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An epistle (from the Greek epistole, meaning "letter") is a written correspondence to an individual, a church or group as a formal treatise (systematic treatment of various doctrines) or to address specific issues and needs of the recipients on certain occasions. For example, Paul's letter to the Romans is primarily a systematic treatment of the righteousness 0f God and the doctrine of salvation, while his letter to Philemon addresses specific issues relating to a runaway slave. Most Biblical epistles can be considered a combination of the two types, since systematic treatments are usually in response to certain situations involving the recipient, and writings addressing specific issues also contain doctrine, morals and ethics which can be applied by us today. Biblical letters took on the same form as other letters of their day, generally containing a greeting or salutation (sometimes with the name of the writer and recipients), thanksgiving or prayer, a body (usually the largest portion of the letter), and the conclusion (often containing exhortations, additional instructions, farewells etc).
At first glance, the epistles appear to be one of the easiest and most basic of the genres to understand, and they are in one sense. They are, for the most part, written in a straight forward literal manner, with only limited parables, poetry or other figurative languages. There are, however, special issues which can make understanding some portions quite difficult as noted by the Apostle Peter (2Pe 3:16), referring to the writings of Paul, which comprise a majority of the epistles.
Despite a few challenges, the importance of understanding the epistles cannot be overstated. Not only do we derive most of our Biblical doctrine from these letters, but they decipher and explain much of the OT and the Gospels. Because of this importance, we will repeat many of the principles found elsewhere in our Bible Interpretation Guide and illustrate how they apply to the epistles. We suggest reading this guide if you have not done so already. In addition, almost all literary types that we discuss within our Genre section are represented, so we must also apply the appropriate principles as we recognize the various subgenres within the letters.
The first (and probably most important) step we must take in interpreting an epistle is to understand the historical context in which it was written, that is, the situation about which, and to which the writer is speaking. This is especially critical for the letters addressing specific issues for a particular church or group. Reading these letters is like listening to one end of a phone conversation. We hear Paul's "answers", but need to figure out the questions, that is, the issues involved. A Bible dictionary or commentary should contain valuable information about the recipients and the situation addressed in the letter. For example, when studying Ephesians, we should find out as much as possible about the church and happenings in Ephesus.
One consequence of our hearing only one side of the conversation is a few obscure passages. A couple of well known examples are 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul advises women to cover their heads in worship "because of the angels", and 1 Peter 3:19, which talks of Christ preaching to the "spirits in prison". The original recipients of these letters had no problems with these passages, since they had the advantage of Paul and Peter's oral communication, of which the letters were a reminder. We can consult commentaries for various possibilities, but since we are not privy to these conversations, we must be content with knowing that the Holy Spirit has communicated to us all we need to know (Scripture is sufficient). We can also say that no doctrines are affected by this lack of information, and indeed, we should not base any doctrine on obscure passages, nor is it necessary.
For our next (and very important) step, we should read the entire letter in one sitting (as with other books, there is no substitute for reading and re-reading). Then re-read the letter, jotting down some brief observances such as the recipient (Jew or Greek, believer or unbeliever, attitudes etc), the author's tone and clues to the specific occasion and other issues involved (problems in the church, heresies, false teachers etc).
After determining the issues, we should then follow and study the writer's argument or treatise regarding this subject (remember to "think paragraphs"). This should be done in the context of the entire letter and ultimately, within the context of all Scripture. We should look for the central points or truths that the author intends to portray, and not over-speculate on details that go beyond the text itself. For example, in some of Paul's epistles, he addresses false teachings without specifically stating what these teachings were. In this case, we should concentrate our studies on the principles given against false teachings rather than speculating on the content of the false teachings.
As we follow the writer's argument from paragraph to paragraph (continually asking "what's the writer's point?"), we can look for transitions or repetitions. Paul in particular, often uses transitional phrases when making a new point or changing subjects. For example, in Philippians 2:1-4 (first paragraph), we see Paul speaking of unity within the church and the attitude of humility. When we go to the next paragraph (v5-11), Paul writes of the humiliation and ultimate exaltation of Jesus the Messiah. We can see from the context that even though Paul is teaching us about Jesus as the ultimate example of humility, his main point is that we should possess the same attitude. Moving to the next paragraph (v12-13) and again asking "what's the point?", and "how does this fit in to the argument?", we first see the transitional "therefore", indicating that Paul is beginning a summation or conclusion. We then see that, in this paragraph and the next (v14-18), Paul concludes by exhorting his readers to be obedient in unity, which requires the spirit of humility.
Applying Interpretation of the Epistles to Contemporary Situations
Since the epistles are the source of much of our doctrine, we must consider what they mean to us. Even though they weren't written to us, they were certainly written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for our instruction. One of the most difficult challenges we face is the issue of Historical Precedent, that is, does the passage refer to a cultural situation limited to the epoch of the writer, or does it establish a permanent principle to be followed for all eras, including our own? We deal with this issue in our treatment of the Narratives genre, but repeat here that, if after a careful study, we remain uncertain whether a particular mandate is principle or custom, I personally prefer to err on the side of treating it as a principle. It is much better to be a bit overzealous in keeping a custom than to ignore a precedent set by Holy Scripture. We should also guard against the legalistic approach of requiring others to keep mandates when Scripture is silent or the interpretation remains unclear.
The most basic principle in applying the epistles (or any other genre) to our contemporary situations is that a text cannot take on a meaning in conflict with, or in addition to, its original meaning or pattern of meaning (see Author's Intent and Pattern of Meaning). So, before we attempt to apply a passage to our times, we must first do our proper exegesis utilizing the principles discussed above, and elsewhere in our Interpretation Guide, in order to understand what the text itself is saying to the original recipients.
Next, we should look for specific situations in the epistles which are comparable to our own. The passages from Philippians 2 above is a good example regarding our responsibilities within the local church and in fellowship with other believers. We must be cautious in reconstructing the original parameters to insure that our particular situation is comparable. We must also limit the passage's message for us to the writer's original intent, and not extend its application to foreign contexts, unless the passage proclaims a biblical principle that can be sustained from other Scripture.
A familiar situation regarding extended application comes from 2 Corinthians 6:14 in which Paul writes "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers". This passage has traditionally been interpreted as prohibiting marriage between a believer and unbeliever, but marriage is not mentioned in the text, nor is it clear from the original context exactly what is being prohibited. Paul could possibly be prohibiting participation in pagan ceremonies, worship of idols, or being involved in business partnerships. So, can we extend this passage to marriage? Scripture doesn't explicitly say "Thou shalt not marry an unbeliever". Both Paul (1Cor 7:12-16) and Peter (1 Pe 3:1-2), speaking to those who are married to unbelievers, encourage them to stay together, working to bring their spouses to a saving relationship in Christ. Many different opinions exist regarding this issue, so I'll offer my belief here. While I would not say that this passage absolutely prohibits a believer marrying an unbeliever, the whole of Scripture strongly discourages it. Both the OT and NT promote believers seeking close and intimate relationships with other believers to encourage and edify each other in our service and worship of God. Not all relationships with unbelievers are forbidden, just those that would compromise our faith, otherwise we would have to leave this world (1Cor 5:10). Jesus himself associated with sinners, but did not participate in their sins. We also have the Scriptures commanding parents to raise their children in a proper relationship with the Lord. How can this be accomplished when the parents are setting opposite examples? Returning to our original passage, even though it doesn't state the exact prohibition, we know from the context that Paul is prohibiting participating in something sinful. Scripture consistently forbids a believer tying himself or herself to an unbeliever in any business, relationship or fellowship in which the believer will be influenced or controlled by the unbeliever. What closer relationship exists between two people than marriage? Therefore, on this basis, I believe the application of 2 Corinthians 6:14 can be extended to the institute of marriage.
Our next question might be "What about the passages which address first-century situations for which we have no modern equivalents?". A good example is the question of whether foods sacrificed to idols may be eaten (1Cor 8). We probably won't see an idol burger on the menu at Burger King, so does this passage speak to us today? In these cases, we should find the clear timeless principle, which we can then apply to comparable situations. In this case, we find the stumbling-block principle in which a mature believer should refrain from doing anything that would cause a less mature believer, bu also doing, to violate his conscience even though the action itself is not sinful. This principle does not apply to actions which merely offend another believer. Most churches have legalists who are "professional victims", using this principle to force their views of truly gray areas of Scripture in order to condemn others. We must, however, distinguish between these gray areas and those actions which are clearly prohibited. I have written an article on handling the gray areas of the Bible and will post the link here when uploaded.
We mentioned earlier that the majority of Christian doctrine is derived from the epistles. In forming or shaping our theology on the basis of our studies, we should also take the writer's presuppositions into account as well as his explicit statements and implications, but should avoid speculation beyond what the text affirms. We must accept the fact that we do not possess the apostolic authority or inspiration of the epistle authors. We must be content with the illumination of the Holy Spirit, which doesn't reveal all we want to know, but does reveal all we need to know. I look forward to the day when we will no longer see as a poor reflection, but face to face (1Cor 13:12), a day when I can sit down with the writers of Scripture... 'cause I've got lots of questions.
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