Didn’t the Holy Spirit place Luke with the other gospels, and not with Acts, as the Bible was taking shape?

Q.  Didn’t the Holy Spirit, in His wisdom, intend for Luke and Acts to be separated?  Since the biblical canon in its final form was designed with them separated, aren’t we violating inspiration if we put them back together?

Q.  I think your decision to place Luke and Acts together is misguided. While other books were split because of their length (1 Samuel through 2 Kings), or were ordered with no regard for their content (the Pauline epistles), Luke and Acts were separated in order to place the gospel of John as the last gospel.  If you have any faith in the efficacy of the Scriptures that have guided the church for centuries, you have to trust that God was at work in the construction of the canon. If you’re going to re-order the gospels, you’re starting to question the construction of the canon–in which case you have bigger problems than separating Luke from Acts.

Q.  It seems to me that we must respect the tradition of the church, believing that the Holy Spirit continued to work through his people as the books God inspired were recognized, put in the category of Scripture, and organized in a certain way. The “four-fold gospel” is a significant indicator of God’s intentions in the NT. Acts placed between the gospels and epistles is a significant indicator of movement within the NT. The church itself has not been unanimous on how the NT books should be ordered, but neither was it unanimous about which books should be included. Without tradition, how would we even know which books to include in the NT?

All three of these questions suggest that if we put Luke-Acts back together as a 5807single work, as they are presented in The Books of the Bible, and as they are treated in the Luke-Acts study guide, we are overlooking and perhaps even resisting the role that the Holy Spirit played in the preservation, recognition, and collection of the biblical books—a role that may have extended to their ordering.  And so, on the authority of centuries-long church tradition, which presumably reflects the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t Luke and Acts be kept as separate books, and all the gospels kept grouped together?

It is true that church tradition exerts significant authority over our understanding and treatment of the Bible.  However, I think most of us would agree that the Spirit’s hand is not evident in every single aspect of tradition as it relates to the Bible.  Many of us would be prepared to dispense, for example, with the chapter and verse divisions, even though these are the aspect of tradition that certainly influences contemporary readers of the Bible the most.  (By frequently running paragraphs run right through badly-placed chapter breaks, many modern publishers show openly that they don’t adhere to this part of the tradition.)

How, then, can we determine which aspects of tradition reflect the Spirit’s hand, and which ones don’t?  I think that most people who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God would agree that the determination of the contents of the canon reflects the Spirit’s influence, while the placement of chapter and verse divisions does not.  But what about something in between, like the order of the books in the canon?  I think some would see the Spirit’s hand in this, and others wouldn’t.  In other words, this is a matter of individual conviction, not of doctrine.

That being the case, I think it’s reasonable for resources such as The Books of the Bible and the Luke-Acts study guide to be made available for those whose convictions about the Spirit’s role in the presentation and transmission of the Scriptures permit them to explore what additional perspectives and further insights can be achieved when the books are placed in new orders.  Putting Luke and Acts back together as volumes 1 and 2 of a unified history, whose overarching structure and unfolding message then become much more evident, can open up great vistas into the meaning of the life of Jesus and the story of his early followers.  I think that by making this possible we’re working with, not against, the Holy Spirit.

Russian icon of St. Luke from around AD 1400
Russian icon of St. Luke from around AD 1400

Indeed, The Books of the Bible seeks to draw upon the best in the church’s tradition of the biblical book ordering even as it arranges the books innovatively and creatively.  As its New Testament introduction explains, “The order of the New Testament books in this edition seeks to express the ancient concept of the fourfold gospel in a fresh way.  The traditional priority of the stories of Jesus is retained, but now each Gospel is placed at the beginning of a group of related books.  The presentation of four witnesses to the one gospel of Jesus the Messiah is enhanced by a fuller arrangement that will help readers better appreciate why the books of the New Testament were written and what kind of literature they represent.  The four sets of books, each headed by a  Gospel, form a cross, as it were, around the central figure of Jesus.  Each sheds its light on his story in a unique way.”

One final observation.  It’s a demonstrable fact that the Scriptures that have guided the church for centuries have done so in a great variety of orders.  (I document this in my book After Chapters and Verses.  In fact, as Bruce Metzger notes in The Canon of the New Testament, “While the gospels . . . are always kept together, they are found in nine different sequences, including two in which Luke is placed last and followed immediately by Acts, possibly out of a desire to keep the two volumes of this historical study together.”)  Even if we assume that this great variety of orders simply reflects a stage on the way to the ultimate emergence of the Holy Spirit’s chosen order, how do we know whether we’ve arrived there yet?  How do we know that The Books of The Bible, for example, isn’t instead part of the Holy Spirit’s effort to keep shuffling the books until they get into the real “God-intended” order?

In other words, if you prefer a particular book order because it’s the outcome of a long historical process, how do you determine the end point of that process?  On what basis do you pick 1500, when the order we know today was established basically by printers?  Who’s to say that the process isn’t still continuing?  Or that it didn’t end in A.D. 240?  The real problem here is that authority is being divided between Scripture and tradition, that is, between fixed texts and an ongoing historical process.  My commitment is to the authority of Scripture, and in treating Luke-Acts as a single work, my goal is to keep the Bible’s interpretation from being limited to what is implied by the historical shaping the Bible has received to date—because I believe, as John Robinson said, that “the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth out of His Holy Word.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Didn’t the Holy Spirit place Luke with the other gospels, and not with Acts, as the Bible was taking shape?”

  1. Another aspect is that originally the books were in scrolls and the only “ordering” was provided by the scrolls themselves, such as the text that Luke uses to indicate his gospel and Acts are 2 volumes of a unified work. It is only later with the idea of a bound book, originally called a codex, that the ORDER of the books becomes a possible discussion point.

    1. Actually, there are some codexes of the complete Bible dating back as early as the fourth century, so there is an issue of the book order related to those. But these were rare, and as you say, for the most part, people did experience the Bible in smaller portions until the advent of printing. Thanks for your helpful observation!

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