Friday, May 26, 2017

Restoring Unity to Paul’s Epistles: A Refutation of Tom Ballinger’s Defense of the “Acts 28” Theory, Part 1 (Introduction, the Titles of Ballinger’s Articles, a New Administration in Ephesians?)







Introduction

As is evident from recent issues of Bible Student’s Notebook, the promotion of the “Acts 28:28” (or simply “Acts 28”) doctrinal position remains on the agenda of our brother in Christ, Clyde Pilkington (along with whoever else may be involved in the selection and editing of the content that is published in this newsletter). For those readers unfamiliar with this “dispensational” position, the Acts 28 theory affirms that Israel, as a nation, was “set aside” (or “placed in abeyance”) at the end of the “Acts era.” This event is believed to have resulted in (or made possible) a “dispensational” change involving the arrival of a new “hope” or expectation for believers in Paul’s evangel.

Before Paul’s house arrest in Rome (as referred to in Acts 28:30-31), the eonian expectation of every believer to whom Paul wrote prior to this time was not, according to Acts 28 proponents, the same eonian expectation that the saints in the body of Christ received after Paul became a prisoner in Rome. Rather than having the expectation of eonian life “in the heavens” and “among the celestials,” the expectation of those in the body of Christ prior to the time of Paul’s house arrest in Rome is thought to have been tied to Israel and her “prophetic program,” and thus to have involved an allotment in the land of Israel during the eon to come. With regards to the gentile believers to whom Paul wrote during this time period, the Acts 28 theory holds that their future eonian allotment involved a subordinate place in the earthly kingdom of Israel (as had been prophesied concerning the nations in the Hebrew scriptures; see, for example, Isaiah 60:10-12; 61:5-6; Zechariah 8:20-23).

Thus, according to the Acts 28 position, every letter Paul wrote during the “Acts era” was written to and for believers with a completely different eonian destiny and expectation than those to whom Paul wrote during (or after) he was under house arrest in Rome. This being the case, the “earlier letters” of Paul are viewed by Acts 28 proponents as containing no truth whatsoever concerning an expectation or allotment that is distinct from Israel’s eonian destiny and prophetic program. In contrast with Paul’s “Acts Epistles,” it is only those letters which are thought by Acts 28 proponents to have been written by Paul during (or after) his two-year house arrest in Rome that are viewed as having been written to believers whose eonian expectation is distinct from Israel and her prophetic program.

In its most consistent and thought-out form, the Acts 28:28 theory is, as far as I can tell, the brainchild of a Baptist minister by the name of J. B. Cole (who first propounded the theory in a 1907 article titled, “The Acts of the Apostles Considered Historically and Dispensationally”). A year after Cole’s article was published, Charles H. Welch (who is more well-known today as a proponent of the Acts 28 position) helped fellow English theologian E.W. Bullinger come to a more consistent understanding and application of this “dispensational” theory. Today, the torch of “Acts 28 dispensationalism” is carried by a number of teachers of Scripture, including fellow believers Danny Russino, Stephen Hill and Clyde Pilkington (each of whom has written articles in defense of this position that have been featured in Bible Student’s Notebook). In issues 580, 581, 582 and 583 of BSN, the attempted defense of this teaching comes by way of a series of articles by Mr. Tom L. Ballinger.

Some may wonder why I’m so critical of the Acts 28 theory, and why I’ve given (and continue to give) the position so much attention on my blog. Although I don’t see the Acts 28 theory as being in any way inconsistent with, or opposed to, the truth of the evangel, I do see it as detrimental to a right understanding and appreciation of what Paul wrote for the edification of those in the body of Christ. In my view, the Acts 28 theory wrongly divides Paul’s letters to those in the body of Christ and, in so doing, produces confusion and division among the saints. Rather than viewing Paul’s thirteen letters to the saints in the body of Christ as a single, harmonious unit, they are split into two separate categories of letters that the student of scripture must recognize and keep in mind if he or she is to have an accurate and “mature” understanding of what Paul wrote, and of the truth that is most applicable to the body of Christ today.

The Acts 28 theory serves to undermine the importance and relevance of those Pauline letters which are thought to have been written prior to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, leading those who subscribe to it (and who are consistent in their understanding and application of it) to eventually deny that certain truths and promises found in Paul’s “early” letters are to and for the saints in the body of Christ today (these truths and promises are instead dismissed as pertaining only to Israel and her earthly expectation, and as being no more applicable to us than the content of James’ letter to the twelve tribes, or of Christ’s Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24-25). The Acts 28 theory, in other words, leads to a rejection of truths which God has graciously revealed for the edification of all who are members of Christ’s body. And insofar as I believe this to be the case, I feel compelled to write against it and (hopefully) provide some assistance to those who have been - or who may possibly be - negatively impacted by this erroneous, divisive and obfuscating teaching.[1]

Concerning the titles of Ballinger’s articles

I’ll begin my response to Mr. Ballinger’s articles with some remarks on the titles given to the first two articles (“The Hope of Paul’s Acts Epistles” and “The Hope of Paul’s Prison Epistles”). As these titles suggest - and in accordance with the Acts 28 theory - Ballinger divides up Paul’s letters into two main categories: (1) the “Acts Epistles” (i.e., those letters that Ballinger believes were written by Paul prior to the time of his house arrest in Rome, as referred to in Acts 28:30) and (2) the “Prison Epistles” (i.e., those letters that Ballinger believes were written by Paul during, or subsequent to, the time of Paul’s house arrest in Rome). The “Acts Epistles” are sometimes referred to by Acts 28 proponents as Paul’s “earlier letters,” while the rest are referred to as Paul’s “later letters.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, there is a fundamental problem underlying the Acts 28 position of which few, if any, of its proponents seem to be aware or to fully appreciate. The problem of which I speak involves the dating and chronology of Paul’s letters: none of the proponents of the Acts 28 position can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that all of the letters they believe were written during (or after) the time of Paul’s house arrest in Rome were, in fact, written during this time. Despite what many Christians assume to be true concerning the correct dating of Paul’s epistles, there is no consensus among Bible scholars (whether “professional” or not) on when, exactly, each of Paul’s letters were written. Some letters may have been written earlier than is popularly thought, while others (such as 1&2 Thessalonians) may have been written a good deal later.

In fact, even among proponents of the Acts 28 position there does not seem to be unanimous agreement concerning which of Paul’s letters should be placed into the “Acts Epistles” category and which should be placed into the “Prison Epistles” category. Some, for example, include Paul’s first letter to Timothy and his letter to Titus as being among Paul’s “Acts Epistles,” while others understand these letters to have been written during the time of Paul’s house arrest in Rome. This sort of uncertainty concerning the dating of Paul’s letters undermines any position which requires that we know whether a letter was written by Paul before or during his house arrest in Rome in order to know how applicable the truth it contains is to those in the body of Christ today.

The Acts 28 proponent may, at this point, want to respond by pointing out that, despite there being a lack of consensus regarding the dating of letters such as 1 Timothy and Titus, it’s still the case that Ephesians and Colossians are undeniably “Prison Epistles.” And (Acts 28 proponents may argue) these letters are more essential to the Acts 28 position than are 1 Timothy and Titus, anyway. However, proponents of the Acts 28 position either do not realize, or do not want to admit, that they could very well be mistaken about when these letters were written, as well. Although it seems to be commonly assumed and accepted among Christians that Paul wrote all of his “Prison Epistles” while under house arrest in Rome, the fact is that this was not the only time that Paul was a prisoner during his apostolic ministry (in fact, we know from 2 Cor. 11:23 and elsewhere that Paul had already been jailed on several occasions before he even wrote this “early” letter).

Not only had Paul been imprisoned several times before his house arrest in Rome, but the time of Paul’s house arrest in Rome is not even the only extended period of time during which Paul could’ve written to the saints as a prisoner. Before Paul even step foot in Rome, he’d been a prisoner in Caesarea (Acts 24:22-27). This earlier imprisonment lasted a little more than two years (from approximately A.D. 58 to A.D. 60). Luke describes the conditions in which Paul remained a prisoner in Caesarea as follows: Now Felix…prescribes to the centurion that [Paul] is to be kept, besides, he is to be having his ease, and to prevent no one of his own to be subservient to him. These conditions are perfectly consistent with Paul’s having the freedom to both write letters and to have these letters delivered to their recipients by means of those who came to visit Paul.

One could, I believe, make just as strong of a case (I would say an even stronger one)[2] that Paul likely wrote Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon while he was a prisoner in Caesarea rather than in Rome. But even the mere possibility that Paul could’ve written these particular letters during the time of his imprisonment in Caesarea is extremely problematic for the Acts 28 position. The Acts 28 position absolutely requires that these letters were written during the time referred to in Acts 28:30-31. The theory cannot even get off of the ground, so to speak, apart from this being true.

Insofar as neither Ballinger nor any other Acts 28 proponent can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that certain letters considered essential to the Acts 28 position (e.g., Ephesians and Colossians) were, in fact, written during Paul’s house arrest in Rome rather than Paul’s earlier imprisonment in Caesarea, the entire Acts 28 position rests entirely on their own assumptions concerning when Paul wrote his letters.

For those who ever find themselves confronted by someone who is trying to convince them into thinking that the Acts 28 theory has any merit to it whatsoever, allow me to recommend the following: rather than getting embroiled in an extended debate on numerous verses of scripture and scripture-based arguments, simply challenge the Acts 28 proponent to prove that Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians while he was under house arrest in Rome rather than imprisoned in Caesarea more than two years earlier. Consider the following imaginary dialogue between a proponent of the Acts 28:28 theory and someone skeptical of this position:

Acts 28 proponent: “Did you know that the hope found in Paul’s earlier ‘Acts Epistles’ (such as Romans and 1 Corinthians) pertains to Israel and is distinct from the hope found in Paul’s later ‘Prison Epistles’ (such as Ephesians and Colossians)? It wasn’t until Paul became a prisoner in Rome that the nations received an eonian expectation that is distinct from Israel and her prophetic program!”

Skeptic: “It would appear, then, that your entire theory requires that Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians while he was under house arrest in Rome. Is that correct?”

Acts 28 proponent: “I suppose that’s correct. But it can’t be denied that Paul was a prisoner when he wrote these two letters.”

Skeptic: “Granted; Paul was undoubtedly a prisoner when he wrote these letters. But how do you know Paul was a prisoner in Rome when he wrote these letters? Isn’t it at least possible that Paul wrote these letters while he was a prisoner in Caesarea (as described in Acts 24:22-27)? As far as we know, Ephesians and Colossians could’ve both been written and circulated among the saints before Paul even stepped foot in Rome. Have you considered that possibility?”

Acts 28 proponent: “Not really. But can you prove that Paul was a prisoner in Caesarea rather than in Rome when he wrote these letters?”

Skeptic: “Not definitively, but I’m not the one holding to a view that requires that Paul was in one location rather than the other when he wrote these letters. Either location is perfectly compatible with what I believe. However, the same can’t be said for you. Your position requires that Paul was in Rome rather than Caesarea when he wrote these letters. So isn’t the burden of proof on you to prove that Paul was a prisoner in Rome rather than Caesarea at the time? And if you can’t prove this, then why should I share your assumption concerning when these and other letters were written? How do you know you’re not mistakenly putting Ephesians and Colossians (as well as other letters) in the wrong ‘category’ of letters?”

Thus, simply by challenging the Acts 28 proponent to prove that Paul was in Rome rather than Caesarea when he wrote Ephesians and Colossians is sufficient to undermine their entire theory and take the wind out of their sails. Without being able to provide any good, compelling reasons to believe that Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians while in Rome rather than Caesarea, the Acts 28 proponent’s theory is exposed as resting entirely on conjecture (which is a pretty dubious and flimsy foundation for a doctrinal position as weighty and consequential as is the Acts 28 view).

A New Administration in Ephesians?

Like all Acts 28 proponents (whether they hold to a consistent Acts 28 position or not), Ballinger sees the “dispensation” or administration referred to by Paul in Ephesians 3:2 as something that did not begin until AFTER Paul came to be under house arrest in Rome. In accordance with this view, the “secret of the Christ” referred to by Paul in Eph. 3:6 is thought to involve truth that pertains distinctly to this new administration, and which was not revealed by Paul until after this period of time began.

However, a careful consideration of what, exactly the “secret” consists of should make it clear that Paul was not revealing anything new or previously unheard of in Ephesians 3:6. Rather, what Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:6 is simply a concise statement or summary of certain truths that Paul had already been making known to the saints among the nations prior to his imprisonment.

In Ephesians 3:6, Paul wrote that the “secret of the Christ” is that “in spirit the nations are to be joint enjoyers of an allotment, and a joint body, and joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus, through the evangel of which I became the dispenser, in accord with the gratuity of the grace of God, which is granted to me in accord with His powerful operation.” Notice that every element of the “secret” referred to by Paul in v. 6 was said by Paul to be “through the evangel of which I became the dispenser.” And when did “the evangel of which [Paul] became the dispenser” (i.e., the evangel of the uncircumcision) first begin to be heralded and believed among the nations? Answer: shortly after Paul and Barnabas were “severed” to God for the work to which God had called them (Acts 13:2-3).

Consider, now, the following points:

1. The first element of the “secret of the Christ” is that ”in spirit the nations are to be joint enjoyers of an allotment…” But was Paul teaching something different than this truth in his “pre-imprisonment letters?” No. There is nothing in Paul’s “earlier” letters which suggests that those among the nations who had become members of the one body of Christ during the pre-imprisonment part of Paul’s ministry had a different allotment than the believing Jews (such as Paul and Silvanus) who had become members of the one body of Christ at this time.

Nowhere are we told (nor is it ever implied) in Paul’s pre-imprisonment letters that the allotment of the gentiles who had believed Paul’s evangel of the uncircumcision was in any way distinct from, or inferior to, that of the Jews who believed his evangel. Instead, we find that, even before Paul’s imprisonment, the nations were “joint heirs of an allotment” with their believing Jewish brethren in the one body of Christ. Within the body of Christ, those who were circumcised had NO advantage over those who were uncircumcised; there was NO distinction (Gal. 3:27-28; 5:6; 6:15). Having believed Paul’s evangel of the uncircumcision, they were heirs of the SAME allotment with Paul and any other Jewish believer who believed Paul’s evangel.

With regards to the eonian allotment of those in the body of Christ, the ONLY difference that Paul ever referred to in his pre-prison letters is found in Romans 8:17, and has nothing to do with being circumcised or uncircumcised. Rather, Paul wrote that the saints in the body of Christ to whom he wrote (whether Jewish or not) would be “enjoyers of an allotment, enjoyers, indeed, of an allotment from God, yet joint enjoyers of Christ’s allotment, if so be that we are suffering together, that we should be glorified together also (Rom. 8:17). In other words, every believer to whom he wrote would enjoy “an allotment from God,” but those who were “suffering together [with Christ]” would be “joint enjoyers of Christ’s allotment” and be “glorified together also.” This fact implies that the “allotment from God” referred to by Paul is something that is common to every member of the body of Christ. And it was by “suffering together” that a saint in the body of Christ (whether Jew or gentile) could acquire something in addition to the allotment that would be the enjoyment of all within the body of Christ. This is, in essence, the same truth taught by Paul in 2 Timothy 2:11-13 (cf. Phil. 3:9-16).

2. The next truth that Paul referred to in Eph. 3:6 is that ”in spirit the nations are to be…a joint body…” The truth that those among the nations who believed Paul's evangel are a “joint body”– i.e., a joint body with the Jews who believed Paul’s evangel (which included, of course, Paul himself) - is explicitly taught in 1 Cor. 12:12-13 (cf. Rom. 12:4-5) and is implied in places like Gal. 3:27-28. Whether circumcised or not, all who believed Paul’s evangel were baptized in one spirit into the same one body of Christ. There is no indication that those Jews who were called to their eonian allotment “in the heavens” through Paul’s evangel of the uncircumcision had any different status within the body of Christ than those among the nations who were called.

3. The last truth referred to in Eph. 3:6 is that ”in spirit the nations are to be…joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus…” Assuming (as is likely) that the “promise” in view is “life eonian” (see Titus 1:2-3), the truth that the nations had become “joint partakers” of this promise is implied in all of the above verses, and elsewhere. Consider especially 2 Cor. 5, where Paul speaks of the future eonian life “in the heavens” that is in store for all who believe his evangel, whether Jew or gentile. These all were given “the earnest of the spirit” (cf. Eph 1:14), and the same eonian expectation in the heavens. And they together awaited “the glory that is going to be revealed for us,” when we (the sons of God) are unveiled, our bodies are delivered, and we are conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:18-30). Within the one body of Christ, there has never been any difference with regards to the expectation of life eonian between those among the nations and those who were of Jewish background.

We thus see that the truths of Ephesians 3:6 - which Acts 28 theorists assume were kept secret until Paul wrote the letter of Ephesians – were central to the administration given to Paul before his house arrest in Rome. Although these truths were indeed a secret prior to the beginning of Paul’s career as the “apostle to the nations” (and had no part in Israel’s prophetic program), Paul was not first making them known in Ephesians 3:6. He was simply giving a concise, summarized statement of truths that he’d been making known among the nations all along. This being the case, we can conclude that the administration given to Paul to which these truths distinctly belong – i.e., the “administration of the grace of God” (Eph. 3:2) – began during the “Acts era.”

Part 2: http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2017/05/restoring-unity-to-pauls-epistles_26.html




[1] I should also add that countering what I understand to be erroneous teaching is simply my preferred way of teaching what I believe to be true. Although I’m not sure if the apostle Paul shared this teaching preference, it’s significant that the occasions for some of the clearest and most explicit teaching on important doctrinal subjects by Paul (such as justification by faith or the resurrection of the dead) was the promotion of certain false teachings among the saints to whom he wrote.

[2] See, for example, Caesarea, Rome, and the Captivity Epistles by Bo Reicke (https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ahg/caesarea_reicke.pdf).

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