Review: Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians @eerdmansbooks

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Luke Johnson shows in his recent work, that a biblical scholar can retain the prophetic mantle and issue a call to the Church Universal (“I recognize as authentic realizations of church any community where two or three gather in the name of the risen Lord Jesus and both speak and act the truth of the gospel in love.” (p7)) to rediscover the vision of Jesus Christ. Ever present is Johnson’s trademark critique of the search for the historical Jesus who he insists is second to the Christ of Faith. For him, Luke’s Jesus is the Jesus which he examines. It is in this mind set that Johnson sets about, with a solid foothold in the historical critical approach and in the life of a Spirit-filled believer, to tackle the Third Evangelist’s corpus as a single literary unit, contrary to what modern scholarship as to say. But, he goes further. Johnson challenges modern scholarship in setting Acts against Luke as if, to paraphrase the author, the Church in Acts has betrayed the Jesus of Luke. Instead, Johnson see the institutionalized Acts Church as even more radical than the Jesus of the Gospels. This is classic Luke Johnson with his deep concerns for the faith, his call to the Church, and his resilient scholarship.

The first chapter, The Literary Shape of Luke-Acts, deals with four things which Johnson deems needful in reading Luke-Acts as the author intended for it to be read. He will analyze four pieces of the corpus, material, stylistic, genre and structural shape. This is the historical critical approach; this is scholarship. Johnson assumes Markan priority, which, in my opinion, is always the best place to start. One cannot easily grasp the proper analyses of either Matthew or Luke without assuming Markan priority. Throughout the analyses, Johnson is able to demonstrate a careful handling of Luke-Acts and the scholarship which surrounds it. He briefly describes where modern scholarship, perhaps, has gone too far in pitting Luke against Matthew or Luke against Acts. He notes that Luke-Acts is a definitive historiographical apologetic, sharing some traits with Greco-Roman biographies of the age, but written to defend the Church against charges which were commonly presented against it. He notes that these charges, and thus the defenses, are more readily apparent in Acts. (Note, the defense was needed, especially if Johnson was correct, and that one of the charges were that the Jewish movement around Jesus had reached the Gentiles.) He ends the first chapter with the issue of geography in Luke-Acts, noting that this is indeed very much part of the prophetic message of the corpus, a theme he will return too later. With the literary shape of Luke-Acts completed, Johnson moves on the prophetic shape.

The prophetic shape is different than Matthew’s, according to the author, although his statements here seem more like a slight against Matthew rather than a critical reading; however, Johnson pushes the fact that Luke is not Matthew simply redone, but as an author has a unique way of exploring the themes of fulfillment, or actualization, of Israel’s narrative history in the events of Jesus and the early Church. This latter bit is new to me; however, Johnson presents it well enough, along with tacking on to this the use of other Judaisms (Qumran, Hellenists) by Luke. Moving on, Johnson begins to discuss a deeper view of prophecy that the Evangelists employs – the actualization of character in that people in Luke-Acts share character traits of people in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is the meat of this book, I think, which must propel the reader to want to explore the rest of this work. Throughout this section, Johnson draws the literary connections to the Old Testament, and more especially to the narratives in the Kings. This is one of the faults of the book, in that Johnson doesn’t allow that Luke has taken over the use of these narratives from Mark. Over all, however, Johnson is impressive in his meticulous research in connection Luke-Acts to the Septuagint, and establishing the Evangelist as something more than a mere copyist, but one with a distinct theology.

I often find that when an author says, “I have shown thus and thus in the previous chapters,” I laugh to myself because I can, many times, note where they simply didn’t. When Johnson says, however, that he has shown how “prophecy plays a key role” in Luke-Acts at the beginning of the third chapter, I have to agree. The first two chapters read like a brisk commentary filled with solid scholarship and an (re)establishment of what prophecy is and how it serves as a structure for Luke-Acts. This structure, I would have to agree, does unite the two volumes into one book, and more, provides for something more. This chapter, The Character of the Prophet, will focus on prophecy itself, and he begins early on with defining what prophecy actually is, and then, what a prophet is (I note that too many contemporary Christians need to read this book, if for nothing else, the clear establishment by Johnson of these two important concepts which are often times gotten wrong). Something to really consider is Johnson’s mandate that the prophet “embodies God’s Word.” For him, the prophet does not just speak the words of God, nor just live them, but actually acts those things out. This is an important theme, and one expanded in chapter six, becoming almost an axis, in my reading at least, of this book. Here, we can think of Moses and the destruction of the first set of stone tablets or John the Baptist coming out of the wilderness or of Hosea and Ezekiel. He concludes the chapter with the promise to show that the early Church did not deviate from Jesus the prophet, but embodied it completely.

After the critical work is done, Johnson moves into tackling the different aspects of what a prophet is. Chapters 4 through 8 detail the Prophetic Spirit, in which Johnson tackles the role of the Spirit in Luke-Acts; the Prophetic Word, in which the author discusses the words of the prophets, or rather, God and God’s vision of humanity; the Prophetic Embodiment, in which the scholar looks at the prophetic character (of Jesus) in terms of poverty, itinerancy, prayer, and servant leadership; the Prophetic Enactment in which the Church stands in opposition to the World Order through actualization of the word; and finally, the Prophetic Witness in which Johnson considers as the culmination of the life of the Church the connection to “persecution and death.” Each of these chapters are developed critically first, establishing Johnson’s foundation from which he springs forth, followed by how this presents a challenge to the contemporary Church. Luke’s Gospel (contained in Luke-Act as we are reminded) is retold through critical study and deep theological reflection based on the structure which Johnson has highlighted for us, that of prophecy.

Luke Johnson has provided the Church a prophetic message based on Scripture, on how to read Scripture while using scholarship and deep theological reflection. His call is indeed needful for the body of Christ today for several reason, but most importantly, because he takes the two hands of God, Scholarship (Logos) and Tradition (Wisdom), and shows us where God is leading us, what his vision for the Church really is. This is a wonderfully, reflective book for the modern Church.

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