Luke Timothy Johnson is R. W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and winner of the 2011 Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. In this short excerpt from his forthcoming book Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians, he explains why the church continually needs prophecy — and how the New Testament books of Luke and Acts, rightly understood, can supply a powerful prophetic vision for the church today.
The need for prophecy is stated succinctly by the book of Proverbs 29:18: “Without a vision (or, ‘without prophecy’), the people perish.” Prophets are the human beings who speak to their fellow humans from the perspective of God and, by so speaking, enable others to envision a way of being human more in conformity with God’s own vision for the world.
Humans chronically and desperately need prophetic visions. Without them the world runs all too smoothly on the basis of programs and politics formed exclusively by human reason — and human reason severed from God’s saving word tends to become simply a kind of cunning. Without prophetic challenge, the world quickly becomes structured along the lines of expediency and self-interest.
There probably has never been a time when at least some Christians did not long for the voice of prophecy that could challenge the usual assumptions and accustomed practices in the world (and in the church itself) and could jolt people into new insight and empower them with new energy. Our age is no exception. We need prophecy. The church today particularly needs to hear the voice of prophecy in order to carry out its own prophetic mission.
For prophets to arise, however, their imaginations also need to be shaped and energized. Prophets do not have magic access to God’s way of seeing and speaking. The sight and speech of prophets need to be formed — and have always been formed — by the words and deeds of earlier prophets. The ancient visions provide symbols that can be reinvigorated by new experiences of God in the world.
I have written this book precisely as an effort to stimulate such prophetic vision for the church today. My argument is straightforward and has three parts. First, when the New Testament composition commonly designated by scholars as Luke-Acts (the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles) is read as a literary unity, it reveals a prophetic vision of both Jesus and the church. Indeed, the church of Acts is, if anything, even more radically prophetic than Jesus in the Gospel. Second, as part of canonical Scripture, the voice and vision of Luke-Acts has a prophetic function for the church in every age. It does not simply report past events; it imagines a world that challenges the one that humans in every age construct on their own terms. Third, if we in the church today choose to heed Luke’s challenge, we shall need to think of the church in more explicitly prophetic terms and find ways of embodying and enacting God’s vision for humans.
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The first readers of Luke’s narrative would perhaps not have seen his story as a nostalgic recollection of a time past but rather as a summons to an ideal that might be in danger of being lost, not as a work of bland historiography but as a thrilling act of utopian imagination, less a neutral report on how things were than as a normative prescription for how things ought to be. Luke’s two-volume work, in short, may well itself have had a prophetic character for its earliest readers, who could see his depiction of Jesus’ ministry and the work of Jesus’ prophetic successors as a challenge to the present condition of the church in the late first century.
Whether or not Luke’s first readers heard his words as prophetic, present-day readers are both able and required so to read them. This is because Luke’s readers today read Luke-Acts as part of the canonical Scripture of the Christian church. The act of canonization bore with it the implication that the discrete writings from Christianity’s first days had a permanent normative value, that they are inspired by God, that they speak God’s word — that, in short, they are prophetic for every age of the church, challenging it and calling it into question. Such, at least, has been the conviction of Christians through the centuries who have these (and only these) compositions proclaimed to them in the liturgical assembly, accompanied by the declaration “this is the word of God.”
When Paul’s letters are read in worship, the church hears them as the stimulus to self-examination, both individually and communally. The congregation does not ask in such a setting whether Paul is accurately reporting the events in Galatia or Corinth, but rather how Paul’s response to his historical situation — as found in the specific rhetoric of his letters — might have significance for believers today. It does not matter whether the ancient Pauline churches in Galatia were harassed by Jewish missionaries or by status-seeking insiders; what matters is Paul’s teaching on the ultimacy of faith and love. It does not matter whether Corinthian believers were speaking in foreign languages or in speech like babble; what matters is Paul’s insistence that all expressions of the spirit serve to build up the assembly in faith. We can borrow Paul’s own words concerning ancient Israel’s story in Scripture: “these things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us” (1 Cor 10:11). Whatever the event of the past might have been, it is the actual scriptural story that instructs and warns. Paul states similarly in Romans 15:4: “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”
The same sort of reading applies to Luke-Acts when it is read by the believing community. Luke’s Jesus is not a simple reportage of the historical figure, but an imaginative construction — guided by the inspiring spirit and the faith of the community — of a prophet who announces and enacts God’s visitation of the people Israel. Luke’s depiction of the church may or may not be based on facts from the past; it also is an imaginative construction — guided by the inspiring spirit at work in the author’s words — of a prophetic community that extends that prophetic visitation to all the peoples of the world. The pertinent question for believing readers is not “Is Luke’s rendering of Jesus historically accurate?” but rather, “How does Luke’s imaginative construal challenge the values of the world?” The pertinent question is not “Was the early church as Luke describes it?” but rather, “How does Luke’s portrayal of the early church challenge the church in every age?”
My purpose in this book is to present the prophetic challenge in as sharp a fashion as possible for readers in the church today. I do this, not by imposing some extraneous framework on Luke’s literary endeavor, but by taking the literary dimensions of Luke’s text with utmost seriousness and teasing out what I regard as the legitimate implications to be drawn from his literary work. By no means do I suggest that Luke-Acts is the only witness to which the church should attend today. A genuine theological reading of the New Testament engages all of the canonical compositions in a complex conversation involving not only the diverse texts of Scripture but, as well, the continuing experience of the Holy Spirit in human lives, the use of reason shaped by the mind of Christ, and the traditions of the community communicated by liturgical and creedal forms as well as by the witness of the saints. The church’s reading of Luke’s prophetic witness should, by all means, be a dialectical one. My argument here, however, is that if Luke’s voice is not heard today and engaged in its prophetic fullness, then it may be that the actual voice of Luke-Acts is not being heard and engaged at all.