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Letters

Authors J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays take the next four chapters in Grasping God’s Word and focus specifically on the interpretive journey with regard to the New Testament. This first chapter deals with the characteristics and form of the New Testament letters (or epistles) as well as how to interpret them. Of particular focus in this post are those characteristics.

New Testament letters were longer than their ancient counterparts. In typical Greco-Roman private letters the range of word count could be anywhere between 18 and 209 words.[1] In contrast, New Testament letters ranged from 335 to 7,114.[2] According to Duvall and Hays, the letters fall somewhere between “informal, private letters”[3] and “formal, artistic, literary letters designed for public presentation.”[4] They were intended to be the authoritative substitutes for the apostles and other leaders. When they were often unable to address a problem in person, they sent a letter, thereby providing them the means “to express their views and minister from a distance.”[5]

We must remember that these letters were situational in history; that is, they were meant to apply theological principles in specific ways to particular churches in the first century. They were not meant to be systematic theologies in and of themselves. So, on the one hand, we see Paul emphasizing freedom in Christ for the Galatians struggling with legalism; and on the other we see Paul emphasizing obedience for the Corinthians who were using their freedom to pursue immoral things. Neither letter should be viewed separately but together to get a better picture of Paul’s theology. A good principle to practice with regard to reading the letters is to try to reconstruct (as best you can) the original situation the letter is relating to. (Duvall and Hays will go into how to do this in a later chapter.)

Check back next week for Chapter 15: New Testament – Gospels.

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[1] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 252.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 253.

[5] Ibid.