March 16, 2010

Stephen's Real Bias

The speech in Acts 7 is not anti-Jewish. It's anti-institutional.

The words Luke claims for Stephen are pro-Abraham, Isaac & Jacob, pro-Joseph, and pro-Moses. Aaron gets blamed for the gold calf, and the people of Israel are blasted for their historic idolatry, but Joshua and David are clearly on God's side of things. In other words, Stephen was no more anti-Jewish than the Hebrew Bible itself!

It's when Stephen gets to Solomon that things change abruptly. Suddenly, the contrast is evident. It's not Judaic roots, tradition or laws that get blasted here. It's the Temple itself that gets equated with idolatry. (I caught Dunn pointing this out recently - compare 7:41 & 7:48, "made with hands".)

Luke's agenda in Acts 7 is to show that God works outside Israel. The God of the Patriarchs was not bound to Mount Zion. It's been said that we might not have noticed this theme of Stephen's speech without Luke's surrounding agenda - but I think that's because "we" western Christians (and Jews) have been overwhelmingly steeped in our heavily institutionalized faith traditions.

But let me be personally clear. People know my views about this. Institutions are relative. We can institute something today and then change it next week, month or year. But Institutionalism is an attitude that says, "Let's establish a system to safeguard our ways for all time." God showed Moses his House as a Tent. Solomon made it a stone box that stood in one spot for a millennium. That is quite a large difference.

In my humble opinion, Stephen's (and Luke's) bias was not against Judaism, but against human-controlled religion, and against those who put boundaries on Christ-centered spirituality. Like, for example, literally putting God in a Box.

This should also make us wonder how Stephen really felt about Peter and Solomon's Porch... but that may be going a bit too far for today. I don't want to get stoned! ;-)


Peter Kirk said...

Fascinating! Dare I take it a step or two further: Stephen would actually have welcomed the scattering of the believers which happened after his death. Perhaps since 5:40-42 there had been an uneasy stand-off with the church left alone as long as it kept a reasonably low profile. But the radical Stephen didn't appreciate this. So he deliberately stirred things up again. He might not have intended his own death but perhaps he did intend to break down the cosy new relationship with the authorities. Speculation of course. But is that where you are going with this?

T.C. R said...

My friend, I'm not going to stone you. I also concur with Peter: Fascinating!

Peter you're right. A sort of divine dec-centralization is taking place, though in the most usual way - persecution.

Looking forward to more discussions...

Bill Heroman said...

Peter, I think the historical Stephen was groping about for some way forward. Failing to find it, he simply erupted. God did the rest.

I'm going to spend some more time on Acts 1-11 in the near future, and you guys should enjoy thinking along with me on those posts.

Thanks for the encouragement.

Bill Heroman said...

TC - when you say, "IS"... I can't help wondering which century you're referring to. ;-)

T.C. Robinson said...

Bill, yes, your name IS indeed "Bill." ;-)

Ist century.

Well, I do see a movement from Acts 1-11.

Do you subscribe to a ecclesial inclusion as a controlling motif in the Acts-narrative?

Bill Heroman said...

I subscribed to Spider-Man once, as a kid. What's "ecclesial inclusion"?

I do see Luke's motives as inclusive, not exclusive. Of course.

I also suspect Luke's friends in Caesarea shared opinions of a Petrine church, from the early days, that had been fairly exclusive. Stay tuned...

Charles Savelle said...

I would agree with your anti-institutional point, but qualify it in the sense that in the speech it is God who has changed the institution as it were. The problem implied by Stephen's speech is not so much that institutions are bad, or even that institutionalism in general is bad, but rather that Israel at times failed to recognize that God was doing something different (or changing the institution as it were). Stephen is building up the point that his accusers so tightly held to their institutions that they failed to recognize and accept the Messiah Jesus.

How you apply Stephen's speech relates in part on whether you see the primary function to be descriptive or prescriptive. For me, I think it is more of the former than the latter.

Bill Heroman said...

Charles, I think we agree on everything you said in your first paragraph. When you really boil it down, Stephen's not "anti" anything, so much as he's "pro" getting with God's freshest moving.

It's your 2nd Paragraph that has me a bit confused.

If the point of Stephen's speech is that human beings should hold institutions loosely enough that we might not miss God when He's wanting to change them...

Then how can that not be inherently prescriptive?

brian said...

i agree its a rant against institutionalism.

Charles Savelle said...


You state:

If the point of Stephen's speech is that human beings should hold institutions loosely enough that we might not miss God when He's wanting to change them...

Then how can that not be inherently prescriptive?

What is the passage in question teaching? Or in other words, did Luke include this speech in order to teach us that change is a good thing. I personally don't think so. This is why applying narrative passages are more of a challenge than for example commands. Can this story teach us something about change, perhaps, but only at a principle level. But principle is not the same as prescription and needs greater care in application.

Furthermore, there are two additional problems here with applying the principle. Principles are best applied when you have similar circumstances. And here we have a problem. First, there is the finality in the Christ-event (e.g., Heb 1:1-3). We ought not be looking for any new messiahs for example. Stephen took his audience to task not so much for embracing Judaism but for rejecting Jesus. In that sense there is not much to apply concerning institutionalism, unless it keeps you from Jesus. The second problem is that in Stephen's examples God was clearly working. How do we discern that today? How do we know that God wants you to abandon or change an institution?

Bill Heroman said...

Thanks for returning to this one, Charles. I think you and I agree on the main point in general, and I also agree with you that the particular application is somewhat difficult to put into practice effectively.

One thing I do know, however, is that spiritual discernment is NOT merely a matter of principled application.

(That last statement is a tangent, not a direct response to anything you've said.)

Again, I think we agree. HOW do we know when the Lord is wanting to move? Aye, there's the rub.

Bill Heroman said...

I should also add this - I've never been a proponent of change for change's sake. That's absurd. Besides, human beings always tend to do better with some degree of stability. What I strongly dislike, however, is when authority figures clamp out all possibility of change. That, imho, is what Stephen had been butting up against.

Thanks again for the continued dialogue...

T.C. Robinson said...


By "ecclesial inclusion" I'm referring to the inclusion of the Gentiles with the Jews in the renewed people of God.

Bill Heroman said...

Yes, I think Luke's promoting that.

I just don't think Peter was much in favor, at all, practically speaking, before Acts 10.

T.C. Robinson said...


As you know, revelation was progressive. Peter announced "the all flesh" on Peter (Acts 2), but it actually took Acts 10 for him to understand the full meaning of "all flesh," that is, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the New Humanity, the church.

Besides, Peter still had that Jewish nationalism going, to some extent (Sanders' Covenantal Nomism).

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