The Mission of the Triune God: A Theology of Acts. New Testament Theology, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Brian S. Rosner
Various exegetes assign different titles to the book of Acts. One’s theological predispositions are often discoverable in such minutiae. Does one emphasize the Church? The Holy Spirit? The risen Christ? These worthy contenders each play crucial roles—some, of course, more crucial—in the historical spread of the gospel which Luke documents in his second volume. However, to the extent that one increases, others frequently decrease. Patrick Schreiner has released a new volume which captures the main emphasis under which all others must cohere: the triune God. Schreiner succinctly captures his approach when he writes in the Preface, “Acts has a Trinitarian shape, and God has a mission to accomplish” (p. 16).
Schreiner approaches the theology of Acts by analyzing seven themes that follow what he calls “a Lukan logic” (p. 26). These themes are: “(1) God the Father orchestrates; (2) through Christ, who lives and rules; and (3) through the empowering Spirit; (4) causing the word to multiply; (5) bringing salvation to all; (6) forming the church; which (7) witnesses to the ends of the earth” (p. 26, italics original). These themes form the content and structure of the book. Though distinct, Schreiner demonstrates they form a logical sequence throughout the narrative. Thus, failure to maintain the logical coherence of any given theme with the others does not do justice to the whole message of Acts. On the other hand, keeping them together allows one to see the main message of Acts. “Acts,” Schreiner writes, “is about God, the God who continues his mission to glorify himself by blessing the nations through his chosen people” (p. 27).
The Mission of the Triune God is a work of theological retrieval. Schreiner intends to articulate the theology of Acts for the sake of renewal in the Church today. He describes Acts as “programmatic,” meaning that in every generation the Church ought to return to Acts to understand the mission of God and learn how to pursue that mission in the present age. He helpfully avoids the facile argument that the Church in every age must recreate the exact practices and occurrences of the early Church which Luke recorded. Acts is not a snapshot which must be recreated. It is the foundation upon which the Church builds and by which it receives encouragement to purse its purpose to proclaim, in word and deed, the message that Jesus saves and Jesus is Lord. “The church narrative and God’s mission continue. . . . A retrieval of the theology of Acts provides the groundwork for the rebirth of the modern church” (p. 149).
Schreiner’s emphasis on the Trinitarian structure and theology of Acts is a welcome contribution to the field. Rather than placing the emphasis first on the Church or one of the persons of the Trinity, he follows the order of theology: first the Triune God, then his works. In this Schreiner is merely adhering to historical creed of the Church. “We believe in one God, the Father . . . and in one Lord Jesus Christ . . . in the Holy Spirit . . . and the church.” Schreiner suggests, rightly so, that a reading of Acts which fails to account for the rich Trinitarian theology which undergirds it is not a Christian reading of Acts. He returns to this repeatedly. As an example, Schreiner draws attention to the Trinitarian shape of the final verse in Luke’s narrative. Paul remains under house arrest in Rome proclaiming the kingdom of God [the Father] and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ [the Son] with all boldness [by the power of the Spirit] (p. 83). Schreiner is not giving mere lip service to the recent surge in Trinitarian theology. The triune God and his work is the foundation upon which Schreiner develops the whole study. This volume, intended as it is for pastors and laypersons, bridges the gap between a scholarly emphasis on Trinitarian renewal and the lack thereof that often persists in evangelical churches.
Two other themes Schreiner selects aid the Church in discerning its task in the world. First, he insists that Luke’s view of salvation is multidimensional. Salvation entails a radical reversal for “body, soul, and social status” (p. 152). Where many churches, especially in the West, are prone to highlight either the spiritual or bodily aspects of salvation, Schreiner does well to remind readers that both are biblical emphases. Second, he argues that salvation entails “incorporation and participation in the Christocentric community of God’s people” (p. 96). God’s mission to draw people to himself receives its earthly expression in the local church. Yes, the gospel is for every individual. And the Spirit gathers believers into the local church which is the body of Christ. Missions, and renewal movements among established churches, should always emphasize the local church. In a world where pandemics lead to isolation and where technology enables people to “gather” virtually, Schreiner reminds the Church that it must not neglect meeting together but should prioritize active involvement in a local body to remain faithful to God in the present age.
No one volume is perfect. In chapter 2, Schreiner works through the Christology of Acts. He approaches the topic in the order of Jesus’s resurrection, ascension, and then the cross. Based on his own assertion that theology in Luke-Acts follows the narrative flow, it would have been far more natural to follow the order of the passion events rather than placing the cross last. This is also the shape of the Christian experience. The Christian endures a cross now in the hope of bodily resurrection and rule with the Son. Schreiner also strongly emphasizes the work of the word in Acts. He argues that “the word becomes a divine character” in Acts (p. 152). Though true in a sense, this characterization has potential to be misunderstood. Schreiner describes the word as a divine agent. He does nuance this by explaining its Trinitarian shape (pp. 82–84), but it would be better to characterize the word as a divine instrument. It is the Triune God who causes the Church to grow, not the word. The spoken word of the gospel is his chosen instrument through which the message of reconciliation goes forth and the lost are saved.
Schreiner’s volume is part of a planned twenty volume series from Crossway. At the time of writing this review, two have been published and three more are set to release in late 2022 and early 2023. This volume, as with others in the series, is intentionally thematic. Schreiner intends to help his readers grasp the broad contours of Luke’s narrative of the early Church. Readers looking for detailed and nuanced explanations of exegesis will need to find those in the plenitude of commentaries that exist on Acts. Schreiner helpfully gives several suggested titles for those wishing to pursue this. However, the careful manner in which Schreiner articulates the coherency of the themes he selected provides useful guardrails within which pastors or laypersons may conduct more precise studies. Furthermore, he provides careful rebuttals of tropes and trends that churches tend to perpetuate. This alone makes his volume worthwhile. If Schreiner’s contribution accurately portrays the quality of the rest of the series, these forthcoming volumes will find a place on this writer’s shelves and also should be found on the reader’s.