A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 8:1-40. 2b. One-stage initiation.
One possible way to handle the first half of Acts 8 is to say that even the Samaritans’ experience, although in two stages, was not the two-stage initiation which at first sight it appears to be, because either the first or the second stage was not initiatory.
Some argue that the Samaritans’ first stage was not a genuine conversion at all, but a spurious one. Campbell Morgan interprets their having ‘accepted the word of God’ (14) as a merely intellectual assent: ‘they had not received the Spirit which brings regeneration, the beginning of the new life’. In our day Professor Dunn has provided a thorough development of this thesis. He suggests that the Samaritans got carried along ‘by the herd-instinct of a popular mass-movement’. They are said only to have ‘believed Philip’ (12), which he thinks does not mean that they believed in Jesus Christ; and their baptism (like Simon’s) was form without reality, Besides, since ‘in the New Testament times the possession of the Spirit was *the* hallmark of a Christian’, we simply cannot regard the Samaritans at that stage as having been Christians at all. Therefore their second stage was really their first. It was through Peter and John, not through Philip, that they became Christians.
It is an ingenious reconstruction, but it has not won general agreement. The main objection to it is that Luke gives no hint that he considers the Samaritans’ original response inadequate, although he is clear that Simon Magus’ profession was bogus. No, Luke writes that outstanding blessing attended Philip’s ministry (4-8); that the Samaritans ‘believed Philip as he preached the good news of…Jesus Christ’ (12), so that it is inadmissible to divorce believing Philip from believing the Christ Philip preached; that they ‘had accepted the word of God’ (14) in the believing sense in which he uses this phrase elsewhere (eg. 2:41 and 11:1); and that the apostles gave no indication that they thought Philip’s ministry or the Samaritan’s faith to be defective.
Others argue that the Samaritans did truly believe in Jesus, and that they must therefore have received the Spirit at that point in accordance with New Testament teaching. In consequence, what they received through the laying on of the apostles’ hands was not the initial gift of the Spirit (which they had received at their conversion), but rather some charismatic manifestations of the Spirit. Calvin taught this: ‘To sum up, since the Samaritans had the Spirit of adoption conferred on them already, the extraordinary graces of the Spirit are added as a culmination.’ And reformed commentators have tended to follow him. They may be correct. Certainly the statement that the Spirit ‘had not yet fallen on any of them’ (16, RSV) could refer to special gifts and graces. On the other hand, Luke never says that the Samaritans received the Spirit when they believed and were baptised, whereas he does use the language of ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ the Spirit (15, 17-19) as synonymous with the Spirit ‘falling on’ them, which suggests that what they received through the ministry of the apostles was the initial gift of the Spirit.
Although these two reconstructions are mutually exclusive, they have one thing in common. They both affirm that the Samaritans’ initiation into Christ was a one-stage event, because they deny that the other stage was initiatory. According to the first view, stage one was a spurious conversion and irregular baptism, so that stage two was the full initiation, including faith and the gift of the Spirit. According to the second view, stage one was the Samaritans’ full initiation, including their conversion and reception of the Spirit, so that stage two was not initiatory but a subsequent charismatic endowment. In both cases, by eliminating one of the two stages (either declaring the first bogus or the second supplementary), the same result is achieved, namely a one-stage initiation into Christ.
Neither reconstruction is satisfactory, however, since Luke does seem to understand stage one as a genuine conversion, and stage two as the initial reception of the Spirit. In that case, because Luke describes a two-stage initiation in Samaria, the alternative explanation is to regard it as having been altogether unusual. There are two main indications of this, namely that it deviated both from the normal teaching and from the normal practice of the apostles. Take the apostles teaching. It is always dangerous to isolate any passage of Scripture, and always wise to interpret Scripture by Scripture, What, then, is the general teaching of Scripture about receiving the Spirit? According to Peter’s first sermon, forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit are twin initial blessings which God bestows on everyone whom he calls, and who repents, believes and is baptised (2:38-39). Further, Paul agrees with Peter. God gives his Spirit to all his children, so that ‘if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ’ (Rom. 8:9; cf. Rom. 8:14-16; 1 Cor.6:19; Gal.3:2,14; 4:6).
Tomorrow: One-stage initiation (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.