The epistles: The hermeneutical questions

These are my notes on Chapter 4 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

The big issue with the epistles is cultural relativity: what is cultural and belongs to the 1st century and what transcends culture and is a word from God for all season?

The problem is generated by those texts which some think we should obey exactly and others aren’t quite as sure. No one believes 2 Timothy 4:13 to be a word for us today, while 2 Timothy 2:3 is, though both are addressed specifically to Timothy. Well, how about 1 Timothy 5:23, also addressed to Timothy?

The basic rule is that a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his/her readers. This rule helps set limits on our interpretation.

The second rule is that whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e. similar specific life situations) with the 1st century setting, God’s word to us is the same as His word to them. We need to do our exegesis well to have confidence that our situations and particulars are genuinely comparable to theirs.

Some problems may arise when seeking to apply a certain text to ourselves:

The problem of extended application

Is it legitimate to extend the application to a context totally foreign to its 1st century context? No, it is advisable to limit application to its original intent.

The problem of particulars that aren’t comparable

This refers to those issues that are without contemporary counterparts, or are highly unlikely to come up today. An example would be 1 Corinthians 8-10 (attending idol feasts, questioning Paul’s apostolic authority and food sacrificed to idols).

First, you need to do sound exegesis and determine what God’s word to them was. In most cases, you’ll find a principle that transcends historical particularity. Second, the principle is to be applied to genuinely comparable situations.

What about matters of indifference? The following guidelines may be helpful:

  1. What the apostles specifically indicate as matters of indifference may still be regarded as such (food, drink, observance of days, etc.)
  2. Matters of indifference aren’t inherently moral, but cultural (even if they come from religious culture)
  3. The sins lists in the epistles never include 1st century matters of indifference (Romans 1:29-30; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:2-4)

The problem of cultural relativity

Is it not possible that some texts need to be translated into new settings or left in the 1st century? For example, many Christians don’t practise the “holy kiss”.

Here are some guidelines for distinguishing between the items that are culturally relative and those that transcend their original setting:

  1. Distinguish between the central core of the message of the Bible and what is dependent upon or peripheral to it. Doctrines such as the fallenness of mankind and redemption through Christ are part of that central core. The holy kiss, women’s head coverings and the like are peripheral.
  2. Distinguish between what the NT sees as inherently moral (and therefore absolute and abiding for every culture) and what isn’t. Paul’s sin lists never contain cultural items.
  3. Take note of items where the NT has a uniform and consistent witness and where it reflects differences. It is consistent on the wrongness of strife, hatred, murder, stealing, practising sexual immorality of all kinds, etc. It isn’t consistent on the political evaluation of the Roman empire (Romans 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:13-14; Revelation 13-18), the retention of one’s wealth (Luke 12:33, 18:22; 1 Timothy 6:17-19), etc.
  4. Distinguish within the NT between principle and specific application. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul appeals to the divine order of creation (v. 3) and establishes the principle that one should do nothing to distract from the glory of God when the community is at worship. (vv. 7, 10). The specific application seems to be relative, since Paul appeals to “custom” or “nature” (vv. 6, 13-14, 16). In some churches today, a woman covering her head would be so out of place as to cause a disruption in worship.
  5.  Determine the cultural options available to the NT writer. The degree to which the NT writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there’s only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position. On the other hand, homosexuality was both affirmed and condemned in antiquity, yet the NT takes a singular position against it.
  6. Keep alert to possible cultural differences between the 1st and 21st centuries that aren’t immediately obvious. For example, Paul wasn’t speaking of a participatory democracy in Romans 13:1-7 .
  7. Exercise Christian charity. Recognise the difficulties and be willing to ask for forgiveness when necessary.

The problem of task theology

Much of the theology in the epistles is task-oriented and not presented systematically. For this reason, some caution needs to be observed:

  1. Because of their occasional nature, we must be content with limitation to our theological understanding of the epistles. For example, what does it mean that we will judge the angels (1 Corinthians 6:2-3)? We’re not told.
  2. Sometimes our theological problems with the epistles derive from the fact that we’re asking our questions of the text while they are answering their questions. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul addresses issues that Jesus said nothing about because they were outside His Jewish context.