- Just "believe the Bible": The bible doesn't need "interpretation". The important things are clear and cannot be misunderstood - so we can be confident that we understand key Scriptures correctly.
- Listen to the Holy Spirit: The meaning of Scripture is made clear to us through the working of the Holy Spirit as we read it, which gives us confidence about our interpretations. God wouldn't allow his Word to be misunderstood by those who listen to the Holy Spirit.
- Follow tradition: "Fifty-thousand Frenchmen can't be wrong", especially if they lived over the last few centuries. We can be confident of our interpretations if lots of other people have thought and still think the same thing.
- See what fits: Learn how passages can be interpreted differently, and choose the way that best fits with the "big-picture". We can be confident of interpretations that fit the big picture, and can confidently reject alternatives that don't fit.
- Comprehensively detailed research and reasoning: Consider a range of big picture frameworks to see how each passage of Scripture can be interpreted within each one. Then assess the collective evidence of all Scriptures for each big picture to determine which one is best by using criteria like:
- Internal consistency with the whole of the text
- External consistency with the socio-cultural context of the text
- Explanatory power
- Explanatory scope
- Lack of being ad hoc
Bible-believing does not recognize the inevitable process of interpreting texts. As a result of this ignorance, people adopting this approach have high confidence that the way they have been taught to interpret Scripture is the right way. This often goes hand in hand with ignorance of alternative explanations and trust in the teacher's opinion. There is a place for trusting the opinions of more qualified people, but the validity of such opinions isn't determined by how much we trust them. To gauge the real credibility of views held through this method, we must understand the reasons behind the original interpretation. This approach thus leads us to look to other grounds for confidence.
Revelation by the Holy Spirit provides the most confidence if it is authentic, but the least authoritative otherwise, because it would be an illegitimate claim to authority. History shows that people who have all claimed revelation by the Holy Spirit have held quite different interpretations of Scripture, which can be resolved by holding one of two options:
- There is more than one legitimate meaning in the text.
- One or more interpretations are not faithful to the intended meaning of the passage.
Following tradition provides no inherent grounds for credibility, as it is simply following other people. Yet people tend to be much more confident in their ideas if those around them are like-minded. There is some weight to the collective thought of many people, but the majority opinion can be wrong - and sometimes disastrously so. For this reason, the serious enquirer must investigate the origin and basis of the Scriptural interpretations themselves, and not simply assume that commonly held interpretations are well-founded.
The fourth method of choosing what fits is at least more informed than the previous three. It is a common method, and one that gives people high confidence in their interpretations. Many who use this method are unaware of the implicit framework they use to assess the various interpretations, though. They may quite correctly discern what interpretations best fit their framework, but be ignorant of whether or not their presupposed framework is a good one or not. So what is needed is to assess not only how interpretations fit a given framework, but also the frameworks themselves.
That is what the fifth approach does. This method weighs not only different interpretations, but it considers each within the range of possible frameworks. It looks at both the broad picture and the details to determine the best set of interpretations. Only scholars usually attempt this approach because it is very time consuming and difficult. It is made even less appealing to many because other methods allow people to feel more confident of their interpretations. This hard approach just doesn't suit Christians who want great confidence in their own beliefs without taking the time and effort to break out of their relative ignorance of other views.
Yet can people justify having confidence in their interpretations if they don't understand the options nor take into account the possibility that they are wrong? They might think their interpretations were revealed by God, but what if they weren't? In-depth research and reasoning lessens both naive confidence and questionable claims of authority. Instead it fosters a richer and deeper kind of confidence that comes from a thorough research and careful consideration. This confidence may even be strengthened through the Holy Spirit and a knowledge of tradition, since it doesn't exclude these other approaches.
It is for all these reasons that I think in-depth study provides far more credibility in interpreting the bible. I use the word "credibility" because confidence doesn't always correspond with the accuracy of ideas. Credible and thorough research and thought does lead to confidence, though, and I have found it to be a confidence that is far more able to weather the storms of debate. Having followed this last method for several years now, I have learned that it is important to discern the degree of authority held by others, and the degree of their in-depth study also makes a good gauge for this purpose. My opinion can be summarized simply: there is no better approach to interpreting the bible than comprehensively detailed research combined with sound reasoning, humility, and a commitment to follow Jesus.