This blog post could have been title: ‘Book Review: The First Letter of Peter – A Global Commentary’, but given my views on reviewing commentaries (you can’t really, because everyone wants a commentary for different reasons) and the significance of this slim volume, I’m making a sort of exception. Besides, the expression ‘a curate’s egg’ is so brilliantly Anglican that it came to mind when I tried explaining my impression of this little book to a colleague who was bemused by my interest in it.
For those of us interested in the way that the Church relates to the world, the upcoming Lambeth Conference represents a historical moment in Anglicanism. This little commentary, then, drawing together an impressive array of contributors (though it isn’t exactly obvious who has written what!) is carrying a lot of weight on it’s <200 page shoulders. By and large (perhaps a bit like the Anglican Communion) this is a very helpful look at 1 Peter. Let’s begin with the good, note the strange, and then come back to the good. As one African scholar, Sicily Mbura Muriithi puts it, “1 Peter was not addressed to a specific group of believers but was a general letter that would have been circulated among a large number of churches“. With that in mind, this commentary is timely and linked to the text.
By and large, this is a good and joyful commentary on a vital text from the New Testament. There is a strong emphasis on hope and holiness, echoing recent work in this space, and I enjoyed the opening observation that “Accompanying this hope is an unfolding theology of holiness throughout 1 Peter which points to a faith that is dynamic and is deeply connected with the profound holiness of God into which readers are invited“. Amen! This is rightly recognised as a key theme in 1 Peter – and is a vital theme for mission, unity and the work and life of the church.
A second helpful and good emphasis in this little commentary is in line with the text; “Peter’s letter is addressed to those who are suffering. Difficult as it my around, the apostolic call is to rejoice in the midst of suffering and testing and to know Christ’s joy in the midst of suffering“. Amen! Linked to this are a range of very helpful comments on dislocation, home, and place, relevant to both all Christians who live as sojourners in this world, and very practical to the many Christians living as displaced people more urgently and pressingly: “the letter balances titles of dispossession and instability with images of possession and instability“. The reader is always drawn back to the majesty and beauty of Jesus, echoing the text and wider New Testament themes.
The less helpful – or perhaps bemusing – aspects of this commentary are rooted in what makes it helpful. It is notable that the text of 1 Peter is one of those that does not directly address issues of sexuality. Perhaps this is why it was chosen as the study text for Lambeth, but that absence is in my mind made more pronounced by some interesting choices. Again, let’s begin with the good:
“Hope in Christ transforms both our fears and our desires, freeing us from our sinful and self-destructive past allegiances… Hope and holiness are linked in an inalienable embrace: to set one’s hope on Christ is in every aspect of life to become holy as he is holy”
This is a wonderful summary of New Testament teaching on holiness. It is a theme that runs through the whole letter! It is strange, then, that any application of that to the present challenge of sexuality to the unity and mission of the Anglican Communion is seemingly absent from this little commentary. It is partially true that “holiness is not about exclusion but the transformation of all that is not holy into something that is good“, but it seems strange to this reader that this commentary seems to bend over backwards not to name the elephant in the room. Indeed, this is even more pronounced when we consider this section (photographed so you can see what I mean rather than accusing me of fabricating something!):
For an august constellation of scholars and pastors, it is surprising that the list of vice lists here is so incomplete! Even a quick google shows that there are quite a few more… Perhaps a deliberate decision was taken to not include, for example, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10? Or 2 Corinthians 12:20-21? Moving beyond the Corinthian corpus, it seems to me that Jesus’ own vice lists (Matt 15:19, Mark 7:21-22) might have got a mention. In my view, the absence of these is telling.
That all said, when it comes to discussion questions about sin, I do think that both sides of the debate in the church about sexuality can learn from what the commentators have gathered here. I trust that the Holy Spirit will convict us all:
“When it comes to sin, we are sometimes more open to some sins than others, for example we might condemn slavery but not empire.
- Where do we live with structure of oppression?
- Where are we complicit with structural sins that create more strangers and exiles?
- What sins do we judge rather than leaving judgement to Christ, the just judge and shepherd and guardian of souls?”
I think these are good questions, which need to be engaged with.
Among the strangeness is a forcing of a key concern of the Anglican Communion onto the text which I’m not sure is actually there. Recall the quote in my third paragraph – it is immediately followed by this: “In the context of holiness and suffering, both of which are connected to God in Christ, 1 Peter raises issues for the Church today about how we engage with difference“. I’m not sure that this is a concern of 1 Peter – though of course I could be wrong! I’m struck by the radical agreement between an LICC Study guide on this book, and a feminist reading, that rather than ‘the possibility of difference’, 1 Peter seems particularly concerned with issues of identity and power. Perhaps these would make helpful partners to this commentary for study at Lambeth. It’s also worth noting that for a ‘Global Commentary’, there is one glaring omission in it’s bibliography – Muriithi’s comments on 1 Peter in ‘The Africa Bible Commentary’, which would seem to me to be a logical conversation partner.
In closing, back to the good. There is an excellent section on slavery, which is well worth reading. I was also struck with the timely wisdom of a section engaging with questions of abuse:
“Is it ethical to flee abuse? Scripture provides numerous examples. David fled from Saul, and Jesus’ family fled to Egypt to escape Herod. Even in cases of persecution for the name of Christ, Jesus allows fleeing (Matt 10:23), and his disciples normally did so when possible (Acts 14:6). Let us be careful to use these passages the way they were meant to be used to encourage one another’s faith in the face of difficult situations, not to make those difficult situations harder!“.
Amen! I hope and pray that this will be widely taken to heart. Toward the end, with an unintentional nod perhaps to the theme of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, Saying Yes to Life by Ruth Valerio, we read: “Finally, 1 Peter bears witness to God’s care for and solidarity with God’s creation, especially God’s people, and to the ultimate promise of Christ’s redemption upon his return. Thus, in spite of the presence of suffering, Peter also calls his community to hope in Christ’s redemption of God’s beloved world, and to reliance on the promise of God’s care for God’s creation“. This is a helpful linking of discipleship to environmental stewardship – and one that, again, I hope is heeded.
So is this little commentary a curate’s egg? I think so. Overall, it is a good and helpful commentary on a vital piece of scripture. But it’s very existence and the way that it studiously avoids some things whilst reading in something that perhaps isn’t there (living with difference arguably being code for the disagreements in the Anglican church over sexuality, which are not small!) mean that it is not entirely helpful. I’ll certainly refer to it in the future when thinking about 1 Peter – even if there are parts of it that confuse me.