People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church by Graham H. Twelftree

By: David Seal
Sunday, June 27th, 2010

Graham H. Twelftree, People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009. 269 pp. $24.99

What does the ideal church look like? Graham H. Twelftree, in his recent book entitled People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church, poses that very question to the author of Luke-Acts. While Twelftree admits his study is not comprehensive he does claim it identifies and explains the major aspects of Luke’s ecclesiology. Given the amount of subjects covered in the book and the controversial nature of some of the material it would be unrealistic to think that Luke and Acts scholars as well as those interested in ecclesiology will not appreciate Twelftree’s nuanced analysis and careful investigation of Luke’s writing.

Some of the more stimulating conclusions from Twelftree’s study on Luke-Acts are: 1) the church’s origin, which he argues is in Jesus’ calling of the disciples rather than at Pentecost, 2) Pentecost as an eschatological event for the purpose of empowering people for ministry, 3) the church as the true and faithful expression of Israel, 4) the meaning of breaking bread for the early church was not a remembrance of Jesus’ death, but instead it was an occasion for recalling the meals they joyously shared with Jesus, 5) the mission of the church is to preach the gospel to those outside the church and apply social justice to people inside the church 6) and finally, unlike Israel, the church is a people directed primarily by the Spirit not by the Scriptures. The book concludes with a helpful summary chapter that reinforces each section.

One of the most thought-provoking sections of the book is Twelftree’s presentation of Luke’s view of the church’s mission. Twelftree makes a compelling case for a Lukan perspective of church mission that is likely at odds with the manner in which many evangelical churches prioritize their compassion ministries today. Twelftree argues that Luke perceives a major element of the church’s responsibility is to meet the needs of those inside the community rather than aim at social action outside the church. Twelftree provides plenty of examples for this view such as the parable of the Good Samaritan who reached out to assist a Jew (insider). In Acts the widows in the church are cared for, not those outside the community of the redeemed. There are important practical implications to consider in this chapter. A helpful addition to this section would have been a discussion as to why this particular ministry model was important for Luke.

While I believe Twelftree raises some important issues regarding church practice, I question if there is a true parallel between ancient hero biographies and the New Testament narratives as he claims. Many of Twelftree’s conclusions rest on viewing Luke’s two-volume composition as being similar to an ancient hero biography where the author composes his narrative with the expectation his readers will model the behavior of the major characters in his text. Twelftree believes that Luke intended Luke-Acts to be this type of literature, prescribing practice, rather than merely describing history.

Twelftree perceives a similarity between Luke-Acts and Greek historians, noting these accounts were meant to be example stories. However, the Greek writers normally wrote about powerful individuals in politics or mighty war figures. The political or military figures are not present in Luke-Acts. In addition, some of the literature Twelftree cites to establish the ancient practice of teaching exemplary behavior such as Enchiridion by Epictetus and Isocrates’ Advice to Demonicus are not narrative. Instead they are didactic and give direct instruction on behavior. This is unlike Luke-Acts where behavior and practice are narrated in story. Luke-Acts lacks any of statements where the author encourages his audience to follow the actions of the major characters. Further, works such as Plutarch’s Lives taught moral lessons by examining the character of famous men. Twelftree contends Luke is teaching his audience to model major characters’ practice and not their morals or virtues.

Luke does use scriptural models in his narrative taken from the Old Testament such as the conversion of Paul. Paul’s conversion mirrors many stories from the Hebrew Scriptures where God appears to and commissions individuals for service. It seems from this pattern we can conclude that part of Luke’s intent was to show the continuity of God’s dealing with people and the manner in which he forwarded his redemptive purposes. From patterns such as these it would appear that in part Luke’s narrative was to teach about God’s sovereign freedom to carry out his work as he chooses, regardless of the time period in redemptive history.

While some of Tweftree’s views are unique in nature, nevertheless I found the book thought provoking and well worth reading. Anyone who wishes to biblically understand the church and takes seriously her mission will find many of his discussions compelling and informative.

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David Seal
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2 Responses to “People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church by Graham H. Twelftree”

  1. Graham Twelftree says:

    Thank you for taking time to look over my bagatelle and for the honor of being involved in this conversation. I appreciate David’s engagement with the book and the opportunity to learn from him and to interact with you.
    I found the project extraordinarily difficult, writing the book three times. First, it was going to be a book without footnotes. Then, I could see more support was needed than bracketed references could provide. I began again. However, the book was becoming too large; traditional footnotes had to go if more than a handful of academics were to read it. The result is what you see: primary data in footnotes and select secondary literature in a thematically arranged bibliography. At another level the book was challenging, not just in the usual sense of establishing the ideas precisely and finding clarity for their expression, but in the ideas themselves. For, much of what Luke seemed to be saying was at odds with both our reading of him and our generally accepted views about the church. Mainly for this reason, the project was periodically laid aside for months on end, only coming out of the drawer when nudged by
    an editor in London. It can be difficult to hear Luke’s voice, now he is accompanied by an increasingly vast interpretive orchestra that has assembled around him over the centuries. If my listening has been correct, looking back on the project, of all the themes Luke develops in relation to ecclesiology a number stand out.
    1. The Church: Embodying Jesus. In our fractured culture, it is fashionable and comforting to see the church primarily as a community. Luke would not agree. Nor would Luke describe the church as
    essentially gathered around either the Eucharist as Sacrament or the preached word, or even both. Neither is the word of God the foundation or organizing principle of the church in so far as the word is
    understood as a message or utterances, or anything distinct from or less than Jesus. Nor, from Luke’s perspective, is the church the creation of the Spirit—though it already lives and breathes at the direction
    and in the power of the Spirit of the world to come. For Luke the church is the renewed people of God called into being by Jesus not merely to represent or emulate him, or to continue his ministry in his absence. Instead, though Jesus remains distinct from and more than the church, it is the embodiment of Jesus. In experiencing and expressing the kingdom
    or powerful presence of God—now possible through the outpouring of the Spirit—the church maintains Jesus’ presence and ministry between Pentecost and the Parousia.
    2. Pentecost and the Spirit. One of the puzzles of the New Testament is that if there was an event of the magnitude and significance reported by Luke early in Acts, why has no other writer told us about it? The answer I have, rather nervously, come to prefer is that Luke inherited a number of post-Easter stories of Jesus sightings or experiences of the Spirit. He recast this tradition so that one of the Spirit stories was fixed in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost after Easter. Luke has the story involve all the followers of Jesus, and the event is said to generate an immense public response. The story is given a thoroughly eschatological interpretation. In doing this Luke has raised the importance of the coming of the Spirit to overshadow that of the resurrection. As important as Easter is in Luke’s narrative (cf. Acts 20:28), he establishes the coming of the Spirit as the defining event and experience of the church.
    3. The Priority of Experience. Luke’s narrative conveys the view that what the followers of Jesus were and experienced had not arisen through the contemplation of a text, but through 6heir interpreted response to the reported coming of Jesus and, particularly, their own experience of the Spirit’s coming. Christians were not people of the book, they were, first and essentially, people of the Spirit. In Luke’s story of the Jerusalem council we see how he understands the divine and the human relate in discerning God’s direction. It is notable that, for Luke, the phrase “it has seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) did not mean, for example, that there was among those present some quiet
    inner assurance assumed to be from the Spirit, perhaps expressed through voting. Nor does Luke say the Holy Spirit illuminated a Scriptural text to aid decision making. Nor does Luke’s narrative say ecstatic speech was involved. Rather, on the one hand, God had taken the initiative through the tangible activity of the Spirit among the Gentiles. On the other hand, the human aspect in the decision making is seen in the debate, the reports, the leader detecting a congruence between Scripture and the reports and, finally, in the agreement of those present to communicate the decision. In short, Luke understood the human and the divine to be working in concert in a particular way. It was dominated by the divine—tangible, initial activity of the Spirit, which the leader recognized and understood in light of perceiving an agreement with Scripture. The role of the community was one of witnessing and, by its
    willingness to be involved in communication, affirming the decision.
    4. Mission. For Luke, the church exists for neither worship nor the material reformation of the world, but for mission. Not to be on mission would be to forfeit being the church. Moreover, in the face of loud contemporary voices to the contrary, from Luke’s perspective, in our terms, mission = evangelism = proclaiming forgiveness or demonstrating the gospel in healing or exorcism, no less and
    no more. So-called social justice or social action is not part of Luke’s theology and practice of mission.
    Rather, social action is directed to the Christian community. It may not be inaccurate to say that, whereas we preach the gospel to each other on Sundays and seek to bring social justice to the world, Luke maintained that the church should preach the gospel to the world and apply social justice within the church. And, to answer David’s question, it is Luke’s view of salvation that gives rise to this view of mission. Luke makes a radical departure from the political, military and material understanding of salvation that dominates the Old Testament. Instead salvation is seen in spiritual and personal terms: forgiveness, the gift of repentance, the gift of the Spirit, various kinds of healing, ‘being found’,
    escaping from the last days, eternal life, blessedness, peace, revelation and glory, capture his understanding of salvation.
    5. The End of Acts as Invitation. I had not meant to give the impression, picked up by David, that Luke’s composition was similar to an ancient hero biography. Biography is not Luke’s primary concern (p. 7). Luke states he is writing an orderly narrative (Luke 1:1), though he does so primarily through a series of biographical narratives: Jesus and his first followers in the first volume, remarkably paralleled in, for example, Peter and Paul in the second. The truncated story of Paul concluding Luke’s two-part narrative has been a puzzle. However, when we take into account that the open ending of a book was an invitation for the readers to continue the story in their own narrative, Luke is calling for
    the ministry of Jesus in his first volume, reflected in his followers in the second volume, to be taken up by readers in their own lives. I would like to think that we could be among those readers.

  2. Amos Yong Amos Yong says:

    Thanks Graham, for this book; for purposes of situating your arguments vis-à-vis the main lines of pentecostal-charismatic or renewal scholarship on Luke-Acts, can you comment on the existing discussion between Dunn, et al., emphasizing the Spirit’s role in initiation-conversion, & Menzies, et al., who highlight instead the empowerment-for-witness work of the Spirit? It seems as if you land on the latter side of the spectrum.

    Also, with regard to the discussion of the church as a old-new people of God in dis/continuity with ancient Israel, do you treat Max Turner’s and/or Matthias Wenk’s arguments regarding the church as the restoration of Israel? Where then do you find yourself in the broader debate among Lukan scholars on the relationship between Israel & the Church, or between the second Temple Judaism (the Jews) and Christianity, and how, if at all, do you respond to the fears of some that this restorationalist theme involves a tendency toward supersessionism?