Are you Really Qualified to Interpret the Bible?

Okay, not sure if I’ll catch all the posts, but here we go –

Start here, and then proceed with the list below:

But, others in the blogosphere have chimed in –

Here’s the basic premise (from Dr. West)

Why is it, then, that people who by their own confession are not expert in a field feel comfortable opining about it publicly?  I think biblical scholars ought to rebel and start writing about physics and astronomy and cat farming and raising ducks and everything else out there, so that the people who are experts in those things can feel the same annoyance we get to feel every time we discover one of them…

…veryone has an opinion on the bible and christian origins- and their views are either pure parroting or idiocy incarnate.

And from a very interesting comment left on Peter’s site:

uneducated clergy have done more harm than good. for the one or two pious examples of weeping evangelists and missionary children i can tell you 10 horror stories of how so called preachers screwed up churches with profane and idiotic doctrinal nonsense.

cling to piety if you must and contrast it wrongly with intellect. but the bible urges us to love god with all our mind too. and when next time your car breaks down or you’re hauled into court or you have a brain tumor, run right out and find someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about to help you. i know you won’t, but to be fair you should.

Matt finishes his conversation with this:

Their thoughts, comments, and questions have expanded my personal reflections upon the anatomy, history, and interpretation of the Bible in innumerable ways, even in areas where we ultimately reached different conclusions or adopted different positions.

Now, please, let me weigh in.

Dr. West is right. First, do not compare biblical interpretation to politics or girl scout cookies. Do not compare it to mission trips, devotionals, or the Gospel. Biblical interpretation must be left in the hands of recognized teachers. I am not speaking about spreading the Gospel, but about correct doctrine. It’s not about implementation but about exploration.

Dr. West is right – too often the uneducated pastor is left to determine biblical interpretation based on his own knowledge of Scripture. A good many times, this has led to denominations, off shoots, and even cults. I have watched as bad interpretation has cast people out in the cold and turned them aside from Christianity. Further, an entire group has emerged that believe that they alone are the arbiter of what the word of God means.

Look at the King James Only movement. The Quiverfull Movement. The Adventists. Look at every little church on the corner who disagrees with the one next door.

The fact is, if biblical interpretation is not grounded in something concrete and exercised by at least an apprentice specialist, it becomes a Choose-Your-Own adventure book. Yes, those of us who lack formal education can find ways to educate ourselves – I choose books – not just those that support my own understanding, but those that challenge me. I further choose bloggers, thinkers really, such as Dr. Gayle, Suzanne McCarthy, and yes, even Dr. West, which often lead, or led, me into a different direction, sometimes allowing me to firm up my own beliefs, or to restructure it to fit what the Bible says.

I have heard it said that God calls us, but we qualify ourselves. This is not unbiblical, as Paul told Timothy to stay in Scripture, and counseled him to prevent a novice, a beginner, from becoming an overseer. What doesn’t this principle carry over into biblical interpretation? Would you allow a novice to expand upon Matthew 19.12? I mean, look what happened to Origen when he mistakenly understood it as literal. This is why I spend the money I do on books (and have a wish list to invite others to do the same) and spend the time to read them – to qualify myself, in part, as I continue my education.

My point is that biblical interpretation should be left in more qualified hands than a mere, “God told me” or “I feel inspired by the Spirit.” Biblical interpretation, expository preaching, and cultivation of sound doctrine is not spreading the Gospel, or preaching the message of repentance. Instead, acknowledge that these things are geared to two different groups of people, and thus, require two different approaches.

Every Christian should stay in the bible, and build up themselves in the holy Spirit of God. Every Christian has a duty to be learned, at least, enough to give an answer to those without. While some will see this as an attempt keep the biblical authority in the hands of only a few – and indeed, this post started off differently – it is not, it is only an attempt to make sure we allow God to work, and to keep every Larry, Maureen, and Curly from giving his or her opinion as confirmed fact.

Peter makes the excellent point that Christ picked the fishermen – although in reality, these men were not exactly as unlearned as some would like to make them, but most likely had some education – to spread the Gospel, but it was Paul who established in the schema of writing the doctrine of our Church. He was educated, learned, and indeed a specialist. While we need Peter, James and John, Andrew, Levi and, yes, even Thomas, we also need Paul, Luke, and a Tertullian.

One of the things which we also must guard against is the dismissal of each other’s qualifications. It is easy for one to sit in an ivory tower and dismiss the other out of hand – without examination – of another who has yet to achieve tower. I do not think, as some might, that qualifications include doctorates in biblical interpretation, but it does include more than a ‘heart.’ This is not a slight against Pastors who have not been educated, as I know some who did study to show themselves approved.

As I said earlier, this post started off differently, because I was originally incensed with Dr. West’s suggestion that only qualified people should be considered when it comes to biblical interpretation; yet, as I examine my own experiences with those that purported only the inspiration of God and a direct revelation, I become convinced that indeed, it does take more than just a good heart and the ability to read. So much damage has been done by those who believed themselves essentially qualified to issue biblical interpretation that it does bare a second examination.

I may not be qualified to issue biblical interpretation, or even discuss it, in the eyes of Dr. West, but I am not striving for his approval. I am striving only to not be wrong in the eyes of God. I am by nature a skeptic, and I want to test things, everything, so I test doctrine, and measure it by Scripture and by a very distant second, Tradition. If those who follow this blog read my writings, and I am able to lead some to Christ, then that I my goal. Further, if I am able to steady someone in the Faith, that is my goal. Finally, if I am able to grow, that too is my goal. I profess not professionalism, nor inaptness, only a continued motivation to qualify myself before God.

We need qualified people to maintain the doctrinal course – else we end up with Todd Bentleys. You don’t want to be a Todd Bentley, do you?


James Pate has chimed in, and Matt has responded, here and here. Michael at Ecco Homo has this to say. In a response, sort of, to Michael, Ben Byerly adds this.

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25 Replies to “Are you Really Qualified to Interpret the Bible?”

  1. Who decides who is qualified?  I know guys with PhD’s who are idiots and some with no formal training who i tremble to disagree with.
    Education obviously does not prevent sloppiness in interpretation, it merely allows one to say things obscurely enough to avoid detection.
    I say EVERYBODY JUMP IN.  The truth will win out in the end.  But, if you choose to play, be prepared to scrap and defend.  No one is allowed to simply make a pronouncement and walk.
    The last thing we need is an attitude of elitism that discourages inquiry and debate.  Those of us who can use the big words must learn to speak simply enough for those who are lexically challenged to follow.
    Who watches the watchers?  In politics and biblical studies, THIS is my first question.  For the correct answer you MUST attend my lectures and buy my books.

  2. Sonny, I can understand you point – and I am not saying that we should not question those who give these interpretations. Nor should we dismiss those who are not as ‘qualified’ as we. Instead, we must seek a common sense approach – otherwise, we end up a variety of biblical interpretations which destroy people.

  3. Common sense and Biblical interpretation seldom go together.  The most condemning and hurtful people I know are doctrinally “pure”.  Knowledge puffs up, LOVE builds up.
    But I would be interested in your approach.  What guidelines?  WHO WILL APPLY THE GUIDELINES?
    Don’t misunderstand. Nothing iritates me more than a discussion with someone who has not even bothered to READ THE BIBLICAL TEXT!  But the fact that “scholars” can be lined up for/against any interpretation leaves me pessimistic.  *sigh*
    If you people would just think like me all these problems could be avoided.  ;-]

  4. Well put.  I do agree with your heart Joel.  The “everyone has an opinion” response drives me crazy.  But i wouldn’t sell short the power of the breath of God in the ears of an attentive and prayerful ready.  “Just reading the text” is deep enough in that case.
    Original sin was entailed the attempt to be godlike through the acquisition of knowledge.
    People destroy people through bad biblical interpretation enforced with godlike certainty.  Actually, proplr destroy pesple through good biblical interpretation as well.  Perhaps it is the need to be right that is destructive, not the content.  We fight for the faith by serving and dying, not by arguing and slander. God forgive me, i’ve done enough of that in His name.

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