I want to know the Bible. Do you?
There are many methods for Bible study out there, and every one I’ve ever seen has something of value to contribute. Let me add one, however, that I’ve never seen anyone else explain: borrow an open secret from teachers everywhere—consider using this scaffold worked out by pedagogical experts:
You may recognize these six steps as “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” a model created by educational theorists and in use, with a tweak or two, for the last 60 or so years. It helps teachers lead students steadily, in discernible steps, from ignorance to knowledge.
I’d like to climb up this scaffold with you and suggest some tools that can help you do so in your Bible study.
The foundational goal of Bible study, the one on which all the others build, is remembering. Don’t feel discouraged if you fail to get an inspiring, Pinterest-worthy insight from your Bible reading every day. Sometimes the whole point of your daily reading, the only goal you need to set for yourself, is simply to remember the outline of the story of Ahab, Jezebel, and Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21. Next day: remember the basic details of Elisha’s succession to the prophetic role of Elijah in 2 Kings 2.
For this foundation of the scaffold, the main tool you need is an English Bible translation that you can read smoothly. I say, pick a beautiful one and pick a good one, which shouldn’t be too hard given the wealth of them out there.
Remembering—calling something to mind—is a spiritual discipline and a moral necessity (Rev. 3:3).
Now move on to understanding. Force yourself to ask and answer, on paper or in a handy note file, questions like…
- Who? – Who wrote this? Who is the main character? Who received this?
- What? – What kind of literature is this—narrative, poetry, prophecy, epistle? What is the course of Paul’s logic here?
- When? – When was this written? When did the events described here happen?
- Where? – Where did this take place? Where was the author from?
- Why? – Why did the author include this story between the previous one and the next one? Why didn’t the author say it this other possible way?
Your goal in all of this is getting to the intent of the author. Grasping authorial intent can get very complicated, but at its heart it is simple enough that two-year-olds do it—and they are held responsible (at least in my home!) for not doing it. How many times have your children, or children you’ve known, pretended not to understand clear, simple instructions in order to excuse themselves from the necessity of obeying them? Adults do the same thing. Human communication is not perfect, but with some effort on both sides it’s usually successful.
Interpreting human language is something you have done as long as you can remember. The special “rules” of Bible interpretation are generally only ways of describing and then labeling what you do intuitively.
This doesn’t mean that all your intuitions will be correct as you read the Bible; understanding and clarity are often hard-won. But it does mean that flesh-and-blood people wrote these words to be understood by other flesh-and-blood people. Of which you happen to be one. Take courage.
The tools you need for understanding start with a piece of paper and a writing instrument, but they also include the study Bibles, commentaries, and other aids that are so readily available in our technological age.
When you apply the Bible to real life, true understanding takes root. What difference does remembering and understanding a particular psalm—say Psalm 44— make for you, practically? How can you use its teachings to love God and neighbor more fully? Since the intent of the biblical authors (both divine and human!) is for their words to transform your life, you can’t fully understand their message until you answer these questions.
After you’ve applied your passage to your own life, think: how could this passage help that single mom I know? How could it be used by the elderly man in church for whom just settling into the pew on Sunday morning is a visible struggle? How should my kids apply this text?
Applying the Bible to yourself and to those you love and care for is a way of imaginatively living out the divine Author’s intent for that passage. It will enrich your understanding—and aid your remembering—if you work at application.
Prayer and counsel are two essential tools for good Bible application. But sermons and books of sermons can also help a great deal. Good preachers are adept at helping their people use the Bible, applying it to their lives.
Wait—analyze? Why is that the next step? How can you apply a text before you analyze it?
Think of it this way. You understood perhaps millions of spoken sentences and tens of thousands of written ones before you learned to name “nouns,” “verbs,” and “prepositions.” And if you were one of those oh-so-cool and lucky kids who got to learn sentence diagramming, you know that the simplest sentences reveal amazing complexities once you’re required to map them on lines on a chalkboard. And diagramming is only one analysis tool for language. Any tool that separates the subject into distinct parts according to some principle is analysis.
It’s hard work, but it’s so rewarding: analysis is like getting a box of organic produce from a farm co-op, pulling it all out onto the kitchen counter, and separating it into piles according to what drawers and cupboards they go into: vegetables, fruit, grains, meats. It’s all an unmanageable jumble when you open the box, but when it’s safely put away in the appropriate places, your “analysis” is done.
One method of analysis I recommend is using Logos’ Copy Bible Verses tool to automatically copy just Bible text—no chapter and verse numbers, and no paragraph divisions—into a word-processor, and then going through the book and adding paragraph divisions where you think they belong. That’s analysis: dividing something into its distinct parts.
The “Evaluate” step may seem wrong when it comes to Scripture, because you’re never permitted to conclude after reading God’s own words, “Well, that’s one opinion. Next?” God’s words in Scripture provide the standard by which all truth claims must be evaluated, ultimately speaking.
But there are various opinions, sometimes legitimate and sometimes not, on how given statements of the Bible ought to be interpreted. You’ll find those studied opinions in commentaries and other Bible study materials, and those interpretations are indeed subject to evaluation.
Your goal here is not just to follow but to interact with gifted experts when they interpret the Bible, to weigh the statements they make against the rest of the Bible and against one another.
The tools you need here are, of course, commentaries—and brains, critical thinking skills built on the steps of remembering, understanding, applying, and analyzing.
“Create” is tricky, too, because the goal here isn’t to create a new Bible but to know the one you have. What do educational theorists mean by “create” when applied to something like biblical studies?
“Create” here means you can build Bible lessons and deliver biblical messages to others, from Sunday School on up—whatever you are gifted and called by God (and probably asked by other humans) to do.
“Create” means, depending on your gifting, that you can write a theologically rich and scripturally faithful hymn text based on your church’s favorite psalm for its 50th anniversary.
It means you can write a devotional or blog post on a biblical doctrine or theme.
It means you’re ready always to give an answer to anyone that asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.
When you help others to know the Bible, that’s a good sign that you’ve come to know it yourself. When your study brings to light scriptural insights that move and edify people you love—whether a conference center full of Bible students or “just” your own kids—you have reason to believe you’ve learned something.
The tools you need for this “step” in Bible interpretation are everything—all of your knowledge, experience, training, personality, and gifting. Knowing the Bible is like knowing a person, because the Bible is personal communication from a (tri-)personal God. To “know” a person is not just to remember, understand, apply, analyze, or evaluate what he or she says. It is to live in relationship. Knowing the Bible is worthwhile, because by it you come to know the most glorious being there is, the source and goal of all truth, goodness, and beauty.
The full name of the scaffold above is “Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain.” Bloom’s Taxonomy does not come from the Bible. It is not absolute truth. All I claim for it is that I and many other educators have found it useful to describe and then structure our teaching, and even our study.
And it’s not the only such scaffold used by teachers, because you and I are not merely cognitive. Even more foundationally, from a biblical point of view, you and I are affective—you are what you love. (That’s another post for another day.)
As I said, it’s also not the only useful scaffold for Bible interpretation. One of the best out there is, for example, Observation, Interpretation, Application, otherwise known as inductive Bible study. Logos has a free 10-day course taking Bible students through this method. There are plenty of helps out there: methods, books, software helps. Pick one and go!
Ready to go deeper with your Bible study? Check out Logos, a powerful Bible study software fine-tuned to take you from the initial spark of insight to sharing biblical truth with others. Try it free today!