Letters and the Nature of Early Christianity – an Excerpt from A Compact Guide to the Whole Bible

The following is an excerpt from A Compact Guide to the Whole Bible, by Robert Wall and David Nienhuis.

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Cover ArtThe impressive weight of the letter genre in the New Testament tells us several important things about the nature of Christianity.

First and foremost, we must say that the letters emphasize the essentially communal and relational nature of Christian faith. All of them are letters to churches or to leaders of churches. Nowhere do we find individual Christians pursuing an otherworldly “spiritual life” in isolation from others.

These letters make it clear that where the Spirit is at work, people are able to live together in peace and harmony as a testimony to God’s plan for the whole world (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:1–4; 12:27–13:13; Gal. 5:16–26; James 3:13–18).

Of course, the letters also make it plain that Christianity is essentially missional. When Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom, they did not do so by publishing books and articles on the subject. Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20 NRSV). So that’s what they did!

….Finally, we must note again how the letters remind us that Christianity is thoroughly contextual. While all Christians everywhere share a tradition of practice and belief, those practices and beliefs are embodied differently in the many different places they are “made flesh.” For this reason, when we read the letters we encounter a Word of God landing very much “on target” in a particular time and place.

Of course, those very specific, “targeted” texts were eventually taken up by the Spirit and canonized as applicable to all Christians everywhere, so we mustn’t overplay the limits original context places on texts. Regardless, the letters witness to the fact that Christianity isn’t a uniform, one-size-fits-all religion. When we read the letters, therefore, we should expect to find a good deal of diversity in the admonitions and exhortations given.

©2015 by Robert W. Wall and David R. Nienhuis. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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