Acts. Reformed Expository Commentary. By Derek W.H. Thomas. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2011. 784pp. Cloth, $39.99.
This commentary is a practical exposition of Acts and does not seek to be an exegetical commentary. According to the Series Introduction, this commentary sets out to accomplish several goals: 1) To be a “faithful, inspiring, and useful” commentary for “pastors, teachers, Bible study leaders, and many others” (p. xi). 2) To remain true to the Westminster Confession and catechisms (p. xii). 3) To be scholarly without being academic (p. xii). 4) To look at the Bible through a redemptive-historical perspective (p. xii). 5) To renew “confidence in the clarity and power of Scripture” (p. xiii). These are certainly broad goals. In simplest terms, it seeks to bring Reformed tradition to professional and nonprofessional ministers alike, and to show that the Scripture not only teaches this view but is clear in doing so. This last point is where this commentary comes up short, but this is not the result of faulty presentation but faulty theology. If Scripture in fact does not teach Reformed tradition, then it cannot be expected that this commentary will show that it clearly does teach it.
Regarding its intention to be accessible by people from all stages of instruction and avoid being “academic,” for the most part, it accomplishes its goal and this could be considered one of its strengths, though there is certainly some unnecessary academic language. For example, Thomas goes to Latin “they were to be ‘witnesses’ (Latin martus)” (p. 9) for his assertion that being “witnesses” in Acts 1:8 includes being “willing to suffer to the death for this witness to the truth (thus, martyr)” (p. 9). I’m not sure why he refers to Latin instead of the original, when the Greek word is transliterated the same as the Latin “martus.” I found this very strange, especially since he references Greek earlier on the page. However, I did find this commentary to be quite readable and any terms used that are not part of common language were clearly and simply defined in the text. There are not many footnotes per page, usually between zero and three.
Also, I was pleased to find no pejorative language or unkind words directed toward people with differing views. His disagreements with doctrines are limited to the doctrines themselves.
The theology of the commentary is consistently Reformed Presbyterian. Thomas argues for the doctrine of Temporary Faith (p. 230-32), infant baptism (p. 50), Unconditional Election (p. 375), Perseverance of the Saints (p. 232) and other Reformed doctrines. One tough text for the Reformed view of election, Acts 13:46, was skipped entirely (p. 374), and others are simply dismissed without giving a good reason to do so. For example, regarding Acts 1:7, Thomas states, “It is possible to construe Jesus’ reply to suggest that he does not deny a future purpose for Israel and the disciples are simply not privy to its timing. However, the text quite certainly indicates that in saying that he intends them to go ‘to the end of the earth,’ Jesus clearly intends the focus of the kingdom to be away from Jerusalem” (p. 10). Certainly Dispensationalists would agree that Jesus wants the disciples to soon extend their evangelical focus to the whole world, but nowhere does Thomas demonstrate what about Jesus’ statement about taking the gospel to the world means that the kingdom won’t be restored to Israel.
Perhaps the weakest portion of the book is his treatment of Temporary Faith which comes in his discussion of Simon Magus (Acts 8:13-24). While acknowledging that the Bible does say that Simon “believed” (Acts 8:13), he then seeks to undercut this by labeling it “temporary faith” as opposed to “saving faith” (p. 230, italics his). He refers to three evidences to support his conclusion that Simon’s was unregenerate, “First, there was no sign of Simon’s repentance…Second, Simon’s offer of money to the apostles so that he might purchase their ability to bestow the Holy Spirit on others…Third, there was Peter’s assessment of Simon Magus” (p. 229-230). The first two dismiss the clear statement that “Simon Himself also believed” based solely upon a prior commitment to Reformed Theology. Concerning the third point, he quotes J.B. Philips’s rendering of Acts 8:20, “To hell with you and your money!” and I. Howard Marshall’s approval of the translation as “precisely what the Greek says,” yet no mention of the Greek or any defense of that translation is given (no word meaning “hell” appears in the Greek, nor is that Peter’s intention).
In defense of the doctrine of Temporary Faith, Thomas offers very little by way of Biblical evidence. Instead he quotes from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (p. 231). This quote is an illustration of the Reformed view of Heb 6:4-6, an illustration that Thomas rightly calls “terrifying” (p. 230). This section of the commentary is clearly intended to invoke fear of hellfire among his audience and no words of comfort are offered but rather a solemn warning: “In light of the possibility of a false profession of faith, we need to examine our own hearts on a regular basis. We should ask ourselves whether our faith is genuine and vital. We need to ensure that we are trusting in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation and discern whether fruits of repentance are in evidence” (p. 232). This is a pastoral nightmare, and falls far short of the stated goal to be “inspiring.”
Another weak point is where Thomas relegates Peter’s powerful statement concerning the believers’ freedom from the heavy burden of the law in Acts 15:10-12 to only the ceremonial aspects of the law. It was not the ceremonial aspects of the law about which Peter says, “Now, therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10). His evidence was that some Jews had to travel far to offer sacrifices (p. 414). But the Jews had much less trouble with the ceremonial aspects of the law than they did with the moral aspects. Furthermore, two of the most famous passages regarding freedom from law in the New Testament focus specifically on moral aspects of the law (the Ten Commandments in 2 Corinthians 3 and “You shall not covet” in Romans 7). In addition, nothing in the text supports the idea that Peter meant only the ceremonial aspects of the law, nor does Thomas offer any evidence other than to offer Eph 6:1 as a proof text that Paul was placing the church under the Decalogue (p. 413).
One more weak point is in dealing with the passage on the Philippian Jailer. When commenting on Paul’s answer to the question “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” namely, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31), Thomas casts aside Paul’s answer by saying, “The answer to this question about the way of salvation is not uniform in Scripture. Sometimes the answer is: ‘Repent and believe (Mark 1:15). On other occasions it is simply: ‘Repent!’ (Matt 3:2; Acts 2:38; 17:30). And then again, on some occasions, as here, it is: ‘Believe!’ (John 3:16). In truth, neither faith nor repentance can exist apart from the other” (p. 468). In this one short paragraph, he did away with the simplicity not only of Acts 16:31, but also John 3:16 and by implication every other passage that gives only “Believe!” as the answer to that question. In this view, the Gospel of John would be insufficient regarding its stated purpose (20:31) because the word repent never appears.
Overall, this commentary is full of strong and controversial statements given without any significant support. Clear and simple statements are read away or cast aside in favor of Reformed tradition. And while it was written with a practical focus, if practically applied the reader will find only insecurity about whether or not his faith is “temporary,” judgmentalism toward others, and legalistic attempts at obedience with the hope of maybe being finally justified. I also did not find any significant additions to theological discussion, but rather restatements of the Reformed Theology’s standard interpretations. I cannot recommend this book.
Grace Bible Church