OIA, it is the way, or, No Golden Plates, No Circumcision
When I was in Bible College, I was taught the OIA method of Bible Study: Observation, Interpretation, Application. First you look at the text. What does it say? You can answer a lot of questions about a passage just by reading it carefully and making notes about the concepts that the author is communicating. Secondly, What does it mean? The interpretation of a passage is singular. The author had a specific thing in mind when he wrote the sentences and, based on what you observe from the text, you need to make a judgment about the interpretation. Since there is only one, it's helpful at this point to see what other, much smarter people have said about the passage in the past. My guess is that you and I are not discovering an interpretation that 2000 years of the church missed. Third, What does it mean to me? Interpretation is one, but application is many. There are often several different ways to apply the one meaning of a text to yourself, your family, your church, our culture, etc. All that introduction to say, I think we confuse interpretation and application sometimes. On the one hand, we make many interpretations. This happens especially in a small group setting when you read something and one person says that the passage means one thing and another person says that the passage means a complete opposite thing and everyone nods in agreement. Two completely opposite interpretations cannot both be true.
The other error, the one that I find myself looking at more often lately, is that we are firm on the one interpretation, but we are also firm on the one application. We do not allow a text to have more than one application* because we like a single application the best. Here's a for instance in Galatians 1:8:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.
We are beginning a study in the book of Galatians next week at Kroc Church, and I get to teach on that verse. So, what immediately comes to mind when I read that verse? Mormons. We live just north of major Mormon country here in North Idaho, and the Latter-Day Saints have a large presence here. My pastor growing up was somewhat of an expert on the cults, and whenever the Mormons came up, we heard this verse. You see, according to the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith was visited by an angel named Moroni and shown the location of some golden plates that he needed to translate into the Book of Mormon. So, an angel from heaven preached a different gospel to him.
Don't get me wrong, that's a great application. Mormonism is a false gospel no matter how it came into existence, but if a so-called "angel" delivered it to Joseph Smith, that's a superb application of this verse. However, Galatians 1:8 was in the Bible 1800 years before Joseph Smith, so how was it applied then? If I connect the application of this verse so tightly to Mormonism that I don't allow for other applications, I will miss a lot, specifically because I'm not Mormon!
Throughout the book of Galatians, Paul isn't teaching against Mormonism, he's teaching against legalism and license. He goes back and forth showing that a failure to trust God results in either an assumption that the cross of Christ isn't enough (leading me to add works-based righteousness to the gospel) or that God doesn't have my best interests at heart (leading me to disregard the commands of God because I think they are burdensome). The false gospel that is being preached to the Galatians is that they need to be circumcised in order to be Christians.
When I read Galatians 1:8 and only see a proof-text against Mormonism, the verse becomes meaningless to me. But, if I hold to the interpretation (that there is only one gospel and we need to reject all false ones) and can freely apply it to my context (where I hear many false gospels through people, media and culture all the time), then all of a sudden Galatians 1:8 is relevant to me and the situations that I find myself in.
So, interpretation, one. Application, many. Observe, Interpret, Apply. Learn it, live it, love it. And if an angel shows up on your bed tonight, just make sure you ask some probing questions.*That's not to say that every application is valid. Applications need to be firmly grounded in the observations and interpretation of the text.