Luke Timothy Johnson’s latest effort, Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians draws on his strong background as a New Testament scholar (witnessed particularly by his widely used textbook, The Writings of the New Testament) and, in a special way, his particular interest in the Gospel of Luke and Luke’s follow-up work, the Acts of the Apostles (Johnson wrote the respective volumes for the Liturgical Press’s fine Sacra Pagina series and Luke-Acts was the subject of his dissertation).
In the Preface of Prophetic Jesus, Johnson states that he has written the book “as an effort to stimulate [a] prophetic vision for the church today.” (vi) He seeks to go about this by reading Luke-Acts as a “literary unity” revealing “a prophetic vision of Jesus and the church,” “its prophetic function for the church in every age,” and the need to “find ways of embodying and enacting God’s vision for humans.” (vii)
In order to accomplish his goal, Johnson begins with chapters on the literary (material, stylistic, genre, and structural analyses) and prophetic (“prophecy-as-prediction to prophecy-as-way-of-being-in-the-world” ) shapes of Luke-Acts, followed by a chapter on the character of the prophet (based on “the meaning of the prophet in biblical tradition” [39-40]). The remaining chapters focus on five distinct characteristics of this prophetic character (spirit, word, embodiment, enactment, witness). Each of these last five chapters begins by looking at the characteristic as displayed in Luke, followed by how it is followed through with in Acts, and closes with a section “Challenge to the Contemporary Church.”
Johnson successfully meets his objectives in this volume. By comparing Luke-Acts to the other synoptic gospels he brings out convincingly, with many examples, the distinctive prophetic character of the third gospel and its sequel. Then, by reviewing carefully the characteristics of prophets and prophecy in the Old Testament, he is able to highlight the continuity of the prophetic nature of the entire Bible and its fulfillment in the New Testament. The final chapters are quite effective in showing how the prophetic character builds from the initial prompting of the Holy Spirit right through to bold witness to the indifferent or even hostile.
While there is no subject index (and frankly it is not necessary for this type of book), Johnson’s biblical scholarship is evident in the lengthy scriptural index. Although, naturally, the index is dominated by references to Luke and Acts, the sheer number of passages cited from these books, as well as the Old Testament, the other synoptics, and Paul’s letters, evidence the thoroughness of Johnson’s work. Also, you will find nary a footnote or bibliography here. This volume is clearly a product of Johnson’s deep knowledge of, and reflection on, the subject matter and his view of the importance of it for understanding Luke in context and for the church today.
Certainly this book will be valuable to scholars interested in prophetic character as exhibited by Jesus, his followers, and the early church. But I dare say that it may be of equal or greater value to those who wish to elevate or approach anew their study of the Bible. Time and again, the reader will feel the need to reflect on some aspect on which Johnson is focusing, which means slowing down to ensure a careful reading or even stopping to look up and contemplate at least a few of the many scripture citations. Thus, this well could be a book used for reflection or as part of devotions, especially considering that each of the final five chapters concludes with the challenges the material covered provides for the church today. Although I find his critique of the institutional church a bit too strong at times, this final section of each of these chapters surely provides food for thought and encourages the reader to reevaluate his or her role in the Christian community.
A final note on a section I found provocative and humbling. The first time Johnson addresses contemporary church challenges, he says: “Theology, Luke shows us, must be both inductive and nonsystematic, for the living God continues to reveal through the prophets as well as more broadly through human experience. Theology so understood is not a specialized activity of academically-trained persons in the church, but rather an activity in which all the faithful participate as they seek to articulate the shape and the meaning of their faith in the living God.” (69) This is not meant to discourage, though, but rather to encourage all the faithful to, as the author puts it, “gain a livelier appreciation for theology” as essential to life in the church. (69-70) This is good for everyone.