The 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?
“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.
OK, 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.
Schreiner’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.