In inductive Bible study, we use some guardrails to keep our interpretation on track. To check that an interpretation of the text is legitimate, we should be able to answer the following questions affirmatively.
- Does the text support this interpretation?
- Does this interpretation take into account all the elements of the text, including its historical and narrative context?
- Would the original audience agree with this interpretation?
Misinterpretation occurs for primarily two reasons. The first is lack of discipline in paying attention to the text. The second is sifting the text through personal or philosophical assumptions out of the need to protect a vested interest which the text, its meaning, or its application might challenge. One of the great benefits of studying the Bible in a diverse community is the challenge of people with other worldviews or assumptions than our own. Our worldviews by their nature are the unexamined framework through which we understand reality. Bringing our worldviews into the process of interpretation without an openness to let our assumptions be challenged leads us to read in something not in the text or to read out something that is in the text. We usually aren't even aware that our assumptions are coloring our understanding of the text until someone else makes an observation or asks a question to which we have been blind.
Students of the Bible must hold their interpretations lightly but with confidence. Although there is no such thing as infallible interpretation, there is no need to doubt that we can better and better approximate the meaning of the given text. Keeping the spotlight on the text will keep us moored in the truth. If we have been faithful to the inductive process, the Holy Spirit will have plenty of space to shine his light and bring us understanding.
Paul Byer, the creator of manuscript study, taught that finding the probable meaning of the text is both an art and a science. As any artist or scientist would confirm, we never "master" our subject. We come back to it again and again, each time learning, seeing, and understanding more. Sometimes earlier interpretations will be amended by a new insight or the exposure of a blind spot. But the process of lingering with the text and working toward a clear understanding will always be a life-giving experience.