"For a Holy Priesthood": A Petrine Model for Evangelical Cultural Engagement

By Wheeler, Nathan | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

"For a Holy Priesthood": A Petrine Model for Evangelical Cultural Engagement


Wheeler, Nathan, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


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Regarding H. Richard Niebuhr's monumental Christ and Culture, theologian Miroslav Volf writes, "What interests me more is the observation that the one text which speaks more pointedly and comprehensively to the problem of 'Christ and culture' than any other in the NT is conspicuously absent from Niebuhr's account. I am referring to 1 Peter, the epistle whose main theme is Christian life in a non-Christian environment."1 Volf is not alone in drawing upon 1 Peter as a key resource for theology of evangelical cultural engagement. On the other hand, still others draw upon the biblical trope of priesthood in developing insights for cultural engagement but do not consider 1 Peter's use of that theme.2 Taking these cues from the recent literature, this article asks what vision for the church's engagement with culture results from a consideration of 1 Peter's use of priesthood imagery. First, this investigation will be grounded in a brief review of key works explicitly involving either priesthood or Petrine theology of cultural engagement in their discussions. We will then discuss salient passages in 1 Peter relevant to a Petrine structure for priesthood as a model of cultural engagement. We will see that the Petrine theological vision for engaging culture consists in the church's participation in Christ's priesthood by patiently enduring the burden of taking redemptive responsibility for the godliness of the world. In the interest of balancing thoroughness and concision, samples of the tacit presence of the elements of this Petrine model in other relevant literature will be included in the footnotes. To begin with, then, we will first consider theology-of-culture literature warranting further investigation of priesthood within a Petrine theology of cultural engagement.

I. RECENT CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT LITERATURE

1. Petrine theology of culture. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon emphasize the Christian distinction with respect to the host culture in which disciples of Jesus live, which the image of "resident aliens" implies. However, this cultural difference is not to constitute a barrier to the church's engagement with its neighbors.3 As such, Hauerwas and Willimon seem to have articulated a vision for accomplishing a task Lesslie Newbigin called for, the task of being signs of the kingdom of God.4 Anyone familiar with 1 Peter will easily associate the book's title, Resident Aliens, with the phrases "who reside as aliens" (1 Pet 1:1), and "aliens and strangers" (2:11).5 Interestingly, Hauerwas and Willimon provide no explicit evidence that their key metaphor is an allusion to 1 Peter. Nevertheless, if somehow they do not borrow this Petrine image, they truly keep in step with its spirit.6 The paradigmatic "aliens" passage is 1 Pet 2:11: "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul." Abstinence from ungodliness, then, is the nature of the church's difference as "aliens." Likewise, in explaining their use of the aliens metaphor, Hauerwas and Willimon write, "We want to claim the church's 'oddness' as essential to its faithfulness . . . being the colony of God's righteousness in a world that refuses to acknowledge God as sovereign. . . . The church . . . teaches us what being moral is."7 For them, then, as with 1 Peter, "aliens" represents the church's moral difference from the non-Christian world, which difference is a function of its Christian identity.

Five years after Resident Aliens, Miroslav Volf published a close reading of 1 Peter with respect to the symbolism of the phrase "strangers and aliens." He argues that "aliens and strangers" is Peter's way of advocating a "soft difference." That is, the Christian missionary engagement with the non-Christian people in which the church necessarily exists is marked by such confidence in God's strength and in God's ability to complete the gospel mission, that Christians "seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even 'without a word' (3:1). …

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