Participatory Bible Study Method
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Participatory Bible Study

Interpreting Letters

This page is part of the basic guide to the participatory study method designed by Henry Neufeld. You may want to start from the outline of the method or at the introductory description. This page will only describe methods that are peculiar to this particular type of Biblical literature.

Letters (or Epistles)

I use the term "letter" throughout, but the common churchy term for a letter has been "epistle" for a very long time.

The material in this section applies to interpreting the following Bible books:

Epistles are simply letters written by some of the early church leaders to people under their spiritual care. I hesitate to use the term "pastor" to refer only to the letters to Timothy and Titus, because all of these letters result from a pastoral concern. The focus is on responding to, or anticipating, certain problems in the church and providing guidance for those situations. In some cases this guidance is in the form of correction or rebuke; in others it is in the form of encouragement. Sometimes passages explain certain doctrinal issues.

None of the Bible is written primarily as theology, though some things come close. Most Christian theology is built primarily around statements in the epistles, especially the epistles of Paul. Hebrews (for those who do not accept Pauline authorship) comes in a close second. But even when we are dealing with the theological passages in these epistles, we should remember that the writer is responding to practical issues in the life of the church. In other words, the doctrines presented or explained are those doctrines the churches or individuals need to understand in order to effectively live the Christian life.

It is important in reading those portions of the epistles in which the author is making theological or doctrinal arguments, for the reader to be careful to read precisely what is there. For help in this process, see my additional essay, Reading Precisely.

Key Questions about Background

The key questions you want to ask about the background of an epistle are:

In the Central Loop

The Central Loop is described in The Participatory Study Method.

In studying epistles, you will find the greatest use for skills such as word studies, detailed outlining, and for Greek students, diagramming, phrasing, and detailed parsing of particular words. This is because when we are trying to understand logical (or sometimes not so logical) arguments, we need to get a precise understanding of each word, its relationship to the phrase, and that to the sentence, paragraph, and the entire subsection of the letter.

Most inductive Bible study methods are focussed on precisely this type of study. But you can also get much more from a letter by looking at it somewhat like a piece of a story. Around that piece, you will build the rest of the story. Who wrote it? Why? Who was he writing to? In understanding the letter and getting a feel for the story behind it, your imagination will play a key role. Don't be afraid to try to imagine these other elements.

Besides the standard set of ideas from the central loop, I suggest some specific exercises below that apply to letters.

Exercises



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