Luke Timothy Johnson
An appreciative understanding of 2 Peter demands more than the normal effort. Hard work is necessary to uncover the situation addressed by the letter. Perhaps even more difficult is the hurdle presented by the letter's sustained argumentative tone. Such effort finds its rewards, however, in the surprising discovery that a writing which at first appears as the New Testament's most irrelevant can emerge as having perennial pertinence.
A Defense of God's Judgment
The circumstances of 2 Peter's composition are obscure (see introduction, NT, pp. 1651–52 ). The same author did not write both 1 and 2 Peter. The style, outlook, and concerns of the two letters are too disparate for a common authorship. The main thing they have in common is the mention of Noah and the flood. Second Peter has far more in common with Jude (with which it shares the polemical material of chapter 2 ) than with 1 Peter. In all likelihood, 2 Peter is a pseudonymous composition. Despite the self‐presentation of chapter 1 , it is not “Symeon Peter” who writes, but someone who invokes his authority as a support for shared traditions being threatened by deviance. This sermon in the form of a letter may have been addressed to a single church, but it may also have been intended for a larger audience, all “those who have received a faith of equal value to ours” ( 1, 1 ). It is thus considered a “general” epistle. The title “Catholic Epistles” was applied to 1 and 2 Peter, James, 1, 2, 3 John, and Jude because they were written for a broader audience than a local church (in Greek, “catholic” = “pertaining to the whole”). Some readers also consider 2 Peter “catholic” in another sense: its concern for tradition anticipates the emergence of the Catholic Church in the second century.
At first reading, 2 Peter seems to be a loose collection of observations within which talk about Jesus' second coming plays a particularly significant part. Some scholars have therefore thought that the “delay of the Parousia” was the crisis that stimulated composition. Closer analysis, however, shows that “Peter” and his opponents are debating a deeper and more perennial problem: does God judge the world? Underlying that issue, in turn, is a still more fundamental one concerning the reality of God and God's relationship to the world. The debate, in short, is between living faith and practical atheism. It is a debate still in progress. The contribution of 2 Peter is worth hearing.
Far from a random collection of statements, the letter as a whole presents a coherent argument. Chapter 1 establishes the authority of the writer and of the Scripture that will be used as the source of proof. Chapter 2 attacks the opponents' “destructive teachings” on the basis of Scripture. Chapter 3 presents the proper understanding of the tradition concerning God's judgment.
The Common Tradition ( 1, 1–21 )
The first section of the letter establishes the authority of the writer and of the shared tradition ( 1, 1 ) that the author represents. Extraordinary emphasis is put on the person of Peter and on the fact that he will soon die ( 1, 13f ). These touches recall the literary genre popular in early Christianity called the “Farewell Discourse.” In this sort of composition, a figure from the past, speaking shortly before his death, predicts catastrophes to come and enjoins fidelity on his followers. We notice in this case, however, an equally strong emphasis on memory ( 1, 188.8.131.52 ). The opponents “forget” the proper knowledge, and Peter seeks to “remind” his readers of it. The emphasis on memory makes the letter resemble as well the form of moral exhortation called parenesis. The connection to parenesis is most obvious in 2 Peter 1, 5–8 . Parenesis spelled out moral obligations in terms of maxims. Here, Peter lists the sort of qualities that should follow upon the readers' faith. More important even than the specific items is the overall point made by the list: more than knowledge or faith is involved in being Christian. A whole way of life is demanded. Those who have “forgotten” this lead lives that are “idle and unfruitful” ( 1, 8f ). There is a sharp polemical edge to this comment. In chapter 2 , Peter will show that the opponents' “destructive heresies” bring about destructive behavior, which in turn brings down God's judgment.
A complex statement provides the basis for Peter's overall argument and a transition to his attack on opponents ( 1, 16–21 ). In a passage that clearly corresponds to the Synoptic Gospels' story of Jesus' transfiguration (see Mt 17, 1–8 ), he asserts the reality of the Christian experience of God. The tradition out of which Peter writes is not speculation (“cleverly devised myths,” 1, 16 ), but is a power he and others experience personally; “we” saw and heard on the mountain ( 1, 16–18 )! The community's tradition is based not in fancy but in fact. The experience, moreover, was of “the power and coming” of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we will learn, the promise concerning Jesus' return is the bone of contention in chapter 3 . Peter claims that the expectation of his return is based on the reality of his already having come.
The disciples' experience of Jesus also grounds the “prophetic message” about Jesus' return for judgment. Peter places this prophecy of Jesus (see Mt 24, 29–31 ) among the prophecies of Scripture. As with scriptural prophecies, interpretation is not to be personal or idiosyncratic but a decision of the community that is guided by the same Spirit that gave utterance in the first place. With this alignment, Peter has provided the basis for arguing the whole issue of God's judgment (and therefore of Jesus' return) on the truthfulness of Scripture as properly interpreted by the tradition.
Condemnation of False Teachers ( 2, 1–22 )
The claim to a true “prophetic message” in 1, 19 provides a transition to the attack on “false teachers” ( 2, 1 ) who are placed in the line of “false prophets.” As we will learn more fully in chapter 3 , the opponents are denying the power of God to judge, that is, to intervene in the affairs of the world ( 3, 4 ). By denying God's ability to judge, they bring judgment on themselves! Their “destructive heresies” bring on them “destruction” ( 2, 1 ). But their teaching has proven successful, convincing many ( 2, 2 ); Peter's response must therefore be vigorous and pointed.
We saw in 1, 5–8 that Peter was concerned with the moral consequences of faith. The ancient world knew what our world sometimes ignores, that people act on their ideas, and that bad ideas can lead to bad behavior. A real misconception of what life is about leads to a distorted existence. Showing how certain teachings lead to immoral behavior is a way of proving that the ideas are false. Peter therefore pays particular attention to the way of life generated by these doctrines. He attacks the “licentious ways” of the opponents ( 2, 2 ), their “greed” and “lies” ( 2, 3 ). They are people of “depraved desires” ( 2, 10 ), are “irrational” ( 2, 12 ) and “adulterous” ( 2, 14 ). The catalogue of vices reaches a rhetorical climax in 2, 17f , then takes a sharp turn: “They promise them freedom, though they themselves are slaves of corruption, for a person is a slave of whatever overcomes him” ( 2, 19 ).
What sort of “freedom” did the opponents promise? Apparently, it was freedom from the fear of punishment. If God does not intervene in human affairs to punish the wicked and reward the good, then (they said) one can live immorally, looking out only for oneself, indulging in antisocial behavior.
Peter's first rebuttal is based on the nature of vice. They are slaves of their dominating appetite, which controls their behavior. They are not sophisticated or liberated. They are as compulsive as dogs returning to their vomit, these Christians who once knew righteousness but have now turned back to a novel version of an old atheism: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’ ” (Ps 14, 1 ).
The second part of Peter's rebuttal is based on the conviction that the Bible stories relate the facts of history. When Scripture says therefore that God did punish and reward, that is proof of God's ability still to do so. Peter relates the cases of the wicked angels ( 2, 4 ), of Noah ( 2, 5 ), of Sodom and Gomorrah ( 2, 6–10 ) and of Balaam ( 2, 15f ) as evidence of God's intervention. In contrast to the letter of Jude (with which much of this material is shared), Peter not only emphasizes punishment; God also rewards those who are faithful. Here, the issue is whether God acts in human history at all. Peter's recitation from Scripture asserts that in fact God does.
The Coming of the Lord ( 3, 1–18 )
The specific nature of the debate emerges for the first time in this final section. Here, not simply a question of fact but a matter of principle is at stake.
The question of fact is not really in dispute. Jesus clearly had not yet returned to judge the world as all Christians had been expecting. But quite different conclusions were being drawn from that undisputed fact. The “scoffers” challenge the very promise of his coming ( 3, 4 ).
They base their denial on the immutability of the world “from the beginning.” They hold the position of ancient skeptics such as the Epicureans and (among the Jews) Sadducees, who denied divine providence. If there was a god, he did not meddle with the world, which was, therefore, a closed system of natural forces and human desires. God was not a factor to be considered, never had been, never would be. The failure of Jesus to return, therefore, was only one more piece of evidence proving that all such prophecies were empty.
Theirs is a real threat to the whole structure of faith. They challenge not only the reality of the Parousia but the very reality of a living God! Is God, then, merely a figment of the imagination, a projection of human longing, a societal superego? The whole concept of revelation is obviously challenged as well. There can be no real “promise” if there is no living God to speak, or to act.
In this argument, both sides base their position on a claim of experience, which then interprets reality as a whole. The skeptics say that experience shows no evidence for God's activity: “nothing has changed.” Peter argues that Scripture (which is after all the record of human history) proves that God does intervene (see all of chapter 2 ). God created by a word and can destroy by a word ( 3, 5f ). Furthermore—and this is the significance of 1, 16–19 —Peter and his companions themselves experienced such an intervention in the transfiguration of Jesus! Thus, their tradition is based on the prophets, on the Lord Jesus, and on the apostles ( 3, 2 ).
If God does intervene, how is his apparent absence to be interpreted? Peter invokes the arguments used by other defenders of divine providence. God's time cannot be measured by human time: there is an infinite distance between God and humans ( 3, 7 ). God's apparent delay is to bring people to repentance ( 3, 8f ).
Ultimately, those whose experience is different are not likely to be convinced. Peter appeals not to the opponents but to those attracted to their position. He reasserts the conviction that Jesus will come “like a thief in the night” (see Mt 24, 43; 1 Thes 5, 2; Rv 3, 3 ), and that his coming will inaugurate “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” ( 3, 13; see Rv 21, 1 ). His concern throughout this letter, however, has been most of all with the behavior of his readers, and he reasserts “what sort of persons they are to be” during this time of waiting ( 3, 11 ). After all debate is over, only the truth of human existence validates doctrine.
The letter concludes with a reference to Paul's letters that the opponents are distorting ( 3, 15f ). The fact that the author refers to “all” of Paul's letters, that he makes them equivalent to “Scripture,” and that there is already a history of interpreting (or misinterpreting) them, are strong indications that this “Peter” is a writer of the second generation who defends a tradition common to the historical Peter and Paul against the threat of doctrinal and behavioral deviance.