There are two passages in Acts which use a peculiar phrase that has perplexed scholars: “give conversion.” What could this mean? Joel Green examines this phrase in his new book Conversion in Luke-Acts (Baker Academic). Here are the two passages:
God exalted this Jesus to his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give conversion to Israel, as well as forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:31)
They praised God, saying, “So God has given even to the gentiles the conversion that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18)
Green notes that Calvin says the latter of the two passages can allow for two interpretations. God has either “given to the gentiles ‘the opportunity of repentance’ or that God has actually changed their hearts. Of these two options, Calvin chooses the latter.” (p. 136) The recent discussion, Green writes, “can be traced to the work of Hans Conzelmann (1915–89). In his view, the phrase ‘to give repentance’ ought to be understood in the context of Second Temple Jewish and early Christian literature, where it refers to the gift of ‘the opportunity for repentance.’” (p. 136)
As would be expected not everyone is persuaded. Green points to Christoph Stenschke who “devotes a section of his study of Lukan anthropology to a point-by-point refutation of Conzelmann’s case.” (p. 138 Christopher Stenschke, Luke’s Portrait of the Gentiles, Mohr Siebeck, 1999)
Green offers four arguments against Stenschke’s examination of the evidence. For brevity’s sake I offer only the first two of Green’s responses.
“First, Stenschke too easily brushes past Conzelmann’s understanding of how a native Greek speaker might have heard Luke’s language of ‘giving conversion.’ To take only one example, Plutarch reports that Alexander, ‘having arrived before Thebes, and wanting still to give the city an opportunity for repentance of its deeds, required . . .’ (Alexander 11.4),40 a report in which the phrase ‘an opportunity for’ simply must be introduced for purposes of clarity.” (p. 138)
Second, “[i]t simply makes no sense to take these two texts as referring to God’s active changing of the hearts and lives of everyone, both Israel and the gentiles (an interpretation that Stenschke’s reading seems to require), though it makes good sense of Luke’s theology to say that God has opened the way for everyone, both Israel and the gentiles, to convert (as Conzelmann’s reading would have it).” (p. 139)
The discussion is fascinating and well worth reading. See the full discussion on pages 132-42.