Review: Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts

Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, London: SCM Press, 2006, pp. 320. $29.99 (hardcover)

Jaroslav Pelikan’s passing in May 2006 after struggling with lung cancer was a huge loss to Christian scholarship. Pelikan was a prodigious scholar of church history, and thus it is only fitting that after decades of historical work, his final publication is a biblical commentary on the one book dedicated to the life of the early church. That said, this is a most unusual commentary—quite clearly the product of Pelikan’s distinguished academic career and his personal “return” (as he put it) to the Orthodox Church in 1998. While brimming with rich historical and theological knowledge, this first book in the Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible series has a number of major limitations.

In his preface to the series as a whole, R. R. Reno says that the commentary series “advances upon the assumption that the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture” (13-14). Pelikan has taken this assumption to heart. He orders his commentary of the Acts of the Apostles according to eighty-four loci communes (three per chapter), some of which are taken directly from the Nicene Creed. A brief survey of the table of contents reveals that this is not just a theological commentary, but a truly catholic and orthodox (in both senses of these words) commentary. So, for example, the commentary covers, inter alia, the following topics: “Mary the Theotokos,” “The Twelve and the Primacy of Peter,” “Incarnation and Theosis,” “Canon Law—Its Legitimacy and Its Limits,” “Apostolic Tradition and Apostolic Dogma,” and “The Component ‘Parts of Penance.’”

It is difficult at times to know whether one should really call this book a commentary by Pelikan, since throughout he allows the church fathers to provide the commentary. As a historian, and not a biblical scholar or theologian, this is understandable. In a way, Pelikan functions less as a historian and more as a medium, channeling the voices of the past as they bear upon the text. Some of the key figures include Irenaeus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. And so we read statements like, “one could observe with Chrysostom” (124), or, “as Clement of Alexandria argued” (131-32). The living presence of the tradition is this commentary’s greatest strength. By allowing the doctors of the church to speak freely, Pelikan reminds us of the profound insights of the ancient church and helps to liberate us from what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”

Of course, this book is thoroughly Pelikan’s work, and some of the sections of theological commentary demonstrate his theological and historical insight. His discussion of the Holy Spirit (48-53) brilliantly connects the Spirit to the idea of fullness (e.g., fullness of time, fullness of joy, fullness of grace, fullness of the Spirit). His best reflections are also the most unexpected. He examines the role that humor plays throughout the book of Acts while looking at the story of Rhoda from Acts 12:13-16 (148-50), and in another section he looks at the use of nautical imagery (286-89). In a comment on Acts 21:13-14 (226-30), Pelikan offers an analysis of the “religious affections” in Luke-Acts, in which Augustine and Schleiermacher both make an appearance. Perhaps the single best section is entitled “De amicitia: The Divine Gift of Friendship” (283-86). Here Pelikan presents a constructive theology of friendship in theses which range from the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas to the way friendship is grounded in Christ and imitates the God who befriends humanity. In a particularly poignant section, Pelikan reflects on “the predicament of the Christian historian” (279-83), who is caught between scientific objectivity and religious fidelity. The book closes with a fine discussion of the kingdom of God (292-95).

Pelikan’s commentary, however, has some serious limitations. The problem is best summarized by Pelikan himself in a comment on Acts 8:30-31: “It is the consensus of Orthodox and Catholic teaching that the continuing apostolic witness of the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as this has been set forth in tradition, liturgy, and creed, performs the same function for the interpretation of the ‘Scripture’ (now consisting of both the Old and the New Testament) as it did for the ‘Scripture’ when this consisted of only the Old Testament” (116). The problem is that Pelikan has interpreted “theological commentary” to mean “commentary in accordance with the dogmas of the ancient church.” He thus follows Reno’s advice in a hyper-literal fashion: the Nicene tradition determines his exegesis. According to the index, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed has more entries than anything or anyone else other than Christ himself (310).

What all this means in practice is that Pelikan has limited and conformed his exegesis to fit the strict parameters authorized by the Tradition. This results in numerous examples of blatant eisegesis, and it also threatens to make this commentary all but irrelevant to pastors and constructive theologians. As a good Orthodox Christian, Pelikan has no interest in being creative. His only concern is to be faithful to the past, and thus faithful to the church. Not surprisingly, he introduces the book by stating up front that “this commentary, then, is based on what may turn out to be the most radical presupposition of all: that the church really did get it right in its liturgies, creeds, and councils—yes, and even in its dogmas” (28). In the transition from “apostolic church” to “church catholic,” he claims, “the church somehow continued to be ‘apostolic’” (28).

That this presupposition is by no means obvious to most Christians today is surely an understatement. As a result of this ecclesial loyalty, Pelikan fails on numerous occasions to be faithful to the text. The most inexplicable example is the fact that Acts 1:8—the one-sentence summary or thesis of the entire book—receives no mention at all. Pelikan actually avoids the topic of witness and mission altogether, other than a very brief analysis of the word “witness” (56). Amazingly, in a commentary on Acts, there is no section devoted to the missionary task or the apostolic mission, and there is no entry for “mission” in the index. This exegetical failure is less surprising when one realizes, in light of Pelikan’s introduction, that this commentary is really a sustained argument that the institutional, post-Constantinian church is fundamentally consistent with the apostolic church as documented by Luke. Unfortunately, this results in some strange readings and distortions of the biblical material.

Some of the most jarring interpretations include the following: commenting on the light which blinded Paul on the road to Damascus, Pelikan proceeds to talk about Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox doctrine of the divine energy, represented here, he argues, as light (234-36); in an example of exegetical gymnastics, he moves from talking about the pagan beliefs that Paul and Barnabus encountered at Lystra to a discussion of the Greek doctrine of theosis (162-64); at the end of a discussion about the unity of humanity before God, Pelikan slips in a comment about the Holy Spirit “establish[ing] national churches” (133); and, finally, the most jarring example of eisegesis occurs in his presentation of the Mars Hill episode, which Pelikan introduces with the title: “Apophatic Theology: Negation as the Affirmation of Metaphysical Transcendence” (193-96). Moreover, throughout the book, he refers to the “college of apostles,” while Mary is always “Mary the Theotokos,” or the “Blessed Virgin Mary.” In short, it is clear that Pelikan is perfectly comfortable reading history back into the text, because for him, Scripture and Tradition are equally authoritative: each interprets the other. What is not acceptable, it seems, is any critique of the church on the basis of Scripture. The Bible upholds and must not challenge the status quo. He even goes so far as to call the imperial enforcement of dogma by Caesar “innovative” and “revolutionary” (184).

The book also lacks an accurate index. Throughout the book John Chrysostom appears in almost every chapter, yet the index only lists him twice. It became clear that the book missed a number of entries when the name did not appear in the body of the text itself and was only referenced in a footnote. For example, the Belgic Confession is mentioned on page 159, footnote 11, but receives no entry in the index. In a book which relies so heavily upon historical sources, a faulty index is a huge disservice to the reader. Hopefully, this will be corrected in future printings.

Despite its shortcomings, Jaroslav Pelikan has left us with a work of impressive scholarship and ecclesial fidelity. His commentary on Acts is a promising start to what I expect will be a landmark commentary series. In this rich and detailed text, Pelikan has given new meaning to the words of Chrysostom, “Paul is sailing even now with us” (288).


Andy said…
Thanks for the review. I hadn't had a chance to look into this one yet, but I've been anxious to do so.

I do want to respond very briefly to your charge of Pelikan's eisegesis. My first suggestion is that this is an unhelpful distinction (exegesis vs. eisegesis), since although the root of exegeomai means "to lead out," in its common usage it really just meant "to interpret" in the ancient world, and so was basically synonymous with hermeneuo. AND, it is long since we have thought pure exegesis was possible. If Bultmann's question of presuppositions were not enough, then the cultural-linguistic turn banished (or at least exiled) our hopes for exegesis. Even more, deconstruction and its aftershocks guaranteed that only a trace of "original meaning" can really be read out of the text.

And that is the great value of what you have described of Pelikan's commentary. Tradition ALWAYS determines our reading of Scripture (or if it does not, that reading shortly becomes a tradition which determines other readings).

Pelikan's commentary is not so odd in the midst of some of Augustine's interpretations, for instance. Talk about exegetical acrobatics! I do agree (not having read the commentary yet) that leaving mission out of his discussion is perhaps not being responsible to the text. And yet, what kind of mission was the church in Acts engaged in? You may also be reading through Newbiginian lenses, since Pelikan may right surmise that the mission of the early Church was to establish the Church. Which Pelikan seems to say obliquely.

At any rate, I think a commentary of this kind is as necessary as it is daring. His theological commitments make it easy for the critics, but let's not assume it is flawed for that reason. Nor, I think, should we be offended that Pelikan has read this book as a book for and about us. Which status quo does Pelikan's Bible support? Not the status quo, but rather a very particular status quo. A status quo that the Eastern and Roman Churches have decided to be providential.

At any rate, thank you very much for the detailed review. You have certainly whet my appetite for more! I hope my thoughts are helpful. In this strange new world of theological exegesis (yes, in our setting this is all new), we will have to navigate the areas between dogma and criticism, church doctrine and "scientific" exegesis. Errors will be and are being made on both sides, but we may be the better for their missteps.

D.W. Congdon said…

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. By no means am I advocating a presuppositionless exegesis. That's an illusion and remains the Achilles' Heel of all conservative evangelical polemics, which has this naive notion of beginning with exegesis, going to biblical theology, and only then reaching systematics.

My point is that Pelikan does not allow Scripture to disturb the tradition. His relationship between Scripture and Tradition (capitalized on purpose) is a very Catholic one, and it's one that I think is extremely problematic. If Scripture does not stand over against our sinful and broken traditions (as Luther said, the Church is the greatest of sinners), then God does not stand over against us. Or, conversely, if our conception of God is collapsed into our conception of the church, then Scripture will be conformed to us, rather than us to Scripture. Pelikan is guilty of collapsing God and Scripture into the Eastern Church.

The absence of mission is the clearest example of this. And I don't think there is any problem with calling this eisegesis. If you provide a commentary on Acts and have nothing at all to say about the mission of the church, you are not actually interpreting the Bible. The notion that mission ended with the original 12 apostles is simply unacceptable. There's no excuse for that. We might as well just equate Peter with the office of the Pope, and read a substance ontology of transsubstantiation into the institution of the Lord's Supper.

We can have a conversation about whether such ideas from the tradition are warranted on the basis of Scripture, but to directly equate the tradition with Scripture is simply to undermine Scripture altogether.

Personally, I agree with Barth: Scripture has to stand over the tradition, including even the ecumenical creeds of the ancient church. We always have to let God be God, to let God stand over against all religion. With Barth and the Reformed tradition, I have to say that all religion is, at the end of the day, sin. God only makes righteous, not religion. All our righteousness is as filthy rags, and Scripture testifies to that, placing us under its judgment. If we lose that insight, we lose everything.
D.W. Congdon said…
One more thing, Andy: Just because we all appreciate the life and work of Augustine does not mean -- and should not mean -- that we think his exegesis is a model to be followed. We can certainly find profound wisdom and insight from the church fathers, but we also live on this side of historical criticism. We are also shaped by the realization of what Constantinianism, sexism, racism, and other ideologies have done to the church. We can also see the problems with Augustine's views about God, for example, even if we are indebted to him. The point is, modeling one's exegesis on Augustine may actually be an act of biblical and theological unfaithfulness. And in the case of Pelikan, I would say it most definitely is.
Dave Berge said…
Will you burn this book?

If no, are there any circumstances under which you would consider doing so?
D.W. Congdon said…
As much as I enjoyed seeing the fruits of John Flett's radical gesture, and as much as I share his views of the book, I could never bring myself to burn a book that displayed the remotest hint of Christian conviction and scholarship. Pelikan's book, for all its flaws, is still interesting and worth engaging, even if only to disagree with it.

That said, there are definitely books which I would happily burn. The Left Behind series, anything by Hal Lindsey, the works of Cornelius Van Til, any pretty much anything found in the Christian fiction section of modern bookstores. I would also burn the works of people like Bruce Wilkinson, T.D. Jakes, and anyone connected with TBN and the modern prosperity gospel.

Maybe a book burning is in order? :)
Andy said…

Thank you for your responses. But you are making my point. Your determination that Scripture should disturb tradition is itself a traditional reading of the Bible. You yourself admit to following the Reformed "tradition." You make a slight distinction between the Tradition and the Reformed tradition, but the point I'm making is that everyone's tradition is the Tradition to them. You also must ask yourself what mission is, what is the root of the theologoumenon in your tradition, and why do you not see it in Pelikan's reading of Acts. (Simply because it is missing from the index or is not what you understand by mission is not sufficient grounds.)

But there is a deeper problem, namely your bifurcation between Tradition and Scripture. Now I might agree with you that Scripture should be allowed to challenge the Church, and I might even agree with your assessment of his failure to handle mission. But the problem is not that Pelikan conflates Scripture to Tradition. Rather, the Orthodox understand Tradition as the outworking of Scripture, the legitimate and continuing interpretation of Scripture.

That's quite different. If you wish to challenge that perspective and say, scripture clearly says x, y, or z, then you must offer a means of authorizing your interpretation. And that means of legitimation depends on traditions of reading and on traditional understandings of what counts as a good reading--in short, interpretation depends on a rule of faith.

And this is why eisegesis is a straw man--a term we use like "heretic" to say, we disagree with their first principles. Eisegesis is a faulty term because if we wish not to eisegete we can do nothing but remain silent. Anytime we comment on a text we replace the text with another text. This in turn entails that any interpretation is eisegesis, to greater or lesser extent. As you can tell, this goes way beyond Bultmann.

To sum up, what's the difference between reading transubstantiation into the text, and reading semper reformanda into the text?

D.W. Congdon said…

All the difference in the world!

Listen, I'm not so naive as to think that we don't read Scripture from a particular perspective. But neither am I so bound to my tradition as to think that Scripture has to conform to it.

The heart of the matter, which I mentioned above but which you ignored in your response, is the relation between God and the church. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions view the church as an extension of the incarnation. The church is a prolongatus incarnatus. Once you allow this concept to get its foot in the door, then of course Scripture will be read in a way that conforms to the tradition. God no longer stands over the church as the Lord and Judge, but instead the church is the historical continuation of Jesus Christ. What the church does, God does.

The question comes down to this: Is it more faithful to Scripture to collapse Christ and the church or to maintain a dialectical distinction? Pelikan sides with the former. I side with the latter.

Even if you marshal texts that seem to support the former position, we need to ask ourselves: what are the consequences of holding such a view? It essentially legitimates whatever sins the church commits. One realizes why Luther's understanding of the church as the greatest of sinners was such a heretical statement. At the end of the day, I would argue that the collapse of Christ into the church results in the loss of salvation, the loss of grace, the loss of the gospel. I don't think we can afford that theology. The church which heads in that direction is headed for self-destruction.

Let's get beyond talk of "eisegesis." That's finally unimportant. Let's start talking instead about how we are to understand the relationship between God and the church, because this is finally the hermeneutical starting-point for one's interpretation of texts like Acts. The issue of Scripture and Tradition is a secondary, rather than primary, problem.

In the end, if you are right that anytime we comment on a text, we replace it with another text, then this should be even more of a reason to refuse the identification of Scripture with Tradition. Instead, it should place us in a posture of humility, recognizing that even our interpretations, just like our attempts to be obedient to God, are but filthy rags. The Roman attitude is simply one of arrogance, assuming that the church could ever be infallible. That Jesus promised to be present with the church does not justify the identification of the priest's actions with Christ's own action. If there was ever heresy, it was this. Luther was certainly right on that point, at the very least.

To return to your final question, the difference between seeing transubstantiation and semper reformanda is night and day. The former is a philosophical ontology, while the latter is something we actually see in the text, as the church grapples with new realities -- e.g., the way the church handled the fact that Gentiles were filled with the Spirit, or the way Israel continually rethought the nature of the covenant with Yahweh. More could be said about, but I think it would distract us from the topic at hand. The point is, nothing can ever be secure from the possibility of Scripture's disrupting and redefining it in the light of the Spirit's authenticating self-witness.
Andy said…
Nice response, David,

There are a number of directions this conversations could now go, of course, but I think we will have to put it to bed. I'm sorry I did not spend more time on God and the Church, but as always, on blogs, space does not allow for full responses. I am glad we can agree to move beyond the question of eisegesis! :) I will just ask in closing whether we must always see God as disruptive of tradition? Are we not, as Scripture says, the body of Christ? The emphasis of course being "Christ," not "we." Must we always be iconoclasts? And the final question to my last post was perhaps a bit awkward, maybe I should have asked, What's the difference between reading the development of doctrine into the text and reading semper reformanda into the text? And I think the reality we have to confront here is that the early church was NOT simply always reforming but was always seeking a balance between innovation and conservation. Conserving the teaching of the apostles, yes, but also some worldly traditions--patriarchy, for instance. It is clear from Paul's writings that he was not fond of slavery, but neither was he prepared to overthrow the system completely, even in the church (e.g. Philemon). Just some closing thoughts. I've enjoyed this exchange.

D.W. Congdon said…
Thanks, Andy. It was an interesting conversation. I think a lot will hinge on how we parse the term "body of Christ." Perhaps there will be a post on this soon.

I'm curious about your last point regarding Paul. Are you suggesting then that because Paul was himself reticent to change some social institutions that we should be as well? That doesn't really seem to follow. The church does not place itself under the lordship of Paul but under Christ. We aren't called to imitate Paul, but Jesus. And so if Paul fails to live up to some of the ideals of Christian faith, that doesn't mean we should fail as well. There are resources even within Paul's letters for a much more radical understanding of the church community. Shouldn't we strive toward that vision rather than repeat what Paul did?

Must we be iconoclasts? In a dialectical sense, yes. Is this not what we see in the gospel? God tears down only to build up. God kills in order to make alive. Exodus and Sinai. Cross and resurrection. In an analogous sense, we are called to forswear all idols, even those that come from our own religion, and adhere to God alone. We are called to live in the Spirit of freedom. We are called to recognize that God's iconoclasm is one that judges even ourselves and does not let us think that our patterns and rituals are somehow in themselves pleasing to God. That would be to live by the law, not by the Spirit.