Saturday, June 7, 2014

Open Theism and Peter's Denials


In my last blog I used the idea of "prophetic strength" to argue that Open Theism provides the best explanation of Biblical prophecy.  I argued that most prophecy has rather low strength.  However, there are prophecies that seem to have rather high strength.  I will discuss one of these, the denials of Peter, and argue that its strength is perhaps not as high as may first appear.

The Predictions:

All four Gospels have Jesus predicting that Peter will deny him in the future.  Matthew and Mark have this prediction said on the way to Gethsemane and Luke and John have is said at the Last Supper.

  • Matthew 26:34: Truly I say to you that during this night before a cock crows, three times you will deny me.
  • Mark 14:30: Truly I say to you today this night before a rooster crows twice you will deny me three times.
  • Luke 22:34: I tell you, Peter, will not crow today a rooster until three times you deny to know me.
  • John 13:38: Truly, truly, I say to you never will a cock crow until you deny me three times.
The reason that these predictions are used against Open Theism is that they seem very specific and supposedly involve Peter's free will choices.

Preliminary Consideration:

Mark's prediction is different from the others in that he has Peter's three denials occurring before the rooster crows twice.  There is another difficulty that has to do with the actual three denials.  Here are the questioners in each of the Gospels [and where they said their question or accusation]:

  • Matthew: 1)  One [used in tandem with "another" in the second denial] servant woman [court]; 2) Another woman [entrance way]; 3) Those present [entrance way]
  • Mark: 1) One of the servant women of High Priest [courtyard]; 2) Same servant woman [presumably in the courtyard still even though Peter moved to the forecourt]; 3) bystanders [forecourt]
  • Luke: 1) A certain servant woman [courtyard]; 2) Another man [courtyard]; 3) A certain man (another) [still in courtyard]
  • John: 1) gatekeeper servant woman [courtyard]; 2) servants and guards [courtyard still]; 3) One (masculine) of the servants of the High Priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter cut off [courtyard still]
The difficulty is harmonizing all these denials.  It is clear that the gospels cannot be referring to the same individuals in the second and third denials.

Other considerations:

  • John has an episode at the end of his Gospel (chapter 21) where Jesus questions Peter three time which seems to echo Peter's three denials.  This seems to shows that Jesus thought of Peter's denials in terms of three.
  • Jesus could have said something like "Before a cock crows twice, thrice you will deny me." [Mark's version]  This 2/3 pattern is similar to the 3/4 pattern in Proverbs 30:15,18,21,29 and Amos, and to the 2/3 pattern in Job 33:29.  In other words, there is Biblical warrant for saying that Jesus was using an idiom and so the numbers "two" and "three" may only be incidental to the actual prediction. 

My Solution:

My proposal is that Jesus was only trying to teach Peter that his bravado was unwarranted and that Peter was not ready for the reality of the disappointment that the Kingdom of God was about suffering and not political onslaught.  However, Jesus' prediction was most likely not meant to be foretelling but was a strategic challenge to help Peter when the moment of the disappointment arrived.  The importance of the prediction is not to show off Jesus' predictive powers but for the nurturing of Peter.  The open theist Greg Boyd has made the point that Jesus in the Gospel of John (chapter 21) alludes to Peter's denials in order to teach him the real values of the Kingdom and that he predicted that Peter would follow him on the road of suffering and death.  This episode helps tie together Jesus' motive for saying what he did to Peter and what actually happened.

There is no reason why Jesus cannot use language in such a way as to challenge and there is no reason why Jesus cannot use language that is hyperbolic or figurative or whatever.  It is my conjecture that Jesus' prediction used an idiom and the purpose of the idiom was to communicate Jesus' assurance that Peter would deny him.  Jesus was only saying that he was sure Peter would deny him.  Jesus was sure that Peter's bravado was misplaced (because Peter believed in a political messiah?) and he was sure that there would be opportunity for Peter to deny him.  At the same time, Jesus was sure Peter would try try to follow (albeit at a distance) because he knew Peter had deep feelings for Jesus.  So, Jesus uttered his statement to Peter to warn him that his confidence was misplaced.

Sure, Peter could have not denied Jesus and he could have then come to Jesus and complained that Jesus was wrong.  But couldn't Jesus have then replied by saying that the only reason he worded things they way he did was for Peter's benefit and that it was meant to make Peter think about the foundations of his commitment.  Jesus could have said: "Look Peter, I wasn't putting my divinity on the line and predicting that you would 100% for sure deny me, but that is not what I was attempting to do, I only wanted you to learn about yourself.  Can't I use language that is strategic and not literally true?  After all, you have heard me say a lot of parables you knew I used language in ways everyone else does."

Open Theism

If I am correct about the meaning of Jesus' prediction, then this gives considerable more leeway in how this prediction is assessed in relation to Open Theism.  All that "needed" to happen for Jesus' prediction to be literally true, if that is the way we want to go, is to say that Peter denied Jesus before dawn, but it would not have necessarily taken supernatural knowledge to come to this conclusion.  Jesus knew a lot about Peter and he knew a lot about the situation.

I will grant that the Gospel writers were impressed by the fact that Peter literally fulfilled Jesus' figurative "prediction" since they all recounted three denials.  I think they did this because they did want Jesus' figurative prediction to be literally true in order to highlight Jesus' superior knowledge.  However, since we cannot harmonize all the Gospel denials, it is safe to say that Peter denied Jesus on multiple occasions (compare the so-called "six denial solution").  This is bolstered by the fact that the Gospels at times claim that the questioners/accusers were plural, in which case, it would be hard for an eye-witnesses to count the actual denials (see Matthew's and Mark's third and John's second). But if this is true, then those who hold the view that the future of the universe is completely settled cannot point to the precision of Peter's denials as evidence against Open theism.  There were more than three and Jesus was not very specific how these denials occurred.  In other word, Jesus prediction had rather low strength.

The Open theist can always claim that God could have just forced Peter to deny Jesus three times, and forced the rooster to crow after the third (this may have been true even on my story) and forced the questioners/accusers to question or accuse.  But why?  Nothing hung on Jesus' prediction being literally true.  It is not where Jesus put his emphasis.  Jesus put his emphasis on Peter's attitude.

Finally, Jesus, in John's last chapter (21) alludes to Peter's three denials.  The only thing this need show is that someone (Peter, the other disciple who was present [only mentioned in John, by the way!], or someone else, could have noticed that Peter denied Jesus on multiple time and amazingly literally fulfilled Jesus figurative saying).  Jesus picked up on that and asked Peter three times in keeping with the three in his figurative prediction.  Nothing here requires that the future be completely settled.

Theological Upshot:

I conclude that Peter's denials do not cast doubt on Open Theism.  The accounts themselves just do not lend themselves to the type of future prediction that the settled view predicts. Open Theism is still the best explanation of the strength of Biblical prophecy, including Peter's denials.    

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