Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Which Error?

“You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.”

What is the “error of lawless people” to which the apostle Peter is referring, here at the end of his second letter? When an error threatens to carry us away and make us unstable in our faith, it would seem useful to correctly identify it.

That said, the answer is not necessarily straightforward. The possibilities, I think, are two.

The Uniformitarian Error

First, Peter may be referring back to the error of the scoffers he mentions in the first few verses of 2 Peter 3: that they say, “Where is the promise of his coming?” Their error is uniformitarianism, in that the scoffers argue that “all things are continuing as they were from the beginning”, so why would Christians look for the return of Christ? Peter goes on to crush this argument rather convincingly, pointing out that the histories of both our universe and our earth have consisted of long periods of quiet punctuated with the occasional game-changing event — whether these events be creative or catastrophic — and then declaring that God’s future dealings with mankind will proceed right along these same lines, just as the prophets have foretold.

In favor of uniformitarianism being the error to which Peter is referring, it may be pointed out that this is the apostle’s major subject in the chapter, making up most of its content, and therefore in greatest need of reinforcement. In closing his letter, then, perhaps Peter veers away from his most recent subject and goes back to summing up his earlier point.

Further, the error in question is said to be an error of lawlessness. The uniformitarians are scoffers, and rejecters of a major tenet of the faith delivered once for all to the saints. To call them lawless would hardly be outrageous.

The Distortion Error

But there is a second possibility we should consider. Alternatively, Peter may be referring back to the error he has only just mentioned. This second error is an error of distortion, in which certain ignorant and unstable teachers of the Bible take the difficult passages of the apostle Paul’s letters and twist them to say what they would prefer them to say, rather than what they actually do.

This is not a trivial error when we consider that the apostle Paul wrote the bulk of the New Testament and gave us most of our foundational theology, along with its practical consequences for godly living. Unsurprisingly, the apostle Paul’s authority and the meaning of the things he wrote are very much under attack today. And yet to call Paul into question — to manipulate his words — is potentially to play havoc with almost any major doctrine of the Christian faith. Peter again crushes any notion that this is an acceptable way to proceed, calling Paul’s letters “scripture” or graphÄ“, a word up to this point consistently used by the writers of the New Testament to refer to the Hebrew Old Testament, the authority and finality of which was unquestioned. Peter goes on to point out that the same ignorant and unstable people engage in their distortions with the entirety of the word of God, not just Paul’s letters. The implication may be that if Jewish Christians found the distortion of Moses or Isaiah offensive, as they should, then the distortion of apostolic teaching was equally to be deplored.

In favor of the error in question being the distortion of scripture in general, and Paul’s letters in particular, we might note that Peter cautions that if this error is accepted, his readers will lose their stability. The Greek word he uses here comes from the same root as the word he uses to describe the “unstable” teachers themselves. It would hardly be surprising for unstable teachers to produce unstable pupils. A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher: in this case, theologically wobbly and inconsistent in practice.

Two Major Errors

The problems with both the uniformitarian error and the distortion error are difficult to overstate. Uniformitarianism leaves us in a broken world we must somehow fix for ourselves, a task some Christians naively assign to the church, but for which it has turned out to be singularly ill-suited. The church’s attempts to go political have given us the Inquisitions and the Crusades, not to mention a good number of morally-dodgy English kings. These constitute major theological and practical departures from orthodoxy, to be sure, but the denial of the believer’s hope in his Lord’s coming for his people and his ultimate glorification on earth is a truly catastrophic heresy.

And yet, as bad as that may be, it may be convincingly argued that distorting the meaning of the epistles (and the other scriptures along with them) is even worse, since it allows for error not just about the question of the return of Christ to planet Earth, but about church practice, about godly living, about husband-wife relations, about sex and self-control, about the mechanics of salvation, about the security of the believer, about law and grace, about the meaning of Christ’s words, the historicity and value of Christ’s death and resurrection, his place in the purposes and counsels of God, his deity, his impeccability, and a hundred other mission-critical, long-held and fundamental truths which we all take for granted because we have read them dozens of times in the Pauline letters.

A Problem with Authority

In fact, the common feature of both the uniformitarians and the distorters is this: that they attack the authority of the word of God. The first says the words of scripture are untrue because in practice we do not yet see them fulfilled; the second says our beliefs about what scripture teaches are not fit to be lived out because we have comprehensively misunderstood our Bibles.

Either error is potentially destructive to faith. Both are to be studiously avoided by believers. When you hear a so-called Christian tell you “Paul was wrong” about this or that, you know the conversation is going nowhere good.

So which error was Peter referring to when he said “take care that you are not carried away”? Maybe identifying the specifics of the error matters less than being able to identify the sort of person disposed to bring error into the church in the first place.

After all, lawless and unstable people are not all that difficult to spot. We ought to grant them exactly as much authority in our churches as they grant to God’s word in their own lives.

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