Commentary on 2 Pet 1:2-7
Today we begin reading from the Second Letter of Peter. There will be just two readings, today and tomorrow.
“Second Peter is one of the most interesting New Testament books. Written perhaps by a later disciple of Peter, it may be the last written book of the Bible. It begins with this beautiful passage: our faith is a gift, leading to one virtue as the foundation of another.” (Vatican II Missal)
The letter begins by asserting a theme which runs through it, namely, that the only knowledge we really need is a personal knowledge of God and his Son, Jesus. The author is challenging the heretical teaching of the Gnostics who said that the only thing needed was knowledge, independent of any behaviour. Knowledge of God and Christ necessarily leads to following the Way of Jesus, a way of both knowing and doing.
God’s loving power has given us everything we need to live a life that is full and meaningful, which is a life in close relationship with him. God has made available all that we need spiritually through our knowledge of him. No special ‘secret’ knowledge, only accessible to initiates, is necessary for the Christian to achieve fulfilment of life. The glory and power of God was clearly manifest in the teaching and signs that Jesus gave, clearly indicating his divine origin. Later in the letter, the author will mention specifically the experience of the Transfiguration, of which Peter was a witness.
The Gnostics, who followed a way of thinking which was a constant challenge to the early Christians, believed that salvation depended on having a knowledge of “mysteries”, secret revelations, only given to them. They also tended to see evil in all material things, a kind of distorted Platonism.
God, in his love for us, has showered us with precious gifts, including material gifts. And, provided we abandon a world corrupted by irrational and hedonistic desires (a false infatuation with the material), we can become sharers in the very life of God, that life of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Our whole Christian life is ordered to having that experience.
The rest of the reading lists the steps by which we develop a well-rounded and fruitful Christian life.
The foundation of our inner goodness is our total faith and trust in God’s love and our commitment to the Way shown to us by Jesus. That faith is supplemented and fulfilled by virtuous behaviour which flows from it. “Virtue with knowledge”: in other words virtue that is not a mere pious veneer but one that comes from an ever deeper understanding and grasp of the way of life that Jesus proposes to us in the Gospel – a Message accessible to all.
This knowledge leads to self-control. Many of those infected by Gnosticism, which put all emphasis on the acquisition of secret knowledge, believed that self-control was completely unnecessary. Knowledge, not behaviour, was the source of salvation. The Christian belief is quite different. The deeper our knowledge of God and Jesus the more our whole lives, including our behaviour, are affected. We do good, not because we have to, or force ourselves to, but because we want to. Our behaviour flows naturally from our insight into what is true and good.
Self-control, in turn, leads to endurance, to perseverance even in the face of either competing attractions or painful obstacles.
Endurance in turn is supported by devotion, which implies a deep warm-hearted commitment and not just a dogged stubbornness.
Devotion leads to mutual affection. To be a Christian is not to go alone to God but in companionship with others who share the same vision.
This mutual affection then blossoms into love, that outgoing, unconditional desire for the well-being of the brother and sister.
This is a very different picture from the purely head-centred intellectualism of the Gnostic which can only end in a cold isolationism with little regard for the well-being of the world in which we live and through which we Christians are convinced is the place in which to find and love our God.
Among other things, the author here is warning us against any form of elitism, which is a constant threat to our understanding of the Christian life. Such an elitism can lead to the formation of groups which lay claim to a higher level of Christian living and look down on “outsiders”. The beauty of the Gospel is that it can be grasped adequately by even the illiterate. (Perhaps that message was brought home some years ago when the founder of Opus Dei, Fr Escriva, was beatified together with a Canossian Sister, who had formerly been a slave in Latin America and had no formal schooling whatever.)
That does not mean we should not do all we can to have a deeper understanding of our faith. If we have the intellectual capacity to do so, we should. A great scandal among us is the ignorance of many educated Catholics about Scripture, theology and spirituality.
At the same time, we also have to affirm that the very highest levels of mystical prayer are accessible to those with no education at all. Knowing Jesus is a lot more important than knowing a lot about him.