Image: Gustave Doré, Public Domain

Today’s article is adapted from Dr. Farnell’s larger article entitled: “Robert Gundry, Gaining Renewed Support from ETS, Declares Peter an Apostate in Matthew’s Gospel.” To read the entire article, click here.

On October 6, 2014, Robert Gundry delivered an address at Westmont College in which he made the shocking claim that the apostle Peter was actually “Peter the apostate and false disciple according to St. Matthew.” According to Gundry, Matthew’s gospel depicts Peter, after his denials — not as a forgiven apostle — but as an apostatizing false prophet. (To see the video, click here. To read the press release from Westmont, click here).

In essence, Gundry puts Peter on equal footing with Judas Iscariot.

Gundry’s claims are astounding — especially when one considers that never in church history has anyone suggested that Matthew’s gospel depicts Peter as an apostate. But that fact does not faze Gundry, who apparently sees no problem with his novel interpretations.

In defending his unconventional view, Gundry makes the following three claims:

1. He insists that it is illegitimate to harmonize Matthew’s account with the other gospel records. Consequently, he purposely disregards what the rest of the New Testament says about Peter.

2. He claims that Christian interpreters are unwilling to recognize his perspective because they refuse to see Peter in anything other than a positive light. Thus, according to Gundry:

The softening of Matthew’s harsh portrayal of Peter, the airbrushing of it, has proved irresistibly attractive because it offers comfort to Christians who see in themselves a Peter-like mixture of good and bad behavior, of success and failure, and at the same time a promise of ultimate salvation. How often do you hear people say Peter is their favorite Apostle? Just last summer somebody told me that very thing and gave me that very reason, “I see myself in Peter”. Well if you don’t want to see yourself as a false disciple and apostate, neither do you want to see your favorite apostle, Peter, as a false disciple and apostate no matter what Matthew says. The attractiveness of Peter, a Peter who offers us a mirror image of our flawed selves, remains a hindrance to even handed, clear-eyed exegesis.

3. Finally, he blames the Roman Catholic Church for elevating Peter to a place of honor, when in reality, he ought to be regarded as a false disciple.

Gundry may have convinced himself on the basis of such arguments. But even a brief response demonstrates all three to be baseless.

For example, Gundry’s second claim is based on psychological assertions that have no real substance. And his third argument is equally tenuous, since the Reformers, who were no friend of the Papacy, never reflected such a bias toward Peter as Gundry’s hypothesis sustains.

But it is Gundry’s first argument that warrants special attention, because it exposes his clear-cut antagonism toward biblical inerrancy.

In order for his claim to be valid (that Matthew portrays Peter as a false disciple and an apostate), Gundry has to reject the possibility that the content of Matthew can be harmonized with the rest of the New Testament. After all, even a casual reading of the rest of the NT reveals a picture of Peter that directly contradicts Gundry’s thesis (cf. Mark 16:7; Luke 22:32; 55– 62; 24:12; John 21:15–19; Acts 1–13; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 2; and 1–2 Peter).

Gundry dismisses such clear biblical evidence with an air of academic nonchalance, in which he sees no problem with the biblical authors disagreeing with one another. In his words:

In the first place, Matthew isn’t Mark, Luke, John, or Paul, so Matthew’s take on Peter doesn’t have to agree with theirs, unless you hold to a certain view of scriptural inspiration. More about that issue later. In the second place, look at the evidence in Matthew’s passages that deal with Peter. And, at least for the time being, keep out of your mind the portrayals of Peter elsewhere in the New Testament.  If you had only the Gospel of Matthew, what would you think of Peter?

The heart of Gundry’s rejection of harmonization is his bias against both biblical inspiration and inerrancy. He makes his position quite clear:

So what about the doctrine of biblical inspiration? Let’s admit Matthew’s portrayal of Peter disagrees with the portrayals elsewhere in the New Testament. What gives? Well, there are many similar disagreements in the Bible. According to Revelation 22:17 for example, a human being who wills to drink the water of life will be saved, but Romans 9:16 says that salvation does not depend on the human being who wills it. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus kept His Messiahship secret from the public ‘til His trial before the Jewish Supreme Court on the very eve of His crucifixion, but in John’s Gospel, Jesus broadcasts His Messiahship, His Divine Sonship, His being the I Am before Abraham’s lifetime, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Way the Truth and the Life and so on. In public as well as in private and from the very beginning of His ministry.

Other examples of disagreement, both historical and theological, could be multiplied indefinitely. What we have to say is that pastoral, ecclesiastical, evangelistic, and other authorial purposes often trumped theological and historical consistency in the writing of Scripture. . . . In other words, truth is sometimes, not always, but sometimes, to be found on a different plane from the factual, so too in the Bible, if you want to maintain both a high view of its inspiration and an honest appraisal of its verbal phenomenon.

Clearly, Robert Gundry’s view of inspiration allows for errors and contradictions, both factual and theological, in the Gospel records.

That is a dangerous conclusion for anyone to reach. But for someone in Gundry’s position — a theologian with influence in evangelical circles — it is especially toxic.

What legacy does someone leave to his students who sows doubt into their minds about the trustworthiness of the gospels as historical records of Jesus?  I am reminded of James’ warning, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).

Conversely, I am also remind of Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

Faithfulness to the biblical text, not interpretative novelty, is what we should model for future generations of Christians.