The Use of Luke-Acts For Understanding the Work of the Spirit

When it comes to developing our pneumatology, or our theology of the Holy Spirit, there has been much discussion on whether or not we can utilise the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts to inform our understanding. Honestly, some have not been keen on the idea of utilising Luke-Acts, since they would see it as more descriptive rather than didactic (teaching doctrine). Such a group would see the epistles (i.e. Paul’s letters) as the primary didactic source for our pneumatology and the descriptive parts (such as Luke-Acts) as secondary in teaching doctrine.

So, is it worth utilising Luke’s words in both his Gospel and Acts as a primary source for developing our theology of the Holy Spirit? Or should Luke’s two-volume work be seen more as a secondary pneumatological resource?

There are a couple of points I believe that are worth noting:

Luke as Both Historian and Theologian

An important thing to notice is that Luke stands as the only recorder of the early church and its history. Other Gospels (3 of them) had been written alongside Luke’s. But he alone holds a unique position as presenting early church history. It leaves us asking if his words should be relegated as secondary to the epistles or if they will give us a better understanding of the Spirit of God and His work.

If we are honest with the text, and note Luke’s pneumatological purpose in his recording of early church history, Acts does stand as a vitally important theological work. And its significance is especially heightened when studied with its preceding volume, the Gospel of Luke, as Luke emphatically highlights the work of the Spirit in the life of Christ.

So, whereas in the past, many evangelical theologians would have not seen the benefit of developing doctrine from narrative portions of Scripture, there has been a much great acceptance of such in recent years. This is a very important recognition, for we can definitely learn from narrative parts. We can learn just as much from God’s deeds as we can learn from God’s words. Even more, this inspired account of early church history is where theology and doctrine are being walked out in daily life. Thus, it carries importance. This is why I believe that Luke must be respected as both historian and theologian.

Below are a few passages showing how we can receive instruction from the historical recordings of Scripture.

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)

Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:11)

Yes, it is definitely true that Luke presents a descriptive history of the church in his second volume, Acts. No one can argue with such. But, what we must be willing to recognise is that it is a didactic history at the same time. There is no doubt that Luke wrote to teach. He did not only write to describe, he wrote with a purpose to instruct us, just as the writers of old would have done with their narrative portions of the Old Testament text.

As theologian Roger Stronstad reminds us:

‘If for Paul the historical narratives of the Old Testament had didactic lessons for New Testament Christians, then it would be most surprising if Luke, who modelled his historiography after the Old Testament historiography, did not invest his own history of the origin and spread of Christianity with a didactic significance.’ (The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke, p7)

Not only that, but we have these oft-quoted words of Paul:

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Paul envisioned all parts of Scripture as God-breathed and useful for teaching. To say that certain portions of Scripture take precedence over others is not easily established from Scripture itself.

Luke Speaks For Himself

What I mean with this subheading is that, many times, theologians will try and squeeze Paul’s specific theological emphases into Luke’s theology. Thus, we end up reading Luke through a Pauline lens, which is not at all helpful.

Of course Scripture presents a harmonious whole. There is a unifying structure and nature to the entire text. But we need to give room for Luke to speak as Luke, rather than try and make Paul’s words fit into Luke’s words (or vice versa). For Luke is himself trying to teach us something about the Messiah, the mission of the church, the work of the Spirit, and a whole lot more. Let’s give this man room to teach us, even teach us apart from Paul’s own words.

Even more interesting, when it comes to the baptism and filling of the Holy Spirit, Luke speaks about these two issues many more times than Paul ever does. Consider these statistics:

  • Baptised in the Spirit: Luke 3 times; Paul 1 time
  • Filled with the Spirit: Luke 9 times; Paul 1 time

Not only that, but Luke utilises a lot of different phrases to describe these similar actions: the Holy Spirit came upon; the Spirit was poured out; the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit fell on people; people received the Spirit. If we take all of these into account with regards to being baptised and/or filled with the Spirit, Luke has a lot to contribute on this topic. Our ears should be tuned to this man’s words.

Stronstad shares some more insights:

‘Consequently, just as the recognition that Luke is a theologian as well as a historian makes Luke-Acts a legitimate data base for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, so the recognition that Luke is independent of Paul will broaden the New Testament data base for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. To recognize these two facts is to rehabilitate Luke as a historian-theologian of the Holy Spirit and to allow him to make a significant, unique, and independent contribution to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.’ (p11)

Thus, I agree wholeheartedly with this final statement of Stronstad:

‘On the one hand, where it is appropriate, all parties in the current debate must abandon those largely self-serving methodological programs which conspire to either silence or to manipulate Luke’s distinctive theology. On the other hand, all parties must develop a methodological consensus for interpreting the gift of the Spirit in Luke-Acts. At a minimum, this consensus must include the following principles: 1) Luke-Acts is theologically homogeneous, 2) Luke is a theologian as well as a historian, and 3) Luke is an independent theologian in his own right.’ (p12)

And just as a side note, another great work on how Luke should be viewed as not only historian, but also theologian, is I. Howard Marshall’s Luke: Historian & Theologian.

As we look to develop a holistic pneumatology, consistent with the full text of Scripture, we must not forget Luke’s words and set them aside as only secondary to the words of Paul. Of course, we must also not pit Luke and Paul against one another, noting they were part of the same ministry team at times and are both within the canon of Scripture. But Luke’s words will, no doubt, enrich our understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit. All we must do is allow for them to teach us.

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8 thoughts on “The Use of Luke-Acts For Understanding the Work of the Spirit

  1. Pingback: The Disciples in Ephesus – Acts 19:1-7 « The Prodigal Thought

  2. While I agree we can allow Luke to stand alone, we also have to acknowledge that he also gives insights into the ministry of those he records ministering.

    I wrote recently about this very issue http://craigbenno1.wordpress.com/2010/10/18/deciphering-luke-and-pauls-soteriology-and-the-role-of-the-spirit/

    In that Luke gives us a window that shines light onto how Paul ministers and therefore their theology isn’t different. Indeed Luke was Paul’s travelling companion for many years and they would have bounced off each other many times.

  3. Craig –

    While I do believe Luke travelled and would have been influenced by Paul, I also think that Luke-Acts pneumatology cannot be solely determined by that premise. 1) Luke’s presentation of Christ and the work of the Spirit in his Gospel would not have found a lot support from Paul since he neither walked with Christ. Maybe a little support as Paul had come to know things, but Luke would have relied mainly on other sources. 2) Luke presents about half of Acts with a focus on Peter. 3) Luke was not always with Paul.

    Now, again, I do agree they would have discussed certain things and agreed on certain things together. They were part of a team at times. But even in agreeing, we also must allow the room for 2 different people to emphasise 2 different theological emphases. And that is what I believe we see with Luke and Paul on the work of the Spirit, which Stronstad’s work helpfully points out. The 2 are not disharmonious, but they are distinct.

  4. I don’t think Luke’s theology was totally influenced by Paul, as Luke also recorded the other Apostles and actions of the early church.

    A couple of points to make though, is that neither Luke nor Paul travelled with Jesus. I don’t think that Luke had a theological point to make in his writings; rather he was recording what he was seeing happening.

    Yes he may have had some personal biases in his narrative writings that operated on a subconscious level, much the same as would happen if we both went to the same Football match and had to write a essay on what we saw and describe both what happened during the game and with the crowd.

    What I was saying about Luke is that one can use Luke to gain a clearer insight into the Apostle Paul, how he ministered and through seeing how Paul ministered, one can gain clearer insight into Paul’s theology.

    So I see no difference between Paul wanting to ensure the disciples he met outside Ephesus had received the Holy Spirit to the Apostles Peter and John doing the same with Samaria. …
    This gives us a deeper insight to those Paul ministered too and we can safely assume then that a experiential encounter of the Holy Spirit was an important aspect of Paul’s evangelistic ministry.

    Therefore I do not see a difference between Luke and Paul’s theology. What I do see is a different purpose. Paul’s epistles have an ongoing discipleship aspect to them, in which he is discipling those he has already ensured have received the experiential infilling of the Holy Spirit, like we find in the Luken account.

  5. Craig –

    I agree with most of what you said, but just to clarify on two statements.

    I don’t think that Luke had a theological point to make in his writings; rather he was recording what he was seeing happening.

    Of course Luke had a theological point. He wasn’t just simply writing a history. But, even if that were true, he would have a theological point. Luke is a theologian.

    Therefore I do not see a difference between Luke and Paul’s theology. What I do see is a different purpose.

    But there two differing purposes will lead to different theological emphases. Again, not that they oppose one another. But in their two different purposes, they present different theological aspects. Just as the writer of Samuel-Kings and the writer of Chronicles would have differing purposes/theological foci.

    Everything else, I agree with. I think we are quite similar in the bigger picture of our approach to pneumatology through Paul and Luke.

  6. Scot, I am enjoying this discussion.

    I agree that every one is a theologian. The question to ask though is if Luke wrote in regards to a particular theological bent to make a particular theological statement. And to answer this I would have to say no, that wasn’t Luke’s purpose.

    Yet you are quite right to say that we can indeed draw theology out of Luke and in doing so can understand a Luken theology, which I would argue isn’t any different to a Pauline theology, though there can be different emphasis’s

  7. Craig –

    The question to ask though is if Luke wrote in regards to a particular theological bent to make a particular theological statement. And to answer this I would have to say no, that wasn’t Luke’s purpose.

    To answer this, I would have to say YES. 🙂

    This is why I would suggest reading Stronstad’s book, and you can catch a glimpse in my book review. He argues that Paul’s main emphasis and point was on soteriological initiation and reception of the Spirit to become sons and daughters of God. Luke’s main emphasis is a reception of the Spirit for empowered service. It’s not that the 2 don’t talk about the other in their writings, but they each had a differing emphasis, or ‘bent’, if you will. They were writing with a didactic purpose in regards to the work and activity of the Spirit.

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