student’s Guide to New Testament Textual Criticism, says,

While it is possible that the phrase “the church of the Lord” (found nowhere else in the New Testament) was replaced with the more familiar “the church of God” (found eleven times in the writings of Paul), it is more likely that “church of God” is original but copyists took offense at ” own blood” and changed “God” to “the Lord.” When the two are abbreviated, as they often were in manuscripts, there is only one letter’s difference between them. The reading “the church of the Lord and God” is a combination of the two readings, as is “the church of the Lord God” which is read by many of the Byzantine manuscripts.

There are some problems with taking this passage as a definite reference to Christ as the one God, not the least of which is the fact that there are several variant readings in the extant manuscripts (MSS) and we have demonstrated with the RV/ASV which used the manuscripts of Westcott and Hort. Some MSS read “the church of the Lord” (ekklesia kuriou) as opposed to “the church of God,” while other, later MSS combine both readings together so that we have “the church of the Lord and God.” It should be noted that the textual variant, like most textual variants, pose no threat to the Deity of Christ. The Ekklesia of the Lord (ekklesia kuriou) is used seven times in the Septuagint. (Deuteronomy 23.2-4, 8 LXX, which is usually translated as ‘assembly of the Lord’ in the NETS; 1st Chronicles 28.8; Micah 2.5)

Whether is the ‘Church of God’ or ‘Church of the Lord’ plays into the discussion concerning the Blood, which Tertullian tells us in chapter 3, book 2 of his book, ‘To His Wife’, is the blood of God,

So far as I know, “we are not our own, but bought with a price and what kind of price?  The blood of God.

Robertson says,

With his own blood (dia tou haimatos tou idiou). Through the agency of (dia) his own blood. Whose blood? If tou theou (Aleph B Vulg.) is correct, as it is, then Jesus is here called “God” who shed his own blood for the flock. It will not do to say that Paul did not call Jesus God, for we have Romans 9:5; Colossians 2:9; Titus 2:13 where he does that very thing, besides Colossians 1:15-20; Philippians 2:5-11.

This is an important Christological passage and clearly points to Christ being God, without the idea of a distinction of person. The Father, who is Spirit, had no blood, but according the Economy of God, God became Incarnate (literally, in the Flesh) and due to this nature, had blood flowing through His veins.

There is also a debate whether to translate dia tou haimatos tou idiou as “which he obtained with his own blood” or “which he obtained with the blood of his own.” The translation “the blood of his own” can imply that it wasn’t the blood of God that purchased the Church, but the blood of one dear to God, such as a child or more specifically his beloved Son. To note, nowhere in Scripture is Christ called ‘His own’. As noted by the NET translators:

114tn Or “with his own blood”; Grk “with the blood of his own.” The genitive construction could be taken in two ways: (1) as an attributive genitive (second attributive position) meaning “his own blood”; or (2) as a possessive genitive, “with the blood of his own.” In this case the referent is the Son, and the referent has been specified in the translation for clarity. See further C. F. DeVine, “The Blood of God,” CBQ 9 (1947): 381-408.

This method is used by several modern translations and supplemented with the words ‘of the Son’ which is to add Doctrine to the Scriptures when none exist. As a matter of fact, apologist Robert Bowman notes “that  it was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that anyone proposed that the words here in question did not mean ‘his own blood.'” Elsewhere, the New Testament speaks of Christ purchasing the Church either with His blood or through a reference to His death on the Cross,

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1:7 NKJV)

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14 NKJV)

Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate.
(Hebrews 13:12 NKJV)

knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.  (1 Peter 1:18-19 NKJV)

And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll,
And to open its seals;
For You were slain,
And have redeemed us to God by Your blood
Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, And have made us kings and priests to our God;
And we shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10 NKJV)

In discussing the NWT’s translation (the Jehovah Witnesses’ translation made by unknown translator’s using unknown principles) addition of the word ‘his own son’ , Robert M. Bowman Jr, explains,

To get around the reading “which he purchased with his own blood,” some scholars in the past century or so have argued that the clause should be translated, “which he purchased with the blood of his own.” What is at dispute here, in technical terms, is whether to take TOU IDIOU adjectivally (“his own”) or substantivally (“of his own”). The simplest reading in terms of the grammar is the adjectival reading, “through his own blood.” (Greek often places the adjective after the noun in this construction, article-noun-article-adjective, called the second attributive position.) The NWT Reference Bible, in an appendix on Acts 20:28, admits that this would be “the usual translation” (p. 1580). However, Harris and some other scholars favor the substantival reading. On this reading, “his own” is a kind of description or title of Christ. They admit that Christ is nowhere else in the NT called “his own,” but they compare this way of construing the words to other titles of Christ using adjectives, such as “the Righteous One” or “the Beloved.”

The NWT reflects a similar approach; it translates the text, “the blood of his own.” The NWT Reference Bible appendix does not state whether this translation is based on the text-critical view of Hort that “Son” was originally in the text or on the grammatical view that TOU IDIOU is to be construed substantivally. The appendix presents both explanations and leaves it at that.

I don’t find the arguments for these views persuasive. There is zero manuscript evidence to support Hort’s speculation, despite the fact that there are several other textual variants in the manuscripts for this verse. So I think that view may be safely set aside as both unsubstantiated and improbable.

The view that TOU IDIOU is a substantive is at least plausible, but I think it is also unlikely. Against it I would make the following six arguments.

1. The other titles of Christ based on adjectives (e.g., “the Beloved”) all have multiple attestations in the NT and continued to be recognized as Christological titles and used by the early church. This is not the case with the hypothetical title “His Own.” Moreover, in the case of these other titles there is no grammatical ambiguity about their usage as there is here.

2. The smoothest and simplest reading is the adjectival reading, “his own blood.” I don’t know of anyone who disputes this fact. Again, as noted above, the NWT Reference Bible appendix acknowledges that this would be “the usual translation.”

3. It is prejudice against the text speaking of God’s “blood” that drives the substantival reading, as Harris himself candidly states. The NWT Reference Bible appendix makes this clear as well, observing, “That has been a difficult thought for many.” But ultimately this begs the question.

4. The early church clearly did not even entertain the substantival reading. Copyists who were bothered by the text altered “God” to “Lord” (as noted above) or made other changes, attesting to their understanding TOU IDIOU adjectivally. As best I can determine, the substantival reading is only about a hundred years old. This doesn’t make it certainly false, but it does place a heavy burden of proof on the substantival reading.1

5. As Harris himself points out, as quickly as the early second century Ignatius could write about “God’s blood” (Ignatius’s Epistle to the Ephesians, 1:1). Where did Ignatius get such language? Is it best explained as an Ignatian innovation or as reflecting Paul’s words in Acts, originally spoken to the Ephesian Christians (Acts 20:17, 28)? The Ephesian connection gives weight to the latter view.

6. The Bible elsewhere speaks in similar language of Christ’s blood, e.g., “through his blood” (DIA TOU hAIMATOS AUTOU, Eph. 1:7), “through his own blood” (DIA TOU IDIOU hAIMATOS, Heb. 13:12). (Again, the position of TOU IDIOU cannot be said to make any difference in the absence of some evidence for that claim.) Admittedly, the Bible can also use a substantival expression in the final position, as in “through the blood of his cross” (DIA TOU hAIMATOS TOU STAUROU AUTOU, Col. 1:20), but again, here the adjective AUTOU functions adjectivally to mean “Christ’s,” not “the Father’s.”

It is interesting to note that the very idea that God had shed blood is sited as the reason that scribes replaced ‘God’ with ‘Lord’ and would later conflate the text to read ‘God and Lord’. During the Christological debates, it was often cited that God was impassible and thus could not have blood. Raymond E. Brown, an Catholic New Testament Scholar, admits,

“The Holy Spirit has made you overseers to feed the church of God which he obtained with his own blood.” There are two problems about the italicized words: One concerns a variant reading (“the church of the Lord”); the other concerns grammatical understanding. As for the variant, “the church of God” is slightly better attested than “the church of the Lord.” Moreover, the reasoning why later copyists might have changed an original “the church of God” to “the church of the Lord” is somewhat stronger than for a change in the opposite direction. Overall, then, the weight of the argument favors “the church of God” as more original.

251. Although “the church of the Lord” occurs seven times in the Greek OT, it does not occur elsewhere in the NT, while “the church of God” occurs eleven times in the epistles attributed to Paul; thus here copyists of the NT might have changed an original but highly unusual “the church of the Lord” to the more customary expression. On the other hand “the church of God” could have struck copyists of the NT as objectionable because the sequence would then seem to be speaking of God’s blood; accordingly they might have changed the phrase to refer to “the Lord (Jesus).” (Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament , pp. 177-178; bold and underline emphasis ours)

Our beloved Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, writes,

I have become acquainted with your name, much-beloved in God, which you have acquired by the habit of righteousness, according to the faith and love in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Being the followers of God, and stirring up yourselves by the blood of God, you have perfectly accomplished the work which was beseeming to you. For, on hearing that I came bound from Syria for the common name and hope, trusting through your prayers to be permitted to fight with beasts at Rome, that so by martyrdom I may indeed become the disciple of Him “who gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God,” Ephesians 5:2 . I received, therefore, your whole multitude in the name of God, through Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop in the flesh, whom I pray you by Jesus Christ to love, and that you would all seek to be like him. And blessed be He who has granted unto you, being worthy, to obtain such an excellent bishop. (Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians, Chapter 1)

I can find no objection to understanding that ‘God’ in this verse is fully meant to refer to Christ, as it has been demonstrated elsewhere in the New Testament, as well as the Church Fathers (Ignatius and in some part, Melito of Sardis), that it was Christ, not God’s own, Who shed His blood for the redemption of the Church. No mention of the Godhead as understood by the Trinity can be seen unless it is stretched and developed; what can be seen is the Incarnation and the humanity of that Incarnation which bleed for the the lost. We can hear Paul’s call to remember the Cross of Calvary and to remember the Son for He is our God, Jesus Christ and according to the economy of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the holy Spirit of God. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water.

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4 Replies to “Acts 20.28 from the Economic Perspective: Whose blood is it?”

  1. Joel,

    That was a seminary classroom ride! lol But very indepth! I was also simply thinking “theologically” of Heb.9:14, “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to GOD.” This is a real soteriological triune verse! And then there is 1 Peter 1:2. Note in both that the Spirit and the blood of Christ are in close connection exegetically!

    Fr. Robert

  2. The real Trinitarian doctrine of God will always be both Economic and Ontological. And this means that the Father, Son, and Spirit working together with one will. In this sense there is no eternal subordination. And as Athanasius said, that the scripture gives a “double acount” of the Son of God – one of his temporal and voluntary subordination in the incarnation, and the other of His divine standard. And we must not read back into the eternal Trinity mere human traits. This creates real error in our minds about the nature of God!

    To my mind, Modalism’s great loss is the “unity” of God! For the whole “economic” Trinity of God, stands upon God’s own ontology. I am not attacking really, but making a codified argument. God is One and Triune! And always a divine mystery! And I am not hiding here, but I do realize that God can never really be fully explained. Again even in eternity God will be known and seen only by the “pure” in heart, (Matt.5:8). Again this must be ontolgical, both God and us in HIS divine energy (to use an Orthodox term).

    Fr. Robert

    PS Maybe I should have written this under “discussion” to include lanis? Sorry, but this is not fully polemical.

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