Situational letters

Deep within many of us — those nurtured by Bible-attentive churches, especially — resides a solid devotion to the timeless authority of scripture.  While such devotion is clearly a good thing, it can result in less-than-helpful situations.  Reverential attitudes toward scripture have led to

  • discussions around the nature of inspiration (2 Tim 3:16)
  • countless fights over interpretation methodologies
  • an almost idolatrous fear of writing in the margins of one’s Bible

Of deeper, more insidious concern is the tendency of some to claim for scripture that which it does not claim for itself.  Canonical writings never claim, for instance, that the words were dictated by the Spirit, i.e., that John and Peter and Paul, etc., had their upper extremities robotically controlled.

It isn’t hermeneutically necessary to suppose that the words of the original manuscripts were necessarily authorized by God, although they might be.  Scripture certainly never claims that a single translation is authorized above another, either.  “Authorization,” when it comes down to it, seems to be an inherently human notion.  Furthermore, the authors themselves seem not to have suspected that they were authorized to create documents for the ages:  rarely, if ever, could honest readers of scripture infer that an author had the sense that what he was writing what would become scripture.

A recent conversation with friends reminded me of the distinction among various types of scriptural literature — narrative/history, letters, poetry, and prophecy, to name the major groupings.  We might even be able to correlate the type of biblical literature with an author’s relative sense of being God’s oracle for wider, longer-living audiences.  In other words, when Paul wrote letters to Timothy, they were specifically directed and situationally time-bound, and therefore unlikely to have been conceived as being for time immemorial.  The writers of the somewhat more general, and later-penned, gospels, on the other hand, might have assumed that their messages would extend to broader audiences through the decades, if not the centuries.

Also wrapped up in the question of whether Paul and Peter and others thought they were writing “scripture” is the question of eschatological foretelling:  the apostles appear, at least initially, to have thought the Lord’s final coming was imminent, so they wouldn’t likely have written something they thought would also be read by believers in the year 2012.

Most letters in the New Covenant scriptures are considered situational — that is, written out of and into a particular sitz im leben (situation of life).  Further,  I have lately learned that letters are not really epistles, despite the headings in some Bibles, e.g., “The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians.”  An epistle appears to carry the connotation of a rhetorically formal document — reasoned and fully worked out.  A letter is somewhat less formal.  Most of our Pauline material seem to lean more toward the “letter” category, although Romans and perhaps another one or two are exceptions.

Inasmuch as the letter to the Galatians is an epistle, it might be thought to be universally applicable (at least, in the time in which it was penned).  Inasmuch as it is a letter, it is more situationally specific.  One goal in poring over a letter is to uncover its situation — the situation out of which, and into which, it was written … i.e., the impetus for its creation.  No matter who Galatians was addressed to (those in the specific province of Phrygian Galatia, or those in the larger region settled over centuries by the Gauls), it is unmistakable that Paul was monumentally, spiritually ticked off at the way things were going.  That he was addressing a situation is beyond question; I am persuaded he was addressing it by the impetus of God Himself.

I’m not at all sure Paul knew he was writing “scripture” for later believers, though.  (Remember that 2 Tim. 3:16 couldn’t really have applied to New Testament material, since it wasn’t collected yet.  Almost certainly, the reference to “all scripture” was to Tanakh/Old Testament documents.)  Scripture doesn’t claim that Paul had an inkling of this letter’s perpetuity, and I won’t ascribe such a sixth sense to him, either.

Does all this matter?  Well, yes, I think it’s significant, or I wouldn’t have bothered.  It’s not as significant as eternal love or grace or hope or the second coming … but as I study and learn more of such ancient documents, before I attempt to apply them to my situation, I want to know more about the situations in which they originated.  This knowledge is more important than figuring out whether Paul (anachronistically) considered his letters “scripture.”

7 thoughts on “Situational letters

  1. godschildrenorg 09/17/2012 / 4:42 pm

    Dan always stressed, “read the verses in context,” consider what was going on at the time. As to the importance of whether or not Paul knew he was writing “scripture,” I still believe God preserved what Paul wrote. To my simple brain, that is what matters…God must have a purpose in keeping the writings we know as the Bible in circulation. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and questions.


    • Brian Casey 09/18/2012 / 8:05 am

      “Reading in context” is of course heard often, and I know Dan would have meant it … and practiced it! 🙂 We who are so removed from the original situations need frequent reminders to read in context. It’s so easy to say to oneself, “‘Rejoice always.’ Oh, yes, that is God’s word for me today” when it was really God’s word to a specific iteration of the Philippian church in the middle of the first century AD. Knowing as much as possible about that situation, i.e., the context, bolsters my later effort to apply a message (or not apply it, as the case may be!) to “me.”

      As for the preservation part, yes, I have no doubt (or very little, anyway) that God ensured certain writings have been preserved. But whether Paul knew he was writing “scripture” in the moment he was writing it is a somewhat different, although related, question. The former is much more important, but the second is interesting and illuminating to me, too. Thanks to you, too, for considering these things with me.


  2. Marshall 09/20/2012 / 4:53 pm

    It’s a steep climb to impose situational framing where Paul is (most frequently) writing apologetic linked to timeless/ancient prophecy or tradition. While Paul may not have known how far forward his letters would be passed, this cannot be said for the words of Christ or for the authorship of the Acts of the Apostles or the Revelation of Jesus Christ.


    • Brian Casey 09/20/2012 / 7:37 pm

      I don’t think it’s a steep climb at all to suggest that Paul’s Jewish legacy and newly theologically Christian foundations would be brought to bear in specifically and patently situational writing.

      In your last sentence, are you suggesting that Jesus would not have been speaking into a situation specifically? That He was, in fact, ignoring what was right in front of Him in order to speak to the ages that would follow? It really does no violence to his divinity or to the authority of scripture to suggest that it should be read initially and foundationally in its original historical and literary context.

      Please clarify, if you feel I have misunderstood you. And, I’d like to know who is speaking!


    • Marshall 09/21/2012 / 12:33 pm

      Brian, with the faith of a child it becomes apparent that situations & events facing Jesus have been so divinely arranged as to lend into His news (message) and revelation for all men having “ears to hear” both then and now: the choreography is relentless & extraordinary throughout the record, leading and developing parable, herald, caveat, metaphor, prophecy… This is the challenge of the Divine: speaking (acting) both in and beyond the present by means of the Unchanging. We are admonished to do likewise in Christ. [I Peter 4:11]
      Uncovering the letter’s situation can help to reveal Love’s application. Possibly, this is where some confusion has emerged? to example, modern religious men deprived of a faithful English translation of Paul’s letters may wonder at the true expression: “It is a shame for a woman to speak in the ekklesia.” Missing divine context, men began their search for some other explanation — historical context reduction as one popularized guess. Yet the letter (beneath some poor translation) informs us that there already are women in Corinth who devoted not to be speaking in the ekklesia. Why had these women determined to be hush? The man in Christ will know such a thing is not founded in some trite attempt to quiet things down.
      If/when we are freed from saddling positional elevation assumptions upon Paul, what emerges in the manuscripts is more an apologetic with admonitions that function to be overarching “historical and literary context.” In effect, Paul (and others speaking by the Holy Spirit) steps out & above immediate context to remind for what is sound/sure today, yesterday, tomorrow (not time-bound). More than a literary technique, the Spirit (in Paul) is urging us forward.
      So then, Paul is a brother just like other brothers in Christ; like any true brother, Paul lives & speaks under the direct of the Holy Spirit received (rarely to stumble in this) — he is not speaking/writing from his own mind (excepting where he indicates opinion); the Spirit of God demonstrating a “supercontext” in that God is not (like a human) confined to the present or current contexts.
      Marshall Diakon diakon2 {at} gmail {dot} com


  3. Brian Casey 09/30/2012 / 10:39 am

    Marshall, because of my own situations of life I haven’t been able to think more with you about this in days, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping. I figure I should go ahead & reply now, risking speaking too much off the cuff instead of risking the appearance of apathy. As you know, I wrote you privately to beg forgiveness for delay, but a few others may be following and awaiting….

    I wish Jesus were here to speak specifically into this situation. In His current physical/acoustical absence, I am left, as are we all, to interpret the writings of old. Some of that interpretation may eventually lead to indirect or direct application to my situation, and most of it probably won’t. I wonder whether my perhaps-more-charismatically attuned readers (not necessarily you) will be disappointed, or even aghast, that I haven’t found God to speak to me today — not as He did to the woman with the hemorrhage or to Martha or to Timothy or to the ekklesia at Corinth or Laodicea, that is.

    In view of the above, I confess that I suspect do not have the faith of a child. (Whatever that really meant, or means, it was a good thing to have, and I don’t think I have it.) And I loved your poetic phrasing, e.g., “the choreography is relentless & extraordinary throughout the record, . . .” But even if I had the faith of a child in this phase of life, that wouldn’t mean that I had to interpret Pauline letters and even Jesus’ transmitted sayings as being spoken to a broad range of situations. I maintain that they were spoken/written into specific situations and that the application of such admonitions as “Study to show thyself approved” and “go thou and do likewise” and “present your bodies a living sacrifice” are best understood *first* in their original contexts, rather than as enduring exhortations for a range of situations throughout the centuries.

    It is one of my theses, then, that the living out of the Christian way will become more substantiated, not less so. If we understand the original contexts more thoroughly, the later indirect application will be, I suggest, more appropriate.

    I don’t know what you mean by the phrase “saddling positional elevation assumptions upon Paul,” but I detect an underlying difference in how we see scripture that we may not root out to the satisfaction of either of us. You seem quite sincere in your desire to follow what you find to be true, and I don’t denigrate that. I believe it’s quite possible to be found pleasing to the Lord in your interpretation of “silence” in Timothy and I Corinthians, but yours — which I take to be more narrow and more conservative in terms of relatively recent church history, but less substantiated and more liberal in terms of hermeneutics — is not the only way to be well grounded and pleasing. Thank God for His acceptance of us both!

    Maybe if we met in person we wouldn’t be all that far apart — you think? Sometimes I express something because of my understanding of the majority of my audience; you may be countering that for sake of balance and playing the “devil’s advocate.” I would probably do that very thing, if the shoes were reversed. 🙂


    • Marshall 10/03/2012 / 5:25 pm

      Brian, so often I do not fully perceive what I am doing, with profound acknowledgement that it is not my doing; simply not what I would do or select.
      I invite you to a reconsideration of “His current physical/acoustical absence,” as less absence then as one man somewhere in the semi-arid land of Galilee. Though still unusual to be seen in any given place, the presence of Christ in His children continues meekly phenomenal. The transition was only about 12 days long from His ascension to His appearing in the flesh of His chosen disciples. to one early example: mark the spirit transformation of Simon Peter [Acts 2, forward].
      When we do come to realize He has not left us as orphans, at then the written word & accounts take on a life of their own that better reflects His life rather than archive Him to the pursuit of theology or philosophy.
      Of course, all this does engage the “faith of a child” as well as the courage to look past large crowds following Him yesterday & today; toward distinguishing Him from among masses bearing their luggage of want or agenda.
      The accounts as primarily situational renders them virtually worthless as there is (most often) so little information with much time-space between, making a precision match of text and daily life rare. A curious diversion if, for lack of faith, we first cannot receive Christ in our brother only to then so rationally distance ourselves from the written accounts that are testifying to Christ in us.
      Lifting the hierarchical bias from popular English translations, it need be obvious for how Paul regards himself as another brother; not as one positioned above His Master’s sheep. This single admission radically changes the grammar and tone and purpose in his letters to the ekklesias.
      Part in the wonder of receiving revelation, wisdom or knowledge through walking in the Spirit is how He disarms much nonsense and worthless wrangling between malevolent ideas — shalom to our hearts shared by friends. Calvin and Arminius released from the devices of men, and so much more to our Liberty in Christ!


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