A Bible Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles

By Mal Couch, ed.
Grand Rapids : Kregel (1999). 455 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
13.2 (Fall 2002) : 271-273

 In his Foreword to this volume, general editor Mal Couch recounts his own pilgrimage with the book of Acts. For many years, he resolved to avoid teaching from the book because of the complicated nature of the narrative. However, as his concern arose over the confusion he saw in the contemporary church, he was drawn to reread and study Acts. He has now come to realize that “[e]ven though Acts is a transitional narration, the lessons for today are innumerable for our generation of Bible teachers, missionaries, and pastors” (7). To help others renew a revitalized sense of mission and urgency, Couch has compiled this theology and survey of Acts. Contributors to this work in addition to himself include Paul Benware, Thomas Figart, Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Robert Lightner, Steven McAvoy, Russell Penney, and Randall Price.

Parts 1 and 2 of the handbook introduce the reader to the theology of Acts (11-176). Part 1 begins with a chapter on the introductory issues of Acts. Then follow six chapters that discuss the church, Jesus Christ, Prophecy, Demonology, Paul, and the Temple in the book of Acts. Part 2 includes two chapters on the theology and work of the Holy Spirit in Acts. The survey of Acts is a verse-by-verse background guide to the book which comprises Part 3 (177-399). Each chapter of Acts is introduced with a synopsis of its contents, followed by comments on significant people, places, and events in the chapter. The Appendixes of the volume contain a three-page timeline of the events recorded in Acts, followed by three short essays discussing the laying on of hands in the OT and the Gospels, the sign gifts, and progressive dispensationalism and the book of Acts (401-23). Endnotes for each chapter of the handbook appear after the appendixes, with the two chapters of Part 2 [noted as chapters 1 and 2 in the Table of Contents and the body of the text] listed as chapters 8 and 9 (425-55).

The editor has compiled a very valuable introduction to the theology of the book of Acts. The discussion of the theology is based on what Couch views as the main purpose of Acts, “to record history and not develop doctrine” (18). As a theological historical narrative, one can discern at least seven transitions in the book of Acts: from the Gospel to the Epistles, from synagogue to church, from Israel to the church, from Jesus being present to the Holy Spirit being present, from the Spirit being with believers to the Spirit being in believers, from Jews to Gentiles, and from law to grace (18-20). These are what the editor labels “Dispensational Transitions of Acts” upon which are developed the “Dispensational Purposes of Acts” (24-25). These purposes have five categories in the book of Acts. The historical purpose traces the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church while recording Israel’s rejection of the resurrected Jesus during the first thirty years of church history. The theological purpose authenticates the new faith as a work of the Holy Spirit. The apologetic purpose proves that the new movement was well received by civil government officials. The eschatological purpose develops the mystery of the Kingdom program. The national purpose describes the place of Israel in the plan of God.

This dispensationalist understanding of the purposes of Acts serves as the foundation for the understanding of the specific topics addressed in the remainder of Part 1 and Part 2 of the handbook. The most important subject addressed in this volume is the new work of the Holy Spirit in the dispensation of the church. Crouch states, “When a new dispensation is begun, or a new economy of God’s rule initiated, unusual transitional events may occur that are common to neither dispensation” (121). Thus, the ministry of the H oly Spirit recorded in Acts has bo th aspects of continuity and discontinuity with the OT. Most important, unrepeatable works of the Holy Spirit unique to the beginning of the church age also occur. These include the outpouring of the Spirit, “signs and wonders,” and the gift of tongues. The handbook contains an excellent discussion of the dispensational understanding of Holy Spirit’s ministry in the book of Acts.

Part 3 of the handbook is not as valuable to the reader. Most of the background comments have been gleaned from standard evangelical commentaries on Acts. The reader would be better served reading firsthand such works as F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (NICNT); Richard Longenecker, “Acts” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, volume 9; and John Polhill, Acts (New American Commentary). A better exposition of the dispensational understanding of Acts is available in Stanley Toussaint, “Acts” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Reading Toussaint after Parts 1 and 2 of the handbook would be very profitable for the expositor of Acts.

The overall impact of this volume is marred by the number of errors uncorrected in the editorial process. The following are a few examples of many that could be recounted. Peter, instead of Paul, is said to have quoted Hab 1:5 in Acts 13:40-41 (90). Iconium is omitted from the locations Paul visited on his first missionary journey (105). Jerusalem, rather than Rome, is stated to be the place Paul was under house arrest (107). Information concerning Philip, one of the seven, is used in explaining what Philip the apostle did (191). Three thousand, not five thousand, were added to the church on the Day of Pentecost (203). Philip, instead of Stephen, is said to have been preaching to the Hellenistic synagogue in Jerusalem (251). Paul is stated to have spent a year and a half in Ephesus when in fact it was about three years (352).

A Bible Handbook to the Acts of the Apostlesis a good introduction to the dispensational understanding of the book. The volume meets a definite need in the contemporary discussion of the theology of Acts. This reviewer would hope that the editor and publisher would make the needed corrections in further printings to ensure that the impact of this handbook would not be defused by its factual errors.