What Are The Qualifications of a Bible Interpreter?
Updated: Jul 5
The qualifications of an interpreter of the Bible must have a reasoned faith, be obedient to God’s word, be gifted of the Holy Spirit, be an active member of a local church, and have a toolbox of appropriate methodology. The importance of each qualification is explained as well as the reasons for necessity. All five are necessary and equal qualifications for interpretation. Each of the five explains the role and impact of the Holy Spirit on an individual’s interpretation.
A Reasoned Faith
A five-star restaurant employs a chef convinced of the requirements for perfect food, service, and presentation leading to the restaurant's financial success. Before cutting into someone, the surgeon is confident of possible outcomes. Pilots transport parents, children, and pets in metal tubes flying very fast miles above the ground, convinced of non-terminal landings. Diligent study and practice, and reasoned conviction, convinces the chef, surgeon, and pilot of their abilities. A qualified Bible interpreter having a relationship with God has reasoned faith. Bible interpreters interpret having a reason for belief, a reasoned faith.
Unbelievers, skeptics, and pagans may grasp much of the Bible’s meaning but are without a reasoned faith. They are without reason for believing in God and the Bible. God’s word will not mean to them what it means to the reader convinced of God’s eternity and the Holy Spirit’s guidance. This is what is meant by a reasoned faith. You cannot read the Bible “any way you want, so long as you are consistent and creative!”
One of the best examples of a competent, unbelieving scholar who “may produce an outstanding technical commentary” on the Bible is Bart D. Ehrman. A James A. Gray Distinguished Professor with a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Ehrman authored Forgery and Counter forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, and Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). Nothing on the UNC website or his blog definitively states that he is agnostic (plenty of other websites make that claim). Still, the implication from his statement on his blog, “I simply don’t have enough hours in the day or days in the week and, alas, my petitions to resolve this problem to the powers that be have gone unheeded,” is that he blames the Almighty for not granting him more hours in the day. I have read enough of his work to emphatically state that if he had reasoned faith as I have described, Dr. Ehrman would be an influential disciple for the Kingdom of God.
Can one without a reasoned faith “hear” the Word of God? Apparently not, according to my understanding of John 5:37–38 “ And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe.”
Willingness to Obey Its Message
An interpreter with reasoned faith is committed to the message. There are no other options other than to accept the message without reservation, and without any thought of a possibility, the message is wrong. For a tongue-in-cheek contemporary example, imagine that kind of commitment to the message given in response to the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” Thankfully, we have latitude outside biblical interpretation. The Bible is a spiritual script and the Scripture means what it means.
Among many complications, biblical authors faced fierce opposition from culture, barriers to language, and distortion from pagan practices. While God superintended their work, the biblical authors obediently recorded history, poetry, wisdom, prophesy, letters, and the gospels. Interpreters must do no less. “If the questions to which ancient authors sought to respond in terms available to them within their cultural horizons are to be ‘heard’ today with something like their original force and urgency, they have first to be ‘heard’ as questions that challenge us with comparable seriousness.”
The holy spirit’s guidance in the art and science of interpretation does not guard against infallibility for today’s interpreters. The inspired Word is a closed canon. Interpreters cannot claim new revelation. “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:18–19).
Illumination of the Holy Spirit
According to 1 Corinthians 2:14 and 2 Corinthians 4:4, the unsaved person, the “natural man,” is blind to what Scripture reveals and cannot interpret as does one having the gift of the Holy Spirit. The natural man is likely not a praying man. Through prayer, God disrupts darkness with the light of the world to children of the light. A day without prayer is a day without sunshine.
Grenz, et al, defines illumination as “the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian person and community in assisting believers to interpret, understand and obey the Scriptures. Illumination is a matter of faith as well as intellectual assent—the Spirit’s goal in illumination moves beyond mere intellectual assent to propositions of Scripture to the moving of the human will to trust Christ and obey him.” For one to interpret the Bible without consulting commentary, or even the thoughts of another person, and claim divine comprehension solely because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is a recipe for misunderstanding Scripture.
It is not a question of whether the Holy Spirit inspires, but there is a difference between inspiration and illumination. “The work of the Spirit in interpretation does not mean that He gives some interpreters a “hidden” meaning divergent from the normal, literal meaning of the passage.” The Spirit is not going to reveal some hidden, unexplainable, unverifiable work. The Bible was given to all believers to interpret. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
Membership in the Church.
An interpreter must attend church to maintain a reasoned faith. A disciplined interpreter will make attendance habit. It is often in the church where we witness the impact of the Holy Spirit in communal worship. In his book on habit, author Duhigg writes “Keystone habits transform us by creating cultures that make clear the values that, in the heat of a difficult decision or a moment of uncertainty, we might otherwise forget.” The church culture is already created. Jesus established the church body. The author of Hebrews tells it is the duty of the Christian life to attend church. “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb.10:25). John of Patmos experienced the Spirit on the day set aside for church attendance in Revelation 1:10. Collections are gathered when members gather and those collections help support and sustain the mission of the church as Paul orders the churches in Galatia and those in Corinth, recorded in 1 Corinthians 16:2. Church day was sanctified by Jesus’ resurrection. On that day, we commune with one another in the breaking of bread in remembrance of Jesus’ sanctifying death.
An interpreter cannot explain what is not learned or experienced. “That is, if we can’t communicate our interpretations to ordinary laypeople in ways that will ring true to at least an important cross-section of them, there’s a good chance we haven’t understood the text quite correctly.”Paul tells us in Acts the corporate church continuously met together (Acts 2:42-47).
Duhigg writes an interesting comment about following Christ’s example. “If you try to scare people into following Christ’s example, it’s not going to work for too long. The only way you get people to take responsibility for their spiritual maturity is to teach them habits of faith. Once that happens, they become self-feeders.”
Willingness to Employ Appropriate Methods.
Recall that for one to interpret the Bible without consulting commentary, or even the thoughts of another person, and claim divine comprehension solely because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is a recipe for misunderstanding Scripture. A willingness to employ appropriate methods requires discipline, dedication, and a desire to search all available resources to raise the awareness of texts from antiquity to the current day. “It requires the pursuit of excellence and learning in all dimensions (e.g., language, history, culture, literature, theology) that relate to the study of the Scriptures.”
Eugene Peterson shares his conversion experience from Ptolemaic where he was the center to one Copernican where the Bible was the center. He refers to him learning the willingness to employ appropriate methods as a “paradigm shift—a totally different was to look at and interpret and respond to what I have been looking at all my life.”
What role does the Holy Spirit play in interpretation?
Clarifications to prayer and the Holy Spirit need to be clarified here. Recall that through prayer, God disrupts darkness with the light of the world to children of the light. Also, recall that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian person and community in assisting believers to interpret and understand Scripture. As essential are prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit, “Interpreters cannot settle issues that concern factual matters by an appeal to prayer or the illumination of the Holy Spirit.” Interpretation is assisted through the exploration of numerous external historical sources.
Which of these qualifications are most important?
In the first paragraph, I wrote, “All five are necessary and equal qualifications for interpretation.” But I have learned from the first assignment to “pick-a-lane.” Illumination of the Holy Spirit is the most important qualification for the interpreter. Reasoned faith, being obedient to God’s word, being an active member of a local church, and having a toolbox of the appropriate methodology are all necessary but an interpreter would not want to be without the illumination of the Holy Spirit to guide the steps towards appropriate interpretation.
Which do you think are not as necessary?
In the first paragraph, I wrote, “All five are necessary and equal qualifications for interpretation.” But I realize I can choose which are not as necessary. Membership in a church is not as necessary. That is difficult for me to write because I value attendance but there are some who cannot attend and their abilities to interpret do not seem hindered. Obviously, they are missing the blessings of attendance but their theology seems rock solid. Why might the elderly, the imprisoned, or the oppressed having the other four not be qualified interpreters?
How do we determine the impact of the Spirit on an individual’s interpretation?
We see the fruits of the spirit in those who are led by the Spirit. Therefore, we should see impactful interpretations from the one impacted of the Spirit.
Bauer, David R., and Robert A. Traina. Inductive Bible Study. A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2011.
Campbell, D. K. Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth. Edited by C. Bubeck Sr. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1991.
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2014.
Ehrman, Bart D. Questions for Dr. Ehrman. n.d. https://ehrmanblog.org/contact-bart/ (accessed January 23, 2021).
Grenz, S., D. Guretski, and C. F. Nordling. Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999.
Klein, William W., Craig L Blomberg, and Robert L Hubbard. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.
The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The Department of Religious Studies. 2021. https://religion.unc.edu/_people/full-time-faculty/ehrman/ (accessed January 23, 2021).
NOTES  Klein and Blomberg, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 203.  Klein, Introduction, 203  University of North Carolina, “Bart D. Ehrman”, para 1.  Ehrman, Blog, Questions.  Klein, Introduction, 205.  Grenz, Pocket Dictionary, 62.  Campbell, Basic Bible Interpretation, 24.  Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 278.  Klein, Introduction, 208.  Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 389.  Klein, Introduction, 208.  Bauer, Inductive Bible Study, xii.  Klein, Introduction, 209.