THE EPISTLES: LEARNING TO THINK CONTEXTUALLY (Part 4)
The Nature of the Epistles:The Epistles are all of the New Testament except the Four Gospels, Acts, and Revelation. All of the Epistles are referred to as occasional documents, arising out of and intended for a specific occasion. They are also all from the first century. Almost all of the New Testaments letters were occasioned from the reader’s side. Usually the occasion was some kind of behavior that needed correcting, or a doctrinal error that needed setting right, or a misunderstanding that needed further light.
Much of the problems in interpreting the Epistles exist in the fact that they are occasional. We have the answers, but we do not always know what the questions or problems are. It is similar to listening to one end of a telephone conversation. The occasional nature of the Epistles also means that they are not first of all theological treatise. There is theology implied but it is task theology.
The Historical Context: The first thing to do in reading the Epistles is to try and form an informed reconstruction of the situation the author is speaking to. To do this you can consult a bible dictionary or the introduction of a commentary. The second step, especially for study purposes is to read the letter in one sitting. This will help you grasp the big picture of the letter, examining every word will come later. Some things to jot down as you read might be:
1. What do you notice about the recipients themselves? e.g., whether Jews or Greek, wealthy or slave, problems, attitudes, etc. 2. The author’s attitude 3. Any specific things mentioned as to the specific occasion of the letter 4. The letter’s natural, logical divisions.
The Literary Context: Here you want to begin to trace the argument as an answer to the occasion that required the letter. Define what the point of the letter is. (1) In a compact way state the content of each paragraph. (2) In another sentence or two try to explain why the author says what they say when they say it. How does this content contribute to the argument?
A good check to make sure that you have performed good exegesis is (1) to make sure that the exegesis is self-contained; that is, you do not have to go outside the text to understand the point. It is good to get additional information to help set the historical context but make sure that the conclusions you arrive at do not step out side the meaning of the letter. (2) Make sure that there is nothing in the text that does not fit into the argument. (3) When you are finished doing exegesis, there is clarity of the occasion that required the letter.
There will be times when it will be impossible to understand exactly the situation that the letter was written for, but in these cases the point of the letter can still be retrieved. Focus on what the letter means and you will have a good understanding of what the point is. Consulting a good commentary after you have done this work can be beneficial on checking your observations as well as providing insight into areas that you might have missed.
(This post is a summary and partial abridgement of Fee And Stuart’s book “Reading The Bible For All It’s Worth.” It is based solely on Fee And Stuart’s work and any help that this content gives should be credited to God’s grace through their effort. In other words, give God glory, thank Fee and Stuart and buy the book.)