I have always been fascinated by 2 Peter.
Well, “always” being as far back as when we translated portions of it, along with 1 Peter, in Advanced Greek in Bible College. The first chapter has that wonderfully scandalous (from a Protestant perspective) verse about actually participating in God. When translating it became painfully obvious that the two epistles had different authors. This latter problem was the very reason Mr. Parkhurst made us have a go at translating portions of the two Peters. I have always wondered what he actually made of the book, because he would never say; he would just smile his sly smile and remind us that it is in the New Testament, after all. (The official position of the college – a position that could get one kicked out of school if student, faculty, or janitor dared to disagree – was that the Apostle Peter wrote both epistles that bear his name.)
These difficulties – and the fact that we dared not talk about them outside of class, given the rigid conservative views of Big Sky Bible College, thus creating a sort of secret knowledge club among those of us in Advanced Greek – made me a passionate lover of the epistle. Bible College students are by nature of the Bible College experience a conservative bunch, and so it was that 2 Peter was a key part of what might be called my college rebellion experience.
The downside of this history is that it has always been difficult for me to talk about 2 Peter without descending into a “gotcha mentality” or using the book as a springboard for argument rather than a text of scripture. With the Feast of Transfiguration being recently celebrated (Aug.6) my attention has once again focused on 2 Peter because the first chapter is one of the great Transfiguration texts, but this year I wondered what would happen if I could somehow set aside my long history of 2 Peter as a college rebellion text and take a fresh look at it as scripture.
Even when attempting a new mindset, I am struck by how odd the letter is. It is less a well thought out missive and more a rant and therefore doesn’t lend itself to an outline. It is broadly divided into three sections: (1) Minister to your faith by practicing virtue. [1:1-11] (2) There is good teaching and false teaching; avoid the false teaching – and let’s say lots of bad things about the false teachers. [1:12-2:22] (3) God is patient with our foibles and this should spur us on to zeal in doing good. [3:1-18]
The second section, his rant about and lurid description of false teachers contrasted to his own holy experience, makes up more than 53% of the epistle. The first section is less than 16% of the letter and the last section is less than 31%. In that long section ranting about false teachers, the only thing we find out about them is that they somehow deny the second coming of Christ. It’s not even clear what form that denial takes. It’s a very broad stroke against a rather shadowy opponent.
This middle section is great grist for the mill of college age rebellion. It is vague enough that it can be applied to a large number of perceived enemies, and the language is so colorful and mean-spirited that it provides great sound bytes for any rant that a college radical might want to concoct on his own – not that I ever did anything of the sort. 🙂
But it occurs to me, now that I’ve mellowed with middle age, that this is one of the great strengths of the book. False teaching is very creative and ever changing. If the author were to define his opponents too narrowly we might miss the fact that the type of false teachers he’s talking about are always with us. The specifics may change, but they are typical in that they always deny or distort some fundamental truth of the Gospel. The problem isn’t just these false teachers in particular but false teaching in general.
Similarly, the author spends little time defining our faith, our call, and our election. He has a profound trust in the Church; although it is not stated explicitly, it is implied that there is a place in which one can find trustworthy witness to the Truth. Certainly the truth can be found in Peter and Paul (although there are things that are hard to understand in Paul according to 3:16), and by implication that line of witnesses and leaders that have remained faithful to this revelation; in other words, the true Church.
In this day and age that is admittedly problematic. There are at least five great traditions of Church life (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Scholastic Protestantism/Evangelicalism, and Pentecostal/Charismatic). Each group supposedly has cause to find heresy in the other four groups (as well as in their own broad traditions). So it is critical that we seek to remain zealous and faithful to both the Living Christ and to the tradition in which we believe that the Living Christ is best expressed — “Lone Ranger Christianity” is simply not an option because we are too prone to interpreting scripture to our own advantage, leading to our being carried away by the siren song of the same self-indulgent false teaching of which 2 Peter rails.
The thing that 2 Peter does, possibly better than any other single book of the New Testament, is to describe how the relationship between faith and works should actually work in our lives. This brilliant description is found in the first section of the epistle.
He begins by stating emphatically that faith is given by God. We cannot manufacture it within ourselves. We obtain faith in the righteousness of God (1:1). This righteousness is revealed emphatically and with great glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, to which Peter (as well as the unnamed James, and John) were eyewitnesses. They didn’t make it up; they saw it. As witnesses, they reported it. And as we become “partakers in the divine nature” we too experience and know it, not as some feeling or intuition, but as a given reality in which we know through participation.
And then we are called to do something very specific with that faith: we are to minister to that faith that has been placed into our being. Here I am not talking about ministers as “Preachers” or “Priests” or “Ministers of Word and Sacrament.” Instead, the word “minister” is more akin to servants or people given a specific task. Members of the Canadian cabinet, or as they call it, “the Ministry” (as in many other countries) are “ministers of the crown.” The “Minister of Foreign Affairs” is given the task of ensuring that Canada’s foreign affairs are in order and that Canada’s place in the world is enhanced through his ministry.
In the same way 2 Peter tells us to minister to our faith. That is, we should do things that strengthen, enhance, and deepen our faith. The RSV translation is a bit misleading. In 1:5 it says, “For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue …” The Greek word translated “supplement” is a little used (in the New Testament) Greek word, epichoregeo, which means “to minister to or to assist.” This is what nurses and household assistants do. It is why secretaries are often considered more critical to an effective office than their boss. “Ministers of Finance” don’t have the money, nor do they control the money; but their action or inaction can cause the money supply to expand or contract in such a way that can make an economy grow or fail.
Similarly our works do not create faith nor are they the same thing as faith, but they do minister to our faith and are so important that they can make that faith grow or fail. Second Peter offers up a list of works or virtues that come straight out of Greek Stoicism: virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Paul has similar lists. I suspect the point is not to exegete each one of these terms, but rather to recognize that the things we do in order to minister to our faith must be pretty broad based and involve every part of our lives and thinking. It is not enough to just read spiritual literature, neither is it enough to go out and build houses for the poor. Each of those are excellent activities, but our efforts must be holistic rather than narrow. In the Orthodox Church this effort is summed up by the three words “prayer, alms, and fasting.” The Roman Catholics are especially fond of Paul’s seven virtues. The Presbyterians are especially known for their work in the world, the Mennonites and Methodists for the holy life, and the Evangelicals for their missionary service. All of these are expressions of this singular idea that we must minister to our faith if our faith is to flourish.
James says “that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:25). Paul was not especially good at explaining how the two are related. He says that salvation is by faith alone in Romans and Galatians, but in Ephesians he observes that we were “created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (2:10). It always feels like Paul struggled with a dichotomy between the two. It is the author of 2 Peter who manages to explain how faith is utterly preeminent and yet completely powerless without the virtues. Our works minister to our God-given faith, making it something useful and salvific.
Striking that chord, which rings from ancient times into eternity, of the perfect harmony of faith and works is one of the great gifts 2 Peter offers Christians through the ages. In this most recent consideration of the book, that is this glorious truth I saw and I revel in. Thanks be to God.