I'd like to finish up with my look at Epistles today. The last time I posted about Epistles specifically, I did a brief overview of Titus. To conclude today, I'd like to mention some general principles about interpretation. This is where we look at what the Scripture says and ask ourselves what are the implications for us.
The issues surrounding the interpretation of Epistles are complicated ones, and to really do it justice, I'd have to do many posts. This series of posts is supposed to be basic bible study principles, so I don't want to get too detailed. I think the keen student would do well to look at two of the resources I have mentioned already in this series:
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, Robert L. Plummer
Both of those books are very helpful, especially the first one, which contains many practical examples of the issues discussed. I could try to regurgitate the contents of those books for you, but I think you'd be better served in reading them. I will say a few general things.
First, when we interpret, we can't make the text say something to us it never said to the original audience. That means our exegesis better be good. We cannot read a 21st century situation into a 1st century context. It always begins with what the original audience heard.
Secondly, we will see situations in the Epistles that are comprable to what we face today, and we will see situations that we will never run into. In addition to looking for obvious commands, we also must draw out principles from such situations. Remember, Epistles are not dissertations of theology; we have to derive our doctrine from what is being communicated. When we do that, we need to see it in more than just the text we're studying. It must be supported from other places in Scripture. If we think we see a priniciple at work in one section of an Epistle, but we can't see it anywhere else in Scripture, we should think twice. That Scripture interprets Scripture is a truth which must be in the forefront of our interpration process.
Thirdly, the cultural issues can be complicated. We have to understand the difference between incidental issues and those that are enduring. This is where I highly recommend the Fee and Stuart book. They handle the cultural issues very thoroughly. Before we dismiss something as merely "cultural" we have to look at the context and the principle being revealed. Some things are prescriptive and some are descriptive, and some are both.
Fourthly, we have to remember that the Epistles are occasioned literature, and there are quite simply many potential ways to misunderstand something simply because we don't know everything about the occasion of the letter. We have to be careful about speculation and assumption.
One thing I have often found frustrating about how some bible studies "apply" is that the study demands that I look for something to do, when the text may not be saying that; it may be just an exhortation or a reminder, or another revelation about who God is. Trying to derive "to do" lists from our study seems short-sighted, yet so many studies go that route. Perhaps, the problem is that we interpret before we've properly understood the passage. I know that I am often too hurried in my own study; I don't think I'm alone in that.
Personally, I have found the use of good commentaries crucial in the interpretation process, simply because the writers of good commentaries have done so much more work than I ever can, and may shed insight on the what the text says, and thus influence how I apply the Scriptures. One of the things that has stuck out in my mind from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is their comment that one of the ways to learn good exegesis and interpretations skills is to observe others doing it. That means listening to good sermons or using commentaries.
I hope some of this makes sense. I found this a hard post to write, because it is such a complicated issue, and it is one I'm still in the process of learning. I think that is what I like about studying the Word; it is a life-long process.
Next week, Lord willing, I'll start looking at the specific ways in which we approach historical narrative.