People hardly write letters anymore. Aside from the occasional business correspondence, it is unusual to receive an actual letter in the 21st century. Emails have largely displaced the traditional letter but are really a different genre of writing.
Imagine for a moment if the letter completely falls out of use in a few generations and is replaced entirely by email (or perish the thought, by text messages). It would then become necessary for future generations to first learn our letter writing conventions to understand our letters. (For example, they would need to understand which of the 2 addresses at the start of a letter is for the sender and which is for the recipient.)
As 21st century readers we are in a similar position when we approach the New Testament letters to read and understand them. First century letter writing conventions are of course quite different from those followed in the 21st century, given the passage of time. We therefore must learn how to read a first century letter if we are to correctly read and understand the NT letters.
Firstly however, we must begin by appreciating that the NT epistles are letters. An elementary principle of interpreting any kind of writing is understanding what kind of literature it is and reading it in accordance with the literary conventions associated with that kind of writing. We don’t read poetry like a science book, the newspaper like prose fiction, or a letter like a biography. Instead, we read each of these different genres in accordance with its associated literary conventions.
When we approach the NT letters to read them, we therefore need to keep in mind the following implications of their being letters:
They are written on and for specific occasions. This means that their contents were occasioned by a specific context and by certain circumstances and were intended to respond to or to address those circumstances. The NT letters were not therefore written as a manual giving prescriptions for all peoples, in all places, in every age. The NT letters do in fact have relevance across time, space, and ethnicity. However, to discern how to appropriately apply a NT letter to our varying contexts, we must first do the hard work of understanding the meaning of that letter to the original audience based on the context in which it was written. Then we can seek to determine how we can apply that meaning to our differing contemporary contexts.
They are brief and do not contain all the writer’s thoughts on a particular subject. Letters are short written forms of communication in relation to a specific situation. Accordingly, they do not contain all that a writer has to say on a subject. Given more time and a different situation, the letter writer would perhaps say more or say differently. The NT letters are not therefore systematic treatises of their author’s theology or comprehensive statements of their doctrinal beliefs. We must therefore read each of these letters understanding that their contents and meaning are limited by the vehicle of communication conveying them and by the context into which they speak.
A letter is only one side of a correspondence and so does not supply the other side. When we are reading a NT letter, we are therefore hearing only one side of a conversation and can only try to fill in the blanks in terms of the other side, based on inference from the side of the conversation we are hearing. This is an unreliable method, like trying to fill in the blanks from listening to one side of a phone call. Ultimately, we must acknowledge that there are some details we won’t completely understand and must therefore chose to focus on and to derive meaning and application from what is clear.
In reading the NT letters we are reading someone else’s mail, which involves a different way of reading than reading our own correspondence.
In my role as a commercial litigation attorney, I have in the past routinely had to read and interpret other people’s letters. This required firstly understanding the context of the letter – who was writing to whom, when where and why. Then I would interpret the letter considering that context whilst reading each sentence in the context of the surrounding sentences and paragraphs. I would also read the entire letter all the way through, never choosing to read only one sentence divorced from the letter’s overall context, as we tend to do with verses in NT letters.
This approach is essentially the one we must take to read the NT letters correctly. Happily, it does not require any skills that are beyond us. However, it is a thoughtful approach which begins by asking the question, “How do you read a letter?”