Schreiner and Acts 15

Apostle-Paul-PreachesThe so-called apostolic decree is described by Luke in Acts 15. The leaders of the churches from Jerusalem and Antioch met in Jerusalem to determine whether circumcision would be mandatory for Gentiles who believed Jesus was the Messiah. As we saw…they decided that circumcision was not necessary. But James recommended that the Gentiles follow four other prescriptions, and these laws often are called the apostolic decree.

Why are these requirements added after the church has agreed that Gentiles are free from the requirement of circumcision? Does the law come in the back door after it has been shut out the front door? And what do these requirements mean?

-Thomas Schreiner
“Question 31: What Is the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15 and What Does It Contribute to Luke’s Theology of Law?” pg 181
40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law

I hadn’t intended to write anymore about my impressions of this book. I didn’t think Schreiner had anything more to say to me that I hadn’t read in earlier parts of his work. He is just restating the same point of view and applying it to different parts of the Bible. In reading Schreiner, he seems almost like the poster child for Biblical eisegesis, reading his theology into the text rather than, by exegesis, developing his belief systems from out of the text.

But Acts 15 is near and dear to my heart, so I thought I’d present my impressions of Schreiner and how he perceives the four apostolic decrees.

Even in the above-quoted opening passages, we see that Schreiner continues to link circumcision and any behavioral expectations for Gentile believers as a direct requirement for non-Jewish disciples to respond to “the law.” But he misses that “circumcision” is shorthand for “conversion to Judaism,” so what we see is that James and the Apostolic Council did not require that Gentiles convert to Judaism and take on board the full yoke of Torah in order to have a covenant connection to God and join the community of the Way.

In Acts 15:1, the question was, “Do Gentiles need to convert to Judaism and observe Torah in order to be saved?” However, salvation, from a Jewish perspective, while it can be individual, is understood as corporate. The expectation of the Messiah is that he would “save” Israel nationally and corporately, by returning the exiled Jews to their Land, establishing peace and security for national Israel, including removing all military threats (which at that time meant removing Roman occupation from Israel), and placing Israel at the head of all nations, with Messiah as King.

In order to be “saved,” would Gentile disciples have to join Israel nationally by converting to Judaism? This, of course, would be in addition to being saved from their sins and meriting a place in the world to come.

The Council’s decision was “no,” which should please Schreiner, since they are saying that one does not have to be obligated to Torah obedience in order to have personal salvation. Corporate salvation is another story, but I’d interpret that as Messiah establishing peace for all countries on Earth, hence, we are “saved” by the provision of peace among the nations as well as in Israel.

But Schreiner still doesn’t get why Gentile believers should have any behavioral requirements at all. That just seems too much like “the law” and any “law” should only be applied to the circumcised. Really?

Schreiner goes on to say:

…but this should not be interpreted as if there are not moral requirements for believers. Gentiles would misinterpret freedom from the law if they thought they were free to worship idols, murder their neighbors, commit sexual sin, and mistreat others.

D.T. LancasterOK, so we do have behavioral expectations and they don’t have to function like “the law” as such. But if Schreiner objects to the four decrees of the apostles, then where are these “moral requirements” supposed to come from? Schreiner doesn’t answer the question in this chapter, but based on other portions of his book, I gather that in our communion with the Holy Spirit, we would be guided in all things, including righteous behavior as Christians. The “law” is written on our hearts. So, why the decrees, then? Schreiner examines different perspectives including one of which I’m familiar:

Richard Bauckham proposes an even more specific interpretation, finding the key in the phrase “in your/their midst” in Leviticus 17:8, 10, 12, 13, and 18:26. According to Bauckham, these commands, which are based on Leviticus 17-18, were required of Gentiles who lived in the midst of Israel. The commands, then, do not represent a pragmatic compromise to facilitate fellowship between Jews and Gentiles according to Bauckham. On the contrary, these commands were required of Gentiles who lived in the midst of Israel

-Schreiner, pp 182-3

I wrote a commentary of this viewpoint as it was presented by D. Thomas Lancaster in Torah Club, Volume 6, Chronicles of the Apostles. Schreiner, of course, disagrees with Bauckham and thus Lancaster, but then goes on to say something I consider rather amazing.

One of the problems with Bauckham’s solution relates to Paul. According to Acts, Paul was at the apostolic council and accepted the apostolic decree. Bauckham thinks that Paul later changed his mind and ended up rejecting the council’s decrees.

-ibid, pg 183

What? When did Paul do this? It’s not in Acts 15 and it would have been illogical for Paul to accept the limitations of the decree upon himself as a Jew. The decree was issued as a solution to how Gentiles could be allowed to enter a Jewish religious space as equal members and with a covenant connection to God. The Council decided that Gentiles would not be required to convert to Judaism and take upon themselves the full yoke of Torah (my Return to Jerusalem series goes into all of the details). The Council’s decision was incumbent upon only the Gentiles in the Way.

Paul was Jewish, so the Council’s decision had nothing to do with him personally, nor any other Jewish disciple of the Jewish Messiah. I have no idea how Bauckham (or Schreiner) could think otherwise. It doesn’t make sense.

fracturedSchreiner’s final conclusion is that the apostolic decree was put in place to smooth over the relationship between Gentiles and Jews and that obedience to the decrees was not a Gentile requirement for salvation. Schreiner reads Acts 15:21 not as an indication that Gentiles should “learn Torah” in order to better understand the teachings of Jesus (which are all based on a close understanding of Torah) but in order to learn “Jewish sensibilities” and to become “acquainted with customs that bothered Jews.”

I agree that obeying the apostolic decree or for that matter, any or all of the Torah mitzvot does not provide personal salvation apart from faith in God through Moshiach, but not only does Schreiner completely misunderstand the purpose of the decree (which can be unpacked and understood as a much more in-depth compilation of behavioral requirements), but he clearly doesn’t comprehend that the decree was not designed to impact Jewish obedience to God.

Schreiner’s understanding of Acts 15 is firmly rooted in his dismissal of all of the covenant connections of the Jewish people and Israel with God and his replacement of the Torah as the God-given method of Jewish obedience to God with the law-free Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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16 thoughts on “Schreiner and Acts 15”

  1. The problem Schreiner runs into over and over again (and this also goes for New Covenant Theology in general) is the problem of anachronism. You cannot on the one hand suggest that God’s Law has been done away with, and on the other hand suggest that this somehow leaves moral requirements (found in the New Testament) for believers to follow — Jew or gentile. There was no New Testament in the first century! What “moral requirements” did that then leave Jewish and non-Jewish believers to follow?

    How does a PhD recipient from Fuller Theological seminary miss this?

  2. How does a PhD recipient from Fuller Theological seminary miss this?

    Theological blinders. If you only look at the world through a certain lens that allows certain kinds of light and blocks other kinds, you’ll have a limited perspective, no matter how smart or how well educated you are.

    If Dr. Schreiner were to set his theology to one side temporarily, and read the Bible (in order to completely revise his viewpoint, he’d need to take on the entire document, not just a few books here and there) as objectively as he could (keeping in mind that no person is ever completely objective), then he might be able to experience a paradigm shift, or at least that “uh-oh” feeling you get when you truly realize it’s possible for you to be wrong about something very important.

    I’m not saying I’ve got everything right, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but in reading this book, it’s as if Schreiner doesn’t even entertain the possibility that other theologians might have a point.

  3. All this replacement theology and the Law passing away but still leaving behind some “moral” or “ethic” requirements is very popular. Lokk at John Piper or John MacArthur, very popular in Christianity and the world but very false theology that is totally embraced by Christians

  4. Both of them have some very heretical interpretations of Acts 10 and Acts 15. I own John MacArthur’s Bible Commentary and it was certainly a waste of $40. Tim Keller is another Replacement theolgian and is full of much false theology. He stated once that those who observe the Sabbath and eat a Kosher diet deny the “Power of Christ”

  5. I understand what you’re saying Iona, but I don’t want to advocate throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not a scholar or a theologian, but every time I talk about the Bible on my blog, I could be accused of being a commentator (and thus, risk my life if I take this commentator seriously).

    I’m not discounting all Biblical scholarship as worthless. While the Bible can operate on a very simple level, it also has incredible depths of meaning and understanding that the average individual might not be able to get to, especially reading the text in our native (non-Biblical) language. Bible scholarship has given us some wonderful insights into dimensions of the Bible that most people might never have access to.

    The ancient Roman Catholic church controlled the Bible by having it written in Latin and never allowing the laity access (and in ancient days, most people weren’t literate anyway). Now anyone can go to a bookstore and buy a Bible, and if they can’t afford one, most churches will arrange for them to get a copy. Modern Biblical scholars do copious research and make their conclusions known publicly for other scholars and the average believer to examine.

    I’ve never know what Dr. Schreiner thought about a good many things unless he published his findings. I can, like a good “Berean,” read what he’s written, compare it to the Bible, and respond with my agreement or my complaint. Bible scholars aren’t automatically bad and they actually perform a service, but in the end, we are not ruled by their conclusions and we are free to reasonably disagree (that is, disagree with a reason, not just because our feathers are ruffled).

    This is how learning occurs, by discussion and if necessary, civil disagreement and debate (as opposed to the rude name calling and badmouthing that sometimes happens on the Internet).

    There are time when it is just me and the Bible and I find both peace and illumination in its pages. But if learning with others and from others were a bad thing, then why to we listen to sermons and go to Bible study classes?

  6. Hi Christopher,

    I’m somewhat familiar with Piper and I’ve commented on MacArthur before (he’s a popular theologian at the church I attend). Certainly, I have points of disagreement with both of these gentlemen (as I do Schreiner), but I want to be clear that disagreement doesn’t mean personalizing conflict. I’ve never met these guys and if I did, we might have some things in common and actually enjoy each other’s company (or not, but who knows?).

    In the realm of Biblical debate, we can certainly find places where we don’t see eye to eye, but we are all disciples of the Messiah and children of God. I’m not interesting in waging a “religious war,” but I am interested in having a voice. The Internet and blogging software makes that very easy, maybe too easy for some.

    I’ll probably never be a “normal” Christian, but I strive to be a better disciple with each passing day. Iona was right in that the most important things about the Bible are really simple. Do good to others. Help out those who are less fortunate than you. Try to be a bit of joy to the lonely, the ill, and the grieving. For in doing good to the least of these, you have done so to Messiah the King.

  7. “I gather that in our communion with the Holy Spirit, we would be guided in all things, including righteous behavior as Christians”

    This Is a popular notion, but if it were true, the divorce rate would’nt be the same in the Christian community as it is in the greater population. If it were true, there wouldn’t be any Christians committing egregious sins such as gossip and slander, or horrendous crimes like spousal and child abuse. Indeed, our prisons would be empty and the world would be in much better shape than it is today. Millions of Christians worldwide, led by the Holy Spirit within, would have resisted Hitler, laid on the tracks if need be, and avoided the black blot upon us all.

    Sorry, can you tell I don’t buy that popular little concept? (I’m sure you dont either)

    The Bible says we are quite capable of being deceived, and of deceiving ourselves. That is all too evident in my own life, and I don’t think others are any different.

    Thank GOD there are many who see the utter stupidity of his theology (not blasting him, just his traditional viewpoint) and how it makes NO sense at all. In fact I beleive that it is this idiotic “understanding” that has created a huge population of Christians who think nothing is required of them, and therefore the world is NOT in better shape. Many just honest-to-God don’t know any better.

  8. I agree with you James. Maybe I sounded a little militabnt. I guess I would say I agree with your point we are brothers but i certainly do disagree with some of their theology.

  9. In response to your words about commentary, I don’t think all commentary is bad. I have a friend who is completely opposed to all “tradition” and all “commentary.” But himself takes part in Christmas and Easter (Nothing but tradition). I believe a lot of commentary is good. Jesus quoted from the Rabbinic Traditions many times. But He was also opposed to some. But for example John MacArthur’s commentary has some falacies in it while some of it contains good doctrine.But I certainly do disagree with the doctrines that condemn the entire sect of the Pharisees.The Greek of Matthew 23 is not condemning the entire sect, but the ones in the sect that are hypocrites. Jesus himelf was probably a Pharisee himself, and if he wasn’t his theology was more closely aligned witht he Pharisees than any other religious group then or now.

  10. I get what you’re saying, Ruth. I think it’s called “greasy grace” or something like that. The flip side to that though is that churches do have “rules.” We know they’re present when one or more of them are “triggered” and people in the church respond. In conservative churches, homosexuality is one of those triggers. Sometimes divorce is a trigger in a church. However, they aren’t always predictable unless you’ve been at a particular church for a long time and know the undercurrents flowing in the congregation that contain the “Dos” and “Don’ts”.

    Does all that sound cynical? I hope not. I think people discover the official rules of a church when they pursue membership. Then we see the congregation’s “Torah” or “law”. On the one hand, Christians are programmed to be fearful of any attempt to earn salvation by works, so what they do isn’t always emphasized. On the other hand, churches definitely do have behavioral expectations, but because of being “law-phobic,” they have to call those expectations something else.

    The incredible irony is that the really good churches do much of the weightier matters of the law (usually involving charity, visiting the sick, helping poor people, and so forth). They just don’t realize it.

    No worries, Christopher. Obviously, I disagree with the majority of what Dr. Schreiner wrote in this book, so I’m not against freedom of speech. But Messiah called us to be a body and not a dismembered one, so we have to be careful how much “passion” we put into these debates.

  11. “On the one hand, Christians are programmed to be fearful of any attempt to earn salvation by works, so what they do isn’t always emphasized. On the other hand, churches definitely do have behavioral expectations, but because of being “law-phobic,” they have to call those expectations something else.”

    Exactly, and because Torah is poorly understood (including the appropriate Gentile relationship to it), they’re (mostly) left knowing they can’t do just “anything”, but it is unclear to many what the parameters are (especially in this crazy world where all traditional values are being thrown out the window).

    (BTW, I love the term “greasy grace.” 😉

    When one attends a church that claims to be Bible based, Sola Scriptura, and against the “traditions of men”, it is then a bit schizophrenic to have the church decide what is and isn’t acceptable Christian behavior i.e. divorce, sexual behavior etc. The giant hole in the theological framework is really beginning to show and the Church, like our culture, is in decline. However, I agree with you that many Christian people do indeed keep much of the Torah without knowing it.

  12. I agree Christopher, that no believer really operates without a certain amount of tradition in his/her practice and a certain amount of commentary and interpretation in their understanding of the Bible. I also think there are Christians who believe they don’t use those concepts, but as you said, a quick examination of their relationship to certain holidays and doctrines will unveil the reality.

    The giant hole in the theological framework is really beginning to show and the Church, like our culture, is in decline. However, I agree with you that many Christian people do indeed keep much of the Torah without knowing it.

    To be fair Ruth, we all have our blind spots. Obviously, it’s easy for us to see the “faults” in others, but we must also be aware that we have “faults” others can see in us. No one is entirely transparent about themselves, which is why maintaining a dialog with others can be helpful. If we can at least be honest about listening to other opinions, we might learn a few things as well as teach a few things.

  13. I suppose I ought to chime in here with a brief observation that Christian “law-free” traditions often view the Torah as having been replaced with something termed the “Law of Christ” (cif:1Cor.9:21) that was generally presumed to be an outgrowth of a few Torah commandments Rav Yeshua cited explicitly, such as honoring father and mother in Matt.19:19, loving G-d and loving one’s neighbor as oneself in Matt.22:37-40 and other places, and a supposedly “new” command for his disciples to love one another as Rav Yeshua had loved them (John 13:34). There were, of course, additional citations such as against adultery, and in general the “Ten Commandments” were somehow deemed more or less binding (though the Sabbath seemed to get lost along the way; or at least misplaced). It is these general categories and foundational commandments from Torah that constituted a miniature of the Torah and kept Christian societies from complete anarchy; and early non-Jewish Church Fathers invented numerous rules that set the tone for later rule-making even among the remotest break-away sects. Of course, the Puritans in England and America had rule-making traditions that were passed along to numerous later American denominations. And there was the Enlightenment tradition of so-called “natural law” that informed not only the writers of the foundational American documents but also their religious counterparts. Thus we see both the influence of Torah and its distortion in Christian societies, which were never really “law-free” despite their theological aversion to supposed “Jewish legalism”.

  14. No group is ever “law-free” unless they’re anarchists, so for Christianity across history, it was never really about being free of the law but rather separate from Judaism.

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