Dennis Edwards on Letting the Marginalized Lead Us: An Interview by Shane Blackshear

How are Christians to live in a culture increasingly hostile to their faith? This is one question Dennis R. Edwards (PhD, Catholic University of America, and Senior Pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis) tackles in his new 1 Peter Commentary from the Story of God Bible Commentary. Shane Blackshear of Seminary Dropout sat down recently with Dennis to hear more about this new resource for the church.

Shane Blackshear: Dennis, thanks for sitting down with me to talk more about this 1 Peter commentary.

You know, a commentary is such a specific form of literature and there are so many commentaries out there already, so when publishers think about publishing a new one, they often have to think of a way to do it that hasn’t been done before or in a very long time. Oftentimes we’ll see publishers trying different approaches with commentaries, so that they can fill a void that’s not been filled before for. This commentary on first Peter is a part of the story of God Bible Commentary; how would you describe that niche that it fills in the world of commentaries?

Dennis R. Edwards: Yeah, you summarize well the struggle and there’s probably way too many commentaries out there.

You know if I was a pastor who didn’t have a doctorate and wasn’t hanging out in these academic places I would really struggle to know what commentaries to get. And I still struggle. So I often go on recommendations from others. But what The Story of God Bible Commentary does that sets it apart, at least in my mind, is that it tries to keep in mind the overarching narratives of what God is doing and has been doing—what he’s been doing through Israel and through the church.

Another thing is that there’s good exegesis in these commentaries but it’s not overly technical. Its readable for a pastor and thoughtful laypeople. It also gives ideas on how to live into that text. There’s a section called “Live the Story” that appears regularly throughout the commentary. We don’t just call it “application”—it’s more varied than that. It includes connection to other scriptures, or connections to different aspects of real life, or connection to history. So that section, “Live the Story”, is designed to help us see how this text could have meaning, or might have meaning in our context now.

So I feel like the commentary is very hands on. It allows you to know what the text is saying as best we can understand it and then how it might be speaking still in our time. That’s what I really liked about it.


Shane: You mention that balance of both good exegesis and real life learning. Let’s dive into some of those exegetical issues from 1 Peter. One of the big things about Peter’s letter is the debate about the authorship and whether the Peter that we know as the disciple of Jesus was the actual author of the book. You break down the reasons really well that some scholars have said it probably was not him and the reasons why some say that it likely was him. Where do you come down in the discussion?

Dennis: I think Peter, the apostle that we know from the Gospels, wrote 1 Peter. In the commentary I wanted to acknowledge the objections first, and after dealing with the objections I made the case for the authorship of the apostle Peter being the author. But I know that’s not a shared view among all scholars.

Part of the skepticism from some scholars comes from how well-written the letter is, and one wonders: Is this Galilean fishermen able to write such a thoughtful document? And there have been scholars who have answered that directly. I didn’t try to reproduce or recreate the work of other scholars; I just point to some people who have done some good work when it came to those kinds of questions because as I said this isn’t really a technical commentary.

But I don’t see any reason not to accept that Peter wrote it. I think it fits the worldview and even some of the references seem to be from Peter. It would reflect someone who’s life we think we know and can sketch out.


Shane: One other interesting debate about 1 Peter is that Peter says he’s writing from Babylon and that’s kind of anachronistic. Babylon as a real major city hadn’t existed for, I think, hundreds of years at that point.

Dennis: That’s right. Calvin interestingly enough took it to be the literal Babylon—which seems odd to me.

Generally speaking I think it’s fair to say Christians in the first century were seeing parallels with Babylon in Rome. Babylon kind of stood as a metaphor for empire and oppression. We see that in the book of Revelation even more clearly. And so for Peter to say that they are sending greetings from Babylon, it seems to me that he’s in Rome and just uses what Christians would have understood as a shorthand for Rome.


Shane: What are some exegetical points from your research you think would surprise people who aren’t very familiar with the letter?

Dennis: From an interpretive standpoint, maybe 1 Pet 3:18-22, which is a very confusing passage about Christ making a proclamation to “the spirits in prison.” Some might find it surprising that Peter may very well be alluding to a non-canonical writing, 1 Enoch.

Also, I think the teaching on humility in 5:5, with the admonition to “clothe yourselves” is an allusion to how Jesus treated his disciples, perhaps even with the washing of their feet in mind. I found that to be very interesting.


Shane: Let’s talk a little about who the letter was written for, because I think that begins to get us into our world today today. The letter was written to, it seems, Gentiles and Jewish Christians. The common audience seems to be Christians who are essentially aliens in a foreign land.

Dennis: Yeah—a couple things about that. I mean, there’s been some thought that maybe it was a lot more Jewish than Gentile, but I think the leaning by most scholars is that it was more Gentile than Jewish. There is this strong Old Testament language throughout the whole book—many references—and so one could say “oh he’s speaking predominantly to the Jewish people,” but it seems like what he’s doing through the use of that Old Testament language is including these Gentiles into the larger story of what God is doing.

So by calling them a “royal priesthood,” a “holy nation,” “a people set apart,” and borrowing that exodus language, he’s speaking to this Gentile community and saying “you’re a part of what God was doing in the world too.”

So I tend to agree that there was a largely Gentile population that had come to know Jesus. We don’t know when exactly the evangelism took place, but when Peter was writing to them I would argue it’s largely Gentile folks who are connected to Jewish converts in that part of the empire. So I think that when he refers to them as “aliens and strangers,” it’s not necessarily having to reflect in a literal sense that people are being pushed away and becoming the diaspora (although I do think there was some element of that, I do think there was a legacy of people who had been displaced because of Rome’s imperialism), but I think Peter nuances it a bit more to say “because of your faith, socially speaking, you are on the margins. You are outside of the mainstream. You are people who are displaced because you don’t fit into the broader society.”


Shane: You bring out very well the similarities to the way the people of God are being treated and marginalized in Peter’s day with the way that people of color today are being marginalized and made to feel like aliens in a foreign land as well. Can you share some of what you saw in 1 Peter?

Dennis: Thanks for noticing. I really tried to use examples that bring that out, and in my own African American context I see a lot of parallels. You know, we are a diaspora people. We as a people have survived through suffering, and in many cases it was our Christian faith that took us through that suffering. So I do see some strong parallels. We African Americans are a diaspora people. We have survived through suffering, and in many cases it was our Christian faith that took us through that suffering. Click To Tweet

And then I would even press it further to say some of the changes that African Americans were able to achieve in society came largely through the nonviolent resistance to the dominant cultures laws that prompted some of the legislative changes. This is precisely what Peter is arguing for in his letter. So I do see some strong parallels there. And in fact I would argue that if we pay attention to the community that Peter is writing to—a marginalized community—this sets up a paradigm for us to say “it is marginalized voices that may be the very ones that communicate best what kingdom values are. Jesus himself was on the margins. We need to ask ourselves: what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus knowing he himself, the one we follow and imitate, was on the margins?

I do think that that’s a powerful and clear point that comes through in 1 Peter, and I’m glad you saw that in the commentaries.


Shane: As I read the book, I kept thinking: this is just one of the reasons why we need more people of color in Christian academia—so that they can write these sort of commentaries. We need people of color to write other Christian literature too, but especially on the academic level because I think a white guy could write a commentary on first Peter and point out that the persecution of people of God looks a little bit like the persecution and oppression that people of color experience today, but it wouldn’t be as robust as it was coming from someone who’s had that lived experience. And I just think about all of the robust theology and discussion that we’re missing out on because white Christians don’t tend to let people of color speak in these arenas as much as we should. Is that something that you’ve encountered? As I read the book, I kept thinking: this is just one of the reasons why we need more people of color in Christian academia—so that they can write these sort of commentaries. Click To Tweet

Dennis: Well, you’re not going to get any argument from me. I agree with you on that, and you can add that it was really hard for us to get our voices not only heard, but even to get the kind of education that would be received by our white folks.

When I passed my oral defense of my doctorate—that was several years many years ago now in the early 2000s—the dean walked in and congratulated me and said I was the first African-American graduate to get my doctorate in Biblical Studies from that school which is the Catholic University of America in D.C.. It was 2003. I thought of it as an honor, on the one hand. But it’s really sad, on the other hand, and it’s not an uncommon story.

When I started my doctorate, there were only a handful of African American biblical scholars in the whole country. I mean literally a handful, like five or ten people. And now there’s a whole bunch that have cropped up in the last 20 years. But my point is: people didn’t read those African-American biblical scholars. For many evangelicals, they won’t read something unless it lines up with every single thing that they think a person should believe before they’re even willing to read a book. So I’ve noticed that the white evangelical community has a hard time receiving from people of color and women. I would add that we’ve missed our sisters’ voices for many years—our sisters who see the world in a way that perhaps male scholars can’t see, or maybe did see, but they enhanced that vision, and we just missed it. Jesus was on the margins. We need to ask ourselves 'what does it mean to follow and imitate someone on the margins?' Click To Tweet

So I am all for hearing diverse voices. But you’re right. We need more books written by people who don’t just reflect the same European white centered kind of theology that we’ve had. Not to say they’re heretics, but to say that there’s a nuance, there’s a different perspective that will enhance the bigger picture for us.


Shane: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Dennis. And thank you for this resource you offer the church.