Review: Becoming the Church

Becoming the Church, Claude R. Alexander Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: Studies of the first six chapters of Acts revealing the purposes, practices, and principles that led to the transformation of a loose group of individuals into the church.

Bishop Claude Alexander loves the church. This doesn’t mean he is blind to the ways its people and institutions fall short of its purpose to be Christ’s visible body in the world. Rather, it is that he realizes that God has decided to reveal his purposes and power through the church. In this book, he takes us through the last chapters of the gospels and the first six chapters of Acts, speaking sometimes in the voice of Thomas, Matthew, Peter, or Luke, and other times in his own voice.

Through Thomas, we learn that it is through the church that Jesus confronts and convicts us–if we get Jesus, we get the church. Through Peter, we hear Jesus as the Lord of the second chance to put love for Jesus at the heart of his life, expressed in sacrificial care. Matthew speaks of the mission of the church as making disciples with one who assures of his everlasting presence. Luke reveals to us a people “steadied by the purposes and promises of God.”

All this sets up the study of Acts, which begins with the divine assignment of witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and repentance, baptism, and belief in his name. The conversion of three thousand form a community of commitments to the Word of God, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper and the cross, prayer, and joy.

In Acts 3, Alexander once more narrates in the voice of the lame man in the temple, transformed by the power of Jesus and welcomed into fellowship by Peter and John. This leads to proclamation. Alexander emphasizes that this is a word for others, one that brings glory to God, that explains the working of God, and invites people into relationship with God and his people. As Peter and John are called on the carpet in Acts 4, their boldness, wisdom, and knowledge is evidence that they have been with Jesus. This is also evident in determination to persist in our testimony in the face of persecution. Alexander observes that the tension doesn’t come because of good works, but rather the Name in which they are done, the Name they are proclaiming. It comes down to asserting the integrity of our experience–it is Jesus that has worked transformation in lives, not our social or self-help programs.

In the latter part of Acts 4 we see the church at prayer. It is a church that understands the God to whom we pray, that takes seriously what God has said and promised, and seeks to exalt the name of Jesus. We see the church at its best and worst–sharing possessions out of the understanding that we are conduits of God’s blessing, and turning this into deception and people pleasing, in the case of Ananias and Sapphira. We see God nipping this in the bud, revealing how deadly this is to the genuine love and unity of the church.

And so we come to Acts 6, a church facing growth pains from its exponential expansion. Conflict arising from growth leads to prayerful discernment, changes in structure, and the entrusting of power to a wider circle. And when the church faces the worst about itself honestly and makes discerning structural changes, sharing power, it presses beyond the worst into new growth.

The chapters have the feel to me of pulpit messages. They ring the changes on the centrality of Jesus, transformation in his name, and baptism into a people called into prayer, sacrificial and joyful love for each other, bold witness before the world, and integrity, even when the church acts at its worst. We see a church “doing the stuff” of Jesus and how dynamic that can be, instead of a church that has lost its way in success schemes, struggles for power, and sex scandals. Alexander offers hope for the church rooted in God’s purpose for and continued work in her.

[This review is time to coincide with InterVarsity’s Urbana 22, at which Bishop Claude Alexander will give four messages from the book of Acts beginning on December 28 through December 31, 2022. The messages will be livestreamed from each evening at 7:30 pm Eastern Standard Time (US).]


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: From Pentecost to Patmos, 2nd Edition

From Pentecost to Patmos, Second Edition, Craig L. Blomberg and Darlene M. Seal with Alicia S. Dupree. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2021.

Summary: A New Testament Introduction covering Acts through Revelation, with introductory material and commentary, review questions and bibliography for each book, useful as a textbook or reference.

Some of the introductory New Testament texts for college or seminary that I have read are dense and turgid reads. Not this new edition in which Craig L. Blomberg and Darlene M. Seal combine up to date scholarship with a highly readable text. The text for each book of scripture includes some of the standard introduction sections including discussions of authorship, date, audience, purpose, genre, and structure. Where relevant, as in Acts, material on textual criticism, sources, and chronology vis a vis Paul are included. A commentary summarizing the text and dealing with textual and interpretive questions follows organized on the basis of the structure provided. Review questions are included for students as well as concluding applications. A select bibliography offers recommendations of advanced, intermediate, and introductory commentaries, as well as other relevant scholarly works on the book in question.

A fifty-eight page introductory article to the Pauline epistles is also included. The first portion covers the life of Paul including the question of the nature of the Damascus road encounter–conversion, call, or commission–or perhaps all three? Then the authors turn to epistolary writing, uses of rhetoric, genres, literary forms, their occasional nature, and the mechanics of letter writing. This part includes with questions about pseudonymity (they judge this lacking acceptance in the first century) and the collection and canonization of Paul’s epistles. They then turn to Paul’s theology, summarizing contemporary discussions of the New Perspective, the question of Paul and Jesus, Paul and the Old Testament and recent scholarship seeing apocalyptic and empire themes in Paul. I thought this an excellent, succinct discussion of Pauline scholarship with all the key figures appearing in the bibliography.

A few highlights of the authors’ discussion of various books may give a flavor of this introduction:

  • While noting the boundary marker treatment of “works of the law” they see a more general reference to Torah-obedience, and justification referring to imputed righteousness–though relational and transformative rather than “impersonal and transactional.”
  • They argue for the unity of 2 Corinthians (an A-B-A structure) with a lost letter between it and 1 Corinthians.
  • They foresee a large scale turning of Jews to Christ foretold in Romans 11 but that this does not require repatriation.
  • They favor the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, with Paul giving an amanuensis greater liberty in writing within directions on topics to address, and that the letter was likely intended to be a circular letter.
  • They survey the discussion of the authorship of the pastorals, often thought to be pseudonymous works. They go with the unanimity of the church fathers and attribute these to Paul, allowing for an amanuensis, perhaps Luke, to account for the stylistic differences.
  • On 1 Timothy 2:11-15, they offer a helpful chart of the interpretive decisions involved in this passage. They do not commit to a view, suggesting the need to hold views tentatively. They propose that even within more traditional interpretations, there are not constraints on women serving on pastoral teams or as part of church leadership. This seems like an attempt to find a via media between complementarian and egalitarian position with a complementarian flavor that will probably satisfy few.
  • I found the outline of James structuring it around three iterations of three key themes quite helpful: trials in the Christian life, wisdom, and riches and poverty. Similarly, seeing Hebrews structured around five warnings was a rubric that seems to arise from the text.
  • Perhaps the most difficult book to square with traditional claims of authorship is 2 Peter, which much of modern scholarship considers late, and pseudonymous, noting the dependence on Jude, and significant stylistic differences. They note the claim of the author to have witnessed the transfiguration, that the stylistic differences argue against pseudonymity, that Symeon Petros in 1:1 is elsewhere used only in Acts 15:14 and sounds like a signature.
  • The treatment of Revelation takes a premillenial, though not dispensational reading.

Overall, the approach is theologically conservative and evangelical, though nuanced and appreciative of other scholarship. Reflective of the publisher, it seems its target audience would be Baptists schools and seminaries and educated pastors and laity. Yet the engagement with other scholarship and views makes it representative of the best of this tradition. It is an introduction where a committed evangelical is able to read with, rather than against, the grain of one’s convictions as it were, while being introduced to the range of scholarship. And as observed earlier, one of the great strengths of this work is the readable, flowing text that one needn’t fight with to understand. It’s greatest challenge comes in the trenchant applications that question how one will live and act on truth outside the study and classroom.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Between History and Spirit

Between History and Spirit, Craig S. Keener. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the author’s journal articles on the book of Acts

Craig S. Keener is a prolific biblical scholar. One of his most magisterial works is a four volume commentary on the book of Acts. Writing such a work involved him deeply in studies of context, exegetical matters, and other questions surrounding the book of Acts resulting in numerous shorter articles. This work brings a number of these works together in a single volume. It displays both his erudite scholarship (34 pages of abbreviations of ancient and modern sources referenced) and his missional passion.

The collection is divided into three sections and I will highlight a few from each part to offer a taste of the rich fare the reader interested in such matters will find within.

A Question of History

“Luke-Acts and the Historical Jesus” examines what kind of writing is Luke-Acts and the accuracy of his sources. He concludes this is a form of first century historiography with biographic and rhetorical interests and that Luke draws upon reliable first generation accounts. We wonder if the writer of Acts was actually an eyewitness and participant in some of the events narrated because of the “we” language. Keener explores possible explanations and concludes that the “we” language with the omission of the author’s name reflects the practice of other ancient historians who participate in the events they narrate. “Paul and Sedition” considered the purpose for including so much material defending Paul against charges of sedition and the importance of the defense for the early church. Other essays consider the growth reports of the church in Acts, the novel official of Acts 8:27, whether troops were really stationed in Caesarea during Agrippa’s reign and the character of Paul’s ministry in Athens.

A Question of Context

Interethnic marriage has been considered problematic in many cultural settings including that of the New Testament. Given this, in “Interpreting Marriage in Acts 7:29 and 16:1-3, Keener argues that the only problematic instance of marriage in the New Testament is for believers to marry non-believers and that interethnic marriage of believers is not problematic “within the church. He offers a wonderful study on “Turning from Idols in Acts: 14:15-17 in honor of our shared mentor Ben Witherington III. He offers a careful study of Acts 16:8-10 and the crucial transition from Asian to European ministry by Paul and his team. There is also a wonderful short article proposing Acts 21 and the temple controversy as a backdrop for Ephesians 2:11-22 with it tearing down of dividing walls. A couple essays deal with language and rhetoric focused on Paul’s rhetorical techniques. He considers the charge of insanity in Acts 26:24-25. He also offers a fascinating article on fever and illnesses in Acts and ancient medicine.

A Question of Spirit

Keener has done extensive research on miracles, making the case for the plausibility of miracles in the biblical accounts. His article on “Miracles and History in Acts and the Jesus Tradition” is a great summary of this research. Keener’s work is especially worthy of reading if you are skeptical about miracles but open to argument and evidence. Several of his essays consider the work of the Spirit in empowerment for mission in Act. His study of spirit possession in Acts 16:16-18 and 19:12-16 comparing these accounts to modern anthropological accounts is remarkable for its even-handed discussion of Christian and other perceptions of spirit possession and the anthropological evidence for the universality of this phenomena. He recognizes the beginnings of ancient African Christianity in Luke’s encounter with the Ethiopian and expands of the early development of east African Christianity. His reviews of other works that conclude the section reveals a scholar gracious with those he differs and capable of learning from them.

Anyone who has studied or is studying Acts will find in this collection a treasure trove of insights. It is good for whetting one’s appetite for Keener’s commentary on Acts (at least it was for me if I could fit it into my budget and bookshelves!). It models well the fusion of evangelical conviction and scholarly rigor and careful textual and contextual study. I also find in his writing jargon-free clarity that makes this work useful beyond the scholarly guild. Finally, I value the fine balance between historical and contextual questions, and the unavoidable presence of the Holy Spirit in Acts that both accounts for much of the history in Acts and the empowerment of the missional momentum of that history.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.