It didn't really occur to me that the book of Acts could be seen as a different kind of narrative until I saw that Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart had a separate chapter dealing with it in their book How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth. As I have begun teaching Acts in Sunday school, I can understand why now.
Acts is historical narrative. It operates very similarly to the Old Testament narratives, with characters, plots, conflict and resolution. When we read Acts, we can follow similar habits, dividing the book into sections, noticing when there is a change in location, looking for how the plot is moved along by the various scenes. The problem can come in our attitude as we begin studying.
When we read the Old Testament, we do not look at the events as historical precedents which set a pattern for Christian living. For example, we don't send our daughters off to the barn at night to lie at the feet of their kinsmen redeemer. Instead, we tend to draw moral lessons from the stories, something we should actually try to avoid. However, when it comes to Acts, most people look at the book and think that everything is historical precedent for the church. I have heard teachers tell students that the book of Acts is a "blueprint" for the church. When we have that presupposition, we begin to take everything as normative, i.e. obligatory.
This actually happened to me recently when I taught the passage in Acts 6, where the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected in their serving of food. The solution to this problem was that seven men (Greek speaking men, actually) were called to organize such things and leave the apostles to preach the word. There were women in my class who did think this was an example of how to elect deacons. When I pointed out that this wasn't really the point, I did get a few worried looks. I saved myself from objection by pointing out that the specfic teaching for deacons and elders was later in the New Testament and the one providing those guidelines, Paul, was specific about what he was doing. This passage didn't say anything specific.
Not everything in a narrative is normative. Our task is, of course, to discern which is and which is not. The unique situation with Acts is that everyone wants to think it's normative. Finding the purpose for Luke's writing of Acts is really important, because as with all narratives, the author's purpose determines what he includes in his narrative. We must ask not only what, but why.
Reading the first chapter of Acts, within the first ten verses, Luke says this: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." Luke's purpose in writing Acts is to detail that Holy Spirit-empowered witness. As I have been studying Acts for the past few weeks and reading, I can see that very clearly, as gradually the church moves from being a small Jewish-based group of believers, to a more Gentile-based group of individuals, moving father and farther away from Jerusalem. We begin in Jerusalem, but we end in Rome. Furthermore, the presence of the Holy Spirit as the enabling power behind this growth is evident by its continued mention in the book. If you want a good task, sit down and read the whole book in a couple of sittings and look for the mention of the Holy Spirit.
How, then, do we interpret Acts? Knowing the book divisions is a good start. Here is a clue that I picked up on: look for the statements throughout the book that say the church was growing, that others were being added to its number. The first occurrence is in Acts 6:7, right before Stephen is stoned and there is a resulting scattering of believers because of great persecution. After we know what those divisions are, it gets easier to see how they are revealing Luke's purpose.
I liked Fee and Stuart's principle for interpreting Acts:
Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normatiave (i.e. obligatory) - unless it can be demonstrated in other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way.
When we derive doctrine from Scripture, we usually look at three areas: theology, ethics, and practice. Within those categories, there are always levels of statements. For example, we are to observe the Lord's Supper. It was commanded, which is a primary statement. How often we celebrate it is a secondary statement. Some people would refer to that secondary level as an "incidental." The problem seems to be that often, when we derive statements of Christian practice from narratives, we frequently take secondary statements, call them historical precedent, and declare that Scripture teaches this. When we take something as historical precedent and want to make it a command to follow in our churches, we have to find support for it in the entirety of Scripture. There are patterns of behaviour that point to a teaching that we should apply to ourselves, but those are always repeated patterns. And we have to be careful in saying things such as, "Well, the early church did it, so we should, too."
Next week, I will share some thoughts about reading the gospels.