Luke the historian-theologian

Throughout church history, Luke’s second volume Acts has been considered a work belonging to the historical genre, one that intends to represent accurately the events of the first century church. Luke himself, both in his Gospel and in Acts, claims to be presenting an orderly account of the story of Jesus and his followers. However, the historical accuracy of Acts began to be challenged, particularly with the rise of German critical scholarship. Certain terms and references that Luke mentions were unconfirmed with respect to archaeology and historiography pertaining to the first century. It was also argued that historians at the time of Luke’s writing were unconcerned with accuracy. In addition to this, it began to be seen and appreciated (though certainly not for the first time!) that Luke’s book is not merely raw historical data but a work written from the perspective of a theological agenda. This apparent “bias” made Luke’s history all the more suspect.

It is certainly true that Acts is a work of theology and that Luke himself is a theologian. After all, Acts is represented as the continuation of all that Jesus did and taught, which is a deeply theological claim. Acts presents the Lord Jesus himself as personally and powerfully at work in his church (Acts 4:1-22, etc.). The book of Acts is not the kind of history performed by a methodological naturalist! Additionally, it is apparent that there are particular theological issues that Luke intentionally addresses through his narrative, such as the expression of the Messianic Kingdom, the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s redemptive plan, and the spread of the Christian church in the midst of opposition. Luke is writing primarily with the purpose of edifying the church with his account, and he has several sub-purposes that are influencing the arranging of his material and the presentation of his narrative. Luke is a theologian.

Nevertheless, the dichotomy between history and theology assumed by critical scholarship is a false one. It assumes a view of history that Luke himself does not share. History is theological; it is the work of God’s providence (Acts 2:24; 4:27-28). And the work of history is the study of providence and the discerning of the hand of the Lord. The writing of history does not of necessity become suspect because a theological perspective is employed. Accuracy does not require the absence of bias–otherwise accuracy would be impossible for any human author to achieve! Luke as an historian continues to be vindicated as time passes, with archaeological and linguistic disciplines confirming Luke against the critical objections of previous eras. It is clear that Luke intends for his book to be read as a work of history and a work of theology, and there is no reason to disregard this author’s aims due to naturalistic presuppositions. The irony is that critical scholars with their biases also write from the perspective of a theological viewpoint, except it is one that Luke does not share.

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About Evan May

Evan May is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary and a pastor at Lakeview Christian Center in New Orleans.
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