Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel: Encountering the Divine in the Book of Acts

Written by Matthew L. Skinner Reviewed By Steve Walton

Matthew Skinner has written extensively and intelligently on Acts, and so this new book is to be warmly welcomed. Prof. Skinner is Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota and, in addition to his fine scholarly work on Acts (Locating Paul: Places of Custody As Narrative Settings in Acts 21–28 [Leiden: Brill, 2003]; The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament [Louisville: WJK, 2010]; and numerous articles), he has contributed extensively to the seminary’s excellent resource, as well as writing for other accessible websites which equip and stimulate those who teach and preach. I mention this because this book is a further fruit of Prof. Skinner’s research put into accessible form for those who may not have technical training in biblical studies, but want to dig deeper into the Bible.

In Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel, Prof. Skinner sets out to read the majority of Acts in twenty-five short chapters of 5–8 pages. He divides the book into six major sections and provides a brief “Road Map” introducing each section: the sections are Acts 1–2; 3–7; 8–12; 13–15; 16–19; 21–28. He is selective in the passages he discusses, although he does not explain his principles for selection. Interestingly, Acts 20—perhaps the most informative section on Paul as pastor to his churches—does not feature in his selected passages for discussion, so we don’t learn whether Skinner would locate it with 16–19 or with 21–28 or as a ‘stand alone’ section. Throughout his writing is lucid, readable and clear, and sections flow naturally from one to another.

His particular focus is to ask what the experiences of people in the book of Acts say about “who God is and how God has acted and continues to act through the spread of the good news about Jesus Christ” (p. ix). He is not so concerned with the history behind Acts as the message of the book about who God is and the ways in which God moves and acts. He somewhat hedges his bets on the historicity of the book in his brief comments on this: he sketches the main scholarly views on this, and says he is aiming to write in a way which will be useful to “a broad variety of readers—those who see no legendary elements in Acts, those who do, and those who do not worry about such matters” (p. 2). He doesn’t stop in the ancient setting, but goes on to ask about how our own experiences of God can change us in the light of his reading of Acts.

His introduction begins with the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19) and highlights the disruption which the gospel message brings to places and people. He claims that the disruptive nature of the gospel stems from the way God interferes and intervenes in the lives of people and communities. He notes the potential problems believing this creates for us: in what ways can we speak and think of God acting today, without portraying God as a “cosmic puppeteer” (p. xv)? He presents the challenge that our view of God may be too small, and invites us into a reading of Acts which will cause us to ask deep questions in this area.

Prof. Skinner treats the whole book of Acts as conveying Luke’s theological vision, rather than the older view which saw the speeches as containing the theological content of the book. The action portrays the ways God engages with people and they with God. This approach is a great strength, and is worked out by constantly asking what the text shows about who God is and how God engages with people, individually and in groups large and small.

The discussion of individual passages is always helpful, informative and theologically astute, and full of well-turned and memorable phrases. In place after place I found my head nodding in agreement, not least when Prof. Skinner showed me the text from angles I had not considered previously. He does not dodge difficulties in relating the experience of the believing communities in Acts to our experience today, whether concerning healing, prophecy, the death of Ananias and Sapphira, or other remarkable events. He helps us feel the challenge of the material in Acts on wealth and poverty in today’s western materialistic context. Throughout, he has a clear eye on today’s world and church.

I was conscious, as one who works extensively on Acts myself, in place after place where significant scholarly work and debate underlies Prof. Skinner’s writing (it is acknowledged a little in the “For Further Reading” section at the end). He is judicious and careful in his use of scholarship, and those who have eyes to see will recognise this quickly. Readers may agree or disagree with the exegetical decisions he takes (I found myself agreeing far more than disagreeing), but they will always be informed, educated, and stimulated.

This book will be eminently helpful to a church Bible study group working through Acts. It will also inform and help preachers or teachers engaging with Acts, and students who want to see ways in which the book’s themes and issues relate to Christian life and experience today. I commend it very warmly.

Steve Walton

Steve Walton
Trinity College
Bristol, England, UK

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