Given that today is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, I thought that I would post something on a pericope from his second epistle – 2 Pet 1:16-21.
These verses are often interpreted by many Christians as meaning that we should not rely on our experiences, but rather that we should rely on the Scriptures as the source of truth.
Now, there is an element of truth in remembering that our experiences do not trump Scripture...but that is not what THIS particular verse is teaching. By looking more closely at the passage itself, as well as the context from which it arose, we will see that St. Peter’s words are not about the Scriptures in the first instance, but rather who has the authority to interpret them.
To set the context, we need to go all the way back to Moses...
Moses was the greatest of all God’s Old Testament messengers. But how did the Israelite people come to trust in Moses, especially considering that they originally accused him of wanting to lead them into the wilderness so that they might die of hunger and thirst (see Ex 16:3; 17:3). The answer lies in Ex 19:9:
“Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”
A similar thing happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, when God appeared in a cloud to Sts. Peter, James, and John and told them concerning Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matt 17:18).
It is this episode that St. Peter is referring to in 2 Pet 1:16-21. But what does St. Peter’s recounting of the Mount of Transfiguration tie in with the point he is trying to make? Follow this with me...
St. Peter defends the validity and truthfulness of his message as opposed to the cleverly devised myths of heretics (v 16). He makes mention of the Mount of Transfiguration (v 17), which he cites as proof that his message is valid (vv 18-19). The events on the Mount can be accepted as true because they were established by the mouth of three witnesses (i.e. Sts. Peter, James, and John).
Just as Moses’ words to the Israelites were confirmed as authentic when God spoke to him from the cloud, so too St. Peter assures his audience that they can accept what he says as authentic since God spoke to him and the other Apostles from the cloud. And it was for this reason that they were to be attentive to the message that he was preaching (v 19). Unfortunately, the old King James Version (which I grew up with) doesn’t bear this out very well by translating the beginning of verse 19 as “We have also a more sure word of prophecy...”.
The way this verse is translated in the KJV, it could be construed as if St. Peter is pitting his experience against something superior. But this actually doesn’t fit within the context, because it would be undermining everything St. Peter had been saying up until this point. The NRSV has a far better translation when it says “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed...”. In other words, St. Peter’s message is fully confirmed by virtue of his experience on the Mount.
The NSRV translation of this verse actually fits in with the preceding verses as well as the remainder of the passage, where St. Peter builds on this by saying that no person can exercise autonomy in interpreting Scripture (v 20); rather, we must submit our interpretation to those who have been moved by the Holy Spirit, like Moses of old. And who was moved and guided by the Holy Spirit than the Apostles who were the disciples of our Blessed Lord, and especially those Apostles to whom God spoke to on the Transfiguration Mount?
And so we see that what St. Peter is teaching here is not that Scripture trumps experience; rather he is teaching that the interpretation of Scripture must be submitted to the traditions and teachings of the Apostles (and by logical deduction, their successors) precisely because of the experience that they had on the Mount; an experience which confirmed that their words were confirmed and sure.