The Problem of Audience Precis

Précis - Dale C. Allison – The Problem of Audience


In “The Problem of Audience”, Allison exposits the view that Jesus’ audience in different passages is important hermeneutically and yet has too often been overlooked. There are two possible extremes: in the first extreme every command of Jesus is both addressed to the audience physically listening to him and to us, while the second extreme argues that Jesus’ words were addressed to the audience physically listening to Jesus and has limited, or no, bearing on us. Allison believes there is some merit to the second interpretation. He notes that even among the gospel accounts, Jesus makes different demands of different followers. Therefore, we may expect that at least some of Jesus’ demands and commands may be different for followers today than for his disciples at the time.

Allison continues, observing that even the Reformers such as Calvin admitted on certain points that the “two-tiered ethic” (34) had merit, such as that Christians are not required to sell all their possessions as Jesus asked of the rich man, because Jesus later allows Zacchaeus to only give up half his possessions. Therefore, some commands are for particular people, and not followers generally.

Allison believes that there is not enough evidence to prove that texts such as he lists are only limited to the inner circle, but neither is there enough evidence to prove they are restricted as well. However, the gospel authors seem to make Jesus’ words applicable to a broad set of believers more than they limit his words. Finally, this may have applicability to Jesus’ teachings on judgment. It could be that some or all of Jesus’ statements on hell and judgment are limited to Jesus’ generation.


In critiquing this essay, I would first note there is merit in at least some cases to the two-tiered interpretation. Even as the Reformers noted, it is clear that at times Jesus addresses specific commands to specific audiences. Allison does well to note the example of Jesus asking the rich man to give up all of his possessions while accepting half of Zacchaeus’ possessions and presumably allowing others to give less or none.

It would seem to me that this is an indication that God will deal with people in different ways, but that does not discount that there are universally applicable teachings, for example moral teachings. This grows from God’s nature, which is the grounding of good and is immutable. Yet how God relates with individuals may clearly vary, asking one man to become a missionary, while gifting another to succeed in business and work greatly for the good of the poor and needy. That both people must work for the good of the downtrodden is unchanging, because humility and service are part of God’s nature, yet the applicability may vary.

Whether this applies to a sort of “double standard” in which God calls a smaller group into greater service than others is an open question, but I think it can be answered in the affirmative. For example, James 3:1 indicates that those who have received the calling of teacher (Eph. 4:11) – presumably including pastors or any who instruct the body – will be judged by God more strictly. All followers are called by God to follow, but different calls have different requirements and duties. I do not agree with Allison on all points, as he sometimes seems to take Jesus’ words with a literalism that I do not think is warranted. For example, I do not think that Jesus’ words in Luke 14:26 are not intended only for his closest followers (36-37). They seem to be intended not as a literal command, but as a principle illustrating that the kingdom is worth more than anything on Earth, even family. Furthermore, Allison’s skepticism regarding the gospel writers’ tendency to apply Jesus’ teaching broadly is unwarranted for any Christian believing in inerrancy. It would seem to follow then, that God’s moral law is immutable, yet the applicability into Christians’ lives may vary according to the call which he has placed on their lives.