Thursday, November 12, 2009

Would Luke's Gospel be accepted by critics of the NPP if it were not already in the NT?

Here is a thought arising from my preparation of material for a seminar on Preaching Luke's Gospel ...

It is widely accepted by Lukan scholars that in neither Luke's Gospel nor its sequel is there an articulation of atonement as the reason for the death of Christ on the cross. Jesus dies on the cross because the Messiah must suffer in order for God's plan for humanity to be fulfilled, but not in order that atonement may be made for sins. Naturally this leads to much pondering: how can Luke, for whom Paul is clearly a hero, be so "un-Pauline" in his theology of the cross? Quickly one can arrive at answers such as, Luke (or, maybe 'Luke' because we may have mistaken as to who the actual author of Gospel and Acts was) wrote much later than we think; he was neither a companion of Paul nor a close reader of his writings. In my own reflection built into the material I presented I proposed that Luke's primary audience, Theophilus, a godfearing Gentile, like the centurions of Luke 7 and Acts 10, had no need for certainty about forgiveness of sins, but did have a need for certainty that Gentiles are included in the plan of God; hence omission of atonement, but not for reason of Luke being ignorant or unsympathetic to Paul's theology of the cross.

Here is my thought: given the stridency in the debate between the 'Old Perspective on Paul' and the 'New Perspective on Paul', might we realistically suppose that if Luke's writings had been lost before the New Testament was formed, but then discovered in the last decade, would we welcome its discovery or discard it? My hunch is that some in the debate (i.e. some Old Perspectivers) would discard it on the grounds that it falls short of the standard set in Romans 3-8.

But the fact is: we do have Luke's Gospel and Acts in the canon of the New Testament. Does that say anything to us about the range of views on the cross which are acceptable as orthodoxy grounded in Scripture?


  1. I wonder if those scholars who cannot find Lucan soteriology struggle to do so because of their coming to the text seeking a particular soteriological theory rather than allowing the text as God’s word to challenge their own preconceptions. I regularly find people unhappy with previous translations because it does not fit their soteriological theory and so re-translating the scriptures to make them say what they want them to say instead. I am also needing to be convinced that for Luke Paul is clearly the hero you suggest as the Lucan definition of apostleship excludes Paul for which that concept was so important.

  2. Hi Bosco
    I think there is a difference between not finding 'Lucan soteriology' (it is there) and not finding a particular aspect of soteriology (not all NT writers say the same things in each of their writings, so something is likely to be missing in one which is found in another).

    I agree that there is some ambiguous evidence as to whether Paul is a hero to Luke, but, in the end, I am persuaded that Luke did not need to devote such a long portion of Acts to Paul's missionary journeys, trials, and journey to Rome, in order to tell the story of the gospel's progress from Jerusalem to Rome. He did devote a lot of space to Paul and thus I conclude he was a Lukan hero!

  3. It is widely accepted by Lukan scholars that in neither Luke's Gospel nor its sequel is there an articulation of atonement as the reason for the death of Christ on the cross.
    Widely accepted?

    I'm surprised by the strength of this statement. It does not take long to see many explanations of the atonement in Luke. Even a brief thought brings the exchange with Barabbas to mind which is a not so veiled exposition of penal substitution.

  4. Hi David
    Difficulties scholars notice include (a) omitting Mark's Jesus saying that he is a 'ransom' (Mark 10:45); (b) the omission in speeches/sermons in Acts of reference to the cross as the means by which forgiveness of sins is secured. In short, when opportunity for explicit atonement theology is available it is not taken.

    The exchange with Barabbas may be a not so veiled exposition of penal substitution; or it may be quite veiled! It is also likely a part of Luke's apologetic strategy in respect of Christianity being a threat to the Roman empire.

  5. I imagine Luke composing in this kind of context - principally for a Roman audience, at a point where the Jewish origins of christanity are mildly embarrassing; with various Christian documents in front of him, including some of Paul's letters; however their interaction with the Jewish context is of reduced importance; with a declining interest in the imminence of the parousia and a greater interest in the worldwide mission of the church; with his own preference for a more enthusiastic and pneumatic form of Chrisitan faith. The consequence - a very strong implicit theology of the spirit, salvation as a key word, the theme of atonement downplayed