The Jerusalem Council and the Theological Task -- By: Timothy Wiarda

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 46:2 (Jun 2003)
Article: The Jerusalem Council and the Theological Task
Author: Timothy Wiarda

The Jerusalem Council and the Theological Task

Timothy Wiarda

[Timothy Wiarda is professor of New Testament at Singapore Bible College, 9–15 Adam Road, Singapore 289886.]

This article is partly about the Jerusalem Council and partly about hermeneutics, contextualization, and theological method. As I have been reading in the latter three areas recently, I cannot help noticing how often writers make reference to the Jerusalem Council. It sometimes enters their discussion in its pure Acts 15 form, sometimes as an event reconstructed from a combination of sources. Either way, the Council serves as paradigm and precedent for a number of proposals concerning the theologian’s task. The proposals themselves are fraught with consequence, since they concern the shape and status of the church’s message. Any NT episode cited on their behalf, therefore, deserves at least a few moments of our attention. What do various writers mean when they claim the Jerusalem Council as a model? And looking deeper, what are the marks and functions of a good biblical paradigm?

I. A Survey of Proposals

The scattering of writers I will cite share a belief that the Jerusalem Council offers a paradigm that may be followed today by those who develop theology to guide the church.1 These authors do not all highlight the same aspects of the Council episode, however, nor do they draw identical conclusions from it with respect to theological method.

1. The Council as a model for contextualization. The Council seems to be cited most frequently by writers who stress the factors of culture and ethnicity and who view the decision to free Gentile believers from the requirement of circumcision as a matter of contextualization. John Davis, for instance, considers the Council of Jerusalem to be the prime example of early Christian contextualization.2 That is to say, when the church debated

circumcision, the underlying issue concerned the sort of principles that should be followed when Christian teaching was brought across ethnic-cultural boundaries. Those Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentile believers be circumcised did so because they assumed the law given to their own nation was valid for all cultures; those who rejected the demand for circumcision, on the other hand, were guided by the insight that what is binding on one people group is not necessarily binding on all. David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen offer a similar analysis: the decision concerning circumcision was an instance of contextualization; the Council determi...

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