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Apostolic Ghostwriters: John Calvin on whether Saint Peter wrote Second Peter

There have always been questions about the authenticity of the Second Epistle of Peter.  Origen of Alexandria (ca. 215–250) said that “Peter left behind one letter that is acknowledged, and possibly a second, but it is disputed,” and our earliest Canon list, the Muratorian Canon (ca. 170–210), doesn’t include it.  Eusebius (writing ca. 311) noted that its status was disputed within the church and, even after Athanasius accepted the letter in his official canon in 367, Didymus the Blind (ca. 398) insisted that it was a forgery and did not belong in the Canon.

"I do not here recognize the language of Peter." ~John Calvin (1509-1564)

Why were the ancients so suspicious of Second Peter?  Well, we know what at least some of their reasons were.  For one thing, there were quite a few inauthentic epistles and gospels on the market in those days–many of them pretending to be works of Peter and many of them propounding deleterious doctrines–and the Fathers had to be careful.  For another thing, with regard to the epistle itself, its language and style is miles apart from that of First Peter, suggesting that these letters have different authors.  Second Peter is also demonstrably dependent on the Epistle of Jude, which seems to cut against the idea that an apostle wrote it.  Finally, the letter speaks in terms that make more sense in the post-apostolic period, referring to the apostles and fathers not as living authorities but as people who have “fallen asleep” (3:4) and who must be remembered (3:2), speaking of Christ’s return not as something imminent (as in, e.g., Matt 16:28; 24:34; 1 Cor 7:29, 31, etc.) but as something that might take a millennium to occur (3:8), and talking about Paul’s letters in scriptural terms (3:16).  These turns of phrase seem to hint at Second Peter’s being a later, second or third generation document rather than an apostolic production.

John Calvin wasn’t blind to these issues.  Here’s what he says in the preface to his commentary on Second Peter:

What Jerome writes influences me somewhat more [than Eusebius], that some, induced by a difference in the style, did not think that Peter was the author. For though some affinity may be traced, yet I confess that there is that manifest difference which distinguishes different writers. There are also other probable conjectures by which we may conclude that it was written by another rather than by Peter.

He goes on to say “I do not here recognize the language of Peter.”  So, according to Calvin, Saint Peter did not actually write Second Peter.  This is a good point to bear in mind if you think that only “anti-supernaturalistic” presuppositions or anti-Christian biases would lead someone to question the authorship of a biblical book.  Sometimes its just evidence and honesty, plain and simple.

However, Calvin thinks the letter to be neither an outright forgery nor entirely disconnected from the person of Peter.  Calvin conjectures that perhaps in his old age Peter commissioned a ghostwriter, an amanuensis, to write the epistle on his behalf and with his authority.  Calvin writes,

At the same time, according to the consent of all, [the letter] has nothing unworthy of Peter, as it shews everywhere the power and the grace of an apostolic spirit. If it be received as canonical, we must allow Peter to be the author, since it has his name inscribed, and he also testifies that he had lived with Christ: and it would have been a fiction unworthy of a minister of Christ, to have personated another individual. So then I conclude, that if the Epistle be deemed worthy of credit, it must have proceeded from Peter; not that he himself wrote it, but that some one of his disciples set forth in writing, by his command, those things which the necessity of the times required. For it is probable that he was now in extreme old age, for he says, that he was near his end. And it may have been that at the request of the godly, he allowed this testimony of his mind to be recorded shortly before his death, because it might have somewhat availed, when he was dead, to support the good, and to repress the wicked.

This is pure conjecture, to be sure, and Calvin entertains this position for theological rather than historical reasons.  Nevertheless, the suggestion is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.

P72: A manuscript of 1st and 2nd Peter, and Jude (3-4th century CE)

In any case, it is fascinating to see Calvin think through these issues.  He takes stock of the evidence and arrives at a somewhat critical conclusion: Saint Peter didn’t actually write Second Peter.  However, he does not take this conclusion to be any strike against the Church’s conviction that the letter is both divinely inspired, being imbued with “the majesty of the Spirit of Christ,” and also, in some sense, apostolic.  Rather he stretches his concepts of inspiration and apostolicity so as to be able to take in the evidence of the text.

Calvin’s approach is more or less in the spirit of what I have in mind when I talk about a posteriori discipleship.  It is also, I think, the approach C.S. Lewis would urge in contradistinction to fundamentalistic a priori accounts of what the Bible is and is not allowed to be.  For my part, my hope and prayer for the next generation of evangelicals is that in our handling of hard questions about Scripture we might shed our defensive, fearful fundamentalism, and recover some of Calvin’s intelligent, honest, bold, and flexible faith, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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