Monday, July 27, 2009

Book Review: Richard Peace's Conversion in NT

Peace, Richard, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

In this clearly written book, Richard Peace basically argues two things. First, he argues that Paul's "conversion" in Acts provides us with a basic model of the core elements in Christian conversion (11-12, 19), of truly becoming a Christian. Secondly, he argues that while the conversion of the twelve disciples involved these same elements, the dynamics of their change involved much more time and took place much more gradually (12-13). When Peace draws the implications for evangelism at the end of the book, he thus presents two models: 1) encounter evangelism, based on Paul's conversion, and 2) process evangelism, based on his sense of the conversion of the Twelve.

First, Peace looks at the accounts of Paul coming to Christ in Acts and abstracts three basic elements: 1) insight (seeing one's true state before God and who Jesus really is); 2) turning (from before to after); and 3) transformation (25-26). His chapters two through four unpack these three elements of Paul's conversion in Acts one by one. Peace considers these three elements essential to all true conversions to Christ. [1]

However, he does not believe that the way they unfold need always be the same. In the case of Paul, his conversion was an event that largely took place all at once. By contrast, Peace argues, the conversion of the disciples "took place in fits and starts over the course of their years with Jesus" (106). He spends the next six chapters analyzing the Gospel of Mark as a story showing the gradual conversion of the twelve disciples. He presents his understanding of the structure of Mark's gospel and of how the understanding of Jesus progresses as the gospel moves along.

In this review, it is these first ten chapters we want to look at. On the one hand, surely Peace has done well to outline what most will agree are usually central elements and dynamics to Christian conversion. Repentance born of insight leading to transformation seems an excellent way to conceptualize key elements you will usually observe in a human in the process of conversion.

Further, Peace's contrast between event and process will also be familiar. We observe some people who undergo some sort of dramatic turn around in a moment's time. Yet we also observe other people whose lives have changed over a much longer period. After a long and gradual process of change, they wake up one morning and say to themselves, "Wow, I'm a Christian."

What is deeply problematic about Peace's treatment is that he has almost completely overlooked the most important element in "conversion" in the New Testament, the one that stands at the very heart of Paul's own understanding of becoming a "Christian." And this element holds the potential of significantly revising Peace's presentation of the Twelve's conversion. Here we are speaking of the Holy Spirit.

At least for Paul, Acts, and Hebrews, the critical moment of getting "in" to Christ is receiving the Holy Spirit. Peace does mention transformation as a key element in conversion. And buried deep in another section of some 353 pages of text we do find a comment that comes out of the blue and disappears just as quickly, "The Holy Spirit is a key agent in conversion" (219). But Peace does not speak of the Holy Spirit in his material on transformation. And the Holy Spirit is not just a key agent in conversion. Reception of the Holy Spirit, for Paul and Luke-Acts is the defining element of conversion. [2]

Paul says in Romans 8:9 that "if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ" (TNIV). Paul calls the Holy Spirit in 2 Corinthians 5:5 an "earnest" of what is to come, just as Ephesians 1:14 calls Him an "earnest" of our inheritance. Most modern translations unpack what an "earnest" is, such as when the TNIV says the Holy Spirit is "a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." Anyone who has purchased a house will be familiar with "earnest money," money that guarantees you are the one getting the house and that serves as a downpayment toward that purchase. The Holy Spirit thus guarantees our coming salvation from God's judgment because the Spirit is God's "seal of ownership on us" (2 Cor. 1:22). And since spirit is the "stuff" of heaven, the Holy Spirit is a "foretaste of glory divine."

The book of Acts is even starker in its Spirit-theology of conversion. The incident in Samaria in Acts 8 makes the point most clearly. Here is a group of individuals who have believed and have even been baptized in the name of Jesus (8:12). But there is a problem. They have not received the Holy Spirit and are thus not "in" yet. Peter and John come up to Samaria and lay hands on them so that they will receive the Holy Spirit. A person can receive the Spirit before they have even been baptized (Acts 10:44). A person can receive the Spirit after baptism (8:17). But unless the Holy Spirit has come, the person is not yet "converted."

From the standpoint of Acts, then, the key ingredient in conversion is neither insight, nor turning, but the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. We might speak of longer and shorter lead ups to that moment of receiving the Holy Spirit. But the book of Acts and Paul know nothing of anything but a moment of instantaneous reception of the Spirit. In the world of Luke-Acts, the disciples may be learning over the course of Jesus' ministry. But until Jesus has ascended and sent the Holy Spirit, they are not yet Christians. They are not truly "converted."

In the world of Luke-Acts, the Day of Pentecost is the beginning of all conversions. The lives of the Twelve during Jesus' earthly ministry are in that sense much like the lives of any Old Testament prophets. Until the Spirit comes on them in Acts 2, they are not yet "in" the new age. Whether Matthew and Mark have such an understanding of the disciple's pilgrimage is difficult to know, since they are largely silent on the issue. Certainly if one takes Acts 2 as a reference to a real, historical event on the Day of Pentecost, then one will adopt this view in relation to the other gospels as well. And Matthew and Mark do anticipate that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8).

I am reminded of the difference between the way we make different sounds with our mouths. There are some, like the letters r and l, that are like liquids that will continue to flow as long as you have breath. But there are others that are called "stops." These are letters like b or d. You can take as long as you like getting ready to say the letter. But you can only say it in a moment, and then it is said and done.

God can do more with His people than He did with the small portion of early Christian believers we hear about in the New Testament. To clarify the nature of conversion in the New Testament does not in itself end our discussion of how God converts people today. But it is worthwhile at least to listen to what the New Testament has to say on the topic. And for a significant portion of those writings, over half the New Testament, conversion is ultimately a matter of a moment when God's Spirit comes to inhabit that new member of the people of God.

[1] There is an important caveat in this entire discussion, one that Peace himself at least partially recognizes, and that is that the entire notion of conversion is ripe for anachronism. The very term conversion is not a New Testament one in the sense we are using it here, yet it is a major category for us. That is a recipe for reading things into the text that were not actually a part of the original meaning. Such things may be true, but we are not really getting them from the text.

Since Krister Stendahl's 1963 lectures, a vigorous debate has ensued over whether it is appropriate to call Paul's encounter with Christ a "conversion" (See Paul among Jews and Gentiles [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1976], 7-23). The general consensus, which with Peace agrees, is that the word conversion is appropriate if one is speaking of a radical change of direction or change from one group to another. However, it is highly inappropriate if one is thinking of Paul changing from one religion to another. Christianity remained a subset of Judaism throughout the period when the New Testament books were written.

[2] The only way that Peace can consider "turning," repentance, an important element of conversion for Paul is to base his camp in Acts. In terms of Paul himself, repentance is not a major category in his writings. We cannot know, of course, to what extent he may have emphasized it in his preaching, but it does not function prominently in his letters in the New Testament. Repentance is thus a very important element in the theology of Luke-Acts, but not of Paul's letters.

1 comment:

David Drury said...

Nice report on Peace's book and review of the theology of conversion and the Spirit's centrality in it.