Gene L. Green / A Theology of Peter

[The following essay is excerpted from the introduction to Gene L. Green, Vox Petri: A Theology of Peter (Cascade, 2019). Pick up a copy of the book here.]

Peter is one of the “lost boys” of Christian theology. Indeed, he could be regarded as their captain.[1] While Peter is a beloved disciple given his impetuous nature and his restoration after failure, he rarely comes to mind as a theological leader in the early or contemporary church. He has become a trope in the pulpit and popular Bible studies as the bold, yet failed and restored, disciple. Protestants have felt alienated from him since the time of the Reformation because the Roman Catholic Church claimed him and the keys of the Kingdom. For them Peter was the one who had authority and his successors continue to maintain it. On the other hand, Luther and all those who followed him and his Reformation compatriots ended up with Paul as their patron. Critical scholarship has further alienated us from Peter since it relegated him to the Neverland of theology. Is it possible to hear his voice within the pages of the New Testament? Are not all the Petrine materials in the New Testament critically suspect? Some believe we can only recover fragments of the true tradition regarding Peter and his theology. While we may recognize the contours of his life as a fisherman, a disciple, and a leader, the details elude us since the evidence regarding his true voice has come under scholarship’s glaring gaze. A large cadre of scholars hold that, at best, we can only find the “Peter of faith” and not the “Simon of history.” Peter is hidden behind layers of early ecclesial tradition. Therefore, the way Peter is remembered in the pages of the New Testament shapes the theological structures associated with him. Many reject the historicity of the assertion that Peter’s testimony is foundational for Mark, dismiss the idea that Peter’s true voice can be found in the speeches of Acts, and hold grave suspicions about his participation in the composition of the epistles that go by his name.

The argument of this study, however, is that Peter stands behind the first telling of the Jesus story in Mark. We can also identify the shape of his theology through his speeches in Acts. Moreover, 1 Peter contains reliable testimony regarding his instruction to early believers in Asia Minor. Second Peter, on the other hand, presents a unique set of critical problems that make discussion of its contribution to Petrine theology very difficult indeed. Early in the history of the church questions arose regarding its authenticity, and these have risen to a crescendo in contemporary scholarship. Just a few commentaries argue that the epistle is authentic. While being among those who have attempted to make a case for Petrine authorship of that letter, I hold the conclusions lightly as did those in the first centuries of the church. The voice in that letter is decidedly different, as any second-year Greek student or a careful reader of the English text will recognize. Untangling the critical debate and then sorting through the commonalities and differences between 2 Peter and the rest of the Petrine witnesses lays beyond the scope of this book. That project must wait for another day and another person. Any such attempt may be a quixotic exercise, a bridge too far for anyone who wishes to respond to all the critical and theological issues at the heart of the question. I beg my readers’ forbearance as I sidestep the issue. While we may build a case for Paul’s theology without engaging the “deutero-Paulines,” in the same way, it is possible to leave 2 Peter aside for the moment as we follow the contours of what we actually do know about the vox Petri.

Even in this more chastened enterprise, many would regard unpacking Peter’s theology as a journey that may not end well. Upon telling the late Prof. I. Howard Marshall about this project, he became quiet and thoughtful, then responded in his inimical way: “Can’t be done!” Some readers will likely echo his statement and, at times, I have been among them. Is it really possible to ferret out Peter’s voice from all these materials that have come down to us in redacted form?

Through the course of this study the conviction has grown that the church has preserved for us the music of Peter’s theology and that, far from being barely audible strains, they constitute the symphonic melody that runs through all Christian theology. Peter was the Rock, but not only with respect to his leadership in the early church. His insights were truly foundational for Christian theology as a whole. He stands as the first to tell the Jesus story and give it its particular shape. Our fundamental understanding of the meaning of the cross comes through him. Jesus’ crucifixion was not a perverse tragedy but salvific since he came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He was a theological innovator who, though nowhere near as erudite as the apostle Paul, made such significant contributions that even Paul is indebted to him. Opening the door of salvation to the Gentiles was his doing. Barnett even suggests that the “traditions” Paul received regarding the Lord’s Supper and the death and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor 11:23–25; 15:3–7) may be traced back to Peter himself.[2] Paul echoes Peter.

Often scholars regard Peter, or rather the author of 1 Peter, as a warmed-over Paulinist since fragments of Paul’s thought appear to be within. But the New Testament story looks different when we view it from a Petrine perspective and allow Peter his own voice, albeit one that speaks less profoundly than Paul. Some hold Peter to be the archetype of Jewish Christianity that stood in conflict with the Gentile-oriented Paul. The old Tübingen school still holds classes.[3] But the New Testament witness runs in the other direction. Peter was not an agonistic but a conciliatory figure who understood the inclusive nature of the gospel and the unity of the Christian community amidst its diversity. We are indebted to him for our understanding of the scope of God’s salvation and Christian mission.

Towards the end of his life, the late Martin Hengel declared that Peter was truly the Underestimated Apostle.[4] This study stands within that newer Petrine school. Peter was an eyewitness and leader, but also the one who mediated the theology of Jesus and contextualized it for the Jewish and Gentile communities after the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Peter is the theological Rock who leads us to the true Rock, who is Christ. Peter was the first apostle chosen, the first to confess that Jesus was truly the Christ, the first among the inner circle of three to speak out at the time of the transfiguration, and the one remembered as the first witness of the resurrection of Christ. He failed in his initial understanding of Jesus’ declaration of the crucifixion and denied the Lord at the time of his passion. But he was also the first to be restored (“But go, tell his disciples and Peter”). Subsequently Christ charged him to feed his sheep and lambs, and he did so as the first leader of the early church. He also innovated through his understanding, divinely inspired, that Christ’s hope was for the Gentiles, those who had been excluded and othered by his fellow Israelites. Before the Jerusalem leaders he testified as the key witness for Gentile inclusion without cultural conversion. The early church later remembered Peter as the decisive theologian who stood against heresy and who was conciliatory, bringing the whole church together.[5] His words orient the church to this very day, regardless of whether we recognize his theological leadership or not. The “lost boy” is the one charged by Jesus to be the Captain.

Affirming the likelihood of excavating Peter’s contribution to Christian theology is easy enough. Demonstrating it is another story. Can we trust our sources? Do they offer reliable witness to Peter’s testimony about Christ? The burden of the first chapters of this book is to examine that very question. At the start of the journey, the question of methodology comes to the fore. As argued in chapter 2, there are those who write on Peter’s theology and place the historical critical questions to one side, completely ignoring that there are any problematic issues with our sources. They believe that all the Petrine materials can be taken prima facie as having come directly from the apostle. On the other end of the spectrum stands the vast array of scholars who believe that all we can do is examine the church’s constructed memory of Peter. Between those poles are the scholars who have attempted to use the best of the historical critical method in their examination of the sources, whether the sources are the NT documents or those in the second and third centuries which hold the living memory of Peter. Their conclusion is that we can say some things about Peter but believe the witness to be so redacted that a considerable gap exists between the Simon of history and the Peter of faith. Accordingly, we do not hold enough substance to construct a theology of Peter.

The very vivid memory of Peter in the early church, however, nudges us towards a more positive assessment of the materials at hand. As Pheme Perkins has ably argued, Peter was regarded in the second century as a theological, and not simply an ecclesiastical, leader. If you wanted to support or negate a theological position, you would appeal to Peter.[6] Indeed, throughout the New Testament there is a “Petrine primacy” that shows Peter as the principal during the moments of great theological foment in church.[7] These early positive assessments alert us to the ancient view that Peter was the theological Rock.

The suggestion made in the second chapter of this volume is that the historical critical method, with its commitment of multiple attestation for verification and sometimes overwrought historical skepticism, needs to be replaced with the epistemological category of testimony. In ancient and in contemporary epistemology—from Aristotle to Jennifer Lackey—testimony holds center stage as a principal means of human knowing. Testimony is concerned with sources and reliability, both with regard to what occurred and what was said. It does not accept that every witness is valid but rather affirms that we may receive a testimony as faithful if we can posit that the source is credible and that any defeaters that arise are defeated, to use Lackey’s terminology.[8] Within the domain of ancient historiography, written and oral testimonies were evaluated. Speeches were expected to conform to the general gist of what was actually spoken. Ancient witnesses were not simply “making it up as they go along,” Indiana Jones style. Responsible historians skewered those who played loose with the evidence. On the other hand, those who reflected on historiography understood deeply that testimony must adapt itself to the audience and not only hold to what occurred in deed and word. Ancient historians placed rhetorical concerns alongside historical questions. They recognized that testimony would, and indeed should, always be shaped with reference to the audience and not be presented simply as a flat narrative dislocated from contemporary audience concerns. In the realm of our New Testament authors, this meant that an author, like Luke, for example, was both a historian and theologian.[9]

With regard to the testimony of Peter, both that which comes from him and is about him, we should expect a degree of rhetorical framing within the witnesses. Mark, for example, shaped the oral witness of Peter regarding Jesus to a certain extent, just as Peter related and interpreted the deeds and words of Jesus. Luke held theological concerns when he offered his rendering of Peter’s speeches. He summarized them and ferreted out the essentials while, at the same time, holding to his overall purposes in writing to Theophilus and other first readers of Luke-Acts. First Peter was not simply the composition of the apostle; rather, Peter joined together with an authorial community when he composed that missive.

Given the rhetorical concerns bound up with testimony, we may be tempted to attempt to strip away the redaction from the received witnesses. But the argument here is that the interpretation inherent in testimony does not draw us away from the witnesses but rather takes us closer to the sources. It is history and interpretation, received witness and rhetoric, all the way down. We have in hand the testimonies which offer us Peter’s understanding of the gospel along with interpretation. This is the vox Petri. Within a Gadamerean framework, we may say that the meaning emerges in the fusion of horizons.[10] The ancient and contemporary epistemological category of testimony makes place for witness and interpretation, welcoming both. While we may indeed isolate Petrine themes that run through the materials associated with the apostle, we should not embark on the quixotic task of seeking the pure, unsullied Peter. While we hear the ipsissima vox Petri, the true voice of Peter, we do not have the ipsissima verba Petri. We know the apostle and his theology through those who worked with his witness, whether they be Mark, Luke, or the amanuensis and community who aided the apostle in writing 1 Peter. As Cicero remarked to his amanuensis Tiro, Peter could say to those who handled his testimony, “Without you I am completely mute.”[11]

When offering testimony, some modification of what is received always occurs. But this does not reduce testimony down to vacuous rhetoric and no more. When it comes to the testimony of Peter, both that about him and from him, we must ask whether the apostle truly stands behind the testimony that has been handed down to us. This survey of Petrine theology is limited to three major witnesses—the Gospel of Mark, the Petrine speeches in Acts, and 1 Peter. While the New Testament contains other evidences of Peter’s thought, including the encounter with Paul in Galatians 2 and 2 Peter, this examination is limited to the core materials that are attributable to Peter. The question that the second chapter of this book focuses upon is whether Peter’s preaching is the source for Mark’s presentation of the gospel, whether Peter stands behind the speeches attributed to him in the Book of Acts, and whether the apostle is the author of 1 Peter. Second Peter has been left to the side for the moment, as intriguing as that epistle is.

The study which follows examines the various witnesses to Peter’s theology one by one. How do these books present Peter’s theology? The task is problematized by the various genres through which Peter’s testimony comes down to us—bios, embedded speeches, and an epistle. Yet throughout each are woven the patterns of Peter’s theology as well as notable differences in thought. But the end goal is to ferret out from the various witnesses the contours of Peter’s theology. The surprise at the end is that Peter’s theology is strikingly familiar, a musical score we have heard over and again. If the assessment of Peter’s role in the development of Christian theology is correct, then this is as it should be. Peter’s theology is foundational for the church and its themes are taken up over and again within the pages of the New Testament and beyond. Peter is, indeed, the church’s theologian, the Rock to whom we are all indebted for our understanding of the gospel of Christ. Others will do their own riff on his theology, but he lays down the theme. Jesus handed off to Peter, and Peter took the lead as the rest joined in. We owe him a debt greater than we dared imagine.

[1] In J. M. Barrie’s novel Peter Pan, the “lost boys” are “the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland to defray expenses. I’m captain.” Peter, the apostle, is indeed their captain.

[2] Paul W. Barnett, Paul in Syria: The Background to Galatians (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2014), 71–75. Barnett compares Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 15:3–5 with Peter’s in Acts 10:40–41, 43, as well as comparing Peter and Paul’s rendition of the kerygma in Acts 10 and 13.

[3] Michael Goulder, St. Paul Versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994).

[4] Martin Hengel, Saint Peter: The Underestimated Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

[5] Pheme Perkins says, “Peter is the universal ‘foundation’ for all the churches. . . . There is no figure who compasses more of that diversity than Peter” (Peter: Apostle for the Whole Church [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000], 184). Markus Bockmuehl runs a similar line, saying, “Peter is the rock, an eyewitness to the passion and resurrection of Jesus, and he is a witness, healer, miracle worker, and martyr. Beginning as a fisherman from Capernaum, the apostle became a centrist, bridge-building, and uniting figure in the early church, often pictured with Paul as the twin pillars of the Roman church. A sincere, if flawed, disciple of Jesus” (Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory: The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012], 180).

[6] Perkins, Peter, 131–81; Markus Bockmuehl, The Remembered Peter in Ancient Reception and Modern Debate (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 101.

[7] John Meyendorff, ed., The Primacy of Peter (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992); William Thomas Kessler, Peter as the First Witness of the Risen Lord: An Historical and Theological Investigation (Rome: Editrice Pontificia Universit. Gregoriana, 1998).

[8] See the discussion in chapter 2.

[9] I. Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988).

[10] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Continuum, 2004).

[11] Cicero, Fam. 16.10.2.

Gene L. Green is Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School. He previously served as Professor of New Testament, Dean, and Rector of the Seminario ESEPA in San José, Costa Rica. In addition to Spanish commentaries on the Petrine epistles and Thessalonian letters, his publications include The Letters to the Thessalonians and Jude and 2 Peter.


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