Wednesday, September 14, 2016

What Has 2nd Peter Got to Do with Anything?

I stood intimidated before dozens of Bibles that stood shoulder to shoulder on the shelf of my local Bible bookstore in Spokane. Of the many new translations shouting for my attention, some dressed in warm brown covers, some friendly paperbacks, some with reverent gold leaf pages, which one was best? Which was most accurate? Which most readable. As I struggled to make a decision, I began to wonder about inspiration. Were these many versions inspired?

   I had been taught a standard definition of inspiration by my Bible teacher in Christian school, "verbal plenary." That means every word is inspired and inspired equally. It was easy to remember, but how did it work with these new translations? I asked a pastor.

   He said that "verbal plenary"  only had to do with the original "autographs." That's a fancy name for the actual document written by the author, not copies or translations. But that wasn't very satisfying because of the many Bibles on the shelf, not one was an autograph. In fact, it turns out no one has an autograph. All we have are copies and translations. But I wasn't done thinking.

   I asked my pastor whether maybe God had inspired the ideas rather than the words. Maybe the issue of which translation is the best translation is not so important. He was of a generation older than myself and had received a pretty fundamental education. He said no; God inspired the specific words - in the autographs - and that was important. We need to get as close to those words as we can.

   A year or so later, in the same church, we had a retired Wycliffe missionary visit and speak. He had been a missionary to a Mayan tribal people in Mexico and had there helped translate the Bible into the Mayan language. I asked him about his translation. He said it was rough. But rough as it was it had led many Mayan people to place their trust in Jesus and had transformed their lives and tribal culture. At that point I got it.

   Inspiration is not simply about the original documents written by the prophets or Apostles. It is also about the way God uses those sometimes imperfectly translated books to change lives. Being as accurate as possible to the originals is important, but just as important is the Holy Spirit's presence in the reading.

   To be fair with the theologians, that is called "illumination" and distinct from "inspiration. But in real life one is not sufficient without the other. And as in the case of my Wycliffe translator friend, God uses the imperfect if that is all he has to work with. And that is all God does have. We do not have the theoretically perfect originals. We must depend upon illumination by the Spirit.

   So the next leap in my mind was this question: How do we know if the books we have in our Bibles are inspired?

I had no idea at the time how complicated the answer to that question was going to be - or how simple.

   The complicated answer is that the process of deciding which books are inspired was long and messy. As far as the New Testament books were concerned, it took several centuries for Christians to come to a settled decision, if it can even be called that. The fact is, the 1st and 2nd century Bible book store was crowded and messy. There were a lot of books written about Jesus or written as instruction to the church. There were gospels everywhere. There were letters written to churches and books of instructions and books of stories and allegories. Most do not show up in our present Bibles.

   Why not?

   In the late first century and second century the question of which books were "Scripture" was pressed upon the church by the shear numbers of books and the diversity within those books. Early on there was little consensus about which of the new books were to be considered authoritative or inspired. The Hebrew Scriptures, of course, were assumed by nearly everyone to be God's inspired words. But what about these newer books?

   In practice, some were pretty much accepted by everyone. Among them were the four gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were the foundation of the new list of books that would become known as the canon or approved list - which is what the word canon means. Others were rejected outright as being out of keeping with the word already received and out of keeping with Jesus as he was revealed in the flesh and in the collected memories of the disciples and Apostles. Some few were on the fringe. They were accepted as authoritative by some and neglected if not rejected by others in the churches. Among them were the books of Revelation, 2nd and 3rd John, James, Jude, and 2 Peter.

   It was not until the 4th century and early 5th century that there was something of a final list drawn up. And even then, there continued to be less than great enthusiasm about some of the books. Martin Luther, for example, in the 1500s called the book of James a "strawy epistle" because it seemed to contradict Paul's firm stand on salvation by faith. The book of Revelation has always been a puzzle and was often neglected by teachers of the Scriptures. And lately questions about 2 Peter have resurfaced.

   That gives an idea of how complex and messy this drawing up a list of inspired books was. However, for most Christians it was simple. The question for them was this: Does God speak in this book? Was there a spark of the Spirit?

   The formal selection process included limiting the books to those written by Apostles or those near the Apostles. It included the question of unity or theological agreement with the previously written Scriptures in the Old Testament and those books early deemed authoritative in the first century, the four gospels. It was an intellectual process. In the end, however, the books that made the cut were those in which God spoke to the reader and to the church.

   That freshness and sense of God's immediate word (the Greek word for that is rhema) to them is what impressed Christians. That sense of rhema was what impressed people about Jesus' teaching. They said, "He speaks with authority, not as the Scribes and the Pharisees." That impreciseness seems to those who would like something more measurable terribly subjective, but to the mature Christian in the 2nd century or the 21st, it is the ultimate and most important test.

   It is with that background in view that we come to the current challenge to one of the books in our Bibles, the book of 2 Peter. As I began to considered 2 Peter seriously, I asked why it had not been embraced as enthusiastically as some of the other books.

   Second Peter was one of the last books to receive the qualification "canonical." Not until the late 3rd century was 2 Peter included in the official canon.  In fact, in several cases it was called a forgery - as it is called by some today - even though it had been recognized by various groups of Christians as the rhema of God from late in the 1st century.

   As I searched for an answer I stumbled upon the webpage of evangelist Steve Cha, Authenticity of 2nd Peter   He has done an exceptional job of defending 2 Peter as an authentic book by Peter and as the inspired rhema of God to the church. The research and thought he put into the defense of 2 Peter is  impressive. But I wondered why an evangelist would be so interested in 2 Peter. Wouldn't other books be more suitable in his evangelistic calling?

   I wondered also why 2nd Peter is so passionately opposed by the new atheists.

   As I often do, I slept on those questions. I wanted to allow God time to lead me to the answers. I woke in the middle of the night with this:
  • Second Peter was not written primarily for the Christian of the 1st century or the 2nd. It did have a message for them. It spoke to their circumstances and the challenges they were facing. It was an encouragement to persevere in the face of the opposition they faced.  But it was more a message about the future. It spoke of the hope of new age to come. And they, the church of the 1st century, weren't there yet.
  • Second Peter is God's rhema for our time more than any other. We are living in the time Peter spoke of. We are at the end of the age. We are faced with the dangers from the within the church Peter wrote about and the attacks of scoffers from outside the church - more than any generation in the past. This book and, interestingly, the other books that were in the early centuries considered a little ify - Revelation, James, and Jude -  were meant for us. They are time capsules meant to be opened and understood  anew in our age.  And that is what evangelist Steve Cha implies when he ends with this: "In a time when false doctrine and theories abound (in this case against 2 Peter itself), it is important that 2 Peter is preserved for the good of the church’s instruction, which is to combat false teaching and to uphold the glorious truth of the gospel in a dying world. Without it, the church is bereft of instruction concerning the importance of upholding truth and rejecting error."
  • Second Peter is opposed by the new scoffers because they are in it. Nowhere else in the Scriptures are the scoffers of the end of the age called out and identified as in 2nd Peter. Peter writes: "Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come." They will deny and oppose the truth of God's word. They will mock believers and seek to destroy the message and raise doubt by their questions. Yet at the same time nowhere is there a message of grace so directly spoken to them: "God is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."
   That message moves me. I pray that it moves you. If you are reading this as a Christian, stand firm in your faith while at the same time holding out grace to those who oppose you. If you are a scoffer, I beg you to consider God's grace. He loves you. He holds out to you forgiveness and peace and hope.

   Peter ends with this message to his readers - you and me: "Grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ."

 "To Him be glory both now and forever, amen."

1 comment:

Miriam Arul said...

Well written. Thanks for sharing! :)