Why is it that evangelicals seem to have so many different interpretations of the Bible when they agree on the authority of the Bible for daily living? The problem primarily is a hermeneutical one - that is the differences in interpretation are due to different methods of reading and interpreting Scripture.
One of the legacies of the Reformation was the cry Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and the recognition that the Bible was to be the authoritative standard by which to judge doctrine and practice. The practical outworking of this was evidenced in the condemnation of those like Johannes Tetzel, who sold indulgences proclaiming that, "Once the coin into the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heaven-ward springs!" Another practical implication was a new emphasis on the common people having access to the Scriptures and not being dependent upon a priest to read it to them in a language which they did not understand.
It is obvious that a variety of interpretations would likely emerge from the reading and interpreting of Scripture by the common people. The Reformation also bequeathed to us the concept of the perspicuity of Scripture, which meant the Bible was comprehensible and could clearly be understood by the common people. This came to mean that everything necessary for salvation was clear, and that difficult passages were to be explained with reference to clear passages. This Reformation principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture is also referred to as the analogy of faith principle. The Reformers stressed an historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture in contrast to the common practice, since the days of Augustine, of seeing four senses or uses of Scripture. The four senses are summarized in a rhyme by Nicholas of Lyra (1265-1349):
The letter (literal) teaches facts, Allegory what one should believe, tropology what one should do, analogy where one should aspire.
The Reformers laid great emphasis upon the "literal sense" and disdained the eisegesis (reading into the text one's own thoughts) of the allegorical approach. They were also opposed to the practice of allowing the authority of tradition to usurp that of Scripture.
So why the church history lesson? It would seem that the old adage that those who fail to learn from history are prone to repeat its mistakes is quite pertinent to the contemporary evangelical church. Maybe you have heard of the man whose approach to finding God's will for his life was to employ the practice of “Bible dipping” that is randomly opening the Bible and placing his finger down upon the page and discovering God's will for him. One day the text read "...and he went away and hanged himself" (Matt 27:5); not liking the implications he dipped again and this time the text read "...go and do thou likewise" (Lu 10:37). So God's will or not? This practice was so common in the early church that it had to be repeatedly condemned by early church councils (see Christian History, Issue 43, p. 2).
Today in the church it is not uncommon for people to disdain and even disparage a seminary education. After all, doesn't the perspicuity of Scripture mean that even the uneducated can understand the Bible as well as the fellow who spent three years or more of his life in intensive study under the tutelage of gifted scholars? The answer is both yes and no. Could a person who has never studied medicine know as much about physical diseases and how to treat them as someone who spent three years in medical school? It's possible, but I trust you see the point: at some point in time the labor of studying about the body has to take place even if it is not in the context of a school. The perspicuity of Scripture doesn't mean that there are not still many difficult passages that even the best students of Scripture will struggle to understand.
Another common malady afflicting the church is the misapplication of the analogy of faith principle. One might term this "the proliferation of proof-texts." Those who spend any time talking or trying to talk to a Jehovah Witness know how this disease inflicts. It is the practice of using a Scripture text to support your theological point, regardless of the meaning of the text in context. Thus, because Jesus said, "The Father is greater than I" (John 14:28) the Jehovah Witness assumes this disproves the concept of the Trinity, yet they fail to correlate this verse contextually with earlier statements of Jesus' equality with the Father (Jn 14:10-11; 10:30). Context means examining the paragraph and the whole book within which the statement occurs.
We need to recover the Reformation historical-grammatical approach to the study of Scripture. The historical element addresses the importance of understanding things like the cultural, political, geographical, religious and redemptive aspects of the passage being studied. The grammatical aspect addresses things like vocabulary, syntax, style (e.g. idioms), genre, and literary structure.
Historical exegesis (exegesis meaning to interpret or explain a text) means recognizing the different periods of God's redemptive or saving activity. In interpreting Scripture, we must understand the implications of events like the Exodus and the Exile in the interpretation of OT passages, and the crucifixion, resurrection and Pentecost in the NT. Establishing the nature of the relationship between the old covenant (OT) and the new covenant (NT) is particularly difficult. The Reformers saw a great deal of continuity between these two covenants which is clearly reflected in the way that many Reformed churches interpret Scripture. The Anabaptists did not recognize the same degree of continuity and this is reflected in the way that many churches of a believer's baptism persuasion interpret Scripture.
Historical exegesis also recognizes the difference between the meaning of the text for the original audience and the application of that text to today's reader. For instance, when Jesus says to the apostles in the upper room that the Comforter "...will guide you into all truth...he will disclose to you what is to come" (Jn 16:13), this is not a promise to the church in the twentieth century but rather to those disciples in the upper room. It was to them that Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would teach all things and bring to remembrance the things he (Jesus) had taught (Jn 14:26). This is not to deny that the Holy Spirit can lead us into truth but rather to point out the necessity of recognizing the redemptive and historical context. I believe these passages allude to the Spirit's work not only in the apostolic preaching ministries but also to the inspiration of the apostolic writing of Scripture contained in the New Testament.
The Enlightenment period saw the Bible made subject to reason and reason became the final arbiter (even as it is today with the Jehovah Witnesses). One of the reactions to this rationalism was an emphasis upon experience, which eventually resulted in some Christians holding to a view which in essence said, "The Bible is the Word of God because I have experienced it as true." The authority was subtly changed from the Bible to one s experience with the Bible. Today it is not uncommon to hear people speak about what a Scripture passage means to them without any consideration of the historical situation of the passage. Many different meanings are then drawn out of the passage all seemingly satisfactory since this is what the passage means to the various individuals. Once again, one must ask what have we learned from history? To argue for the inerrancy of Scripture and then accept subjective interpretations as valid when such are often contradictory is certainly inconsistent, to say the least. We must strive to understand what the original writer desired to communicate and understand the difference between the meaning and application of a text. A text may have many applications but only one meaning. We need to gently correct those who think what the text means to them is the text's actual meaning and show how this is really only an application (if it is such).
Too many today are like the old Bible dippers; they want something devotional and not doctrinal. They imply that doctrine is taboo, dry, divisive and deadly to spiritual life. Doctrine separated from application can be deadly, but so is application that is not built upon sound doctrine, as shown in the Branch Davidian sect. Let us not forget that it is the truth which will make us free and truth is described as Jesus teaching, simply another word for doctrine (Jn 8:28-32).
Each of us needs to recognize that we bring our own presuppositions (those things we presuppose) to our study of Scripture and we need to identify them as much as possible to prevent them from distorting our interpretation. To do this, we must constantly examine both our presuppositions and our interpretations in the light of Scripture. We must also consider our presuppositions in light of the objections raised by those who disagree with us. This will mean that we read the Bible prayerfully, humbly and even repentantly. As a former professor of mine, Dr. Rudolph, used to say, "God gives us differences of interpretation for two reasons, to drive us back to the Scriptures and to develop humility within us."
 This article originally appeared in U-Turn 3:1 (Spring 1995) 3, 6)