Peter and Theology
By Paul Szobody
Keeping in mind that the author is a rather uneducated Galilean fisherman, the doctrinal density and biblical breadth of Peter’s epistolary expression is nothing less than stunning. Even granting that Peter probably had a good Jewish boy’s Torah education, his remarkable post-Pentecostal literary inspiration and theological methodology deserves to be reckoned with by theological science.
Take 1 Peter 1:1-9 for example. Peter profoundly employs both Torah terms and soteriological concepts from the redemptive history of Israel in order to speak to Christians of their own spiritual experience in current history. He begins with God’s election by foreknowledge of his Diaspora people, now the Christians living among the pagans, and then moves on to speak of election’s purpose in terms taken from Levitical blood-sprinkling and covenantal obedience, both in reference to the Davidic Messiah. The final outcome will be the eschatological possession of a promised inheritance. Meanwhile though, the sanctified make a pilgrimage through this world as strangers whose faith is put to the test as they sojourn toward the inheritance of the eternal, the salvation of their souls. It is in the context of this pilgrim’s “meanwhile” – between an Exodus of new birth (now associated with Christ’s resurrection) and the final inheritance (personal salvation in terms of an incorruptible, heavenly lot) – that Peter develops in just a few phrases an extraordinary theology of Christian life, in faith, hope, love and joy.
Peter’s exposition is obviously a figural construal of the historical memory of Israel’s experience of redemption from Egypt and resulting sojourn in the desert and/or later Diaspora exile. Evidently, and without any doubt, Peter took (like Paul) the Christian people to be the Israel of God in the end of time. Remarkably, within nine verses, Peter has painted a biblical theology of the whole panorama of salvation history, from eternity past to eternity future! It’s nothing less than breathtaking: perhaps every major soteriological theme is touched upon. And, of course, he will continue to develop and add to this canvas, in a similar fashion, in the rest of his letter; his mentality is impregnated with the spiritual sense and accomplishment in Christ of the historical-redemptive storied events.
Now, this raises a question today as to Peter and theology. Could it be that under the power, sheer quantity and historical influence of the Pauline corpus and language, that Peter – his method and motifs – has been short-changed? Has Petrine language and methodology been sufficiently taken into account in the church’s theological enterprise? This is an important question in light of recent trends and methodological issues in theology. Peter’s style and approach appears to conform to the interests of certain recent proposals.
First, Peter’s method here is narrative in nature and rooted in a figural reading of salvation history. Both “story” as a structural theological approach and historical figural hermeneutics have highly interested theologians in fairly recent years. This should prod them to take another look at Peter, at his language, his conceptual expression and his methodology. Needless to say, for a modern exegesis that may tend to either atomize biblical narrative or to rationalize away the figural hermeneutics of the apostles and patristic exegesis (the so-called ‘spiritual sense’ of Scripture), Peter remains an inspired hermeneutical challenge.
Second, certain exegetes have proposed that there is sufficient internal evidence to suggest that Peter’s first letter is mystagogical in nature; that is, it is essentially catechesis related to Christian baptism. Though this theory is far from universally accepted, it does indicate the strong critical evidence of the baptismal motif in the epistle. As a consequence, the argument may be made for liturgical moorings to Peter’s thought. If so, its mode of doing theology is in harmony both with that of the cradle of Christian theology as well as with certain other modern theological tendencies. Christian theology – in its post-apostolic confessional form – was birthed in the midst of the early church’s liturgy. That is, while praying to the Father, in the name of the Son and by the Spirit, she expounded and developed her understanding of her experienced and confessed faith in the resurrected One: she formulated her Trinitarian and Christological theology (I owe this insight to Robert Jenson). Likewise today, there is renewed interest in liturgical theology and in doing theology from within liturgical history and experience (Geoffrey Wainwright, for one, has especially developed this approach). In this mode, theology is the reflection on salvation history (as witnessed in Holy Scripture and imaged in the church’s liturgy from Scripture) through the existential lens of its figural realization in the christocentric life and liturgical experience of the church.
In reconsidering and resourcing theological methods as well as hermeneutical approaches and doctrinal formulations, perhaps Peter’s epistolary expression might once again prove to be a rock to which the church might theologically build upon.