Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Initial Thoughts on Aaron J. Kuecker's The Spirit and the 'Other'

Aaron Kuecker, The Spirit and the ‘other’: Social Identity, Ethnicity and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts. London: T&T Clark International, 2011. ISBN 9780567235701 $120.00.

Aaron Kuecker, Associate Professor of Theology at Trinity Christian College, in this revised version of his PhD thesis at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, argues that the Spirit is the central agent in the formation of a new social identity in Luke-Acts. He does this by drawing on the resources of social identity theory and contemporary ethnicity approaches (Kuecker 2011: 24-40). The monograph pays particular attention to Luke 1-4 and Acts 1-15, showing that the former lays the foundation for the way Luke connects social identity, the Spirit, and the ‘other’. In-group benefits are the focus of this section and the way that existing group boundaries are to be transcended. The agency of the Spirit is particularly evident in Acts 1-15. Kuecker rightly recognizes that the Spirit is at work in situations where social identity is called into question and functions to transform individuals and communities by virtue of the development and construal of a new social identity (Kuecker 2011: 212-15). What is unique to Kuecker’s approach is the way he contends that this Spirit-formed identity provides an alternative communal discourse in comparison to the dominant cultural scripts. The result of this transformed identity is interethnic reconciliation, which is made concrete through: (1) new economic practices, (2) new approaches to hospitality, and (3) an ethnic discourse that differs from the dominant one within the Roman Empire. Kuecker’s thorough analysis of social identity theory provides an excellent example of the way this approach to reading the NT brings new insights and reinforces evidence-based exegetical claims that also rely on the resources of contemporary theory.

Kuecker provides a helpful survey of the role of the Spirit in Luke-Acts and it quickly becomes clear that he sees the “spirit of prophecy” model as somewhat unhelpful when seeking to understanding the full agency of the Spirit in Luke-Acts. Particularly persuasive is his claim that the Spirit does not “explicitly inspire speech in the most thoroughly mission-oriented sections of Acts” (Kuecker 2011: 16). Here he has in mind Paul’s missional discourse and his legal defense. Kuecker then claims that “sections of the text where group and social identity are at stake contain the highest density of Spirit references in all of Acts” (Kuecker 2011: 16). This is a key insight from his work. Oftentimes, the work of the Spirit in Luke-Acts is seen in a theological context while overlooking the concrete social context. Kuecker is also concerned with an overly-individualistic interpretation of the Spirit’s role in Luke-Acts; however, his primary concern is “the relationship between the Spirit and ethnic identity in Luke-Acts” (Kuecker 2011: 17). Here he is interested in bringing to the fore the identity processes that are in play in the text that differ from contemporary conceptions of these processes: “There was something powerfully different about the way identity operated in Luke’s early community of believers, and this difference comes out clearly in an investigation of the interplay of Spirit, ethnicity and identity” (Kuecker 2011: 17). Obviously, this is a contested point of view, and it may be we are talking about degrees of difference based on local contexts, rather than stark opposites. The thesis for Kuecker’s work is: “for Luke, the Holy Spirit is the central figure in the formation of a new social identity that affirms yet chastens and transcends ethnic identity. The formation of this new identity is a reflection of profound transformation (not just social recategorization), and is the mechanism through which intergroup reconciliation occurs in Luke-Acts” (Kuecker 2011: 18).

Kuecker’s approach to Christ-movement identity may be described as transcending. In this way, it is similar to Philip Esler’s approach (see my discussion in Tucker 2010: 67-69). Following also a similar approach by Bruce Hansen in All of You Are One, Kuecker recognizes that existing identities are not necessarily obliterated: “This new ethnic identity does not require the negation of ethnic identity” (Kuecker 2011: 19). This is crux of the issue: can a universalistic approach to Christ-movement identity support the contention that existing ethnic (or social) identities can continue in any meaningful sense (see my critique of this position in Tucker 2011: 4-7). Or, if the claim is that the new identity transcends existing identities, how can one assure that such a stance does not simply reify majority culture? These are central questions that distinguish the universalistic and particularistic approaches to Christ-movement social identity. Is it more likely that Christ-movement social identity was defined in the context of existing social identity rather than in a manner that transcends those? Furthermore, is it more likely then that the Spirit was one of several discursive agents that contributed to the formation of Christ-movement identity, rather than the central one (Kuecker 2011: 18). Kuecker’s suggestion is an approach to identity referred to as allocentric. He defines this as: “an identity characterized by or denoting interest centered in persons other than oneself. In the present study, an ‘allocentric identity’ will be used to refer to an identity that can express in-group love and out-group love simultaneously, a very difficult feat within most social groups” (Kuecker 2011: 18 n. 83). This key concept may provide a way forward between the universalistic and particularistic approaches, because it recognizes the alternative communal approach evident in the NT that results in an alternative ethos, one distinct from the dominant culture, but also draws from it for aspects of its identity-formational discourse (see particularly Kuecker 2011: 222). Kuecker has provided a key work on the development of social identity in the early Christ-movement as evidenced by Luke’s writing and, along with Coleman Baker’s Identity, Memory, and Narrative in Early Christianity provide NT scholars with a clear path for the way Luke’s narrative forms identity, though their different approaches to recategorization brings a needed complexity to this fascinating topic within early Christian origins.


Baker, Coleman A. Identity, Memory, and Narrative in Early Christianity: Peter, Paul, and Recategorization in the Book of Acts. Eugene, Or: Pickwick Publications, 2011.

Esler, Philip Francis. Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul's Letter. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Hansen, Bruce. All of You Are One: The Social Vision of Galatians 3.28, 1 Corinthians 12.13 and Colossians. 3.11. London: T & T Clark, 2010.

Tucker, J. Brian. You Belong to Christ: Paul and the Formation of Social Identity in 1 Corinthians 1-4. Eugene, Or: Pickwick Publications, 2010.

Tucker, J. Brian. Remain in Your Calling: Paul and the Continuation of Social Identities in 1 Corinthians. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011.

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