Contextualized Apologetics and the Letter of 2 Peter

By Chad Thornhill

Apologists in the late modern world, characterized by globalism, pluralism, and rapid social change, find themselves in need of a model of adaption. While the arguments of yester-year still have relevance in the late modern cultural landscape, these arguments in themselves no longer form a sufficient basis of apologetic engagement. The foundationalism which these arguments operated upon, grounded in the worldview of modernism, often do not resonate with the dialogue partners of today. A cultural shift has occurred, requiring a greater burden on the apologist to be informed about cultural dispositions, ways of thinking, and objections to Christian belief, often going beyond mere intellectual dispute into discussions of goodness, purpose, and beauty as well. A certain kind of “contextualization” is necessary for effective engagement with our cultural interlocutors. While modern works of philosophy can provide guidance into this arena, ancient sources can provide help as well. Such a source of guidance can be found, perhaps surprisingly, in the letter of 2 Peter.

Scholars debate many facets of the historical circumstances of 2 Peter, from its date and authorship, to its audience and form. Due to the difficulties in the historical data, some details of this letter are hard to ascertain. Scholars widely recognize, however, that this letter is heavily couched in the culture of Hellenism, or the Greek cultural landscape of the day. While the entirety of the New Testament is to some extent a Hellenized enterprise, being written in the Greek language, different documents contain differing strategies of contextualization. Second Peter stands out as a product of a more deeply embedded approach, taking the thought-forms and strategies of the Greco-Roman world and bending towards the aims of Christian belief.

For starters, 2 Peter takes the record in all of the New Testament writings for the most hapax legomena’s (words that only occur once in the whole New Testament) per number of total words. There are roughly 50 of these words in 2 Peter, which consists of approximately 1,100 Greek words, meaning a little over 4 percent of the letter is made up of terms that only show up once in the New Testament. While some of these words occur in other Jewish literature, such as the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint, or LXX) or the works of Josephus and Philo, nearly two-thirds are only found in non-Jewish Greco-Roman literature. This provides evidence that the vocabulary of 2 Peter has been influenced by the larger Greco-Roman world.

Furthermore, 2 Peter follows a style of communication known as Asiatic Greek, which departs from the writing style of most of the New Testament documents. This approach to Greek rhetoric, popular in Asia Minor (which may have been the letter’s destination, cf. 1 Pet. 1:1 and 2 Pet. 3:1), differed from the traditional style in that it embraced more grandiose language, repetition, emotional expression, and longer sentences. Asiatic style was controversial among Greek orators since it departed from tradition, though some Greek writers suggest that it was more effective at appealing to the emotions of an audience. The writing of 2 Peter is at home with this form of Greek rhetorical expression, representing an intentional choice of communication by the author to adopt this style.

Finally, some of the language which 2 Peter adopts calls to mind myths which developed from within the Greco-Roman world. For example, in 2 Peter 2:4, Peter discusses the “angels who sinned” and thus were “held captive in Tartarus” for judgment. The angels Peter mentions here echo the story of the fall of the “sons of God” (a term used elsewhere for angels in the Old Testament, such as Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Psalm 82:6) in Genesis 6:2-4. While other Jewish writers reflected upon and expanded on this story from Genesis (such as the author of 1 Enoch, with whom 2 Peter seems to show familiarity), the verb Peter uses here, sometimes translated as “held captive in Tartarus” comes from the world of the Greek myths rather than the Old Testament. Tartarus, in Greek mythology, represented the deepest place in the underworld (Hades) where the Titans and others who had rebelled against the gods and lived with notable impiety and injustice were banished. Tartarus was described in these myths as a place of constant torture and torment for the guilty, inflicting them with unrelenting punishment and suffering. Peter’s use of this mythological language need not be seen as requiring that he believed these myths were true, but does demonstrate a willingness to couch a Jewish concept like “Sheol” in language familiar to and understandable by his audience.

These examples from 2 Peter demonstrate that the early church, even as early as the first century, recognized that for their teachings to be understood and effective, needed not only to carefully describe and develop ideas theologically, but also shape them in a way which would make sense to its hearers. A famous example of this kind of contextualization is often recognized in Paul’s sermon to an educated Gentile audience on Mars Hill (Acts 17).

These examples from the New Testament show that a certain kind of “cultural exegesis” was operating in the first century among the apostles and evangelists of the church. It has become commonplace to describe “culture” by the analogy of a conversation between two fish, where one asked, “How’s the water?” and the other responded, “What is water?” Culture is the water we swim in, often unknowingly, which shapes our habits, beliefs, and daily life. Like water, culture is also fluid, changing and adapting over time, and seemingly at accelerated speeds in our late modern age. To recognize the influence of surrounding culture on one’s audience is a necessity in effective communication. In his book Preaching with Cultural Intelligence, Matthew Kim navigates the communicative act which must happen between text and audience. In doing so, one must be aware both of their own starting points and cultural influences as well as the cultural influences of their audience. From here, Kim argues one must build a BRIDGE to their audience, navigating their Beliefs, Rituals, Idols, Dreams, (view of) God, and Experiences (Kim, 29-34). This kind of model of engagement takes seriously both the starting point of the “preacher” or apologist, as well as the cultural landscape of the hearers. While certain aspects of culture create obstacles and barriers to the gospel that must be cleared away (“idols”), others provide opportunity to enter into meaningful dialogue from the basis of existing values, behaviors, and beliefs.

As Chatraw and Allen discuss in Apologetics at the Cross, this kind of approach takes seriously the “plausibility structures” or “cultural rationality” of the hearer (Chatraw and Allen, 289). Asking critical questions of the starting points of one’s hearer can draw out opportunities to build effective connection points from where they sit now. “Canned” or “pre-packaged” approaches to apologetic engagement will often fall flat when such an analysis hasn’t taken place. In looking for these points of connection with existing beliefs, behaviors, values, experiences, or habits, it does not follow that we therefore change the Christian message to accommodate the late modern world. Rather, it requires that we adjust our tactics of engagement to show value for the person and their lived experiences as well as to consider what will allow us to be heard most effectively.

To be an effective apologist for and in the church means to exegete (“draw out meaning from”) both text and culture. 2 Peter provides a model of doing so in similar ways to other authors of the New Testament. This demonstrates to us that the earliest church was serious about understanding the cultural climate around them, confronting aspects of that culture when it created oppositions to the gospel (“idols”), and bending aspects of culture in the existing “plausibility structures” to create bridges to the Christian message from the starting points of their audiences. Such a model must not stay as an object of observation for us as we look back to the early centuries of Christianity. Rather, it provides a means of engagement for the believer in the late modern world to contend in compelling ways for the reasonable nature of the Christian faith. Such a contention is as necessary today as it was in the first century, and the well-equipped apologist should make preparation to use whatever cultural artifacts may be lying around to portray the supremacy of Christ and the goodness of the gospel.

Published May 6, 2024

Chad Thornhill

Chad Thornhill is the Chair of Biblical and Theological Studies and a Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies for the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity at Liberty University. He is the author of numerous academic reviews, articles, and book chapters, as well as the author of The Chosen People (IVP, 2015), Greek for Everyone (Baker, 2016), and co-editor of Divine Impassibility (IVP, 2019). He is currently writing a commentary on 2 Peter for the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series.