If I had to single out one word to describe the Epistles - the early Church letters that are contained in the New Testament - I would choose the word occasional.
Occasional is a word that we use, well, only occasionally. Infrequently.
We talk about occasional showers, meaning that the rain is only going to inconvenience us for short spells – not pour all afternoon. We talk about occasional chairs or tables, meaning pieces of furniture that we don’t use everyday – not like dining chairs or the kitchen table.
So when I describe the Epistles as ‘occasional,’ do I mean that we should only refer to them occasionally? Infrequently? For short spells and not all afternoon or every day?
Well, no. I don’t mean this at all.
I mean that the Epistles are occasional in the sense that they were written on a particular occasion and intended for that occasion. And those occasions were all in the first century in Asia Minor and the surrounding regions of the Roman Empire.
Although the Epistles are loaded with Christian theology, they are all written in response to particular questions or problems that faced either an individual, small group or larger community of Christians at a particular time. And so they are applied theology. And it is important to remember this.
Even Paul’s letter to the Romans – although containing more theology than other Pauline epistles – is not, first and foremost, a theological treatise nor a summary of Paul’s theology. There is theology implied within the letter but it is “task” theology – theology being written for or brought to bear on the task at hand.
Romans is only some of Paul’s theology. It is theology born out of his own special task as apostle to the Gentiles. It is theology born out of his perceived calling to bring Jew and Gentile together as one people of God. It is out of this context that Paul speaks so much in Romans about the justification of faith by grace rather than works, using the word ‘justify’ fifteen times in that letter, eight times in his letter to the Galatians, and yet only twice in all of the other eleven letters attributed to him put together.
When we read the Epistles it is very important to remember their occasional nature. That they were occasioned by some special circumstance, either from the reader’s side or the author’s side. Almost all the New Testament letters were occasioned from the reader’s side (Philemon, James and Romans are exceptions.) Usually the occasion was some kind of behaviour that needed correcting, or a doctrinal error that needed setting right, or a misunderstanding that needed clearing up.
Most of our problems today in interpreting the Epistles are due to their occasional nature. We have the answers (the Epistles are the answers), but we do not always know what the questions or problems were. It is a bit like listening to one end of a telephone conversation and trying to figure out who is on the other end and what that unseen person is saying. And so, when reading the Epistles, it is essential for us to try to hear “the other end of the conversation” so that we know what a passage is responding to.
Although the Epistles are part of Holy Scripture and we accept them as being inspired by God and for all time, we must remember they were first written out of the context of the author to the context of the original recipients.
Remembering this will help us to interpret them and hear more accurately what God wants to say to us through them today.
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Posted by Martine Oborne