The revelation of God comes to us in many forms, in diverse manners. It is not only embodied in facts, but also in words; it is borne not only by the prophets, but also by the sweet singers and by the wise men of Israel; it finds expression not only in the Gospels, but also in the Epistles. About one-third of the New Testament is cast in the epistolary form.
This form of teaching was not something absolutely new in the time of the apostles, although we find but few traces of it in the Old Testament. Mention is made there of some letters written by kings and prophets, f. i. in I Kings 21: 8, 9; II Kings 5:5-7; 19:14; 20:12; Jer.29:1; but these are quite different from our New Testament Epistles. The letter as a particular type of self-expression took its rise, so it seems, among the Greeks and the Egyptians. In later time it was also found among the Romans and in Hellenistic Judaism, as we notice from the epistle of Aristion, that treats of the origin of the Septuagint. According to Deissmann the Egyptian papyri especially offer a great amount of material for comparison.
In all probability, however, it was Paul who first introduced the epistle as a distinct type of literary form for the conveyance of divine truth. Aside from the Gospels his Epistles form the most prominent part of the New Testament. In this connection it is well to bear in mind the important distinction made by Deissmann between a letter and an epistle, of which the former is non-literary, or, as J. V. Bartlet says, "pre-literary," and the latter is a literary artistic form of communication. It is Deissmann's conviction that the writings of Paul have been very much misunderstood. "They have been regarded as treatises, as pamphlets in letter form, or at any rate as literary productions, as the theological works of the primitive Christian dogmatist." He insists that they are letters, serving the purpose of communication between Paul and the congregations, letters that were not intended by Paul for publication, but only for the private use of the addressees, arising from some historical exigency, unsystematic and pulsating with the life of the writer. Deissmann, St. Paul p.7 ff. This writer certainly rendered us good service by calling attention to the fact, often lost sight of, that the Epistles of Paul are the living spontaneous expression of a great mind, continually meditating and reflecting on the truth of God; that they are letters, often clearly revealing the changing moods of the apostle. They are marked as letters by their occasional character, by their being calculated for a single community and situation, and by their addresses, praescripts and salutations.
With respect to the fitness of this form for the communication of the divine thoughts the remarks of Bernard are very valuable. He finds that it is in perfect harmony "with that open and equal participation of revealed truth, which is the prerogative of the later above the former dispensation; indicating too that the teacher and the taught are placed on one common level in the fellowship of the truth. The prophets delivered oracles to the People, but the apostles wrote letters to the brethren, letters characterized by all that fulness of unreserved explanation, and that play of various feeling, which are proper to that form of intercourse. It is in its nature a more familiar communication, as between those who are or should be equals." "The form adopted in the New Testament combines the advantages of the treatise and the conversation. The letter may treat important subjects with accuracy and fulness, but it will do so in immediate connection with actual life. It is written to meet any occasion. It is addressed to peculiar states of mind. It breathes of the heart of the writer. It takes its aim from the exigencies, and its tone from the feelings of the moment." Bernard, The Progress of Doctrine in the N. T. pp.156, 157.
THE INSPIRATION OF THE EPISTLES
The Scriptural Epistles are as well as the Gospels and Acts divinely inspired. Even as in their preaching, so also in writing their letters the apostles were guided by the Holy Spirit. Here again we must distinguish between the apostolic and the graphical inspiration, although in this case the two are very closely connected. For a general description of the apostolic inspiration we refer to p.30 if. above. It is necessary to remark, however, that in the case of the Epistles, as distinguished from that of the Gospels, it did not almost exclusively assume the character of a hupomnesis, but was also to a great extent a didaskalia. Both of those elements are indicated in the promise of the Holy Spirit given by Christ before his departure: "But the Comforter, even the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you." John 14: 26. Cf. also 16:12,13. In the Gospels we have the totality of the apostolic kerugma hence their production naturally depended in great measure on a faithful memory. The Epistles, on the other hand, contain the fruit of the apostles reflection on this kerugma, their injerpretation of it. Therefore it was not sufficient that the writers in composing them should faithfully remember former things; they needed more light on them, a better understanding of their real meaning and profound significance. For that reason the Holy Spirit became their didaskalos.
The apostles were evidently conscious of being inspired by the Holy Ghost in the composition of their Epistles. This follows from the authority with which they address the congregations. They feel sure that their word is binding on the conscience; they condemn in unqualified terms those who teach any other doctrine as coming from God; they commend and praise all that diligently follow their directions; but they also reprimand and censure those that dare to follow another course. If this is not due to the fact that they were conscious of divine inspiration, it bespeaks an overweening arrogance; which, however cannot be harmonized with their life of service and their many expressions of deep humility.
Moreover there are several explicit statements in the Epistles testifying to the fact that the apostles were aware of being the instruments of Gods Spirit. Thus Paul claims that the Spirit revealed to him the hidden things of God, which he also spoke, not in words which man's wisdom taught, but in words which the Spirit taught, I Cor.2:10,13. He is willing to subject his words to the judgment of the prophets, I Cor.14: 37; and to give a proof of Christ speaking in him, II Cor.13: 3. He thanks God that the Thessalonians received the word of his message, not as the word of man, "but as it is in truth, the word of God," I Thess.2:13; and admonishes them to hold the traditions which they were taught by his word or by his Epistle. Peter places the word of the prophets and that of the apostles on a level as the Word of God, in I Pet.1: 10-12; and elsewhere he arranges his Epistle alongside of those of Paul, which he calls Scripture by implication, and thus clearly shows that he also regards his own writing as a product of the Spirit of God, II Pet.3:15, 16. John writes: "We are of God; he that knoweth God knoweth us; he that is not of God knoweth us not. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." I John 4: 6. This language is intelligible only on the supposition that John spoke the words of God.
Now we must bear in mind that the apostles speak thus regarding their written words, so that they were evidently conscious of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in writing their Epistles. To that extent they too shared in a separate transcriptive inspiration. Their Epistles are a part of the Word of God, and have been accepted as such by the Church. It is true that for a time five of them, viz., the Epistles of James and Jude, II Peter and II and III John, were classed as antilegomena, but this only means that their canonicity was subject to doubt and dispute for a while, not that they were ever numbered among the spurious books. They have been recognized by the majority of ecclesiastical writers from the very beginning, and were generally accepted by the Church after the council of Laodicea in A. D.363.
THE CANONICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE EPISTLES IN GENERAL
The Old and the New Testament revelations run on parallel lines. In the Old Testament we have the fundamental revelation of the Law in the Pentateuch; in the New Testament, the fundamental revelation of the Gospel in the fourfold witness of the evangelists. This is followed in the Old Testament by the historical books, revealing the institutions to which the Law gave rise; and in the New Testament, by a historical book, showing how the Gospel of Jesus Christ found embodiment in the Church. After this we find in the New Testament the Epistles that reveal the operation of the truth in the churches, and contain, in connection with the life of the churches, the interpretation of the Gospel; thus corresponding in part to the Old Testament books of experience, such as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, etc., and in part to the prophets as interpreters of the Law. The Gospels show us, how Christ was preached to the world; the Epistles, how he was taught to the Church. The former contain the facts of the manifestation of Christ; the latter the effects of it in the spiritual experience of the churches.
In the Epistles we get a glimpse of the inner life of the congregations; we see, how they receive the truth and to what degree they are guided by it in their actions. We behold Christian life in operation, working on the great principles that have been received. We find that some heartily embrace the truth and endeavor to apply it consistently to life in its manifold forms; that others grasp it but imperfectly and, as a result, misapply it in practical life; and that still others resist the truth and pervert it to their own condemnation. And in connection with these conditions the truth is now set forth and interpreted and applied to the multifarious relations of life.
This teaching is given in the epistolary form, of which we have already spoken. Cf. p.129 above. And the method employed by the writers in presenting the truth is, as Bernard says, "one of companionship rather than of dictation." They do not announce a series of revelations that come to them from without, but they speak out of the fulness of their own Christian knowledge and experience. Neither do they approach their readers with the authoritative prophetic formula, "Thus saith the Lord," which in the Old Testament was the end of all contradiction; but they appeal to the judgment and conscience of those whom they address. They state their propositions and then substantiate them by giving the grounds on which they rest. They argue with their readers from the Old Testament, from generally admitted truths and from experience, often employing the argumentum ad hominem to give point to their teachings; and they intercept the objections of their readers and refute them. This method of teaching, as compared with that of the prophets, is more truly human, the divine factor being less prominent; and as compared with that of Christ in the Gospels, is far more argumentative, calculated to train the minds of men to that thoughtfulness that leads to a thorough assimilation of the truth.
In their contents as well as in their form the Epistles are a distinct advance on the Gospels. After the latter have presented to us the manifestation of Christ in the world, the former treat of the life in Christ, in which the acceptance of his manifestation issues. After the Spirit of God has been poured out, Christ, who had formerly dwelt among men, makes his abode in the very hearts of believers. Hence it is especially of that new life of believers in union with Christ, that the Epistles speak. They constantly emphasize the fact that the individual believers and that the churches are "in Christ," and that therefore their conversation too must be "in Christ." They clearly interpret the significance of Christs work for believers out of every nation and tribe. and point out that his experiences are paralleled in the life of every believer. All those that are united with Christ by faith suffer with Christ, are crucified with Christ, die with Christ, and live with Christ in newness of life. And their future life is hid with Christ in God. The origin of that new life, its conditions, its nature, its progressive and communal character, and its final perfection and glory, -- are all clearly described in the Epistles. As the foundation on which all these blessings rest we are pointed to the redemptive, the justifying, the sanctifying, and the intercessory work of Jesus Christ. He is the beginning and the end. The Epistles contain clear evidence that believers are gathered from every nation and tribe to Christ who is the Head of the Church, and in whom they are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit, that God may be all in all.
The New Testament contains in all twenty-one Epistles, which may be divided into two classes, viz., 1. The Pauline Epistles; and, 2. The General Epistles.
1. The Pauline Epistles. Thirteen of the New Testament Epistles bear the name of the great apostle to the gentiles. Hence they are generally known as the Pauline Epistles. By some the Epistle to the Hebrews is added to this number, though it nowhere claims to have been written by Paul. The Church has always been divided on the question of it's authorship, the Eastern church affirming and the Western denying that Paul wrote it. Clement of Alexandria states that the apostle composed it in the Hebrew language, and that Luke translated it into Greek. From a statement of his we may probably infer that his teacher, Pantaenus, also affirmed the Pauline authorship of this Epistle, which would carry the testimony back another generation. Origen admits that a very old tradition points to Paul as the author, but he comes to the conclusion that only God knows who wrote the book. Irenaeus does not attribute the Epistle to Paul; nor does Tertullian, who regards Barnabas as the author. Eusebius says: "Of Paul the fourteen Epistles commonly received are at once manifest and clear. It is not, however, right to ignore the fact that some have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, asserting that it is gainsaid by the church of Rome as not being Paul's." He was inclined to believe that the apostle wrote it in Hebrew and that Luke, or more likely, Clement of Rome translated it. The catalogue of the council of Laodicea also speaks of fourteen Epistles of Paul. We shall leave the question of the authorship of this Epistle in suspense for the present, and classify the fourteen Epistles of which we have now spoken, as follows:
I. Pauline Epistles:
1. Those written during the period of Pauls missionary activity:
a. The two Epistles to the Thessalonians;
b. The Epistle to the Galatians;
c. The two Epistles to the Corinthians;
d. The Epistle to the Romans.
2. Those written during Pauls imprisonment:
a. The Epistle to the Ephesians;
b. The Epistle to the Colossians;
c. The Epistle to Philemon;
d. The Epistle to the Philippians.
3. Those written after Pauls release from the Roman prison:
a. The two Epistles to Timothy;
b. The Epistle to Titus.
II. Of uncertain Authorship:
The Epistle to the Hebrews.
It may well be supposed that Paul who always remained in touch with the churches he founded wrote many more letters than we now possess of him. This is evident also from the Epistles themselves. I Cor.5:9 refers to a letter now lost, and it is possible that II Cor.7: 8 does also, although this may refer to first Corinthians. Col.4:16 speaks of a letter out of (ix) Laodicea, of which we have no further knowledge. Although these letters were undoubtedly inspired as well as the ones we still possess, we may rest assured that no Epistle intended by God for the canon of Holy Scriptures was ever lost.
We may further remark that Paul evidently wrote very little with his own hand; he generally employed an amanuensis in the composition of his Epistles and merely added with his own hand the salutation to his friends and the authenticating signature, cf. II Thess.3:17; Philem.19; and Gal.6: 11, which is, however, of uncertain interpretation. Only in one letter do we find a definite designation of the amanuensis, viz., in Rom.16:22.
2. The General Epistles. This is a group of seven Epistles which in the old manuscripts usually follows immediately after the Acts of the Apostles and therefore precedes the Pauline Epistles, perhaps because they are the works of the older apostles and in general represent the Jewish type of Christianity. Their representation of the truth naturally differs from that of the Pauline Epistles, but is in perfect harmony with it. Among these general Epistles there are:
1. Those written to a community of Christians:
a. The Epistle of James;
b. The two Epistles of Peter;
c. The first Epistle of John;
d. The Epistle of Jude.
2. Those written to a certain individual:
a. The second Epistle of John; (?)
b. The third Epistle of John.
Of these seven Epistles the first one of Peter and the first one of John were generally accepted as canonical from the beginning, while the other five were at first subject to doubt and only gradually found acceptance throughout the Church. Yet they were never regarded as spurious.
Why these Epistles should be called general or catholic, is more or less of an enigma. Various interpretations of the name have been given, but none of them is entirely satisfactory. Some hold that they were so called, because they contain the one catholic doctrine which was delivered to the churches by the apostles; but this is not a characteristic mark of these Epistles, since those of Paul contain the same doctrine. Others maintain that the adjective catholic was used by some of the church fathers in the sense of canonical, and was by them applied first to the first Epistle of Peter and the first of John to indicate their general acceptance, and afterwards to the entire group. But this explanation is unlikely, because (1) there is scant proof that the term catholic was ever equivalent to canonical; and (2) it is hard to see, if this really was the case, why the term should not have been applied to the Pauline Epistles as well, that were all accepted from the beginning. Still others think that they received this appellation, because they were not addressed to one person or church like the Epistles of Paul, but to large sections of the Church. We consider this to be the best explanation of the name, since it is most in harmony with the usual meaning of the term, and accounts best for the way in which it is used in patristic literature. Even so, however the name cannot be regarded as entirely correct, because on the one hand the second (?) and third Epistles of John are written to individuals, and on the other, the Epistle to the Ephesians is also an encyclical letter. These two Epistles of John were probably included in this group, because of their smallness and close relation to the first Epistle of John.