“That’s just your interpretation.”
How many times have you heard those infamous words? Any time you disagree with certain people over what the Bible teaches, you will hear this. And while your initial reaction may be frustration or condescension, it does raise a legitimate question. When different people disagree on the meaning of Scripture, at least some of them are wrong. These even applies when people interpret the Bible in the same general way. So for some beliefs, that really is just “your” interpretation.
Of course, this isn’t the meaning behind most people saying those dreaded words. Usually it’s more like, “You and I disagree, but it doesn’t matter what you say, because your argument isn’t actually any better than anyone else’s.” This is a little ridiculous, but many people think that way. Still, the question remains what makes that wrong. I mean, with so many conflicting interpretations of so many passages, how are we to know what is true?
There is one way to know what not to do. This is the #1 rule: whatever you do, when uncertain, never try to interpret Scripture alone. Even though this is the agreed unspoken method of many Christians, it is a horrible idea. Here’s why: the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.
What do I mean by this? We are each quite limited by ourselves. I’m a 19-year-old kid from 21st century America who speaks modern English. I am far from qualified to properly understand everything written by brilliant, divinely inspired adults from first century Israel who wrote in Koine Greek. Even a top-notch scholar isn’t quite up to that task by himself. So how do we understand Scripture, then?
The answer, of course, is together with those who were the first to understand. We have tradition as a guard-rail, to make sure we don’t wander off from the real meaning of Scripture. From day one, the Apostles taught, the next generations continued their teaching, and the Church historically has preserved a great deal of truth about Scripture interpretation. As an example, consider the Trinity. Today, if I just opened a Bible and started reading, I might never figure the Trinity out by myself. But we have been passed down the truths worked out by Christians past so that we can now interpret texts on Christ’s deity and the role of the Holy Spirit properly.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to understand Scripture by yourself at all. Indeed, many verses and passages are easy enough to understand when translated to English. But when you find a controversy, a question, or a difficulty, look to people who have studied Scripture more, those who know the traditional answers of the Church, and other resources to link you to historical understanding and wiser minds. Because you and I, my friend, however smart we may be, are mostly likely going to be wrong if we try to figure out the tough stuff ourselves, but with the help of many believers and those who came before us, we can learn a great deal.