Thursday, March 20, 2008

Jesus' Death in Luke-Acts

Browsing the internet I came across this fascinating article by Richard Anderson on the view of Jesus' atonement in Luke-Acts. It's well worth reading in full, but for the lazy here's a short summary of some of what I felt were the important points:

1. Luke contains no statements that give any sort of 'theological' interpretation to the cross. Nor does Acts contain such statements except where it's quoting the speeches of Paul. (In Luke's gospel the sole interpretation of Jesus' death is that he was a martyr)

2. Luke-Acts heavily emphasizes the Jewish concept of repentance and forgiveness to an extent not found in the remainder of the New Testament. The Jews believed that a person who truly repented would be forgiven by God. The importance of repentance occurs regularly throughout Luke-Acts, and a primary function of Jesus' ministry is "to call sinners to repentance".

3. Luke omits all negative statements toward Sacrifices, Temple, and Dietary Laws from the preaching of Jesus. In Acts all such statements are placed in the mouths of certain followers of Jesus subsequent to Jesus' death. Luke's version of Jesus is acceptable to a person who is a Law-following Judean, and Anderson sees them as the intended audience.

4. Overall Luke-Acts is very careful in distinguishing between the theology of the writer and the theology of Paul in terms of what is said about Jesus' death, Sacrifices, the Temple, and Dietary Laws. (This would seem to raise the question, not dealt with by Anderson, of what Luke's own view of Paul's theology is, and how Luke is trying to portray Paul... it had never crossed my mind that Luke (or his audience) might not like Paul or Paul's theology!)


Blogger Richard H. Anderson said...


Since you took the time to read my article and comment on it in your blog, I thought I would thank you and let you know that I have been researching the basis of atonement theology from the point of view of the early Church Fathers to ascertain if possible why
the theology of the cross is missing from their teaching. For instance, Robert Kraft has stated: “There is no indication in the Didache that an initial repentance connected with the idea of personal sinfulness for which Jesus' death atones was considered basic to the Christian life.” Perhaps you have already found the answer.

More importantly, thank you for your comments which confirm my thinking that these ideas are important and need to be further developed.

Richard H. Anderson

Blogger Richard H. Anderson said...

I also studying a process that explains what happened. It is called theology in transition. Theology does change to meet new social conditions.

Blogger Andrew said...


The church fathers accept the forgiveness and repentance model. A person who sincerely repents is forgiven by God quite aside from any need for sacrifices, Christ's death etc. According to the church fathers, final judgment is according to a person's inner moral character, aka "good works". In such a theology there is no place for any substitutionary or sacrificial ideas of Jesus' atonement.

The early church fathers see Jesus primarily as a teacher of moral virtue. This concept appears universally as a primary way of seeing Jesus, and is the only way that the majority of writers in the pre-Nicene period understand Jesus. He is depicted as essentially a super-Prophet, every time they tell the 'story' of history from the creation of the world until now they speak of how God sent prophets to teach humanity to live righteously and then finally he sent his Son to do the same thing. They often depict Jesus' exemplary life as part of his teaching role. It is as Teacher and Example that Christ saves.

Obviously the concept of Christ as a teacher of moral virtue and godly living makes sense given their belief in a final judgment according to works. If judgment is by works, then anything that might catalyze obedience or induce repentance is extremely important.

Another complementary way of seeing Jesus which appears from time to time in a few fathers is to see Jesus as a martyr who died to found the church movement. They understand Jesus to have intentionally formed the church movement as a vehicle to propagate his teachings, and thus the fact that the authorities killed him because of his teachings and movement is understood as a martyrdom for the sake of founding that movement, and ultimately an act of selflessness aimed at benefiting those whose lives the church movement would subsequently change. In that sense, as Paul writes, Christ's death was 'for us' and to save us from sinfulness. Ignatius, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and Lactantius are the main early church writers who deal with this facet of Jesus' death.

I recommend you try and get a hold of a copy of The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology by Hastings Rashdall (1919) and have a read. It's an incredibly well written work that deals with both the N.T. and the early church fathers' understanding of Christ's atonement.

Blogger Anaru said...

I liked the sound of the article so much I followed the link and read the whole thing. I am glad you found it, it is quality stuff.

Blogger Jonathan L. Zecher said...

I just stumbled across your blog--fascinating stuff--and am intrigued by this conversation. If I may, I have both a comment and a question.

The comment first on Andrew's description of what one might call intellectualized soteriology, I would note that while it is possible to maintain a purely didactic interpretation of Clement of Alexandria, one cannot say the same for Origen, for Irenaeus, or, indeed, for Ignatius of Antioch.

Teaching as revelation of God constitutes a crucial aspect of Jesus' ministry precisely because his is the full revelation of God. Tied into this concept, however, is also a strong emphasis, which continues right into Athanasius and many of the 4th-Century fathers, of the recreation of the human being.

A theology of Jesus' death would be subsumed into one of two likely emphases: one on teaching and example, and one on re-creation and recapitulation. This is particularly evident in pre-Nicene fathers' uses of the 'kat eikona to Theou' as cipher for the whole of salvation. Within the concept of re-creation there is undoubtedly room for atonement and sacrifice--its place is simply relativized.

Second, the question: you refer to understandings of Jesus as 'martyr' for the purpose of founding a sect. Do you have anything specific in mind for this? I'm currently working on concepts of death in martyrdom in the pre-Nicene Church and so far am pretty ambivalent about how much the idea of 'martyr' was ascribed to Jesus. I would be extremely grateful if you have some specific citations I could check out.

Blogger guy fawkes said...

You are a Pelagian. I like your anti-Calvinism. But Pelagianism goes too far.


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