Reading New Testament Letters: Part 4

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final post in a series of posts on Reading New Testament Letters from CSU’s Executive Vice-President Michael Bryant. [1] You can read part 1 HERE, part 2 HERE, and part 3 HERE.

 What are some noteworthy features of NT letters?

NT letters contain many diverse features. Below we identify and briefly discuss a few of the more significant ones.


With the diatribe an author anticipates objections to his view or position. He raises these potential objections in the form of a question and then answers them. Just because a NT author employs the diatribe method does not necessarily mean that he seeks to address a specific problem in the church to which he writes. Nor does it mean that he is responding to an actual opponent. An example of the diatribe is found in Romans 5:20 where Paul writes that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” Anticipating the response of some, namely, that believers may continue in sin, Paul writes the following: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Rom 6:1-2, NIV) In Romans Paul often rejects the conclusions of a hypothetical opponent with the response, “By no means!” (e.g., Rom 3:4; 6:15; 9:14; 11:1)


Paraenesis means “exhortation.” The NT letters are filled with exhortations from its authors. An entire writing may be correctly labeled as a paraenetic letter (e.g., 1 Thess) or a writing may contain large sections of paraenetic material (e.g., Rom 12:1-15:13). One must not necessarily assume that a NT author seeks to address a specific problem within the life of a local congregation simply because he employs paraenesis. For instance, Paul’s exhortations in the so-called “Domestic Codes” (see below) should not be viewed as an attempt on his part to correct specific problems. His commentary is general enough to apply to most fellowships where authority-submission relationships exist.


A creed or a hymn refers to a short confession or hymn (song) originally used in early Christian worship and later incorporated in the NT letters by biblical authors. Creeds or hymns are typically linked to Christology. Common texts labeled as creeds or hymns by some NT scholars include Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20; and 1 Timothy 3:16. It is not “liberal” to suggest that NT authors may have incorporated pre-existing material into their letters. Paul clearly did (e.g., 1 Cor 11:23-26; 15:1-4).

One should recognize the NT scholars do not agree on the number of creeds or hymns in the NT letters. Those who do identify creeds or hymns argue that the sudden appearance of poetical features (e.g., parallelism) within a letter likely indicate their presence.

Domestic Codes

NT letters contains instructions for individuals within an authority-submission relationship (e.g., husband/wife; parent/child; master/slave). These instructions tell those in authority how to behave in relation to those in submission under them, and vice-versa. Scholars have labeled such texts as “domestic codes” or “household codes,” after Luther’s use of the German word Haustafeln. Examples include Ephesians 5:22-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1; and 1 Peter 2:13-3:7. In ancient times people understand submission as a normal part of human relationships. Furthermore, NT authors would have included domestic codes for various reasons (e.g., to show that Christianity was not subversive, 1 Tim 3:7; Tit 2:5, 8, 10; 3:10; to spread the gospel, 1 Thess 4:12).

Virtue and Vice Lists

A number of NT letters include lists of acceptable moral behavior and unacceptable moral behavior for believers (e.g., Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-23; Jas 3:17-18; 2 Pet 1:5-7). These types of lists were not unique to Christians, for both Jewish and pagan writings included virtue and vice lists. Nevertheless, a comparison of Christian lists with pagan lists shows that at times the two groups had very different understandings as to what is moral and what is immoral. For example, Paul’s condemnation of homosexual practice (e.g., Rom 1:24-32; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10) would have offended pagans (just as it does today) who accepted homosexual practice as a normal expression of one’s sexuality.

In a helpful article Colin Kruse lists five functions of virtue and vice lists in the NT: “to depict the depravity of unbelievers [e.g., Rom 1:29-31], to encourage believers to avoid vices and practice virtues [e.g., Rom 13:13; 1 Cor 6:9-10], to expose or denounce the failures of false teachers [e.g., 1 Tim 1:3-11], to describe what is required of church leaders [e.g., 1 Tim 3:2-11, 8-13], and to advise a young pastor [e.g., 2 Tim 3:10].”[2]

We should also note that (at least to some extent) the order in which the virtues and vices are listed is significant. Virtues and vices listed first and last were probably regarded as the most important traits to ancient readers (in the overall list).[3] However, while we should recognize the importance of virtues and vices listed at the beginning and end of lists, we should not draw any significant conclusions in regard to the order of virtues and vices listed in between. The NT authors did not set out to list virtues from most important to least important.


The Book of 1 Corinthians contains what some NT scholars have come to label “slogans,” beliefs affirmed by the recipients of 1 Corinthians but not necessarily affirmed by Paul. In some instances Paul may have agreed with the slogans (generally speaking), but he did not agree with his readers’ application of them.

Slogans are typically concisely worded sayings (similar to a proverb) that could be abused if misunderstood or misapplied. One factor that helps us recognize the existence of slogans in 1 Corinthians is the fact that in 1 Corinthians 7-16 Paul addresses specific questions of the Corinthian believers.

Examples of slogan are found throughout 1 Corinthians (e.g., 6:12; 6:13; 7:1; 10:23). Some translations identify slogans in these verses by placing the saying in quotation marks (e.g., ESV, TNIV).

One must take care to distinguish between Paul’s own words and the slogan he cites, else one will wrongly conclude that Paul affirms the slogan. 

How does one interpret the NT letters?

+ Obtain a good understanding of the issues related to a letter’s history (e.g., authorship, audience, purpose, date), literature (genre, subgenre), and theology (major theological themes, minor theological themes).

+ Read the letter from beginning to end in one or two sittings.

+ Pay attention to the introduction of the letter. Do not skim through the introduction of an epistle, as it often includes clues to important themes that rest within the letter. 

+ Seek to follow the writer’s train of thought from beginning to end.

+ Think in terms of (longer) paragraphs rather than (short) sentences.

+ Seek to have a good understanding of Greco-Roman and Jewish background issues (e.g., history, religion). However, show caution in your use of historical and cultural parallels.

+ Remember that the NT letters are occasional writings. 

+ View Holy Scripture as authoritative for your life. Humbly submit to God’s word as the Spirit reveals His will.


[1] This article relies substantially on the following works: J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 2nd ed.; Robert Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible; and Thomas Schreiner, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, 2nd ed.

[2] C. G. Kruse, “Virtues and Vices,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 962. Kruse’s article specifically discusses virtue and vice lists in the Pauline literature.

[3] For instance, in regard to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) love stands out as the most significant fruit.


You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply