Introduction to the New Testament (1915) [Chapter 7]

[Articles in the Summed Up series are intended to be summaries of chapters of selected theological books. The author(s) will be quoted verbatim for the purposes of ensuring accurate representation]

The Epistles in General


A) About the author of the chapter:

Louis Berkhof “graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1900 …

In 1902 he went to Princeton University for two years earning a B.D. degree …

In 1906 he was appointed to the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary. He assumed the presidency of the seminary in 1931 …” [1]


B) Chapter Summary:

i. The Epistolary Form in Biblical Literature

“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.”1

“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.”2

“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.”3

Thomas Dehany Bernard, The Progress of Doctrine in the N. T. pp. 156, 157: “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 ”

ii. The Inspiration of the Epistles

“… in the case of the Epistles, as distinguished from that of the Gospels, it did not almost exclusively assume the character of a ὑπομνήσις [hypomnēsei], but was also to a great extent a διδασκαλία [didaskalos]. 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.”4

“In the Gospels we have the totality of the apostolic κήρυγμα [kērygma] 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 κήρυγμα, their interpretation 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.”5

“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.”6
See 1 Cor. 2:10, 13; 1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:10-12

“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.”7

iii. The Canonical Significance of the Epistles in General

“… the Epistles … 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.”8

“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.”9

“[Epistles] 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.”10

iv. Classification

“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.”11

“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.”12

“The Church has always been divided on the question of [the epistle to the Hebrews’]  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.”13

“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.”14

“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.”15

“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.”16

“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 …  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.”17

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