The First Letter of Peter: A Global Commentary
Edited by Jennifer Strawbridge.
SCM Press. Pp. xxvi + 182. £14.99/$23.99.
Review by Nick Moore
How do you write a biblical commentary for the Anglican Communion? It consists of millions of worshippers in dozens of countries organized into 40 provinces, and encompasses a vast diversity of cultures, ethnicities, social and economic situations, educational backgrounds, and several languages, not to mention the ecclesial and theological differences that tend to dominate most journalistic coverage.
This commentary on 1 Peter is a very good attempt at both representing and addressing the whole Communion, and not just the Anglophones (it has been translated into French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and partly into Mandarin). It emerges from the St. Augustine Seminar, the theological engine powering the preparations for the next Lambeth Conference, now rescheduled to 2022. Authors and contributors to this process come from Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe (primarily the UK, of course), North America, Latin America, and Australasia — in short, pretty much every part of the Communion — and the whole is drawn together by Prof. Jennifer Strawbridge, an Episcopal priest who is Fellow in Theology at Mansfield College, Oxford.
In his foreword, Archbishop Justin Welby describes 1 Peter as “a text for a global church engaging with diversity of culture and attitudes in a twenty-first century that makes possible communication without true relationship” (p. xiii). This nod to the problems within as well as beyond the Communion is echoed in his hope that the text will send us out as “a church united, but not unanimous” (p. xiv). Relationships, reconciliation, and diversity-in-unity have all become familiar emphases during his time at Canterbury. Above all, Welby points to the Seminar’s desire to be confronted by Scripture, drawing on the Church’s wisdom through the ages and throughout the world, and invites the reader to be open to this same divine confrontation.
The commentary takes 1 Peter chapter by chapter, drawing out key themes and pushing gently and openly toward application. Chapter one addresses Christians who are exiled — from their own homeland, perhaps, and certainly from their prevailing surrounding culture. The predominant theme here is a striving for holiness, driven by hope. Holiness is both God’s gift and his calling, and is not so much “an abstention from the bad, but an imitation of God in God’s self-sacrificial movement towards the other, which is most explicit in the person of Jesus Christ” (pp. 18-19). This movement is grounded in the Old Testament and the Christian’s experience of new birth, but is constantly reoriented towards the future.
Chapter two fronts the status of the Church as united with and founded on Christ, a place where each and every member as a living stone has something to contribute, and a presence in society which by its way of life carries forward the reputation of the gospel and the worship of God.
The household code that covers authorities, slaves, wives, and husbands in 2:13-3:7 is a single unit split apart by the later introduction of chapter divisions. Reading these together allows one to see the ambiguity in the source of human authority structures, and the overarching relativization of all human authority by the opening words “for the Lord’s sake” (2:13). Authority is to be accepted, but only God is to be feared.
Chapter three elaborates on these issues, introducing a spectrum that ranges from conformity, through resilience, to resistance. Different responses will be appropriate under different circumstances — and here the warning in the introduction that “we cannot interpret someone else’s suffering for them” (p. xvii) is salutary. Slavery and patriarchy are on a level here, which raises questions for those parts of the world, the Church, and the Communion which reject the former but sustain the latter.
Just as the Church’s corporate conduct in the world mattered in 1 Peter 2:11-12, so also here the missional implications of our individual ethical behavior loom large. The instructions to wives in 3:1-2 and to all in 3:15-16 are drawn together; in both cases, “Wordless witness to the Word, Jesus, will enable a word to be spoken. Wordless submission is not a virtue in itself; it is a missional strategy” (p. 81).
In chapter four the theme of suffering takes center stage; it is a concept that is more prominent in 1 Peter than in any other New Testament text. From Christ’s suffering as a model for the believer’s suffering, 1 Peter moves on to the more startling claim that our sufferings are a sharing in Christ’s. Indeed, one of just three occurrences of the term “Christian” in the New Testament comes in 4:16; originally a term of abuse, it has here already become a badge of honor. Christ’s name-bearers also bear his sufferings. Moreover, throughout this chapter — and mirroring the Easter weekend — suffering is inseparable from glory, because of God’s faithfulness, sovereignty, and judgment.
The final chapter turns to the theme of leadership, highlighting Peter’s humble self-designation as fellow-elder and shepherd, not lording it over others, because Christians have but one Lord. The whole of 1 Peter 5, and not just the first four verses, speak to the exercise of authority in the Church. Humility before God and before one another is crucial. The devil is both a legal adversary, and also a roaring lion threatening the flock, which brings us back to the need for the protection of humble, faithful shepherds — and the strengthening, ’stablishing succor and support of God (see 5:10).
The commentary aims to be conversational and homiletical, and it certainly strikes an appropriately devotional tone — though without at any point becoming “lightweight.” Each chapter is introduced by a thoughtfully selected piece of artwork with brief description and reflection on the theme, and ends with a selection of questions. The Bible translation used is the NRSV, which is reproduced in short passages at the appropriate points, and selective discussion of transliterated Greek terms is included where it serves the exegesis.
The scholarship runs deep yet is worn lightly. Those wanting greater exegetical detail can refer to the bibliography, though all readers are well-served by brief but important comments on structure and on thorny issues such as Christ’s proclamation to “the spirits in prison” or “the dead” (3:19; 4:6). Short excursuses enable these and other topics to be treated in some detail without disrupting the flow of the commentary proper; examples include home, aliens and strangers, power, government, misuse of the household code, and hospitality.
The collation of the whole may not be seamless, but the stitching is not readily apparent (biblical scholars would be hard pressed to isolate the original sources!), and Strawbridge has done an excellent job of bringing together what must have been a large quantity of material into a short and accessible commentary. The writing is unselfconscious, light, and lucid, and one can imagine a variety of church groups finding it a useful guide for study, perhaps through Lent 2022 in preparation for the Conference. Supporting video resources and an excerpt of the commentary are available on the Lambeth Conference website.
So, then, how does one write a commentary for the Anglican Communion? By gathering some of its members, eschewing any attempt to say everything or tie down every loose end, and instead saying a few well-chosen things well, with openness to hear and receive God’s present address to — indeed, his confrontation of — his people through the Scriptures.
The Rev. Dr. Nick Moore is a husband and father, minister and biblical scholar, and is academic dean and tutor in New Testament at Cranmer Hall, Durham, UK.