Students on campus sometimes ask me what makes my interpretation of the Bible — or anyone else’s — the right one.
1. We need to discern the intent of the biblical authors
There’s a rule that most Bible scholars follow:
A text can’t mean what it never meant. *
So we need to figure out what the text meant in its original setting. Once that meaning is established, we can make application for our own day. This is a solid method for understanding the Bible properly.
2. We need to listen to tradition
2,000 years of Bible interpretation is available to us. It’s what Theologian Gerald McDermott calls the “emerging wisdom of the Christian community and its Great Tradition.” **
It means that we can read the likes of Luther, Calvin, Aquinas, Augustine, Athanasius, and hundreds of other great thinkers of the past to help us understand the Bible.
Thus, the broad consensus of church history provides guardrails for our reading of Scripture.
If we find ourselves with a completely novel interpretation of some passage — something outside the guardrails — we’re probably off base. I want to read the Bible “with the saints” — that is, with the church historic. This is the spiritual heritage given to us by God.
An acquaintance of mine wants to read the Bible in fresh ways by combining its teaching with outside spiritual elements, such as God being present in everything (pantheism).
But it’s hard to find pantheism in the original intent of biblical authors or in the Great Tradition just mentioned. Thus it would qualify as a false teaching, and should be rejected.
McDermott says that the false teachings promoted by rogue, independent teachers are an “anti-gospel,” and serve to distance us from the historic Christian community.
Sound Bible study and right doctrine are serious matters. We need the body of Christ — now and in the past — to rightly discern the Word of God.
*See the introduction to Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.
** See McDermott’s review of a Bentley Hart book in First Things, July 28, 2022. This is a fine example of the Christian Tradition, represented by McDermott, identifying and criticizing a teaching that seems to lie outside the guardrails.