A Review of Bateman’s ‘Interpreting the General Letters’

It seems that I can’t even get my family to agree on which movie we want to see let alone get the worldwide Church to agree on how to interpret letters written some 2000 years ago to strangers we don’t know and in a language that none of us even speaks. But nonetheless, the task of interpreting the letters remains binding on all, and thankfully, God has called teachers to provide us some best practices.

General Letters

To aid the reader towards that end, Professor Herbert Bateman IV has undergone the heavy lifting in communicating how we can best interpret the General Letters of the New Testament. These are the letters NOT written by the Apostle Paul and include: Hebrews, James, I & II Peter, I, II, & III John, and finally Jude.

Adding to the complexity of Professor Bateman’s already difficult task is the fact that, unlike the Pauline Epistles, the 8 General Epistles are written by 5 different authors, on different themes, to a different audience(s).  The seemingly anonymous authorship of Hebrews alone creates interpretive challenges. But fear not! Professor Bateman’s tome, “Interpreting the General Letters”, is up for the challenge.

The book is systematic in its approach, moving the reader from the Genre, Background, and Theology of each letter towards Interpretation, Communication, and Exposition. Finally, the book ends with some additional charts, resources, and commentary suggestions. The book walks and talks very “academic” and at least some exposure to NT Greek is helpful if not required. But that is not to say that it lacks in color and application. For instance, take this sample from pg.30 dealing with the fact that Peter, James, and Jude all referred to themselves as “slaves” to their Lord Jesus Christ, “Jesus is their King, and they in turn are his slaves in his kingdom. (This way of describing oneself is radical when considering we today tend to emphasize our friendship or perhaps even a sense of equality with Jesus.)” It is that kind of flavor that separates this work from other more simply academic works. Professor Bateman does not seem content to take his reader through the exercise of interpreting, but also reminds the reader of the impact of proper (and even un-proper) interpretative techniques.

I found chapters 3 on the Theology of the General Letters and 6 on Communicating the General Letters to be the most helpful. Though I would articulate the nature of Biblical covenants differently than Professor Bateman, I found his discussion on covenants to be very interesting (pg. 95-102) and his chart regarding God’s expectations (pg.117-118) to be especially useful. Regarding the section on Communication, I appreciate his candor in the challenge that awaits all that would preach from these texts, “We must strive to reconstruct cautiously the historical situation, bridge the historical-cultural chasm, strategize to shape a biblical author’s message into a sermon that challenges people living in our twenty-first-century historical-cultural milieu, and thereby speak God’s word with integrity, sincerity, and yet with a degree of humility.” Easier said than done, but true nonetheless.

I recommend this book for all serious Bible students, Bible teachers (lay- and professional alike), and Pastors.  The further one gets into the book, the more NT Greek is used, so again, if you have that background already, you will do much better with the text than if you have little or no exposure.

By way of disclosure, a copy of this book was provided to me by Kregel in return for an honest evaluation, which I have provided.

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