Reading Letters

The epistles are generally a form of discourse.  That is to say, they tend to be a direct form of communication (as opposed to narrative or poetry).  This might imply that they are there to be studied so that I can figure out the main point.  But when I read a contemporary letter I tend to look for more than just the bottom line.  I tend to look for two things, and this applies when interpreting epistles too:

1. I tend to look for the message, or even the bottom line of a letter.  What is this person specifically saying to me?  I don’t want to read several hundred words as if they are all equally valuable, but disconnected nuggets of information.  I do want to figure out what the main point or points are in the letter.

2. I tend to look for their heart coming through toward me. Are they loving, or polite, or cold, or complaining, or angry?  Whether it is a complaint from somebody, or an encouragement from a friend, or a notification from a company, there is always more than pure information in a letter.

When we look at the biblical letters we do well to look for both things.  What is the main point of each section?  And what is the heart of the writer toward the recipients?

Technically this isn’t about finding the main idea (1) and finding the mood (2), as if these are separate and distinct items.  The mood, the heart, combines with the information included to determine my sense of the main idea.

If we have been trained to do so, we tend to read narratives with imagination and sensitivity.  We tend to read poems with a certain level of imagination and responsiveness.  The danger is that we will read discourse as pure information, where we would be far better being alert to the affective tone of the communicator.  Isn’t all human communication affective in one way or another?

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2 thoughts on “Reading Letters

  1. Thanks Peter for the post. It is dangerous indeed to read letters (epistles) without hearing the heart of the author towards the recipients. This can easily happen with those who attempt to exposit the text and get focused on the nuts and bolts that hold the wheels on, and forget the motor which propels the vehicle. In your closing comment, I was reminded of Ron Frost’s post on “A Spreading Goodness” who used a term that I was unfamiliar with but really liked, which he called “Affective Theology”. The intention of the authors of the epistles were never intended to merely inform the mind but to affect the hearts of their hearers as those who themselves had been deeply affected by the love of Christ. So their letters must be read in the light of that fact and to hear their affections which are being poured through their words. This is extremely important to remember when we teach those hard hitting passages such as found in 1 Corinthians, Galatians or Hebrews. Those words were written by men with pastoral hearts who deeply loved people and wanted their hearers best. Thanks again for bringing to our minds important truths that will help us be more effective in communicating God’s Word.

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