by Robert P. Menzies
The eagerly anticipated sequel to Darrell Bock’s comprehensive commentary on Luke’s Gospel is now available. Bock’s commentary on Acts is everything we would expect from a leading evangelical New Testament scholar and Dallas Theological Seminary professor. It is conservative in outlook, yet interacts with a wide range of scholarly views. It is clearly written and thus accessible to a broad spectrum of readers, but it also engages important critical issues. It focuses on clarifying Luke’s intended meaning and features verse by verse commentary, while the summary sections provide theological application. Additionally, valuable bibliographic notes point the reader to other relevant works, including more narrative-oriented commentaries and focused studies. A concise introduction provides helpful summaries of key issues (e.g. genre, date, author, purpose) and major Lukan themes.
It is not surprising that Bock, who studied under Howard Marshall’s supervision at the University of Aberdeen, highlights the historical reliability of Luke’s narrative and often defends Luke against the charges of more skeptical scholars. I particularly appreciated the way Bock frequently challenges the anti-supernatural presuppositions that often drive critical scholarship. For example, in his commentary on Acts 5:19, which describes how an angel releases the apostles from prison, Bock writes, “[Hans] Conzelmann’s claim that this event is artificial tells us more about his worldview of God’s activity than about the event or passage” (p. 239). Time and time again Bock points out how the fruit of sound scholarship indicates that Luke is a reliable historian, albeit one with an important message to proclaim. From the speeches in Acts to Luke’s travel narrative, Bock argues that Luke’s narrative is based on a strong historical foundation that has been passed on through early church tradition. Bock is quick to point out the flawed logic or selective reading that often mark the work of Luke’s critics. Thus, in response to a skeptical Ernst Haenchen who argues that Luke presents Paul as a great orator (which allegedly contradicts Paul’s self-portrait in his epistles), Bock replies: “Haenchen’s claim that Acts portrays Paul as a ‘a great orator’ is exaggerated, considering that Paul does not move most of the Athenians, leaves Festus with the impression that he is mad, and puts Eutychus to sleep” (p. 18).
A true son of the evangelical movement, Bock tends to focus on the Christological significance of Luke’s narrative. He is certainly unapologetic about the exclusive claims made by Luke and the early church about Jesus. To those who argue that these exclusive claims have led to religious and political strife throughout history, Bock responds, “But a key point is often missed. It is when religion is imposed that it does damage. Here [Acts 4:12] we see apostles making an appeal and leaving the decision and consequences to individual response.” (p. 200). Pentecostals will resonate with Bock’s conclusion that, according to Luke, a “healthy church” is a church that so strongly desires to preach Jesus that it is willing to suffer persecution in order to do so (p. 210).
Pentecostals will have less enthusiasm for Bock’s treatment of the Holy Spirit. Bock notes that “some have spoken of the Spirit’s role in Acts as exclusively that of the ‘Spirit of prophecy’,” but he claims, “this narrows the focus of the Spirit’s work too much” (p. 36-37). In standard evangelical fashion, Bock concludes that the work of the Spirit at Pentecost and throughout Acts “involves more than mission; it includes salvation (2:38-39) and transformed lives (2:42-47)” (p. 99). In short, Bock portrays the gift of the Spirit in Acts as the climax of conversion-initiation. Bock seems oblivious to the fundamental tension this position creates for texts like Acts 8:14-17, where Luke describes baptized believers as not having yet received the Spirit, and 19:1-7, where again disciples much like Apollos (18:24-28) are portrayed as not having received the Spirit when they believed. His explanation of the former passage, that “the two stages to the Spirit’s appearance are part of the scene’s unusual context, where church practice is breaking new ground” (p. 330), misses the fact that Luke here only describes one coming of the Spirit, and that to believers! Acts 19:1-7 is explained away with the comment, “We are caught in the special situation of transition here” (p. 599). In both instances, Bock fails to grapple seriously with the theological implications of Luke’s narrative. These comments show how unwilling Bock is, at this point, to lay aside his own pre-conceived theological construct and read Acts on its own terms. This is unfortunate, for Bock generally acknowledges the powerful, missiological nature of Luke’s pneumatology. Nevertheless, ultimately Luke’s picture of the church as a community of prophets, empowered by the Spirit to bear bold witness for Jesus, is blunted by the Pauline presuppositions Bock brings to the text.
One other weakness of this fine commentary is the relative dearth of theological application. Bock’s focus and strength is exegesis, but often I longed for more theological discussion and application. A good case in point is Bock’s treatment of “signs and wonders” in Acts. Although he acknowledges the miracles in Luke’s account, very little is said about Luke’s message for his church and ours. This is surprising, particularly in view of Luke’s alteration of Joel’s text in Acts 2:19. With the addition of a few words, Luke transforms Joel’s text to read: “I will show wonders in the heaven above, and signs on the earth below.” The significance of these insertions, which form a collocation “wonders” and “signs”, can hardly be missed. The first verse that follows the Joel citation in Acts declares, “Jesus…was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs” (2:22). And throughout the rest of Acts we read of the followers of Jesus (and not just the apostles!) working “signs and wonders.” In this way, Luke links the miraculous events associated with Jesus (2:22) and his disciples (e.g. 2:43) together with the cosmic portents listed by Joel (2:19-20) as “signs and wonders” that mark the end of the age. For Luke, “these last days” – that period inaugurated with Jesus’ birth and leading up to the Day of the Lord – represents an epoch marked by “signs and wonders.” Luke, then, is not only conscious of the significant role that miracles have played in the growth of the early church, he also anticipates that these “signs and wonders” will continue to characterize the ministry of the church in our day (“these last days”). Bock fails to comment on the implications of Luke’s text at this point for our praxis as Christians today.
Nevertheless, in spite of these minor points of criticism, I warmly recommend this commentary as a wise and useful work of sound, evangelical scholarship. Christians in general and Pentecostals in particular will be well-served by this clear, balanced, and edifying commentary.