November 18, 2014

Peter the Apostate?

by Dave Farnell

Peters_DenialsToday’s article is adapted from Dave’s larger article entitled: “Robert Gundry, Gaining Renewed Support from ETS, Declares Peter an Apostate in Matthew’s Gospel.” To read the entire article, click here.

On October 6, 2014, Robert Gundry delivered an address at Westmont College in which he made the shocking claim that the apostle Peter was actually “Peter the apostate and false disciple according to St. Matthew.” According to Gundry, Matthew’s gospel depicts Peter, after his denials — not as a forgiven apostle — but as an apostatizing false prophet. (To see the video, click here. To read the press release from Westmont, click here).

In essence, Gundry puts Peter on equal footing with Judas Iscariot.

Gundry’s claims are astounding — especially when one considers that never in church history has anyone suggested that Matthew’s gospel depicts Peter as an apostate. But that fact does not faze Gundry, who apparently sees no problem with his novel interpretations.

In defending his unconventional view, Gundry makes the following three claims:

1. He insists that it is illegitimate to harmonize Matthew’s account with the other gospel records. Consequently, he purposely disregards what the rest of the New Testament says about Peter.

2. He claims that Christian interpreters are unwilling to recognize his perspective because they refuse to see Peter in anything other than a positive light. Thus, according to Gundry:

The softening of Matthew’s harsh portrayal of Peter, the airbrushing of it, has proved irresistibly attractive because it offers comfort to Christians who see in themselves a Peter-like mixture of good and bad behavior, of success and failure, and at the same time a promise of ultimate salvation. How often do you hear people say Peter is their favorite Apostle? Just last summer somebody told me that very thing and gave me that very reason, “I see myself in Peter”. Well if you don’t want to see yourself as a false disciple and apostate, neither do you want to see your favorite apostle, Peter, as a false disciple and apostate no matter what Matthew says. The attractiveness of Peter, a Peter who offers us a mirror image of our flawed selves, remains a hindrance to even handed, clear-eyed exegesis.

3. Finally, he blames the Roman Catholic Church for elevating Peter to a place of honor, when in reality, he ought to be regarded as a false disciple.

Gundry may have convinced himself on the basis of such arguments. But even a brief response demonstrates all three to be baseless.

For example, Gundry’s second claim is based on psychological assertions that have no real substance. And his third argument is equally tenuous, since the Reformers, who were no friend of the Papacy, never reflected such a bias toward Peter as Gundry’s hypothesis sustains.

But it is Gundry’s first argument that warrants special attention, because it exposes his clear-cut antagonism toward biblical inerrancy.

In order for his claim to be valid (that Matthew portrays Peter as a false disciple and an apostate), Gundry has to reject the possibility that the content of Matthew can be harmonized with the rest of the New Testament. After all, even a casual reading of the rest of the NT reveals a picture of Peter that directly contradicts Gundry’s thesis (cf. Mark 16:7; Luke 22:32; 55– 62; 24:12; John 21:15–19; Acts 1–13; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 2; and 1–2 Peter).

Gundry dismisses such clear biblical evidence with an air of academic nonchalance, in which he sees no problem with the biblical authors disagreeing with one another. In his words:

In the first place, Matthew isn’t Mark, Luke, John, or Paul, so Matthew’s take on Peter doesn’t have to agree with theirs, unless you hold to a certain view of scriptural inspiration. More about that issue later. In the second place, look at the evidence in Matthew’s passages that deal with Peter. And, at least for the time being, keep out of your mind the portrayals of Peter elsewhere in the New Testament.  If you had only the Gospel of Matthew, what would you think of Peter?

The heart of Gundry’s rejection of harmonization is his bias against both biblical inspiration and inerrancy. He makes his position quite clear:

So what about the doctrine of biblical inspiration? Let’s admit Matthew’s portrayal of Peter disagrees with the portrayals elsewhere in the New Testament. What gives? Well, there are many similar disagreements in the Bible. According to Revelation 22:17 for example, a human being who wills to drink the water of life will be saved, but Romans 9:16 says that salvation does not depend on the human being who wills it. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus kept His Messiahship secret from the public ‘til His trial before the Jewish Supreme Court on the very eve of His crucifixion, but in John’s Gospel, Jesus broadcasts His Messiahship, His Divine Sonship, His being the I Am before Abraham’s lifetime, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Way the Truth and the Life and so on. In public as well as in private and from the very beginning of His ministry.

Other examples of disagreement, both historical and theological, could be multiplied indefinitely. What we have to say is that pastoral, ecclesiastical, evangelistic, and other authorial purposes often trumped theological and historical consistency in the writing of Scripture. . . . In other words, truth is sometimes, not always, but sometimes, to be found on a different plane from the factual, so to in the Bible, if you want to maintain both a high view of its inspiration and an honest appraisal of its verbal phenomenon.

Clearly, Robert Gundry’s view of inspiration allows for errors and contradictions, both factual and theological, in the Gospel records.

That is a dangerous conclusion for anyone to reach. But for someone in Gundry’s position — a theologian with influence in evangelical circles — it is especially toxic.

What legacy does someone leave to his students who sows doubt into their minds about the trustworthiness of the gospels as historical records of Jesus?  I am reminded of James’ warning, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).

Conversely, I am also remind of Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

Faithfulness to the biblical text, not interpretative novelty, is what we should model for future generations of Christians.

Dave Farnell

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Dave is Professor of New Testament at The Master's Seminary. He also pastors Grace Bible Church in Ventura County, CA. His most recent book is 'The Jesus Quest: The Danger from Within.'
  • Kofi Adu-Boahen

    I get asked a lot whether I would consider becoming an academic. Stuff like this puts me off – seems to me, for all my greenness behind the ears, that academia is driven by this weird quest to find “new’, “innovative” theories to fawn over. I’m thankful for all those who model faithfulness to the message, rather than interpretative novelty.

    • Jason

      Then again, the reformation was built on academics who also found “innovative” theories amidst an atmosphere of confused adherance to the doctrines of man.

      The important constant is sticking to God’s Word and the Holy Spirit’s guidance for our understanding. If man oppose it we shouldn’t be worried about what they say. When man agrees there’s no reason to go digging for an alternate explaination. Our understanding should come from God and not our scepticism of man (while often warrented).

      • Kofi Adu-Boahen

        I’m not skeptical of men at all – I’m just skeptical of men when they seem to suggest that we can’t trust what we read in our Bibles. As Dr Farnell so wisely puts it, my beef is with “interpretative novelty” – coming up with new stuff which casts doubt on the Word. Not sure I could live in an academic environment where that happened all the time…

        • Jason

          Sorry if I seemed accusational. I just know that while some people error on the side of interpretative novelty others error on the side of intellectual laziness and it’s good to seek a balanced perspective where we’re willing to question everything we’re told but can still accept that some of it is true.

          It may be that you personally aren’t called to acidemia, but the field certainly isn’t one that Christianity should withdraw from. For all the immaturity in the church, a mature believer who spends their time studying the Word with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and takes the time to formulate a comprehensive understanding to present to others is absolutely vital.

          • elainebitt

            “Otherwise it’s just blind leading the blind through willful ignorance or nebulous uncertainty.”

            For those of us who know Kofi from elsewhere, we know he was not saying that, or even implying it. But I can see how someone who doesn’t know Kofi can come to that conclusion. It’s interesting to me though, because it shows me how we really interpret everything, every information, through the context/information we already have. Both of us had a different conclusion about what Kofi wrote.

          • Jason

            I just warn against extremes as a reflex. I didn’t actually read what he was saying as him refusing to consider new things, just that statements railing against “academics” tends to be used to validate intellectual lazyness by those who ARE lazy as well.

            His statement won’t only be read by him.

      • elainebitt

        ” the reformation was built on academics who also found “innovative”
        theories amidst an atmosphere of confused adherance to the doctrines of
        man.”

        I don’t think we can say the reformation was based on novelties. I am pretty sure there were people who believed the bible and not the teachings of the apostate Catholic Church back then. The reformation was a going back to the bible’s truth, and it didn’t happen all of a sudden anyway.

        • Jason

          I agree, and their ideas were innovative for their time (though the word was likely used ironically by their opponents on occation) and they were well studied individuals who were willing to think along lines other than those currently considered “valid”.

          Neither innovative nor academic means “novelty”.

  • tovlogos

    Thanks Dave — It ironic that Peter is the one who cites the principle: “But know this first of all, that no Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit.” (2Peter 1:20-21)

    “Consequently, (Gundry) purposely disregards what the rest of the New Testament says about Peter.” No mystery here.

    To use the term, “interpretative novelty” here is kind. This position is a departure of rudimentary exegesis. Interpretive novelty could still be in the realm of insightful hermeneutics; if one considers the whole scope of theology when deriving a conclusion.
    Because of his notoriety, you are correct in pointing to his proposition. Thanks,
    Mark

  • Jason

    The really confusing thing about his position is that he claims that we should reject the testamony of all the other apostalic writings to follow him on a crusade to make Peter a bad guy, based on nothing other than Matthew covering some events that show that Peter is able to error (and also some very commendable moments).

    Knowing that every one of us is less than perfect, it just seems historically accurate that in it’s entirety the scriptures explain how Peter, though not perfect, still served as one of the apostles in the foundation of the church.

    Even should one accept the premise that the writings are at odds with each other (which seems silly when a unifying explaination is available), why would anyone choose to pick the minority of evidence over the majority?!

  • Clyde Herrin

    He apparently didn’t even read all of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew 28:16 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” If Peter and Judas were both apostates there would only have been ten disciple.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    I am unpleasantly shocked. The title of this blogpost captured my attention and made me want to skim-read the post. The name Gundry was familiar. I then clicked the link for the paper from which this article was excerpted. Even more unpleasant shocks to come.

    Of course I’ve heard of ETS. But I was not aware that the downgrade was that far advanced. IMHO, there are only two options: Vigorous polemical (and thus political) reform or schismatic separation.

    Also, two academic apologists of some renown were critiqued: Craig Blomberg and Mike Licona. As far as I can tell, the critiques are justified.

    Lastly, the linked article is a good follow-up to Clint Archer’s recent post about grammatical-historical hermeneutic in his “Three Days” post. It shows the dangers of historical criticism hermeneutical method. (FWIW, I have read screeching defenses of the H-C method and all its variants by its proponents against the G-H method. It’s about as fierce as the Reform vs. Libertarian Free Will debate.)

    P.S. Westmont College should apologize to students and parents for Gundry’s lecture being sponsored by Westmont. Hideous. While I believe to some extent in academic freedom, that freedom does not extend to blatant and aberrant teaching.

    • Lyndon Unger

      It’s true bud. If most lay people knew the true state of “Christian” academia, they would be getting pitchforks and torches.

  • Corey Fleig

    Over time Gundry has demonstrated his own abandonment of proper hermeneutic, so in one sense I’m not surprised. As has been stated, I think the College is more to blame for this than Gundry is. I’d expect this in a secular college, so I guess Westmont is a secular college.

    I always see red flags when someone says “novel interpretation.” Having said that, I don’t personally believe Reformation teaching was novel – it was only novel to the Catholic Church, but I think it was quite “normal” to everyone else – that’s why it was so popular!

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  • elainebitt

    “In other words, truth is sometimes, not always, but sometimes, to be
    found on a different plane from the factual, so to in the Bible, if you
    want to maintain both a high view of its inspiration and an honest
    appraisal of its verbal phenomenon.”

    HIGH view?
    And who decides when/where truth is to be found in a “plane” different from the factual?

  • Lyndon Unger

    I’d like to put forth a motion that Dr. Farnell replaces me on the Cripplegate. All in favor, up vote my comment! Together we can make this happen people!

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      Instead of replacement I suggest his addition to the staff of Cripplegate writers.

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  • Joe

    What Matthew said about Peter could be said of all of the disciples before Pentecost. They were all scared little boys who missed the point of Jesus (except possibly John…but maybe not), scattered at the crucifixion and hid until Jesus’ visit in the upper room. Peter is legitimate, in spite of what Gundry thinks. His position is anything but scholarly.