Interpreting the Pauline Epistles

One of the most crucial points to remember in interpreting Paul’s Letters is that they were written to address specific situations. They are not systematic treatises intended to present a complete Christian theology. They are pastoral works in which Paul applies his theology to specific problems in the churches. Ephesians may be an exception to this rule, and some think that Romans is of a different character as well. Even these letters are not comprehensive treatises. For example, Romans is quite brief on the church, says nothing about the Eucharist, lacks the kind of developed christological statements that we find in Phil. 2:6–11 and Col. 1:15–20, and does not contain the detailed eschatology found in 1-2 Thessalonians.

Several examples reveal the circumstantial nature of the letters. Clearly Paul wrote Galatians because the Galatian churches were abandoning the Pauline gospel (Gal. 1:6–9; 5:2–6). He wrote Colossians to stave off a new heresy that had the potential of making inroads in the church (Col. 2:4–23). Various problems plagued the Corinthian church, and thus Paul wrote our two canonical letters to them. Philippians seems to have been written for several reasons. The church has sent Paul a gift, and he wants to express his thanks (1:3–8; 4:10–14). In addition, disunity was probably surfacing in the church (1:27–2:11; 4:2–3), and Paul wants to warn the church regarding the danger of false teachers (3:2–4:1). All of the Pastoral Letters (1-2 Timothy, Titus) were written to strengthen churches in healthy teaching because false teaching was threatening the churches.

The danger of reading Paul’s Letters as systematic treatises is that one might draw unwarranted conclusions from reading only one letter. For example, John Drane thought that Paul was a libertine in Galatians and a legalist in 1 Corinthians, since in the former Paul trumpets liberty from law and in the latter Paul lays down many specific rulings. Drane would certainly claim that he does not read the letters as systematic treatises; nevertheless, he has failed to see that Paul stresses liberty in Galatians because he is writing to a church that has been infected with legalism, and Paul highlights obedience in 1 Corinthians because he is writing to a church that has given full license to immoral behavior.42 Neither in Galatians nor in 1 Corinthians does Paul explain his full view of Christian obedience. Instead, he gives change-of-course directions to churches that are navigating in the wrong direction.

The interpreter, then, must always keep in mind the specific situation that Paul is addressing in his letters. Of course, one can find out what this situation is only by reading the letter itself. All we know about the adversaries in Galatians appears in the letter to the Galatians. We are at some disadvantage here because the Galatian churches understood perfectly the problem that Paul is addressing; they were experiencing it! Paul did not write the letter to those of us who live in the twenty-first century. From the evidence that we find in Paul’s Letters, we can only infer the precise nature of the problem in the churches to which he wrote. Morna Hooker has pointed out that hearing only Paul’s response to the problems is much like hearing only one end of a telephone conversation. Despite this disadvantage, the interpreter is wise who reconstructs from the letter itself the situation that was plaguing the church. Then the Pauline response can be grasped more clearly.

Thomas R. Schreiner, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, Second Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 30–32.

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2 thoughts on “Interpreting the Pauline Epistles

  1. Excellent thought. We are studying Ephesians with our church right now and I am once again challenged with these issues on a weekly basis. I would also add that, besides knowing the original readership and situational context, I am learning that it is critical to see the flow of thought and the epsitle as a distinct unit of thought. As Schriner points out it is not a comprehensive theological treatise. Even if we do not know too much regarding the problem of the original readers (as in the case with Ephesians), we can still lock into seeing the direction and purpose of the author. The way in which he constructs his thoughts in relationship to one another to make a point is critical. One example is Ephesians chapter one and the doctrine of election. If we focuse merely on Paul’s mention of election without heeding to the overall idea in that first paragraph, we actually loose what it is that Paul was trying to say about election. I am finding that once I lock myself into the context as a unit of thought, I am prevented from going on beyond that which is written on the issues that are addressed. There is a reason that God did not give a comprehensive explanation of the doctrine of election, but rather set it along a row of other critical soteriological truths. That in and of itself already makes a powerful point about election itself, as well as all the other truths that it is set alongside.

    • Very true. One other point that I would add, which I wish Schreiner would has to do with reading canonically. Reading Ephesians in context of the Bible. While Ephesians is somewhat occasional, or taking another epistle, the divine context for all of them is the Bible. Take the example of election you mention. The bigger context of that topic that is almost always missing from the discussion, is the OT and election of Israel, not philosophical considerations of its legitimacy or illegitimacy. The point of contact is God working consistently in the OT with his people and NT. I am sure that Paul assumes much of the OT imagery and terminology behind what he writes, but even more so God does for sure!

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