Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hermeneutical Philosophies for Interpreting Narrative Literature Part 5 - Early Readers Perception

Early Readers Perception

Another objective standard by which we can interpret the Lucan narrative is by reading how the initial readers understood his message. This is called early readers perception. While this does not provide an objective standard, if we can show that the readers of antiquity universally adopted a certain principle of hermeneutics, it makes any variation extremely unlikely. These witnesses were closer to the original recipients of the letters and thus more able to distinguish nuances, customs, and culture more readily than modern readers. This does not necessarily indicate a proper understanding of tongues, but a more relevant understanding of the cultural phenomenon (Kraeger 2010, 46). Many of the apostolic fathers were mere decades removed from those who wrote the scriptures, and established the paradigms we are trying to verify. The church fathers were also the result of the paradigms the gospel writers were establishing; hence their doctrine is likely the result of normative behavior on the part of the first generation church. A brief review of the early church's doctrine shows that they believed the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit to be normative and the baptism of the Holy Spirit to be a post-conversion experience. If the first Christians experienced the miraculous as methodological and normative it strongly suggests the Gospel writers intended it as such.


The miracles discussed by the early church were not symbolic or representative but used as a sign to establish divine approval. Some theologians view the miracles as ceremonial, and rather marking dispensation in God's approach. F.F. Bruce suggests that the speaking of tongues on Pentecost was ceremonial rather than practical. Tongues were not designed as a method of bridging the language gaps between Christians and foreigners, but as a one-time declaration in preparation for the worldwide proclamation of the gospel (Bruce 1955, 53). This conflicts sharply with scant
references to the miraculous amongst the early church. Irenaeus says “many brethren in the church” speak in tongues. Irenaeus does not use the term speaking in tongues, but rather “through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages” (Schaff 2001, 892). These gifts are not equated with evangelism, gentile or otherwise, but the edification of the church. For Ireneaus, the gifts had a purpose that extended past the apostolic age. Other authors, such as Hippolytus, explicitly state that miracles should follow, such as: exorcisms, tongues, serpent handling, and healings. The fathers indicate that the tongues-gift also served an important evangelistic purpose (Busenitz 2006, 66). So fundamental was this practice, that Tertullian speaks of groups who mimic the Christian practice of using miracles to evangelize for their heresy (Reid 1987, 385). In relation to miracles, the early church firmly believed that the gifts of the Spirit were used to practically accomplish the work of evangelism. This is a result of a normative understanding of the Lucan narrative, which many directly quote.


As shown above, the original readers of the Lucan texts interpreted the miraculous as normative, and used these miracles as a practical tool of evangelism. Yet this view is not shared by all; Bruce believes events, such as Pentecost, were not practical, but rather God showing His pleasure with the gentile introduction into God's fold (Bruce 24, 1990), whereas Menzies concludes Luke and Acts consistently portray the gift of the Spirit as a prophetic endowment which enables its recipient to fulfill a divinely ordained task (Menzies 1994, 273). The latter is the view that dominated in earliest Christianity and is best preserved in Luke-Acts (Turner 148, 2003). Miracles are multipurpose in nature but the advantage that elucidates our area of interest is to display the approval of God. Miracles are a violation of the natural laws. When a task that only God can undertake is completed in unison with a human it testifies that the human enjoys divine approval. Miracles were used to prove the Gospel as the ultimate apologetic (Ruthven 2008, 18). The early church recognized and utilized this form of apologetics so successfully heretical groups mimicked it.

Miracles hold that same capacity for a testimony of divine approval today as they held then. On this point Dunn disagrees; Dunn claims Jesus never used miracles to prove the uniqueness of His identity. Dunn believes that the apologist is faced with the dilemma of differentiating the miraculous claims of Christ with that of the pagan (Dunn 1975, 74). It is apparent that Dunn misses the apologetic nature of miracles and their contemporary use. Firstly because Jesus does, in fact, use miracles to prove His unique identity. When John the Baptist appealed for Christ to emphatically confirm His unique identity as Messiah Jesus did not use self-affirming claims but depended entirely on a testimony of miracles (Matt 11:4-5). Jesus and His followers repeatedly appealed to the use of miracles to confirm divine approval (John 10:25, 38, 14:11-12, 1 Cor 15:2-8). The Book of Acts constantly speaks of miracles in conjunction with evangelism (Acts 5:12-16, 13:9-12, 16:25-34). By the principle of repetition we can easily establish that miracles can and were used as a method of apologetics by several biblical authors and that Jesus used miracles to establish His uniqueness.

 The early church adopted the approach of using miracles as a form of evangelism. Dunn rejects the normative use of miracles, thus would also doubt their apologetical advantage. Where Dunn fails in equating the miraculous claimants of Christians versus the pagan claimants is that generally the pagan is just that, a claimant. In Dunn's view the miraculous is not a persistent theme of the Christian experience, so all we have is what the pagan has, ancient stories of supernatural, and our apologetic abilities remain the same. But this hypothesis is only valid if miracles have ended. Yet there is nothing within scriptures to suggest that is the case. In fact using the interpreting principles of the principle of repetition and early reader perception we can safely say that Luke intended holy phenomena to follow the Christian experience. Thus miracles can still be used with the apologetic flair adopted by Jesus, the apostles, and the early church.  

God Love You -- Rev. Sheen

Part 6 - Baptism in the Holy Spirit


Kraeger, Shane M., Toward a Mediating Understanding of Tongues: A Historical and Exegetical Examination of Early Literature, Eleutheria: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 5., 2010.

Bruce, F.F., Luke's Presentation of the Spirit in Acts, Criswell Theological Review, Buxton, Derbyshire, 1990.

Schaff, Philip, Ed. Rev. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001.

Busenitz, Nathan, The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism, TMSJ, 17/1, Spring, 2006.

Reid, Patrick, Readings in Western Religious Thought: The ancient world, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ, 1987.

Bruce, F.F., Luke's Presentation of the Spirit in Acts, Criswell Theological Review, Buxton, Derbyshire, 1990.

Menzies, Robert Paul, Empowered for Witness: The Spirit in Acts, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, UK, 1994.

Turner, Max, The Work of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts, Word & World, Volume 23, Number 2, Spring 2003.

Ruthven, Jon Mark, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Post-Biblical Miracles, Word & Spirit Press, Tulsa, OK, 2011.

Dunn, James D. G., Jesus and the Spirit, A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1975.

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