Written in 2013 for Protestants for the Common Good.
If I had to select one of the four Gospels to recommend to Christian Progressives, I would choose the Gospel According to Luke. To explain this I need to define "progressive," and then to discuss how I think Luke was a Progressive in his own time.
For eighteen hundred years, the Gospel According to Luke was something of a step-daughter within the Christian Scriptures. Of the four Gospels, the going-away favorites through the ages were Matthew and John. Luke was valued alongside the others because of a number of outstanding gems found only in this Gospel, such as,
- the peaceful Christmas stories (to balance Matthew’s fearful nativity cycle),
- some magnificent parables (such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son),
- Jesus’ saying on the cross, “Father, forgive them...,” and
- Jesus’ walk to Emmaus with two disciples on Easter day.
Broadly speaking, the long history of harmonizing Luke with the other Gospels lasted until the nineteenth century. After the humanists had taught Europe to use methods of historical criticism (e.g., Lorenzo Valla, 1450 CE) and political philosophers had fought off civic intolerance based on the scriptures (Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza in the 17th century), serious historical study of the scriptures began in European universities, especially in Germany (late 18th century). As far as Luke’s writings (Gospel and Acts) were concerned, the issue was, How reliable is Luke as a historian?
The answer, particularly concerning the book of Acts, was pretty negative at first. By the mid-nineteenth century, the famous Tübingen school had come to view Acts as a late tendentious writing designed to smooth things over in the second-century church, and thus not at all reliable history. By the beginning of the twentieth century, William Ramsey of Britain and Adolf Harnack of Germany had gone far to rehabilitate Acts’ reputation as good ancient history writing, but that didn’t settle things for the Gospel and historical interest in the life of Jesus.
(For the following, see, for example, L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: the Gospels in Rewrite, HarperOne, 2010, chapter 13, “The Martyred Sage: The Gospel of Luke,” pp. 318-344.)
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the first three Gospels had been sorted out into two early documents – the Gospel of Mark and the Sayings Source Q – and other materials contained only in either Matthew (M) or Luke (L). Matthew and Luke themselves were composite documents, of historical value only for the later development of the Jesus tradition and of the early church. This later development included, of course, everything about Jesus’ birth and the more graphic post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.
Luke as Theologian.
A wave of writings about Luke’s theology (covering both the Gospel and Acts) occupied many scholars for the rest of the twentieth century. A balanced review and summary of its early results is given in Joseph Fitzmyer’s commentary in the Anchor (Yale) Bible, The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), Doubleday, 1981, pp. 1-34, and “A Sketch of Lucan Theology,” pp. 143-270. A more (!) compendious treatment has also just appeared, Darrell L. Bock, A Theology of Luke and Acts, Zondervan, 2012 (495 pages).
- Mark has no church; only discipleship, those following Jesus toward martyrdom or his return in power.
- John has no church; only a mystic communion of disciples, exemplified in the Disciple that Jesus Loved. (The appendix in John 21 does have a church, fed by Peter.)
- Matthew has a Church – with Authority. Only Matthew has the word “church,” ekklesia, assembly (Matthew ; ). “...you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19, NRSV).
- Luke has no “church” in the Gospel, but in Acts Luke presents the Courage to be the churches.
The Ascension. Luke is the only Biblical writer who gives an account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The account of the ascension is given vaguely at the end of the Gospel (Luke 24:50-51) and in more detail at the beginning of Acts (Acts 1:9-12). As a supposedly historical event, this is probably the most outlandish element of the Jesus tradition preserved in the four Gospels.
Historical explanations can be given for why an ascension story was needed, but they involve assessments of the post-crucifixion Jesus stories about which Christians are likely to differ a lot. Suffice it to say, the ascension was necessary to get the physical Jesus off the scene. Especially for Luke’s work, the future was directed by the Holy Spirit. Luke has Jesus state the master plan for the second volume (Acts 1:6-8), then retire to the right hand of God so the Holy Spirit can actively take over the work (Pentecost).
Still, the Ascension is an irritating reinforcement of the ancient world-view that I could live without.