Since Scripture is so hotly debated, within and without Christianity, how can a person figure out what's the "Truth"?The answer is always, "God will show you", which is in Phillipians 3:15 (I paraphrase). How, though?
On a personal level, it's most vital to use 1Jn 1:9, and to remember the promise that God will lead you to learn what is right. Via 1Jn1:9 you get God's IQ, so human brain limitations or "smarts" don't matter at all. (A genius, offline, will goof up the interpretation; a "dumb" person, online, thus is "smarter". This is no excuse for laziness, nor is it an excuse to preen when you "get it right". See the "I" for details.)
What does matter: Try to stay logical, objective, and to keep plugging. This Truth is essentially about and from GOD, not a soundbyte. It takes time. If there is a problem in "getting" something, likely emotion is obstructing. Try to identify which emotion, and why it is there. If you find yourself making snap judgments, there is an emotional obstruction: it's just a part of total depravity; we all have many such obstructions.
There are systematized ways to decipher the "Truth", in theology. They are many.
Seven principles, which are also true in the evaluation of the meaning of civil law, are most helpful in analysis, as follows.
FIRST: Always compare Scripture with Scripture. Scripture interprets itself: that is one reason why it is written in a (seemingly-strange) contextual/dynamic format. DOCTRINES perfectly FIT together, in Scripture, because it is "God-breathed" -- aka "Infallible". Those who think it is not have not got the right interpretation of the "erring" passage -- yet.
Scripture is a bundle of different types of legal documents, so to speak: deposition/testimony (e.g., the narratives), contract law (the promises, covenants), expert exposition/testimony (explanations), and trial evidence/precedence/ case histories, to name but a few types.
Any legal document is interpreted in light of itself, and in light of other legal documents of similar kind. This is how lawyers make a living! This is why we need pastors!
SECOND: Obviously, since Scripture has a lot of historical material in it, and is also not written in English, and further claims to be "God-breathed" only with respect to the original writers, a good deal of research into history, language, literature AT THE TIME OF writing is needed. It's more than a full-time job just to study.
THIRD: Ideally, you can just believe your pastor and not worry about all of this work. However, we are individually responsible to God for what we believe, and pastors are not perfect, either. Out of respect for the pastor, too, we should "test" what we are learning from him -- we might understand his teaching better that way, no?
How does the student, who is not a pastor, and doesn't have much time, evaluate "Scripture in light of Scripture"? Frankly, it's a miracle: God leads you. Use 1Jn1:9 to stay "on-line" with Him.
FOURTH: A good shortcut method is to be VERY clear on the nature of GOD -- His characteristics. The "S" in the Glossary might afford some help. Turn over in your mind, many times, how God must be, given those characteristics. The passage you are trying to evaluate will NOT contradict His Essence. If it seems to, then the interpretation you think applies is off in some way. Try finding similar passages, and compare them, to ferret out what interpretation does not contradict His Essence. (TULIP, for example, is partially incorrect, because it underplays the importance of Sovereignty and Veracity, which is definitely not the intended result of TULIP's teaching!)
FIFTH: Another added shortcut is handy when you have several passages and they seem to not fit together: at least one of them is probably mistranslated. Each verse might look like it fits Essence on its own, but when taken together there's something funny. Figure out what seems funny, and find someone who'll know the original languages on that "funny" part (ideally, your church).
Here's a good (and apparently controversial) example: lots of verses mistranslate the Hebrew preposition "min" and the Greek "ek" as meaning "in", when those prepositions as used with "womb" mean "from OUTSIDE, separated from". So, some translations of the Bible lead the unwary to conclude that human life begins before birth. (English's use of "from" usually connotes "from inside, versus the Hebrew perspective, which is the opposite. So, the English translation is wrong, but, for example, the French translation gets it right "des ta naissance", from your birth, the correct meaning of the Hebrew idiom. ) In all of these verses, God is declaring He makes each soul at birth (so bye, bye, claims that the soul is procreated/material, that man can be evolved, etc). More could be said here, but you're probably too shocked, already!
SIXTH: Don't superimpose the answer you want to be true over the one that is there. This is the most frequent cause of misinterpretational errors. Sometimes, this error is very subtle: one's in a hurry, or, the surface meaning of the verse seems to be the WHOLE meaning. So, one quits analyzing. Again, sooner or later God will point out the fallacy (maybe using some obnoxious person!) of such a snap judgment.
Denominations form and fight usually because they have each imposed their creed over Scripture in some way and now feel obliged to stand fast on what might be even known as an incorrect interpretation, for the sake of not scaring their congregations by admitting an error. No denomination, no church, no pastor, gets it all right. That doesn't mean the whole teaching is wrong. It does mean that what's wrong was misinterpreted -- and can be corrected.
So, it's a good thing that there are so many Christian versions, to compete with each other!
SEVENTH: "Big Picture Perspective" is a major (and good) reason for denominations to form creeds. Of course, you don't have to be in any denomination: the Bible will give you its own "big picture". Try reading the Epistles, for example, for a general sense; or, the whole NT; the idea is, not to miss the forest for the trees.
It's extremely important to "get" the Scriptural "big picture." Many misinterpretations vanish, or show up as misinterpretations, once one has enough Scriptural grasp of the big picture.
This "big view" is especially helpful when you have to analyze the "fit" of a given verse, passage, or doctrine. In short, "fly aerial"; look at the whole panorama of doctrine, just as if you were in an airplane, flying relatively low. How does the particular doctrine in question fit into the whole?
Another way to say this: evaluate an interpretation of a verse in light of the whole realm of doctrine you've proved true, the OVERALL "COMMON SENSE" of it. Or, BETTER, in light of the Essence of God, since God makes sense, and all Scripture is a reflection of His Essence, "the Mind of Christ".
When a doctrine is "rightly divided" (2Tim2:15), you can practically hear it snap into place. When it is not, there is a jamming. Many verses will thus contradict the "jammed" interpretation.
To make the jamming "fit", many people throw away or gloss over many verses, even entire books, of the Bible! It's a sad problem, which is ONLY redressed by further learning of Scripture with 1Jn1:9 regularly used. Total Depravity means our brains are mush, cotton: if you've ever tried to push through either one, you know how DIFFICULT it is. We can't get a thought through without a lot of pushing, even in secular affairs -- that's why life is always so annoying. BIGGER: We CAN'T think AT ALL on our own when it comes to spiritual things, even if believers: ergo the need for 1Jn1:9 like BREATHING. That's why virtually every religion is goofy, substituting some version of irrationality (magic) for the Truth.
Let's go through an example.
Another important "big picture perspective", is that of the author who writes the Scriptural book you're reading. This shouldn't have to be said, but when you read or hear a thing, you won't know how to interpret it until you know what the writer/speaker HIMSELF means by what he writes/says. It's incredible how people today ASSIGN THEIR OWN meanings to what someone else writes or says. Thus, they misinterpret, take offense, and persecute that someone else. [Classic example of this genre is the way Trent Lott 'lost' his post as Speaker. Really dumb, how people are so insecure that a remark at a party was used to dismiss a valuable member of our government. Classic examples like this display commonly, daily, on Christian IRC. You'd think people had their ears plugged!]
See, the Bible's claim of infallibility and inerrancy applies to the writings of God-inspired INDIVIDUALS. God is not magic, so this ability to communicate God's Own Message isn't magic, either. So God's "verbal plenary inspiration" doesn't mean some goofy "automatic writing" or dictation. It means, rather, that the person KNEW DOCTRINE SO WELL and was online with the Holy Spirit so well, he could himself accurately communicate God's Own Coherent Message in writing. Bible calls this inspiration "theopneustos" (lit., God-breathed, metaphor for the 'inhale' of Truth). That claim applies to every TRUE Bible book, whether OT or NT, and that's how you tell what is and is not Scripture. It's not a committee/council decision, for crying out loud! See 2Pet1:20-21. (So, the issue with the original-language texts we have is to detect scribal (copyist) errors, which take time to do; but the task isn't rocket science, either. NO translation is "God-breathed" (2 Tim3:16), because the original writers of Scripture aren't doing the translating! One must be online with the Spirit and repeatedly, over a long period, learning Scripture to become adept at interpretation. Really, one must have a spiritual gift, which Bible calls "pastor-teacher" in Eph4:11.)
You can see an author's perspective by reading the whole book of his (or all of his writings), not focusing too much on any one verse. You can also see it by tracing out the author's writing style, which in each case is deliberately chosen for the sake of maximum efficiency in conveying the teaching. I highly recommend doing this with Romans, Ephesians, and Hebrews. Further, I recommend you cast aside all religious ideas, and just read these as real books by real people inspired by a REAL GOD. God is not religion, God is GOD. Religion is satanic, always. We've heard the religious droning so much, it taints our ability to read Scripture. (Proof that ALL religion (Christian or no) is satanic is inadvertently furnished in the "Thinking Out Loud" megaseries, accessible from the Home Page. The series is well over 500 printed pages. While trying to account for the spiritual life, I found out why all religion is satanic, too: my pastor has been saying this for 50 years, but I didn't well understand why until writing out that workpaper.)
If you're stuck with a translation, read the book over and over about dozen times (maybe more), until you can see the author's own thoughtline and tracking. You probably will STILL be unclear with respect to many verses, but you will BECOME more certain that SOMETHING SENSIBLE is being said. (Bible is very snoozy to our Total Depravity, so use 1Jn1:9 like breathing, so the Holy Spirit's power will break through the sleepiness. Don't give up.)
In short, the "flavor" of the author's writing will vastly help you to know what the writing means. You get to see the author's big-picture perspective, and thus learn more how to read any verse in that writing.
The original languages of Scripture are unusually rich AURAL and ORAL languages -- full of idiom, figures-of-speech, puns, humor, double-entendres, stress, etc. of extreme precision. This precision is lost in translation, especially in the English, giving way to many misinterpretations. "Strong's" just can't deal with these very significant structures, so its surface meanings and translations should be viewed with extreme caution.
The precision of word-use in Scripture is one of the hallmarks of proof it is infallible. In Romans, for example, Paul loves parallelism via word-play: "hope" (which means CONFIDENT EXPECTATION, not doubt, in Greek..see the Philebus), "knowledge", "boasting", "grace", "death", "sin" -- all these topics receive a LOT of punning, to advance one's learning about the doctrines taught. It's a common method of teaching in every book of the Bible, actually (humor aids memory retention).
(Another "flavoring" commonly used is the interplay of syntax and tense -- but that is a complex subject, and in the English much of this "flavoring" is lost from the translation.)
Finally (for now), as you grow, you'll find the "big-picture perspective" helps you to see, via the big picture itself, corollaries --- true ones -- even though there is no one verse or set of verses you can point to as justifying the corollary you extrapolate.
Scripture is deliberately written so that you will THINK about it: the command in Deuteronomy 30 is an example of such a "THINK" command. So, the core points are scatteredly given, and you are to "fill in the blanks", as it were. After all, you are an individual, and how the Scripture APPLIES in your life YOU have to personally choose to learn. Also, it's not necessary to say all of the doctrinal points which would apply to all, since the core items are there. See: "1,3,5...." is a partial list. You don't need me to list "7", to realize it comes next. You don't need me to list "-1", to realize it precedes, since you have a core PATTERN...
As the "puzzle" of the doctrine comes together in your mind, you'll be able, from seeing the big picture, to see the shape of the seemingly-missing pieces. That is by far the most enjoyable way to spend one's time, in my opinion.... to learn Christ, "the Beloved". For even more info on how to test/read/ interpret Scripture, Click Here.