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As a Protestant who really tries to abide by the sola scriptura principle to subject my understanding of God, His works, and His relation to us under the accepted Protestant canon, I am bewildered on how to choose the "correct" interpretation of key Bible verses relating to competing understanding of key doctrines necessary for my "walk in the spirit" such as Trinity, dual nature of Christ, Original Sin, baptism, justification, union with Christ, sacrament, spiritual gifts, etc.

There seems to be many legitimate options, leading to several Protestant theologies on offer, all of which adopt sola scriptura : Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Pentecostal, etc. but each theology seems to be evolving. While a particular theology can then gives me a responsible interpretation that leads into a certain position I can then adopt of baptism, sacrament, etc, and while sola scriptura correctly subjects these theologies under scriptural authority, there remains the problem of choosing which theology to use for an individual Christian.

Some key doctrines like the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ seem to require me to trust in the judgment of early councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon to favor one particular interpretation of Bible verses related to God and Jesus. While Kenneth Collins and Jerry Walls in their book Roman but Not Catholic offers a way for sola scriptura proponents to coherently accept the binding authority of those early councils (because nearly all Christians accept them), there remains the problem of choosing post Reformation councils / confession document to trust. Should I go with a Reformed church which adopts Westminster Confession of Faith, or with an Anglican church which adopts the 39 articles, or with a Lutheran church which adopts the Augsburg Confession, or with a Methodist church which adopts the United Methodist Confession of Faith?

In an answer to a related question we read (emphasis mine):

Sola scriptura says there is no guarantee that any doctrine of the church is certain; the only mark of divine certainty is on the scriptures. So our relationship to the scriptures is one of an ongoing project of investigation guided by the spirit's insights. As God guides us we may collectively decide that some things which were believed in the past, although they do not directly contradict the scriptures, are weaker exegetically and have unfortunate theological implications compared to alternative interpretations. And just as we have a measure of skepticism towards earlier generations' traditions and interpretations, so future generations will judge that some of our interpretations and theological theories are unjustifiable as God continues to guide them.

It seems to me that at the end of the day, as a sola scriptura believer I only have myself to rely on, combined with:

  • the assistance of Holy Spirit in my heart,
  • the binding authority of those early ecumenical councils
  • several peers that I trust, that they're engaged in the same project as myself, to collaboratively understand God and his scriptures under the Spirit's guidance

With the above guidance, am I then free to choose a theologian I trust and enlist him/her as one of my peers to help me in my "project of investigation" to choose a responsible interpretation of key Bible verses by reading his/her commentary / book and knowing as much as I can about his/her life as a Christian, and THEN use that guidance to select a church to attend? Is that the correct procedure? It still sounds lonely to me, or do the followers of those "peer theologians" (such as CS Lewis) count as a collective so my position is not solitary?

Is this the best that sola scriptura can offer, and that means I have to keep a lingering doubt in the back of my mind about my currently chosen position on doctrines that the Protestant churches have differences on? It feels like standing on shifting tectonic plates waiting for an earthquake to happen.

So the complete question is: How do proponents of Sola Scriptura choose the "correct" interpretation of key Bible verses to adopt for one's faith life when many responsible exegesis in different faith traditions lead to different interpretations?

Real life significance of this question

As a Christian we can speculate all day long and thus risk "living in an ivory tower", but the rubber really meets the road when that Christian is married to a spouse that holds the same sola scriptura position and but are unable to come to an agreement because they do their own "project of investigation", enlist different "peers" and then strongly decide to go to a different church of a different tradition.

For example, one wants to go to a Pentecostal church (with "memorial" understanding of eucharist and double adult baptism, the 2nd one for filling), but the other wants to go to an Anglican church (with "means of grace" understanding of eucharist and infant baptism). Not only about church attendance, how are they supposed to baptize their children? I have seen in some couples that this happens and this became an element in their divorce.

Are we supposed to consider this as a defect in both of their faiths? In this situation, should a couple who are persuaded to different faith traditions (each claim to have Holy Spirit backing) subject themselves to sola scriptura and attempt a compromise? What does this compromise look like since the couple cannot appeal to the Holy Spirit anymore for common ground? Ideally the couple should be "peers" to each other, but what if they cannot even agree on a single external "peer" to include in their "project of investigation"?

A high profile real life example of a compromise is that of Prof. Francis Beckwith who resigned as President of the Evangelical Theological Society to avoid a conflict of interest because he wanted to return to the Catholic Church. He has been "Catholic friendly" but the catalyst was when his nephew asked if he could be his sponsor when he receives the sacrament of Confirmation, which requires the sponsor to have a good standing in the Catholic Church. (read the full story here). He was baptized Catholic, but apparently joined his wife's Presbyterian church after marriage. Subsequent to his returning to the Catholic Church, his wife underwent RCIA to become Catholic as well.

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  • We must first consider that the bible interprets itself. An ambiguous or oddly worded verse doesn't need complex theological constructs - it needs other verses. Having in mind as a foundation, "the binding authority of those early ecumenical councils" is asking for trouble and confusion. Secondly we also consider that Jesus warned that 'the many' would not find 'the way' - so there is no safety or surety in what the masses believe, none. Power, influence and wealth do not lead to the truth. But excellent Q!
    – steveowen
    Jul 1 at 22:51
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    @user47952 "there is no safety or surety in what the masses believe, none." Worth repeating. Truth is not a popularity contest. Jul 1 at 22:53
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    The answer is . . . . . . Timothy and Titus. The pastoral epistles tell us that Jesus Christ, himself, will send Ministers to preach and teach (to the whole Church not just to individual congregations). And these Ministers will look to the Apostles directly for their doctrine. Without the Christian Ministry, the Church is, as you describe it, leaderless and compromised. (Up-voted +1.)
    – Nigel J
    Jul 2 at 5:35
  • You must be born again. Only the HS can interpret what God has written. The believer judges all things because of this. What, when, and how we understand is not our call. Trust Him. If what you understand does not promote love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance then you don't have it quite right yet. Jul 2 at 11:50
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This will just be a relatively brief answer sorry.

It seems to me that at the end of the day, as a sola scriptura believer I only have myself to rely on, combined with:

  • the assistance of Holy Spirit in my heart,
  • the binding authority of those early ecumenical councils
  • several peers that I trust, that they're engaged in the same project as myself, to collaboratively understand God and his scriptures under the Spirit's guidance

Don't be dismissive of these, they are actually huge, you don't "only" have these, these are all you need! Especially the indwelling Spirit who guides us to understanding.

So on to my answer.

The first thing I'd point out is that the doctrine of sola scriptura must be paired with the doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture. Much of theology and much of the teachings of the Bible are so clear that everyone can understand them. Not necessarily instantly, without thought, but also without great difficulty. All of the great principals of theology are included in the Clarity of Scripture:

  • the power of God as creator and sustainer of the world
  • the boundless love of God
  • the seriousness of sin
  • the justice of God
  • the divinity of Jesus
  • the death and resurrection of Jesus
  • the forgiveness of sins we receive in the Gospel
  • the indwelling Spirit who unites us to Christ and each other
  • the ongoing work of God to transform us to be like his son
  • the promise of Christ's return
  • our certain hope of resurrection, freedom from sin, and a remade universe

We use the history of the church to reassure us that we have actually correctly understood these things. This is not to say that any of these doctrines are guaranteed to be correct, but that we can have great confidence we are reading the scriptures correctly when we see these things being taught. We gain confidence when we see our basic understanding of the scriptures being taught by the church in every age, and when we see the fundamental doctrines of the church being clearly taught in the scriptures. When both of these happen we know that we are following the guidance of the Spirit.

The second great principle is that of the dual authorship of the scriptures. Alongside all of the human authors of the Bible is God, who authored it all, and inspired the human authors to tell the message he wanted told. So even though there are many diverse human authors, the one author God means that the Bible tells one great message, and is not a confused collection of disparate texts. If this is true, then although there are juxtapositions in the scriptures, there won't be true contradictions. This leads to the principle of interpretation that the Bible interprets itself. We use the clearer passages to understand those that are less clear.

Is this the best that sola scriptura can offer, and that means I have to keep a lingering doubt in the back of my mind about my currently chosen position on doctrines that the Protestant churches have differences on? It feels like standing on shifting tectonic plates waiting for an earthquake to happen.

To use your metaphor, no, we shouldn't feel afraid of oncoming earthquakes. The doctrine of the clarity of scriptures means that we are safe from shifting tectonic plates. And because scripture interprets scripture, we do not even need to fear minor tremors. Yes we still have questions, we still see ambiguities in the scriptures, but they are small. When we build our house on these foundations we neither fear the foundations shifting from under us, nor do we fear the winds and rains of uncertainties, for the strength of the foundations gives strength to our house.

Though they may be small, this does still leave thousands of questions in the scriptures, and dozens of significant questions in our theology. This is where sola scriptura shines: though the doctrine means there is no human authority who tells us what to think, it does mean that we're all in it together. We don't all need to be experts in reading the Biblical languages, or experts in church history, or experts in theology, or experts in other Christian denominations. We welcome the diverse gifts and expertise of the church as we share our understandings together.

So lets take infant baptism as an important issue, one with absolutely no consensus within Protestantism, and one which has been written about so much. For the Protestant, the "peers" in understanding are not just those who share their position on infant baptism, but are all Protestants who share the goal of collectively understanding the scriptures (and any non-Protestant Christians who do too). So we read the arguments from both sides, ideally from authors who can not only put forward their side really well, but who truly understand the other side too, and could explain it in a way that the other side would approve of. We'll read arguments that delve into the scriptures, some that look at church history, some that try to answer the question from a bigger picture of the purpose and work of the church. We'll read about Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, and more. We'll read explanations that focus on the individual's responsibility to have faith, and other explanations that focus on the family as a unit of Christianity. And hopefully, after reading both sides, one side will feel more convincing and compelling than the other, and for now, that's the position we'll take. But in future years we may read something that convinces us the other side of the infant baptism debate is more right, and that's okay.

Finally, we must have humility, and reasonable expectations of the certainty which we will reach, namely that we won't. Outside of the fundamentals of faith, outside of those things God taught with clarity, there will be a lot of questions that we can't answer. There will be many passages we won't understand. We will reach doctrinal positions we think are likely, but that we can't prove.

Our certainty of the foundations of faith should be like our certainty in the existence of gravity or in the roundness of the earth. But we don't seek that level of certainty outside the foundations. Instead we seek a level of confidence that lets us continue in Christian living and ministry without constantly doubting ourselves, but that, should we come across a new compelling argument, we would be willing to reconsider. Instead of the certainty we have for many scientific facts, we should hold to these doctrines more like we hold to our political positions. Are unions good or bad for the economy? Should banks be more or less regulated? Do electric vehicles need subsidies, should petrol vehicles be taxed more, or should the government treat them equally? Does affirmative action help or not? Some of us have strong opinions on these questions, some of us don't, but all of us should recognise that they're questions that we can only have relative confidence in, not complete certainty. Likewise, when it comes to doctrines on baptism, spiritual gifts, church leadership, strategies for fighting sin, apologetic approaches, and more, we're looking just for confidence, not certainty.

So join me in this great project of exploring and uncovering the truths of the scriptures, as we weigh up what everyone teaches. Remember that we're in good company - even Peter found some of what Paul wrote hard to understand.

Acts 17:11 (NIV): Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

2 Peter 3:16 (NIV): He [Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

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    "Confidence, not certainty", sufficient to overcome doubt. Very eloquent answer which gathers in one place all available means to build that confidence without relying on human authority: 1) the great principals through the doctrine of Clarity of Scripture, 2) observing church use of the doctrine in history, 3) God-given juxtaposition not contradiction, 4) peers exercising multiple gifts, not all need expertise just thoughtfulness, 5) true peers as ones who understand each side with approval from the other, 6) multifaceted consideration, 7) humility to reconsider position. Great answer! Jul 2 at 4:15
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    @GratefulDisciple Thank you! There is of course lots more depth I couldn't cover here. Two more books I haven't fully read yet are: on clarity, "A Clear and Present Word" by Mark Thompson, and on determining what the fundamentals are, "Finding the Right Hills to Die On" by Gavin Ortlund.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 2 at 4:21
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Despite the best answer having been chosen, I feel constrained to add three points in the Bible itself, addressed to Christians.

First of all, Protestantism is not a free-for-all, with each Protestant free to do his or her own thing, based on his or her own conclusions about the 'correct' interpretation of any Bible verses. Tragically, this is what it seems to be degenerating into in some quarters, due to forgetting these three Bible points.

  1. Acts 2:42 - "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."

  2. Jude vss. 3-4 - "Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ."

  3. 2 Cor. 11:2-4 - "For I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, you might well bear with him... For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themseleves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel, for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works."

Only when Christians take their eyes off following their Lord by looking to what other men (or women) say about their Lord will confusion arise. Christians are told to stick to the first century apostolic teaching, all of which is in the scriptures. The 'simplicity' of what was taught back then was not simple teaching. James points out that the apostle Paul taught "some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16). The "simplicity that is in Christ" is the one, sure means of not being lured away from following him due to attraction to the teaching of others, who claim to be able to explain to us what this, that, and the next biblical point means. Christians simply follow Christ; not this man, or that woman, or this denomination, or that creed.

Time and again we hear of Christian teachers and leaders being exposed as sexual predators, or of secretly indulging in pornography, or stealing large sums of money from their ministries, or of being two-faced (lovely people in public, but monsters in their own households). Some were so practiced in their hypocrisy, it was not discovered until after they had died. Others committed suicide when their duplicitous way of life was discovered. In this day and age, Christians have seen time and again the danger of being so enamoured of any individual's teaching or ministry that they start following them. Yet that is what is happening on a massive scale!

What on earth happened so as to make us forget to "lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith"? (Hebrews 12:1-2) That is the simplicity that is in Christ.

Oh, but in this era of cult personality, and super-stars, and 'heroes', our eyes are attracted all over the place to this, that and the next person on a podium, when we should be looking only to Jesus, listening only to the first-century apostolic teaching, and saturating ourselves in scripture reading so that we are crystal-clear as to the biblical gospel, and the biblical Christ. He is the only foundation upon which Christians can stand - all other ground is sinking sand.

Proponents of Jesus Christ see and follow him alone (Sola Christos) which is entirely a sound Sola Scriptura principle. Keep that basic principle to the fore, and all the other problems you mentions should not trip you up.

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    The empirical reality is that there are multiple credible denominations to choose from (i.e. with Godly leaders, proven track record, and sound teaching). But thank you for reminding us of the 3 fundamental criteria to evaluate the choices before considering everything else (such as historical and exegetical research) : 1) Basis of teaching: Apostolic fidelity; 2) Beware of duplicitous leaders shifting the center to other than following only Christ; 3) Beware of false gospel and persuasive false apostles (with Satan behind them), instead we need the simple gospel of Christ. Jul 7 at 18:04
  • Maybe it's just me, but on reading your answer, it would seem prudent to ask why we have so many devotees to a trinity if they followed your 3 points. The Apostles never taught it, let alone believed it. And then, 'another gospel, which ye have not accepted, -For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, false apostles of Christ', pretty much nails it!
    – steveowen
    Jul 8 at 5:58
  • @ user47952 You are of the opinion that the Apostles never believed in a triune God. Were that so, we might expect a far high standard of Christianity over the centuries with leaders of non-trinitarian groups, but that is not the case. Gross immorality, dishonesty and manipulation of members goes on with them, so you are wrong to try to highlight the trinity doctrine as some kind of identification of false apostles etc.
    – Anne
    Jul 8 at 14:11
  • @Anne don’t know why you raised those matters - they are common to humanity. The subject was about doctrinal basis. Your points about ‘first-century apostolic teaching’, and ‘the biblical Christ’ are not in harmony with traditional dogma which has ignored and replaced such true foundations.
    – steveowen
    Jul 8 at 21:38
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Study the original text

Learning Hebrew and ancient Greek would be ideal. (It is often expected that serious scholars, including priests/pastors, will do so.) Failing that, familiarize yourself with "literal" translations and tools such as Biblical-language dictionaries and concordances that will help you understand how potentially-confusing words are used elsewhere in scripture.

Scripture interprets scripture

Don't rely on trying to understand a single verse in isolation. Being familiar with the whole of scripture will help you to more naturally intuit what you read. When a particular verse troubles you, look around for other verses speaking on similar topics. Again, various tools such as study bibles and topical indices may be helpful.

Ask "experts"

While the above is definitely the best approach, it usually won't hurt to read what others have written, or to ask "subject matter experts". For example, you could ask here or on Hermeneutics.SE if a particular verse is perplexing you.


Ultimately, most people are not going to go to great lengths to do their own analysis; they are going to tend to lean on "experts" of a denomination familiar to them. The above is more a guide how to proceed if you either lack a church organization which you are predisposed to trust, or if, for whatever reason, your previously-existing trust is called into question.

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    Two input: 1) this is not feasible for Christians that don't go to seminary. Self-study is of course possible, but I have seen many led astray by partial expertise in Greek & Hebrew. 2) Even after filtering theologies constructed by the above principles we have the empirical evidence that they have some differences, and they all use scripture to interpret scripture. So how then to choose which "expert" to go to, when empirically there is no consensus? Jul 1 at 18:13
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    @Matthew Many people who do the things you recommend here come to different conclusions on all sorts of topics. What reason would one have to believe doing that oneself would get the correct answer? Jul 1 at 18:27
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    @RayButterworth We're talking about interpretations of verses informing different doctrines. When looking at various denominations, you usually have well-informed, smart experts who come to different conclusions. They do so for reasons that are often difficult to adjudicate. When looking at the difference between major denominations, I don't think much is going to be obvious. Jul 1 at 20:20
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    It's dangerous to think you know enough to read other languages well, even after going to a Bible college. Four years is not enough, you need more like forty. Instead of trusting in your own faulty language skills, use multiple fluent translations (if possible, not all languages are as blessed with an oversupply of translations as English is.) Use multiple commentators. Accept the limitations of your own skills, as well as the limitations in others, and so consult many experts, of all kinds.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 2 at 4:00
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    @Matthew I wouldn't say you should never investigate the original language texts yourself, just that even after a 4 year degree we need to be humble enough to recognise that we won't be fluent. And even if we think we have found the answers to our questions by consulting the original languages, we should still confirm those answers by checking with other translations, commentaries, etc.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 3 at 0:11

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