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Inductive Bible Study

People approach the bible in many ways and end up with many different interpretations. Not all of these ways of Bible study are equal as can be seen through some of the wild and spurious interpretations people come up with. If someone is looking to find something in the bible, they can almost certainly find it there as they subjectively read into the bible their own idea’s. When taken out of its context you could even get from the bible that there is no God (Psalm 14:1). For the Christian, the bible (each word) is the “word of God” itself that he inspired to be written through human authors. Defending this assertion is beyond the scope of this essay, so for the sake of brevity I will assume that my readers believe this to be true in an A Priori manner. For the Christian, the bible is God’s written self revelation of himself. It is God’s heart and mind conveyed to us, so that we can know Him, and know how He expects us to relate to Him and others. But how do we know we are reading God’s word correctly? When there are different interpretations of the same passage how do we know which one is right? How do we know we are not just imposing our own ideas upon the text? If we are to understand the bible or any part of it correctly (as God intended it to be understood) then we will need to come at bible study from an inductive approach. That is, we need to put aside our preconceptions and subjective outlook as best as possible and let the bible speak for itself, considering what it says in light of its literary genre and features as well as its original historical context.

The three main steps to inductive Bible study are Observation, Interpretation, and Application. The objective in the first stage (Observation) is to gather as much observable data that you can so that when you move on to the next stage (Interpretation) you will be making educated judgments on what the text means based on solid observable facts. It is very similar to the way a “Crime Scene Investigator” would investigate a crime. First he would gather all the physical evidence (finger prints, DNA samples, etc…) that he could. Then he would try to interpret the evidence, putting all the data together in a convincing and cohesive way to solve the crime. If he skipped this data or evidence gathering step, then he is left with nothing but his own subjective opinion. If others listen to and believe him then the wrong person could be accused of the crime. Unfortunately it seems many people come to the bible asking right away “What does this mean to me?” without taking the time to consider the literary and historical context. What results is often nothing more than their own subjective opinion, but what’s worse, when others listen to them, confusion arises and the wrong person (God) is accused.

Understandably then Observation is the foundational step and the one that will take the most time. The bible is a collection of separate books that have been inspired by God. Together they tell one complete story (The Story of God creating and then redeeming mankind so that we can live in fellowship together for the glory of God). Individually, each book has its own part in this larger story. Each book has its own style, historical background, and its own main point or points. While keeping the larger story in mind the best way to do this observation step is to study the individual books of the bible as a whole. The first step then in observation is to read through the book you want to study in one sitting. Reading aloud can help you take it in better. After this you will ask what was the main idea or big picture, but realize that your idea about this may change as you dig deeper. In observation you are just asking what the text says, not what does it mean. As you read through the book again, start ask questions and note such things as: Are there repeated ideas, repeated words or phrases? Observe who is speaking, writing and being spoken or written to. Who are the main characters? Observe geographical locations and look them up on a map. Observe where things are taking place. Observe time elements and words that show chronology. Observe contrasts, comparisons, conditional statements. Observe the author’s logic and progression in his argument. Observe emphatic statements and things that show atmosphere, moods and emotion. Observe and identify figures of speech. Make a list of things you don’t understand. The best way to observe these type things is to make up your own color and symbol coding system then mark up your bible using this code.

Another thing you should do to in the observation step is to make a chart of the book. As you notice a group of paragraphs revolving around a common idea or theme, group them together making a “segment” of the book. Go through the rest of the book making these segments. Then look at the segments and see which ones go together revolving around a larger idea or theme, thus making a “section” of the book. Finally look for any main “divisions” in the book that logically separates the sections. You can have more or less levels of the book dependent upon its size and structure, but the point is to get a big picture structure of the book. This will help in fitting in and understanding the smaller details of the book in light of the books overall structure and context.

Another aspect of Observation is, understanding the historical context into which the book was written. First observe and write down any internal clues from the book itself that can help here. Search for data such as: Who is the author? When was it written? Who are the original recipients? What details are revealed about the situation of the original recipients? What is the culture of the original reader / hearer? Where is the author writing from? Where are the recipients? After seeking for such information from the book itself you can also look in some external sources such as: Bible dictionaries / Encyclopedias, History Books, Books about customs and culture, Atlases, Bible handbooks and so forth.

One final major aspect of the Observation process is recognizing and noting the different genre’s of literature within the book you are studying. Some different genre’s to note are: Historical Narrative, O.T. Law, Hebrew Poetry, Prophecy, Wisdom Literature, Gospels, Parables, Epistles or Letters, and Apocalyptic Literature. A good guide for things to be aware of within each genre is the book “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth”, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. Noting the various Figures of Speech within any given literary genre is also very important. Recognizing the genre and figures of speech will affect the way you interpret the book or passage.

After gathering all this observational data we now have a solid foundation to move to the next stage of inductive Bible study which is Interpretation. While most people will not do all the observational steps mentioned above, the more one does them the more accurate their interpretation will be. Interpretation is determining what the book or passage meant when it was first written. While Observation focuses on what the text says, Interpretation builds on that and asks “Why is this said?” Interpretation asks “what did this mean to the original reader?” not “what does this mean to us today?” In Interpretation you bombard the text with Why-questions such as: Why is this said? Why is this repeated? Etc..  In Interpretation you ask meaning questions such as: What is the meaning of this figure of speech? What is the meaning of this word, term, or concept? What was the meaning to the original reader / hearer? In Interpretation you ask “What does this imply”?

Application is the goal and point of all this bible study. Application is asking “What does this book or passage mean to me today”? “What is God saying to me through this book or passage”? As you begin to see the meaning of the book or passage to its original recipients, you begin to see why God through the human authors said what he said. As you begin to understand why God said what he said you are able now to apply what God said then, to us now in the 21st century. Although God may relate to people differently, as well as say and reveal different things to people according to their different contexts, God does not change. His character remains the same and therefore the way he relates to people in the same context will always be the same. Therefore the first thing you should seek to do in applying the scripture is asking “Is my situation or context comparable to the original recipient’s situation or context”? If so, you may apply what is said directly to yourself. If not, you need to move back from the specifics of what is said in the original context to the principle behind why it was said. Again, the more detailed and in depth your observation step was will determine your accuracy in understanding the general principle behind why, what, and how something specific was said. As you learn the general principal behind what was said, you should now be able to apply it to yourself in many specific ways. The greatest thing about learning these more general principles from the bible is that you are actually learning the heart, mind, and character of God. As you seek to know God more in this way, living out and submitting yourself to what you learn, your heart, mind and life will increasingly reflect the glories of Gods character and this is what the Christian life is all about. This is the ultimate goal of Bible Study.

Note: The main source for information in this essay was from my school's Inductive Bible Study handout booklet from the “School of Biblical Studies” in Lakeside, Montana.

Submitted by Karl Fritz