How to Read Anything

As soon as we browse a Calvin and Hobbes comic, The Wall Street Journal, a biblical commentary, a teen vampire novel, and a college biology textbook, we know that these are examples of different literary genres, even if we’re unfamiliar with that word. These diverse types of writing use various modes of communicating for different purposes. Each genre creates an expectation in readers and requires a unique set of skills to understand.

The Bible is God’s revelation of himself, thus making it more than a mere human book. But it is not less than a human book. The books of the Bible were written by a wide range of people over a large span of time in many cultures and in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). Moreover, since the Bible was written by real humans living in real human cultures, it contains a variety of literary genres. As scholar J. Todd Billings, in The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, says, “God does not speak his word through Scripture in a way that bypasses human creatures, but in a way that works through them.”

As a result, we must recognize that to read the Bible well entails paying attention to many human elements that will enable us to interpret in the best way. This involves historical and cultural information as well as literary analysis as discussed above. This also means learning the ways that people develop genres as culturally embedded modes of writing.

Rather than thinking about the Bible as a book, we can more helpfully view it as a library. The Bible-library has walls, its contents are curated, and it has a unified message. But imagine if you went to a library that had books only on one topic, only for a certain age level, and only written in one particular style. Although that might be helpful in a narrow way, such a library could never serve you for the complexity and the span of your life. Thankfully, the Bible is rich, varied, and more expansive than that. The biblical library contains many genres: legal instruction, poetry, apocalyptic (a kind of fantasy literature), wisdom sayings, instructional letters, strongly worded sermons, songs, and lots of stories. Together these beautifully and richly testify to God’s nature, heart, and mission in the world.

How to read the epistles

The bulk of the Old Testament consists of narrative or stories explaining God’s activity in the world. The remainder of the Old Testament writings apply, explore, and reinforce that story. So too with the New Testament. The four Gospels and Acts make up the vast majority of the New Testament, and they are primary in terms of explaining God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. But the remainder of the New Testament is also important in extending our understanding and application of these truths. The interplay of the Old Testament prophets to the Old Testament narratives is analogous to the relationship of the New Testament Epistles (or Letters) to the Gospels and Acts. Both groups are important, but they approach the task from different starting points.

To interpret the epistle genre well, we can note a few important practices. First, it is best to read an epistle as a whole whenever possible. Reading larger chunks of Scripture in any genre is always a good idea, but for epistles this is especially important. A letter is sent as a direct communication with a particular purpose in mind. One can easily take lines of epistolary instruction out of context. In the same way that a sentence in an email or text could be greatly misconstrued without reading the whole message, so too many times epistles are treated as a grab bag or celestial claw-machine game where the Christian snatches a verse that looks shiny and attractive and takes it home without considering the literary context. When reading epistles, we should think in terms of paragraphs, not verses or sentences. Epistles communicate their messages through sustained discourse, not in proverb-sized, disconnected nuggets. So read each epistle as a whole.

Second, we should remember that reading a New Testament letter is like listening to one side of a phone conversation. If we know the person whose phone conversation we’re hearing, we can probably make (mostly) good sense of what is being said. Nevertheless, there is always great potential to misunderstand. We might misconstrue the topic of the conversation, or we might not realize that there is unseen background to why the conversation is going the way it is. This means that we should always read epistles with humility, recognizing that we probably do not fully understand what is going on in the conversation. Even so, God is still gladly revealing himself to us through these historically situated letters (always remember 2 Tim 3:16-17).

This latter observation relates to the third and most important insight. Epistles, much more than narratives, poetry, proverbs, or even the law, are occasional documents. This means that they are a type of literature written almost entirely in response to some specific occasion or situation the author needs to address. In this sense they are most like the Old Testament prophets. Of course, all literature is written from within and speaking to a particular culture because its human authors are situated in a particular time and place. But some writings are much more narrowly occasional than others. My list of errands to do today is more occasional than the book of classic poems sitting on my dining room table.

It is important to understand that this occasional nature of epistles does not in any way diminish their inspiration or authority; however, as a genre they need to be handled slightly differently. Specifically, when we interpret epistles, historical and cultural information will prove to be more significant to help us understand what is being said and how it applies to us. Because of their occasional nature, we need to understand more of the occasion at hand. Thankfully, we have at our disposal massive amounts of historical and cultural information in commentaries and reference works that can enable us to discern what the authors of the New Testament letters are communicating.

The dilemma of time

This last point raises the biggest dilemma for good epistle interpretation: how much of their message is culturally defined and constrained? The particular context of the New Testament Epistles is first-century Mediterranean, Greco-Roman, and Jewish culture. Inevitably, then, there are aspects that don’t necessarily transfer and apply directly to modern Christian readers in different cultures. Most Christians today (at least in Western culture) do not “greet one another with a holy kiss” despite it being apparently commanded twice in the New Testament (Rom 16:16; 2 Cor 13:12). Nor do most contemporary female believers wear head coverings during church, despite a lengthy exposition regarding this in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. Certainly some Christians do follow those commands while other faithful, Bible- believing Christians don’t. The reason some Christians don’t wear head coverings is that while they still recognize there is some principle to learn from the instruction, the specific form of application is culturally conditioned. God’s word is to be obeyed, but it will not always look identical when the instructions are tied to particular cultural habits. This doesn’t make this literature less inspired or authoritative, but to read it well requires this cultural sensitivity.

The real difficulty becomes discerning which aspects of the instructions should be interpreted as culturally bound and which should not. For example, there is no small debate among evangelicals about whether Paul’s instructions on the role of women in church (1 Tim 2:11–12) fall into the same category as head coverings and holy kisses. These difficult interpretive decisions need to be handled and argued on a case-by-case basis; there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The key is a wise and humble wrestling that recognizes our need to be culturally sensitive interpreters while also acknowledging that we can be easily tempted to write off some teachings in Scripture because they do not fit with our desires or habits.

Content adapted from Come and See: The Journey of Knowing God Through Scripture by Jonathan Pennington, ©2023. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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