Interpreting the Epistles

The New Testament epistles provide much of our understanding of new covenant living. They were written by early church leaders to believers around the world as Christianity spread. The epistles seem easy to read, but can be difficult to interpret without a good contextual understanding of the writing. It is important to interpret the epistles within their historical context. “The first thing one must try to do with any of the epistles is to form a tentative but informed reconstruction of the situation that the author is speaking to.” (Fee & Stuart p.59) For this, a Bible dictionary or commentary would be beneficial to learn as much of the setting of the epistle as possible. You are not looking to learn every little detail, but you must grasp the big picture to understand what was being said.

The next principle involved in interpreting the epistles is reading the work within its literary context. Where the historical context wanted to know who the writing was from, who it was to, and what was going on; the literary context is concerned with what is said and why it was said (Fee p.65). Literary context allows us to trace the arguments being presented to understand the answer (Fee p. 64). An important technique to remember when looking at the literary context is to read and think about the writings in paragraphs. This will more easily allow you to break down the context and understand the flow of the writing (Fee p.64).

The third principle of our study consists of the hermeneutical principles of the epistles. Hermeneutics is the understanding of what is important to the reader. We all exercise hermeneutic reasoning even though we may not recognize that we are. “Very simply, we bring our enlightened common sense to the text and apply what we can to our own situation. What does not seem to apply is simply left in the first century” (Fee p.72). This principle causes many of or disagreements on scripture, and we must choose to be consistent in our interpretation if we are to properly understand what was being said. There are two rules when it comes to hermeneutics. The first rule, referred to as the basic rule, is that the text can never mean what it could not have meant to its authors or readers (Fee p.74). This rule does not add a great deal of insight into what a passage does mean for us, but it should prevent us from imposing a thought process that was never intended. The Second Rule supports our understanding of scripture that speaks to all believers. “Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first-century hearers, God’s Word to us is the same as His Word to them.” (Fee p.75) When we properly understand our situation to match the situation written about in the epistle we have clear and definitive instruction from the text.


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