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He Had Heard the Voice from Heaven

Part one of this article appeared in last month’s issue, where the author showed how it could be deduced from Scripture and other ancient sources that Peter was in Rome. In part two, he shows how Peter and others were aware of Peter’s supremacy as bishop of Rome. 

My Internet fundamentalist still wouldn’t accept that Peter was in Rome. Instead he shifted the basis of his attack. Even if it could be shown that Peter might have visited Rome, there was no evidence that he was a bishop or that he made any claims for his authority which resemble those of the pope. There is plenty of evidence for a very early development of the papacy, but Jimmy’s question was fair enough. After all, how did Peter view his own authority? We would have to turn back to the Bible—most specifically to the second epistle of Peter.

But that causes a problem. While Peter’s first epistle is universally accepted as the work of the apostle, the second epistle of Peter is one of the most hotly contested books of the New Testament. Most scholars don’t think Peter wrote it at all. Unlike the straightforward Greek of the first epistle, the Greek of 2 Peter is a weak attempt at a high literary style.

Furthermore, there are details in the epistle that make it seem it was written too late for Peter to have been the author. For instance, the epistle talks about the problem of Jesus’ return having taken so long, and refers to the “fathers having fallen asleep,” as if the first generation of apostles had already died. Additionally, a big part of the epistle looks like a copy of the epistle of Jude.

If these doubts were simply the results of a modernist destructive agenda, we might be inclined to set them aside. But the doubts about Peter’s authorship are not new. Origen admitted that “there were doubts about it” (CITATION?), and Eusebius recognizes only 1 Peter “as genuine and acknowledged by the elders of olden times” (CITATION?). Other scholars point out that Peter relied on Mark to record his version of the gospel and used a secretary when writing the first epistle (1 Pet. 5:12). Jerome and others concluded that the difference in styles could simply be the result of different secretaries. Others have suggested that the attempt at a literary style might be Peter’s own attempt at “good Greek,” while the simple and dignified style of the first epistle is the work of Silvanus, as Peter admits. If this is so, 2 Peter may be more the work of the apostle than the first epistle.

Certainly there is good internal evidence which links 2 Peter to the apostle and to the first epistle. 2 Peter claims to be from Peter (1:1). It gives a personal reminiscence of Jesus’ prophecy about Peter’s death (1:14). The writer claims to have been present at the transfiguration (1:17–18) and he refers to his “first epistle” (3:1). Furthermore, the book addresses some of the same themes and shows the same attitudes as 1 Peter.

It can be argued that even if the writer of 2 Peter is not Peter himself, we can have confidence that the book faithfully transmits Peter’s teachings to the early Church. For this reason the Church has included the book in the canon. Eusebius included it “because it was read in all the churches” (History of the Church,3:25:3). Origen admitted it into the canon despite his doubts and quoted from it six times in his writings. Athanasius included it in his canon, quotes from it, and calls it inspired, as does Cyril of Jerusalem. The second epistle of Peter was recognized as Peter’s work by Jerome and Augustine and was included in the canons of the Councils of Laodicea, Carthage, and Nicea.

In many ways the issue of Peter’s personal authorship is secondary to his presence behind the epistle and its faithfulness to his teaching. John Calvin sums up the position by saying, “It [2 Peter] has nothing unworthy of Peter, as it shows everywhere the power and the grace of an apostolic spirit. In his old age Peter may have allowed this testimony of his mind to be recorded” (Commentary on the Second Epistle of Peter). In other words, 2 Peter may not be from the actual hand of the apostle, but it is part of the canon and is faithful to Peter’s character and spirit.

Once the authentic voice of Peter is heard within the second epistle it soon becomes clear what kind of authority Peter thought he exercised within the church. Some non-Catholics like to quote 1 Peter 5:1 where Peter speaks to the Church leaders as “fellow elders” to show that Peter considered himself to hold no greater authority than these leaders. But a close look at 2 Peter shows that Peter promotes a view of authority that gives the apostles a direct line of authority from God through Jesus.

In the opening of his epistle Peter identifies himself as an apostle, and from the end of the epistle he reveals agreement with Paul’s epistles and teaching (2 Pet. 3:15). Paul is clear that the authority of the apostles comes from the Lord himself (1 Cor. 11:23) for the foundation of the Church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 2:20, 4:11). Peter agrees with Paul that the commands are “given by the Lord himself through your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2).

Paul links the ministry of the apostles with the ministry of the prophets. As the prophets were divinely inspired and spoke the express word of God (Num. 11:25, Ezek. 1:3), so Peter and Paul’s inspiration was direct from God through Christ (Gal.1:1). It was Peter and the apostles who first received the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:23–2.4), an event prophesied by Joel (Joel 2:28–32).

Peter also sees that the ministry of the apostles succeeds the ministry of the prophets when he says, “I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2). This supports his earlier words in 1 Peter 1:10–12, where he said the message first given by the prophets “has now been told . . . by those who have preached the gospel by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven”—i.e., the apostles.

In fact, the whole point of the second epistle of Peter is to stress the divine teaching authority of the apostles. Second Peter is a long argument against false teachers, whom Peter compares to false prophets (2 Pet. 2:1). In the Old Testament it is only false prophets who prophesy what their own minds prompt them to say (Jer. 23:15, Ezek. 13:3). The genuine prophet only speaks from the Lord (Jer. 1:4–10). The false teachers therefore teach stories that they have made up out of their own minds (2 Pet. 2:3), and Peter condemns them throughout the second chapter.

He does so only after he first establishes his own foundation for speaking with authority. The false teachers might promote cleverly invented stories but not the apostles. Instead they were eyewitnesses of Christ’s life and work (2 Pet. 1:16). Peter speaks with authority because, like Moses and Elijah, he had heard the voice from heaven when he was with Christ on the holy mountain (2 Pet. 1:18). Peter understands his presence at the transfiguration (Matt. 17:1–13) as the time when he inherited the prophetic authority of Moses and Elijah. Just before this transmission of authority Christ commissioned Peter to be the rock on which the Church would be built (Matt. 16:17–19). As a result, Peter claims an even higher authority and a more certain word than the prophets themselves (2 Pet. 1:19).

Because of this it is Peter who has the authority to interpret Scripture. Just as the gospel does not consist of “cleverly invented fables,” so the interpretation of Scripture is not of any private interpretation (2 Pet. 1:20). As the false prophets spoke out of their own imagination, so the Greek word for “private” in verse 20 of chapter 1 means “out of your own head.” It is the familiar opposite of “authoritative” or “inspired.” So we can conclude that Peter viewed his own interpretation of Scripture as authoritative and inspired.

The Anglican J. N. D. Kelly admits, “There can be little doubt that he is not thinking of the spirit-endowed individual or prophet in the community, but rather of apostolic authority as embodied in the recognized ministers of the local church who, as he understands it, bear the Spirit’s commission” (Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and Jude, 324).

Peter sees himself as an apostle just as Paul does—one who speaks, like the prophets, with a direct authority from God through Jesus Christ. And just as the prophecies themselves did not come from human imagination, so the correct interpretation of Scripture cannot come from human imagination, sincerity, or goodwill. It must be given by God through his chosen channel, the apostles.

My fundamentalist terrier was still unsatisfied and asserted that even if Peter was in Rome and claimed such authority himself, Scripture nowhere says he passed that authority on to the next generation. “Surely,” argued Jimmy, “if it was such an important matter Peter would have written down clearly who his successor was supposed to be.”

That solution might seem obvious to us, but Peter must have seen things in a different way. He doesn’t designate a successor in writing, but 2 Peter suggests that his authority was to be handed on to the next generation. In chapter one he recognizes that his end is near. He has always reminded his hearers of the truth (1:12), but Jesus Christ has revealed that he (Peter) will soon die (1:14), and as a result Peter will make every effort to ensure the faithful will remember the truth after his departure (1:15).

Peter knows that the truth of Christ will never pass away (Matt. 24:35) and that Christ’s authority to spread the gospel would last to the end of time (Matt. 28:18–20). He also knows that he, Peter, has been given special authority by Christ to keep the faith (Luke 22:31–32) and feed the flock (John 21:15–17). He must have realized that his authority had to be passed on. Other bishops are appointed by the apostolic representatives (Titus 1:5, 2 Tim. 2:2), so why not the bishop of Rome?

Peter must have realized that the defense of the faith could not depend on one leader alone, but that the apostolic role was to be shared amongst the next generation of leaders. Thus Peter refers to a whole group of men as his “fellow elders” (1 Pet. 5:1). Peter writes both of his letters not to specific churches but as universal epistles. He must therefore have seen that his ministry and authority was wider than simply being bishop of the Roman Church.

After Peter, this ministry was carried on by his successors. The first of these, Irenaeus tells us, was Linus, a member of the Roman Church mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:2. As Peter exercised authority over many churches, so his sucessors had authority over the rest of the Christian churches. One of them, Clement, wrote an authoritative letter around the year 95 calling the church of Corinth into line.

History records how the whole Church soon recognized a supreme role of authority for the Roman Church. It also recognized that the presiding elder of Rome was indeed the rightful successor of Peter and Paul, Christ’s prime minister on earth who holds the keys of the kingdom in trust until the final return of the King.

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