in From Law to Logos

Reading letters as letters

While on a trip to Europe with my wife in the summer of 2012, I attended a conference on Galatians at the University of St. Andrews. To begin the conference, the attendees were taken on a walking tour of the town. We walked past the famous golf course, and toured some of the oldest buildings on campus. At the end of the tour, we were all corralled into a room that seemed just a bit too small for a group of roughly one hundred of us. Once we were all standing in the room — and I do mean standing — one of the doctoral students was instructed to read Galatians aloud.

The next half-hour or so was spent listening to St. Paul’s first-century pastoral epistle to the Galatian churches. As we listened, I became increasingly aware that I stood in a long line of Christians who have heard Galatians read aloud. I felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, that I was receiving the Word of God. I was not discovering it on my own, and I was not mining it for information or answers to my ethical dilemmas. I was simply listening to two-thousand-year-old words written to someone else that somehow seemed to be speaking directly to me.

I will most likely never return to that room, and because of how surprised I was by the experience itself, I will likely never be able to recreate what I felt that day. But the environment of that specific room with those specific people was only part of what made the moment so special for me. This was also the first time I heard Galatians in a single setting. As much as I had studied Galatians, and had even been required to translate portions of it from its original language in the classroom, I had never read it in its entirety all at once. Your experience may be different than mine here — and hopefully it is — but I had never really considered that I should read Galatians all at once, the way I would read any other letter.

Letters are fascinating to read, especially when we recognize that they are letters and treat them as such. Imagine finding a hand-written letter in your attic from your dad to your mom on the day they found out that they were expecting you.

Dear Love of Mine,

I can not begin to tell you how amazing you looked this morning as you shared the big news with me. Today is the beginning of a new phase in our life together. I love you, I will always love you, and I love the child growing inside of you even now.

Yours until death do us part,


Reading this letter has the potential to be a very special moment in your life, an opportunity to look back in time at the love shared between your parents before you took all of their free time and sanity away from them.

But what would happen if we were lazy readers who failed to take the genre of the document we are holding into account? Or what if we knew that we were reading a letter, but didn’t take the time to discover who wrote it, to whom it was addressed, when it was originally written, or what context surrounded its writing? And perhaps most awkwardly of all scenarios, what if we read a sentence or two from the middle of the letter and assumed that it was meant specifically for us?

In other words, how strange would it be for us to read this attic letter the same way that, unfortunately, many of us read the Bible?

Part of a renewed vision for discipleship in the modern church must include doing the hard work of training God’s people to apply the best part of their minds to our daily reading of Scripture. We must work towards bucking the trend of the “verse a day” mentality and work towards a reading ethic that commits to receiving Scripture in its proper context.

Paying attention to genre is a great place to start. The New Testament is overwhelmingly comprised of letters; simply reading these New Testament letters the way we would read any other letter — in its entirety, over and over again — paves the way to a better understanding of the messages they contain. If we commit to reading Scripture in this way, the beauty and relevance of its many splendid parts will shine through again and again.