Dr. Bryan Litfin is an excellent teacher of history and theology at Moody Bible Institute. I had the privilege of sitting under his guidance for my first theology class as a student at Moody Bible Institute, and his classes about Western Civilization and the early church ignited my love of history. His book After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles printed by Moody Publishers in 2015 is the perfect intersection of his understanding of both history and theology.
I must be show my cards right now though, I have a hard time writing this book review in an academically critical way. When you have spotted a man bench pressing 200lbs, played basketball in Italy and Germany, as well as having walked in the sacred catacombs with him, it is difficult not to hear his voice with every word and reminisce about “the good ole days at Moody.”
In this book Dr. Litfin undertakes the job of looking at the lives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Mary, Thomas, James, Peter, Paul, and “The Other Apostles” according to biblical accounts, history, and “church tradition.” In doing so he sets forth an excellent hermeneutic for all students of history in understanding primary sources and hagiography.
His introduction to the book is what sets it apart from most history books. As a true teacher he defines terms which will be used in the book. Many people might find this to be trite, but in doing so he educates the reader in a manner which many are deficient. He knows that terms such as “liberal” and “conservative” are loaded terms, so he describes what these mean in regards to biblical and historical studies. He also defines terms like “orthodox,” “heresy,” and “gnostic.” By defining the terms he is then able to describe how to engage with historical sources and sort out what is mythical, mystical, and fantastic, versus what is of value theologically and or historically.
His chapters on the apostles were fun. It was enjoyable to read history regarding these figures. He relies heavily upon what Scripture attests, which is highly commendable, but for those who really want to know the “legends” of the apostles’ lives might find the chapters to be a little less than satisfying.
Dr. Litfin is straightforward about his purpose in this book though, and it is not to his discredit that the fantastic myths of these apostles are not fully told. From the onset he says that he wants the reader to look at the sources which are most historically reliable, which would be those sources dating closest to the lives of the apostles. So he focuses on these more than the medieval writings which include many fantastic miracles and legends. If you want to read page after page of legends, then you must go to those sources. He gives very abbreviated legends, so that he can work through the more reliable sources and critic the legends.
From a historical theology standpoint, Protestant readers will find the chapter on Mary very significant. He explains the origins of the veneration of Mary, when it was made Roman Catholic official doctrine, and how we should and should not interact with it. I found this chapter incredibly informative
After Acts is around 200 pages. That is an incredibly short space for so many lives. I am sure he would have included more details if he was given 300 or 400 pages, but then it would have been too long for the intended audience. My best bet is that the audience Moody Publishers was targeting is not one that has time to slog through hundreds of pages, nor is it one that wants too critical of analysis of linguistics and textual history. If the book is to have all the details a scholar would want, then it would be long, arduous, and read by few.
Outside of the introduction, where he defines terms, he also includes parenthetical references inside of chapters telling a reader to either go back to a previous chapter or forward to an upcoming chapter for more details. This is a good teaching method which keeps him from having to be redundant.
My favorite part of this book though is that he continually finds ways to point the reader to Christ, which was the goal of the apostles. Every chapter finds a way to show the glory of our Resurrected Savior. Each chapter caused me to praise God for His work in this world. Then, in the conclusion of the book, Dr. Litfin then makes it explicitly obvious that the lives of the apostles were about serving God, and that upon the backs of the apostles the Church was built. The Church is still working in this world, showing people to Christ, and combating the deeds of Satan. You and I are called to join in this work as servants of Jesus Christ- just like the apostles.
Will you join?