How to Interpret Paul & the Epistles
By: Reality SF
As we continue in the Year of Biblical Literacy, we will be providing a few hermeneutic (the art of interpreting the Bible) tools to help you engage with Scripture in your personal reading and also communal settings. This piece walks through five important and fundamental aspects to Paul and the Epistles, which are outlined below.
(Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude)
What Are Epistles?
The Theological World of the Epistles
Reading from that Theological World
Reading According to the Questions of that World
The Authority of the Epistles
Of the 27 “books” included in the New Testament, 21 are not books at all but epistles, or simply letters. Of these 21 epistles, 13 have been attributed to the apostle Paul. For this reason, Paul has been a massive figure in the world of Christian thought and theology. But the epistles, and particularly the Pauline epistles (those written by Paul), are notoriously challenging texts to read and interpret. Therefore, Paul’s writings have sadly been some of the most misunderstood and misused of all the Scriptures. While many Jesus followers adore Paul’s epistles for their dense abundance of theology, many others find Paul a sort of obstacle to overcome. “I love Jesus,” they say, “but I can’t stand Paul.” Because Paul in particular has been so polarizing and so widely interpreted, it is extra pertinent that we learn the basics about how to approach these texts.
What Are Epistles?
What kind of text is the “book” of Romans, for example? Is it right to call it a book? What would the modern literary equivalent of these kind of texts be?
In short, epistles are letters. They were written correspondence intended to be transported and transmitted to an individual or community. And not just any letters – they are the letters of the apostles, those who knew and experienced Jesus firsthand, written to the early followers of Jesus. Paul’s epistles are named after their intended audience, while the others are given the titles either of their author or the audience. Philemon is a letter to a slave owner named Philemon while Galatians is a letter to the Galatian church community. James was written by James. Hebrews was written primarily to Hebrew people, as in Jews.
When we read the epistles we are reading someone else’s mail. We are stepping into a conversation from 2,000 years ago and reading one side of the dialogue. This is crucial to remember, and it sets the epistles apart from all other Biblical texts. Though there are a couple examples in the Old Testament where written correspondence is quoted, the epistles are the only Biblical texts that weren’t written to be Biblical texts. There are several significant ramifications from this that we will introduce here and elaborate on below.
Epistles aren’t exhaustive texts. They aren’t meant to provide a resource for every question one might have such as the kinds of “systematic theologies” so popular today. Rather, they are partial texts. 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, for example, are widely believed to be just two of at least four letters written to the Corinthians. We are missing at least two. And those that we do have likely weren’t the first two consecutive letters but are likely actually the second and fourth letters to the Corinthians. In other words, what we read in these epistles is not, like the gospel accounts, an attempt to provide a total and thorough picture of Jesus. Rather, they are seemingly random and quite partial snippets of a larger conversation. And we should note that these conversations even in full were not an attempt to provide an encyclopedia on following Jesus but were rather quite particular and circumstantial conversations.
We are reminded of this by the fact that not only are we missing some of Paul’s other letters to Corinth, but we are also missing all of their return correspondence. In other words, we don’t have any source documents as to the context of these letters. Much scholarship and careful Bible reading enables us to piece together the overarching context and conversation by paying attention to clues within the text itself, but even at best our knowledge of these conversations is quite partial. This doesn’t mean we can’t learn much from the texts, but it does indicate what kind of learning we ought to expect. Romans isn’t an encyclopedia on how to follow Jesus, for example, despite how it is often used. Instead, it addresses a handful of particular concerns brought up in Paul’s relationship with the church in Rome such as the ongoing role of circumcision and the unity between Jew and gentile.
Imagine going back a few decades to the days of pen-pals and handwritten letters. Then imagine your family home burns down and you’re rummaging through the charred remains. Amongst the blackened rubble you find a small half-burnt chest of letters your great-grandmother had saved. Though most are destroyed, a handful of letters have miraculously survived. Browsing through you see a letter from a Suzanne, two undated letters from a Ron, and a few others. How would you think about these pieces of preserved correspondence to your now deceased great-grandmother? What could you learn of her? What would remain a mystery? What would you long to know about the nature and context of these letters? Basically, how would the partiality of this correspondence affect what you would and wouldn’t try to learn from them? This is an imperfect analogy for the New Testament epistles, but it serves to make one important point: The writings of Paul and the other letter-writers are partial and incomplete correspondence that needs to be read as such.
In addition to being partial texts, the epistles are also particular texts. This is to say that that they correspond to unique, historical, 1st-Century questions and circumstances which we are not privy to. We are tempted to read them as if they are corresponding to our situation, giving answers to our questions. But they aren’t. Indeed, the epistles are snippets of conversations that we modern westerners would likely feel utterly foreign to, which is further cause for much of the misunderstanding and misuse of the epistles. It should be sobering but not disheartening to realize how much homework is involved to understand the kinds of questions and circumstances the epistles were addressing in order to read them responsibly. To repeat, the epistles are partial snippets of 2,000-year-old foreign conversations which demand to be read as such rather than as universally applicable “books” of Scripture.
But the epistles aren’t just partial, particular, and foreign. Though they aren’t comprehensive texts providing an A-Z encyclopedia of Christian thought, they are surprisingly dense. We do indeed have our hands on much greater riches than the above analogy of the burnt house depicts. These miraculously preserved snippets are indeed packed full with a wealth of words that are right to be called inspired.
The first reason this is so is that written communication was vastly more expensive in the 1st century than it is now. If someone were to randomly peak into your emails today, they might find thousands of total emails and some conversations might include dozens or even hundreds of back-and-forth messages. This is because it costs us close to nothing to send and receive an email. And we live in a literary world in which most everyone around us can read and write.
In the apostles’ time, however, communicating across distance was a very costly and tedious task. Most people couldn’t read and very few could write. Even fewer could write with the skill and eloquence found in the epistles. Often the “author” had to hire highly educated scribes to write down their message which would be written on very expensive parchment. Then someone had to be paid to transport the letter, and eventually, someone who could read would have to be found to read the letter aloud to the intended group. What takes us a few button clicks and a matter of seconds cost ancient writers significant wealth and a matter of months. The result of this is obvious but worth stating: 1st-Century letters like the epistles were not haphazard texts but were careful, thoughtful, expertly crafted pieces of correspondence. Though they aren’t books, they are closer kin to the thoughtfulness of a New Yorker article than one of our daily emails.
The main significance is this: Though the epistles were largely partial snippets of a conversation addressing quite particular concerns, they were also carefully and intricately constructed as enduring and beautiful literary works. Therefore, what we find in Paul’s “random snippets” is actually some of the most impressive, intelligent, and highly literary writing found anywhere in ancient history. And this writing is dense, packed full of thought. Paul and the apostolic authors didn’t waste words. So the epistles indeed transcend their partial, particular, and foreign nature, bringing a whole world of unasked-for thought to the conversation. It is this wonderful and inspired world that we seek to step into when we read Paul and the New Testament epistles.
The Theological World of the Epistles
What exactly then is this world of thought that we peek into through the various epistles? What kind of writing and thinking is this? What are Paul and his fellow apostles doing in these texts?
This is a complex exploration that we will have to become immersed in to begin to understand. As an introduction, we will simply note one of the most simple and yet profound insights, expounded by New Testament scholars such as N.T. Wright: In these letters, we get windows into Paul’s world-changing and church-shaping act of “inventing Christian theology.”
Paul and the apostles saw the world, with their Jewish peers, through an utterly Jewish worldview. Their imagination about the world, history, humanity, and God’s people was entirely shaped by the story world of the Jewish Scriptures. But in the 1st century, especially after the final destruction of the temple which Jesus warned about, this worldview became increasingly questioned and even seemingly untenable for Jews. Why are we still in exile? Why has the temple been destroyed? Is God unfaithful to His promises? Every Jew, and especially Jewish leaders, had to reimagine their set of hopes and beliefs in light of these disturbing questions. Many began to reinterpret God’s promise to come and redeem them as an allegory for the role of studying Torah together, leading to the rise of the rabbis and the rabbinic tradition.
But for Paul and Jesus’ other disciples, Jesus was indeed the key that answered all of these existential Jewish questions. The illuminating light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection slowly changed the way that Jesus’ disciples interpreted their story. In other words, in an era where the Jewish people felt themselves backed into a theological corner and grasping in the dark for answers, Paul and the apostles believed that they had indeed met the incarnate Answer. All Jews during this tumultuous time felt forced into rethinking their way of seeing and being in the world. Paul’s epistles were attempting to demonstrate how Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrected Jewish Messiah-King, provided the new pillar upon which to reimagine everything. Most specifically, Paul argued that Jesus allowed for a kind of creative reimagining that could actually prove, despite all of Israel’s questions, that God was indeed still faithful to His people. These rational and Scriptural demonstrations are what we now call theology.
Essentially, before the epistles, the entirety of Scripture consists of narrative and poetic texts that are creating and refining what we may now call the Jewish worldview. In the Gospels, we find beautiful and masterful stories testifying to who Jesus is as the fulfillment of this Old Testament story world. But now, from Romans to Jude, we encounter a brand new kind of texts which seek to accomplish a brand new task. The epistles are creating Christian theology to address the fresh questions about how Jesus fits into and reshapes the Jewish worldview as well as to demonstrate the practical applications for living as Jesus’ followers in light of this theological revolution. Simply put, the first evangelists and witnesses to Jesus had a lot of explaining to do. Paul, as a self-touted “Jew of Jews” and yet also the apostle called to make sense of Jesus to the gentile world, became the master craftsmen of creating and communicating this new Christ-centered theology.
But we should note how grand and complex this task was. Essentially, Paul’s project was to weave Jesus and Israel (meaning its history, Scriptures, hopes, ideologies, and identity) into a brand new and revolutionary fabric. It shouldn’t surprise us then that this new fabric was quite confusing and difficult to follow. Even Peter, the leading figure in the founding of the church, had a hard time understanding Paul’s letters, saying, “He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort” (2 Peter 3:16). And if Paul’s own contemporary audience had a hard time tracking, we shouldn’t be surprised when Paul seems to go over our heads today. The complexity of his message derives from the grandiosity of this project of demonstrating the good news of Jesus, in the language and world of what we now call Judaism, to his “secular” world.
One very important glimpse into how Paul and the apostles navigate this theological world is in the book of Acts. There we have narrative testimony to Paul’s apostolic ministry and message. Outside of the epistles themselves, Acts offers the greatest insight into what Paul was doing and communicating as well as the methodology he used. Let the stories of Paul’s preaching ministry in the book of Acts shine fresh new light on his theology-making ministry. Notice what he says in his sermons as well as what he doesn’t say. What are the consistent themes and main points? What are his dominant motivations?
Reading From that Theological World
This attention to the complex theological world underlying Paul’s teaching ministry ought to serve not just as an encouragement and relief when we feel lost in the epistles, but also a reminder of what exactly it is that we’re reading. To the apostles, you couldn’t even talk about Jesus apart from the Jewish world of thought and symbol. As we began to see in the Gospels, every piece of Jesus’ identity was construed as a fulfillment and reinterpretation of some Old Testament promise or figure or idea or symbol. The various “paints” the Gospels use to create a picture of Jesus are entirely drawn from Israel’s story world. To use another metaphor, every thread used to weave the quilt of Jesus’ identity was a thread pulled from Israel’s Scriptures. In this way, Jesus is inextricably woven into this Jewish world. For Paul and the apostles, it is no different. The only way to even speak of Jesus is to speak from this Jewish world. So imagine for a second trying to tell your secular friends about Jesus, but only using Old Testament terms and ideas. While this may feel impossible to you, Paul considered it necessary and inevitable.
So what we see in the epistles, and Paul’s in particular, is a sometimes disorienting flavor of communication that is speaking to non-Jews using almost entirely Jewish terms. While this may strike us at first as a lack of sensitive contextualization, Paul was actually the contextualizing theologian par excellence. He literally invented Christian theology for non-Jews, which is essentially a kind of argumentation summarizing key Biblical ideas, weaving Jesus into those ideas, and showing what you find as a result. This is what the early church did (indeed what they had to do) for the first few generations of church history. Gentile disciples — who, today, we might feel should be excused from having to learn much of the Old Testament — gathered together daily and weekly to study the Old Testament precisely in order to understand Jesus. There was no New Testament at the time. But even if there had been, the common modern sense of the Old Testament as a kind of “extra credit” to skim through en route to Jesus would have been totally alien. The Old Testament provided the world within which Jesus could be understood and newly discovered at every turn.
Practically, this means that the epistles are packed full of echoes and references to the Old Testament. As scholar John Goldingay has quipped, “The New Testament is little more than a set of footnotes to the Old Testament.” In other words, even though Paul doesn’t write expecting his audience to already have a Jewish worldview or familiarity with the Jewish Scriptures, he writes assuming that they will try to understand his words by seeing how they fit into this Jewish theological world. Basically, Paul assumes that they assume that they have homework to do in order to make sense of things. They don’t have to be Old Testament experts, but they have to be Old Testament students. In this way, the early church not only didn’t abandon the Jewish Bible, but they actually became even more fervently devoted to studying their Bible in order to better understand their loyalty to Jesus.
It is a noteworthy fact that nearly every one of the New testament epistles is believed to have been written before any of the four Gospels. This should make obvious sense. The Gospels are each evangelists’ magnum opus, the fruit of lifetimes of literary craftsmanship created for canonical preservation for future generations. The epistles on the other hand are the more pragmatic and circumstantial responses to real life, ground-level questions. Gospels are like the Sistine Chapel while epistles are like a well-polished speech or finely-tuned essay. The early church lived on this ground-level dialogue for decades before the later formation of the New Testament with the Gospels and book of Revelation added into the mix. This discourse took place between apostle and community as well as between Old Testament and Jesus. As we read the epistles today, we must try to step into both streams of dialogue. First, we should try to understand what the author was trying to say and do to the community or individual addressed. Then, to do so, we will have to begin to engage with how the author is tying Jesus to the Old Testament world.
Practically, this entails reading slowly enough to notice references backward to the Old Testament and then actually taking the time to read backward, finding and reflecting on the referenced passage. This task of reading backwards is once again the expectation, even the requirement, of the author. It is our mandatory homework. As we do this repeatedly, our capacities to read from the early church’s theological world will expand. When we begin to read in this way, from the perspective of a 1st-century Jew, we’ll discover that Jesus is completely irretractable from the theological world of ancient Israel, and yet He simultaneously exploded previous ways of seeing this world. The scandalous paradox of the incarnate, crucified, resurrected Son of God both affirmed and shattered the imagination of Paul and the apostles, opening their eyes not only to see Jesus throughout all of Israel’s story but also to now see all of Israel’s story in an entirely new light. So read the epistles slowly and read them repeatedly, praising God for whatever surface-level meaning you discover while also humbly remembering that there is a whole world of meaning beneath the surface that deserves a lifetime of devoted exploration.
Reading According to the Questions of that World
Though there is much more that can be said to prepare us for a fruitful reading of Paul and the epistles, we’ll just make one final note on our own theological world. As discussed, the epistles are letters responding to the concerns and questions of their time. It cannot be assumed that they are an answer to our questions today. Though they may lead us to the answers we seek, we will be led only to a world of falsehood if we project our current conversations back onto these correspondences. This kind of arrogant misreading, called retrojection, is sadly commonplace particularly in modern Protestant readings of Paul.
Particularly, our roots in the Reformation arguments about grace versus works have stained the lenses through which we now read the epistles. Many of the massive Reformation figures such as Martin Luther interpreted the texts through the lens of their frustrations with the priestly politics of the Roman Church. Specifically, the question they brought to the text was how do we achieve right standing with God? Is it on the merit of works or on the basis of grace? Five centuries later, we now tend to assume that these are the questions the Bible is leading us to ask. The stark reality, however, is that this question is not only not what the New Testament is really wrestling with, but it is actually a question that Paul and his audience would hardly have been able to understand. In other words, the grace-works dichotomy that Protestant theology is so entrenched in has been wrongly imposed onto the text. Paul and the epistles are wrestling with very different questions. In fact, this dichotomy is built upon a set of assumptions entirely foreign to the early church’s theological world.
One of the many false assumptions underlying this reading is that the main story arch and great concern of the Bible is how individuals escape judgment and get into heaven. Because this is assumed to be the goal, common terms in the epistles such as “salvation” are further assumed to speak to such a goal. Salvation then is wrongly taken to mean “going to heaven.” But this is simply a circular reinforcement of our own preconceived notions. We want to ask “How do we get into heaven?” and so we twist the Scriptures (as many did in Paul’s day) to appear to be concerned with this question as well. Rather than offering our ideas to be challenged by the epistles, we manipulate the texts to function as mirrors that appear to reflect back our own thoughts. Put simply, Paul would have been utterly confused by our notion that Christianity is about how to get into heaven. He would have been flabbergasted at the idea that this is what his own words were about! To avoid this distortion, we must enter into the story world of Paul and the early church, becoming increasingly cognizant of and openhanded with our theological assumptions. N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God puts it this way:
“If instead we insist on projecting on to the texts questions of individual salvation, in a classic western heaven-or-hell scheme, trying to discern where they fit in terms of the ‘qualifications’ people might have for the one or the other, and how (either through God’s grace or human merit or some combination of the two) some might attain such a salvation, we will simply miss the entire story within which the writers of those texts were living. And in doing this we will, almost certainly, distort quite radically the other terms that cluster around the larger notion of ‘salvation’… This relatively modern approach to the texts, understanding them in terms of a non-spatio-temporal ‘salvation’, is basically telling the wrong story. It collapses ‘Israel’s story’, the main theme of book after book into ‘my story’, the story of the individual soul on the way to heaven or hell.”
To reiterate Wright’s point, if we “insist on projecting on to the texts” our own questions, however familiar and beloved they may be to us, we will “almost certainly distort” the texts. So what kind of questions were Paul and his correspondents asking? What type of problems and situations did the epistles address? If asking how to get out of the world and into heaven misses the point, what kinds of questions should we approach the texts with?
It would be equally arrogant to try to present an exhaustive list of these questions, but we will set here a few major threads:
- Who is Jesus?
- In light of the continued suffering of God’s people, is YHWH truly faithful? Or has He broken His promises to Israel?
- How is Jesus the demonstration of God’s faithfulness to Israel?
- What now happens to the members of Israel who don’t accept Jesus? What is the relationship between the new “Jesus people” and the rest of the Jews? Who is now truly “the people of God”?
- How do we make sense of all the gentiles now entering in? How do Jews and gentiles unite into one Jesus community? Practically, what does this unity look like when it comes to things such as food and circumcision?
- What does it mean for the world that the resurrection happened?
- What does this mean for the future and our place in it?
- Is Jesus coming back? If so, when?
- How do we respond to violence and persecution?
The list could go on. Jesus made everything new and loaded with mystery. He exploded the worldview of Paul and the apostles and forced them to reinterpret and reimagine nearly everything. Jesus’ divine identity, His royal and messianic authority, His crucifixion, His resurrection, His fulfillment of the Law… these realities changed everything for Jesus’ first followers and created a thousand new questions. The early disciples were those who beheld shocking new answers to very old questions as well as brand new questions trying to make sense of the scandal of Jesus. His people were questioning everything and seeing all of life in a new light. To try to summarize, the primary questions centered upon the various ways Jesus had shattered their Jewish worldview. The kind of theology Paul is espousing is his brilliant and complicated attempt to help the church reconstruct a new Christological worldview.
One particular question is worth highlighting: How to understand the gentile inclusion that Jesus foreshadowed and the Acts of the Apostles chronicles? This new age of history entailed many dramatic changes that were almost too much for many Jews to swallow. Incorporation of the non-Jewish world was perhaps the toughest of them all. Throughout most Jewish thinking of the time, the hope was for God to send a mighty warrior to destroy the gentiles and establish Israel as an empire over them. They were simply an enemy to defeat, a problem to be rid of. Now all of a sudden, the Jesus-following Jews find themselves eating at the same table as the gentiles, taking communion with yesterday’s enemies. This erosion of the dividing line between Jew and gentile entailed the most consistent and confusing circumstance. Indeed, it created one of the most grandiose and otherworldly reconciliation projects in history. If you read carefully, you’ll notice this dramatic tension either mentioned explicitly or floating subtly in the background of nearly every epistle. The earliest Christians were far more concerned about how to practically and intellectually work out this revolutionary shift than with anything remotely similar to Luther’s works-righteousness crisis.
As you read, try to notice what questions or presumptions you are inclined to project onto the texts. Pay attention for some of the themes mentioned above. How might some of these questions provide a fresh lens through which to make sense of Paul’s confusing letters? And what other questions or issues do you seem to notice being addressed in the texts? Finally, how might this dialogue between the apostles and their original audience’s questions offer a path forward to making sense of your own theological questions?
The Authority of the Epistles
The last question to tackle pertains to the authority of the things said within the epistles. At the highest level, why are the epistles considered authoritative? Why are they in the Bible? Drilling down a bit: In what way are the letters authoritative? How are we to respond to what we find in them? And lastly, how we understand the different kinds of authority of various passages within the letters? What statements and exhortations are to be taken as commands for us today?
This line of questioning takes us closer to a true hermeneutic for how to interpret the epistles well, but we will again have to settle for brief summary. Debate about which parts of the epistles are to be taken “literally” (meaning: to be interpreted as authoritative for the church today) has been one of the constant sources of division within Christianity. This is particularly true of Paul’s letters which have tended to be especially polarizing. We will not be able to do away with this tension here, but will instead try to acquire the sufficient framework to move forward peaceably and fruitfully.
Historically, the canonization and non-canonization of the many surviving 1st-century letters was determined based on apostolic authority, authenticity, and theological consistency. Essentially, only letters written by those with firsthand experience of Jesus were included in the Bible. Basically, this includes Paul, Peter, James, and John. And only letters that could reasonably be believed to have actually been affiliated with these apostles were included. Finally, letters were screened based on whether or not they espoused a message in line with the rest of the canon as a whole. We don’t know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, for example, but it was canonized based on its theological cohesion with other New Testament epistles, with the earliest testimony of Jesus, and with the Bible as a whole. So what we find in our Bibles today is a collection of letters written by the earliest church leaders who were given authority both by Jesus himself and by the greater church community to help guide the church in action and understanding.
This then is the kind of authority the epistles carry. They provided authoritative guidance to many of the earliest churches. To those churches, these letters carried the authority of Christ himself. To ignore the exhortations of Peter or Paul would have been to disobey the word of God, quite similar to how the Old Testament Scriptures were treated. That is why Peter’s letter we referred to earlier puts Paul’s writings in the same category as “the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). This does not, however, mean that each letter was written universally and abstractly to the global church. As previously mentioned, the epistles were written as a kind of Scripture but not to be Scripture. They were, again, partial and particular communications. So, the first order of authority to be attributed to each letter pertains to the specific audience addressed. To them, it was entirely authoritative. Hence Paul can say, “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:8).
The epistles’ authority isn’t strictly limited to their original and primary audience, however. Many letters explicitly state that they were to be shared with other communities. Take the letter to the Colossians for example: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16). This is clear evidence of Paul exhorting and expecting the church in Colossae to find and read someone else’s apostolic mail, and to read it as similarly authoritative. This then is our hermeneutical exhortation today. Though these letters weren’t written to us, they are now here for us to find and read and respond obediently to.
But how would the Colossians have responded to that letter to the Laodiceans? What if a portion or two of the letter dealt with specific situations in Laodicea that had nothing to do with life in Colossae? What if there were personal, circumstantial commands to one community that didn’t exactly apply to the other? In parallel, what do we do with the various commands to these 1st-century churches that may or may not seem applicable to our world today? What is authoritative for us, and what do we pass over?
Again, to ask these questions is enter into a minefield of church debate. The answer to this questions is complex. Here is a starting point: We must begin by learning to discern the cultural, contextual conditioning of each passage and command. This requires answering the following questions:
- Is this passage entirely circumstantial, meaning there is absolutely no similarity between their context and ours?
- Or is it circumstantial but similar, meaning it is speaking to a different situation and context but one in which we can draw similarities to our own?
- Or is this passage universal, meaning it is true for all people in all times and circumstances?
- And is this a new passage expressing the author’s thoughts or is it a reiteration of past Biblical teachings? If so, what is the authority structure of the original command being affirmed? Entirely circumstantial, circumstantial but similar, or universal?
This framework for categorization, however, is artificial and incomplete. The true nature of Scripture and Biblical theology does not try to contain itself within such boxes. Let them simply provide an introductory framework for discerning how to interpret each passage.
If a passage is universal in its scope, then it is universally authoritative for the people of God. We may have to reimagine precisely what it looks like to apply it within our own unique context, but it demands our creative obedience. If a passage is circumstantial rather than universal, but contains some transferrable principle within it, then we should focus on this underlying principle. What is the principle within this original context? What would the principle look like transferred to our own context? Such texts demand a creative and wisdom-driven obedience, not a literalist approach of trying to equate two very different situations. Finally, those texts that can be fairly deemed as entirely circumstantial, limited in scope to just the original audience, should be allowed to remain within that foreign world.
Consider the example of Paul’s dealing with public fashion trends in 1 Corinthians 11 in which he demands that women there where headdresses in worship gatherings. The Western world today no longer deems the exposure of a woman’s hair as immodest. We would search in vain to find either a justification for a modern insistence on headdresses or an analogous rule for female attire. We interpret this Pauline exhortation rightly by allowing it to live in its original context and not trying to force a modern-day application. However, we should in turn let this insight into our Christian ancestry inspire our imaginations to reconsider how we treat our bodies, clothes, worship gatherings, public impressions, acts of modesty, and more. In this way, the passage’s authority is limited while its formative power is endless. We should note, however, how rare these completely circumstantial texts are. Indeed, more often than not there is at least some parallel or universal principle to discover and respond to.
This is a highly abbreviated overview on how to interpret the various, sometimes shocking exhortations in the New Testament epistles. If it sounds like an intimidating undertaking, you’re not alone. We should remember that the vast majority of these texts were written not to individuals for personal interpretation but to entire communities for a process of corporate discernment. The Bible is communal and cannot be interpreted individually. Therefore, read Paul and the epistles in community and try out your interpretation within a fellowship of other thoughtful Christ-followers. The church community is itself a part of the authority structure of the Bible, the context where the Holy Spirit enables us to both co-interpret God’s message for us and speak fresh words to one another. This context of Spirit-led community is both what produced the epistles and where we should read them.