Interpreting the NT Epistles

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					CAPS Phase 1: Hermeneutics Notes, Session 5                                                                            1
Interpreting the New Testament Epistles

Instructor: Doug Smith
February 21, 2008                                                                     Fellowship Chapel, Bristol, VA

Twenty-one of the twenty-seven New Testament books are Epistles. But how do we begin to understand and apply
letters written almost two thousand years ago in a land far away in a foreign language to people we’ve never met and
who had customs far different from ours?

1. Read and re-read the text. Letters are meant to be read in a single sitting. If a pastor
wrote a letter to someone, he would not expect the person to read page one the first week
and page two a month later. So, we should practice reading them in one sitting. Reading
them in a variety of translations can give extra reinforcement and insight. The value of
reading and re-reading the text cannot be overemphasized. Reading aloud is also a good
exercise. We should get very familiar with the letter as a whole.

2. Examine the Epistles as Historical Documents.
     Recognize that the epistles are occasional documents – written by a particular
      individual to a particular audience in a particular time for particular occasion (and we
      don‟t always know many of the details). It is “task theology,” written to meet
      specific historical needs in a variety of situations. They are genuine letters to specific
      churches and individuals.
          o Public/private; groups/individuals
          o Circulation among churches (Col. 4:16); Public reading (1 Thess. 5:27)
     As historical documents, we must try to discern the purpose of the author in
      writing, finding out what situation(s) he addressed.
     We must try to distinguish the things in the text that are conditioned by the culture
      and realize that those portions may have an application for us that looks different
      from the 1st century. There is some discontinuity between then and now.
     The epistles have a unique place in redemptive history. They look back to the Cross
      and forward to the Second Coming. We are in the same period of redemptive
      history as the epistles (although there are some differences between the apostolic age
      and today), and this provides “the fundamental continuity for relevant proclamation
      of historically conditioned letters.”1
     Ways to study the historical context:
          o Internal evidence in the book itself
                    Look for clues in the text itself
                    Mirror Reading (reading between the lines; somewhat like
                        overhearing one-sided phone conversation)
          o Other books in the Bible (especially the Gospels & Acts)
          o Books outside Bible (Church fathers, historians, etc.)
          o Bible dictionary – find out as much as possible about the recipients of a
              letter, their city/church, etc. and the author of the epistle
          o Take brief notes about author (& his attitudes), recipients, circumstances,
              things mentioned in relation to the letter‟s occasion, and the natural divisions
              of the letter.

1   Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 331.
CAPS Phase 1: Hermeneutics Notes, Session 5                                                                    2
Interpreting the New Testament Epistles

          Caution about speculating on the historical background: Theories about
      the history of the text should rise out of text itself and help us understand the text,
      but interpretations of the text should still work without the theory.
     Historical interpretation helps us in reading the letter as a whole with an
      understanding closer to the original audience.

3. Examine the Epistles as Literary Documents.
     The genre of epistle
         o NT Epistles are similar to ancient letters, but also have differences. Epistles
             were a “modification of an existing genre” instead of a whole new genre.2
         o Epistles more formal than typical personal correspondence; the NT Epistles
             seem to be a hybrid of the genres of letter and epistle.
         o Special care was taken in writing these documents. One evidence of this is
             that a secretary (amanuensis) was sometimes used (e.g., Rom. 16:22; 1 Cor.
             16:21; Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18; 2 Thess. 3:1).
         o Knowing the outline/structure can give us a framework for understanding an
             epistle. Common features of letter structure: salutation (sender, recipient,
             greeting), thanksgiving/prayer, body (usu. doctrinal), exhortation/instruction,
             and conclusion (final greetings and benediction). According to Sidney
             Greidanus, there are at least three benefits of discerning the form of an

                       1. The form of the letter discloses the basic outline of the letter and enables the
                       interpreter to see each part of the letter in the context of the whole.
                       2. The standard form of the letter makes one aware of any omissions.
                       3. Noticing the standard form helps one see a writer‟s deliberate
                       alterations, which give clues to intention and meaning.

                          The author was not enslaved to the form, but it is often significant
                           when one departed from it (e.g., no thanksgiving in Galatians).
                          Comparing epistles helps us identify features distinctive to each one.
                          “The best way of outlining an epistle is by topics, noting how one
                           argument leads logically to the next. The most crucial rule of all is to
                           „think paragraphs‟ when reading an epistle.”4

2 Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 312.
3 Greidanus, 316-317.
4 Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible As Literature…and Get More Out of It, 156. Ryken acknowledges that the

idea of the last sentence is drawn from Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.
CAPS Phase 1: Hermeneutics Notes, Session 5                                                                        3
Interpreting the New Testament Epistles

The epistles as literary documents, cont’d.


                                 1 Corinthians                    Galatians                      Romans
     a. Sender                   1:1                              1:1-2a                         1:1-6
     b. Addressee                1:2                              1:2b                           1:7a
     c. Greeting                 1:3                              1:3-5                          1:7b
2. THANKSGIVING                  1:4-9                            --------                       1:8-17
3. BODY                          1:10-4:21                        1:6-4:31                       1:18-11:36
4. EXHORTATIONS                  5:1-16:12                        5:1-6:10                       12:1-15:13
                                 16:13-18                         6:11-15                        15:14-32
                                 (closing                                                        (travel
                                  paranesis6)                                                      plans and
     a. Peace Wish               --------                         6:16                           15:33
     b. Greetings                16:19-21                         ----                           16:3-16, 23
     c. Warnings                 16:22                            6:17                           16:17-20a
     d. Benediction              16:23-34                         6:18                           16:20b

                                    Formal Parts of Philippians
    1. Opening                        _________________
          a. Sender                   _________________
          b. Addressing               _________________
          c. Greeting                 _________________

    2. Thanksgiving                   _________________

    3. Body                           _________________

    4. Exhortations                   _________________

    5. Closing                        _________________

5 This chart is taken from Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 316. Greidanus adapted it
from other sources according to his footnote: “The chart is adapted from Roetzel, Letters of Paul, 40, and Doty,
Letters, 43.”
6 The Literary Study Bible gives this definition: “Sections in the NT epistles that list moral virtues and vices, or

collections of moral commands to practice specific virtues and avoid specific vices. The Greek word paraenesis
(pronounced para-NEES-us) means moral instruction or exhortation. No substitute English term has gained
currency,” 1893.
CAPS Phase 1: Hermeneutics Notes, Session 5                                                                              4
Interpreting the New Testament Epistles

The epistles as literary documents, cont’d.
         o Other literary features of epistles include:
                  Rhetorical devices used include Q & A (Rom. 4:1-3), Repetition
                       (Eph. 4:4-6), Inclusion (1 Cor. 12:31-14:1), Chiasm (Gal. 4:1-7),
                       Climax (1 Cor. 13), Dialogue (Rom. 3:27-31)
                  Figures of speech such as Similes and Metaphors (Eph. 6:11-17)7
                  Parallelism (Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:55; 1 Pet. 2:22)
                  Antithesis (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
     Understanding Propositions
         o The Epistles contain the most carefully reasoned arguments in the Bible.
         o To understand a sentence, a basic grasp of grammar is key.
                  English translation – English grammar
                  Hebrew – Hebrew grammar; Greek – Greek grammar
         o Notice how parts of sentences/clauses are related. Relationships to notice
             include: cause, result, purpose, condition, concession, means, and manner.
         o Good literal translations are especially helpful, as arguments often hinge on
             prepositions (often rendered with more precision in literal translations).

4. Examine the Epistles as Theological Documents.
     While the Epistles are not essays in systematic theology, they are theological.
     We need to have a balanced view of the Epistles, avoiding these extremes:
          o Each Epistle as a stand-alone document independent of other Scripture
          o A “flattened out view” of the Epistle that fails to recognize its distinctive
              contribution to the canon of Scripture
     Each Epistle has its unique place in Bible as it fits in with the big picture.
     We need to be aware of foundational concepts in letters and how they relate to
      specific passages. For example, the writer‟s concept of justification, righteousness,
      or humility must be understood to grasp the related passages and their applications.
     Remember the centrality of the Gospel. A faithful theological interpretation does
      not forget to keep the cross in view. “Even the exhortations which seem rather
      isolated from their context have to do with Christ” and “they describe the
      embodiment of the gospel in God‟s people.”8

5. Examine the Epistles as Authoritative Documents.
     Most of the NT consists of epistles (21 out of 27 books). These are authoritative
      documents; they come from God (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 3:15-16) and are to be obeyed.
     Read NT Letters for application. View them as sermons in a different form.9
     In applying the Epistles, identify what is and isn‟t transferable to today. Find the
      common ground or the contrast. Some applications are the same today. For others,
      a specific and new application of the same principle will need to be sought.10
     All application must be based on sound interpretation to have God‟s authority. But
      when application is not based on sound interpretation, you become the authority.

7 A good resource for finding the figures of speech in a text is E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible.
8 Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 332.
9 This suggestion comes from Greidanus, 313.
10 See Roy B. Zuck, “Applying God‟s Word Today” in Basic Bible Interpretation.
CAPS Phase 1: Hermeneutics Notes, Session 5                                                    5
Interpreting the New Testament Epistles

The New Testament Epistles employ a fixed form, incorporate smaller literary
genres into the overriding letter form, and rely on poetic language and stylistic
patterns to communicate their meanings with power. The corresponding skills that
they require from readers are the ability to determine the overall structure of an
epistle, to “think paragraphs” in following the logical flow of ideas, to interpret
figurative language, and to be sensitive to the effects of artistic patterning.11

For digging deeper:

        Thomas R. Schreiner, “Interpreting the Pauline Epistles.” SBJT 3 (1999): 4-21.
        Literary Study Bible (ESV), edited by Leland and Philip Graham Ryken
        Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (233-237, 241-244)
        Sidney Greidanas, “Preaching Epistles” in The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text
        Walter Kaiser & Moises Silva, “How to Read a Letter” in An Introduction to Biblical
         Hermeneutics (120-137)
        Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature…and Get More Out of It (155-158)
        Leland Ryken, Words of Delight (431-439)
        Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible (169-186)
        Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Chapters 3-4)
            some helpful material, but read with caution

11   Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature…and Get More Out of It, 158.