How should we study and interpret scripture?
This is a question that has been on my mind recently. With all the talk of inerrancy, literality, metaphor, literary criticism, and the constant accusations of self-serving exegesis, confirmation bias, blind literalism, or feminist pseudo-theology from various quarters, I find it helpful to establish a few ground rules for the study and interpretation of scripture. I don't want to fit scripture to my desires, reading into it whatever I like, but I also don't want to be so bound by church tradition in interpretation that I miss real truth or insight or freedom from an unnecessary, oppressive ideology.First, I like to have some resources on hand. A bible and concordance are necessary, at the very least, and I prefer to have lexicons, thesauruses, dictionaries, and multiple versions/translations to compare. Because all this can be quite cumbersome, I generally use the E-sword software. I heartily recommend it.
The first rule of bible interpretation is consistency. If this is not consistent with the rest of scripture, I'm probably getting it wrong. Scripture can, itself, interpret scripture.
Secondly, the difference between prescriptive and descriptive is key. Just because it happened in the bible doesn't mean it should happen, though if a thing is praised and specifically commended but not commanded that line blurs a bit.
The closer to the original languages/text we can get, the greater our chance of accuracy. If an interpretation works with the English KJV or other version, but not with the Greek or Hebrew text, there's probably a kink somewhere. This is why a concordance, (I like Strongs) is important.
Application and interpretation are not the same thing. Interpretation is what the passage means; application is a subjective applying of personal revelation to our lives based on scripture the meaning of which may or may not actually be relevant to our situation. Interpretation trumps application, and application should be vetted through the rest of scripture for rightness. There's nothing wrong with a personal application that has little to do with the meaning of the text- we are, after all, to listen for the Holy Spirit's voice guiding us in truth and this sometimes comes through personal application of scripture. But- the application should only be disseminated as application, and if the application contradicts other scripture, we can bet that our wires got crossed somewhere.
Asking good questions is also important.
What type of literature is it? Is it a letter? Narrative? Prophesy? Proverb? Poetry?
Who wrote it? Where? When? What was the audience? Is there any history that bears on this situation significantly? Context is everything. When in doubt, the history and setting can yield a great deal of wisdom if we have them. This is difficult for some parts of the Old Testament.
Is it written as a prescription to all believers? If so, how can I apply it to my life? If not, what lessons can I draw from it? What is the overarching theme of scripture? Of this book? Of this passage? If my interpretation is discordant with this theme, some reexamination is in order.
If I have no evidence to the contrary, sometimes the traditional interpretation is the best place to start. There is nothing wrong with giving prejudice to precedent as long as that does not trump other considerations.
Is the interpretation consistent within the passage? Am I switching directions in the middle of a passage where it's not indicated?
When in doubt, three things:
(Also, Occam's Razor is very helpful with hermeneutics of this, and any, sort.)
The less mental gymnastics required, the better. Does this interpretation require logic jumps that I wouldn't normally make? What would happen if I interpreted all scripture this way? I try never to make a doctrine out of one verse. In fact, I think it's best to reserve the universal/prescriptive label for those things which are both actively taught (precept) and specifically demonstrated. (precedent)
A search for Truth will always have stumbles and errors along the way, but I try to the best of my ability to be impartial and eager in my study of scripture. I end up tweaking things, changing things, and refining things quite often. I am blessed to have some very dear friends who I bounce my thoughts off of, and who sharpen my proverbial iron- which is another practice I'd recommend. No man is on a mountaintop alone, and it was a wise man who once said that he'd not teach a new revelation from the pulpit until he'd heard it confirmed elsewhere. Being open to the input of those we trust is important, though of course the final decisions in our walk with our Lord are our own.