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States of Grace : ACTS: A Writer's Reflections on the Church, Writing, and His Own Life, By Larry Woiwode (HarperSanFrancisco: $17; 244 pp.)

July 11, 1993|Ron Hansen | Hansen's most recent novel is "Mariette in Ecstasy."

Ever since Christianity was simply called the Way, the Church has struggled to fully integrate its founder's teachings into its religious life. Questions of factionalism, rites and practices, community membership, and the function of charity and other gifts of the Spirit, seem to be brought up by each generation, but the besetting problem has always been how to be a good citizen in the world without being adversely changed by it.

To answer just such questions, Luke, a Syrian physician from Antioch, wrote the fifth book of the New Testament, Acts of the Apostles, in the late 1st Century. And now, to further examine the challenges society poses to Christians seeking to build a City of God, Larry Woiwode has given us a highly personal commentary on Acts.

In the first chapter of Acts, just before his ascension from Mount Olive, Jesus tells his apostles, "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit as come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." The book of Acts follows Christ's chosen representatives from 30 to 62 AD as they preach the good news of salvation in the farthest parts of the Roman empire.

Peter was first among those apostles, a spokesman for the Christian community and, like Jesus in the Gospels, a miracle worker. But halfway through Acts, his primacy gives way to Paul, formerly a Pharisee and a fierce persecutor of the Jewish Christians, whose own stunning encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus caused him to undertake missionary journeys--first to the Jews of the Diaspora, then to the Gentiles throughout Asia Minor--until he was finally placed under house arrest in Rome. There, however, he continued "welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered."

Events in Paul's half of the narrative allowed Luke to focus on the shift away from Judaism and a firm adherence to the Mosaic law, to picture Christians as they ought to be in their communities and to formulate a theology of God's offer of salvation not just to Israel but to all humanity.

"Ours is the exact cultural agenda and atmosphere that Paul faces in Acts," Woiwode says, identifying a state when to be seriously Christian is to be considered a religious fanatic, and when fifth-column tactics seem increasingly necessary. Woiwode finds such importance to the present-day church in Luke's book that he has provided a fundamentalist interpretation of Acts that functions as a kind of evangelism for beginning readers of Scripture. A former actor and English professor, and one of our foremost prose realists whose novels include "What I'm Going to Do, I Think" and "Indian Affairs," Woiwode is a disciple of the Paul in Acts who says he worships "the God of our fathers, believing all things that are written in the law and in the Prophets."

Accordingly, Woiwode ignores a good deal of contemporary biblical scholarship here, feeling that higher criticism too often loses the essential message of Scripture while it promotes a "disputatious focus on detail." His perspectives are based instead on the 16th-Century commentaries of John Calvin, "The Westminster Shorter Catechism" of G. I. Williamson and the studies of the late J. Gresham Machen, a former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and a founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to which Woiwode and his family belong.

Critical scholarship generally considers Luke a highly talented Hellenistic literary craftsman, not a historian, but Woiwode prefers a far more literal reading. Comparing our concept of writerly inspiration with the original, Greek sense of the word--God-breathed--Woiwode says: "Something of this sort surely happened to Luke . . . when he wrote Acts. I suspect that as he walked the roads of the Fertile Crescent, thinking through these events he wished to put into an orderly account, whole pages like assembled jewelry appeared in his mind, staggering him."

And later he writes: "Certainly the authors of Scripture were flawed with sin like everybody, but when they spoke or wrote as they were moved by the Spirit, their flaws were overwritten by God. If you begin to try to pick out verses you feel are tainted . . . the tendency is to make an idol of your ability to discern where Paul or Luke went wide--of what mark? Yours. Then you will suggest the possible errors mere copyists may have made in transmitting Scripture, whether accidental or purposeful, and what about that? Or you will mention debate racking the church over its inability to settle the matter of the canon within itself."

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