Inductive Bible Study
Why is structured Bible study needed? Can’t one simply just read the book and get the point ? Well I think you can for reasons I will explain latter but to gain better “insight” and extract “truth” from scripture some form of study is definitely needed. This is because truth is something that is interpreted by people not something simply accepted. Let me give you a few specific reasons why structured Bible study is essential.
Absolute Truth vs. Redactionism
What is absolute truth? By definition it is meaning that does not change over time or based on the hearer. In scripture it is the meaning the author of the text intended to deliver to the intended recipient of the text combined with any larger intent God intended as the inspiration source for the original text.
What is redactionism ?: Well it is the process of assigning meaning to a passage based on how the hearer interprets the message in the context of their current situation. How many of you have said in a Bible study, “ well what this passage means to me is blah blah etc.. While we all have done it, this is basically redactionism.
Now for us to get the real absolute meaning from a biblical passage we must first seek to understand the authors intent of the text and not just the impact the words have on us. To do that we must know something of the author, his situation, the intended recipient, and their situation. This is called context and there are a lot of forms of it. These include ;
• Immediate context or situation that gave occurrence to the text ..
• Broader Cultural and Political context that is backdrop to the text
• Context of the Argument being made, a portion of which may not be recorded directly.
• Grammatical Structure and common uses for the structure at time of writing
• Context of the Literary Form
• The Dispensational Context (i.e. the current system of rules God has in place at the time of writing)
Here are some examples
· an understanding of the cultural context of life in a vineyard can totally flip the meaning of John chapter 15.
· the context of the argument is key to understanding Malachi’s statements that God does not change vs. Gods reversals of position based on petitions from the likes of Abraham and Hezekiah
· The grammatical form of 1 Tim 2:13-15 is key the meaning and if you don’t know the forms of the period you can and will get the wrong meaning
· The literary form of Ezekiel 28 is key to how we understand the nature of Satan
Matt 24’s meaning
flips based on understanding of what dispensation Jesus is addressing.
Well you get the point. To have even a glimmer of hope of identifying the authors intent we need to study and not just read. This is especially important when and making decisions on doctrine or controversial beliefs.
Inerrancy vs. Translational Bias plus Original language distance
Is the Bible inerrant ? Well most Christians would empathically say yes, but a thoughtful Christian would answer yes but only in the original manuscript. Today there are many translations of the Bible. It has been thousands of years since the originals were penned and we don’t have any original manuscripts even today but just copies of copies. Further each translation team has used varying manuscripts, different rules to bring the language current and even have different theological bias’s . So depending on which translation you pick you will find different inaccuracies. How do we know, because different translations do disagree in places and when it comes to the basic logic of truth, if two texts disagree and provide a different meaning in a passage both can be wrong but both can’t be right. Hence translation error is a factor. An example of this is found in Gal chapter 1 where Paul’s say’s in the NASB and KJV that if any person preaches another Jesus, let him be accursed using the same Greek word (anathema) that he used in another other scripture to chastise a man who does not love his wife. Now the NIV renders this same passage “let him be eternally condemned” . Well eternal condemnation vs. being cursed is quite a different thing in my mind and this difference drives the debate as to whether a false teacher can be forgiven. The additional clarity brought to the form of curse in the NIV comes from where? Is it from a different Galatians manuscript or is it from the translation teams theological bias. If you don’t know how would you take a position on this.
Key Word Meaning
One of my favorite issues with the NIV is that is renders all sorts of different Greek words as the word ‘saved’ in English totally loosing all the variability of context found in the original language placed there by the author. So when you read that women will be saved by childbearing in James what does this mean? Does it mean that’s how women are justified, how women are sanctified, or how women are protected from pitfalls in life. Well I have my opinion based on looking up this passage in the Greek but what would a person who does not study the Bible think ?
Misuse of Scripture
Today and for as long as scripture has existed people have used it for their own purposes to coerce others fir some reason. Misuse ranges from deeply planned intentional manipulation to the reactive or unintentional misuse of scripture in the heat of an argument. An older pastor I once worked with often asked us who we thought were the heretics of the day. We all learned the right answers was I am. All of us at one time or another will misuse scripture. To minimize this ( a good thing I guess since they used to burn people at the stake for it) we need to study and know how to study.
A Study Method Proposed
So for the reasons covered above we recommend a modified inductive Bible study method that has five major steps. Perhaps the following condensed outline might be helpful. There are books on the subject like Methodical Bible Study by Traina, or Intro to Biblical Interpretation by Klein and Bloomberg but they are heavy books and not for high school-ers.
Each of these steps can be broken down as follows for a given passage of study
Identify the context of the book the passage comes from. This means who wrote it, who it was it written to and what was going on in the receiving culture at the time of writing. A Bible Encyclopedia such as ISBE, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia is a good tool for this. It is available in most Bible software packages since it’s been around for a while. Some study bibles have this historical context included. This is important when trying to understand the author’s intent in writing the particulars of a passage. If we only see what the text ‘says to us at this moment’, it is easy to loose the absolute truth of Gods word. The original intent of the author is significantly relevant to understanding the timeless truth of Gods word.
Identify the immediate context of the passage. What is the atmosphere or tone of the author, what problems or issues has he been addressing in previous chapters. Understanding this really helps with difficult passages.
Identify the dispensation. You do not have to be a die-hard dispensationalist but at least realize that there have been different ways that God has dealt with men over time. The two most important are Law and Grace. Knowing whether the recipients or authors of a message are operating under these paradigms is important to whether you identify the passages as descriptive or prescriptive.
Identify the Literary form. Is this a poem, a narrative, a rhetorical argument, or a chiastic. Some of these might be hard for high schoolers but others are easy but sometimes the form helps understand the passage better. The last 2 are important as the apparent meaning can be inverted.
Identify the structure of the passage. What sentences are connected grammatically? Note how ‘Nows’ start new thoughts, the ‘There fore’s’ express conclusions and the ‘Buts’’ connect the next thought to the last as an antithesis. Also identify any progressions in the text that seek to focus the reader on the main point of the passage. For example In Luke 15 there are parables about 1 of 100 sheep, 1 of 10 coins and 1 or 2 sons. The numerical progressions ads focus and points to how important people are to God. These passages are intended to be read together. Repetitions are also a source of emphasis. Sometimes it is helpful to make a chart of the structure of a passages or even a book. The visual graphic helps us understand and remember the message better. Gods word is full of structure. Looking for it is a very interesting way to gain insight and charting passages is a fun learning exercise.
Identify any words whose meaning are not clear or which could have multiple meanings. This is especially important if the meanings of that word would change the key message of the passage. For example the word salvation or saved could refer to being saved from the penalty of sin (justification – eternal life) or being saved from the power of sin (sanctification) or being saved from the presence of sin at Christ’s return (glorification) or it might just refer to being local protected from something or someone. Which option is assumed in the passage will have a great affect on the message. In these cases, identify the options based on context or perhaps look the word up in Greek or Hebrew Dictionary and check other versions of the bible before coming to a conclusion. For example in 1Tim 2:15 one might get the wrong idea from the NIV bible about how women gain eternal life if one does not realize the word “saved” there refers to being saved for the power of sin during our life on earth (i.e. sanctification)
Here is where you decide what the passage really means and to do a good job we need a set of guidelines to keep us consistent.
Avoid allegor-ization, stay with the normal literal meaning. The constant search for deeper meaning is not a good way to find truth. Rather stay with the normal literal meaning of the words and sentences as their structure connects them in context and form. There are spiritual aspects to many passages but these aspect are normally spelled out by the authors. Avoid unwarranted over spiritualization.
Avoid simply identifying what is means to you today. Absolute truth cannot remain absolute if in every culture and era people read only their interests or their culture into scripture. Seek rather to identify what the authors intent was in sharing the point he did within the framework of the historical context. Seek to identify what was the force of his argument then
Identify Any Metaphors , Figures of speech and parables in historical context. Be sure to check these against historical data to see if their meaning was different in the time they were written. The well-known metaphor of the Vine and the Branches in John 15:1 (NASB) says that God “takes away” any branch that does not bear fruit. Here the Greek word translated to take away is “meno”. This might be understood as the branches are disposed of yet in the context of Jewish farming practices associated with vineyards, the word “meno” was used to describe the ‘lifting’ of a branch away from the ground and its placement in a position where it will get more sun and do better. Such insight is critical to correct interpretation.
Identify Timeless Principles. Look for clues to the timelessness of a given statement that might be expressing a timeless theological principle. The Bible was written loon ago yet it is the same God the bible’s authors had to deal with that we do today. The very same God. Many elements of scripture define responses from God to a specific behavior going on in the past, yet it may also reveal something about the character of God that is changeless. For example, Paul’s insistence that women wear head coverings in 1 Cor 11, may be dismissed as a tradition associated with a particular era yet the underlying principles of hierarchical authority and order in the church are seen as timeless. Of course there are some who see head coverings as prescriptive for today, but that is the whole point of doing your own bible study. You are trying to identify what is descriptive and what is prescriptive.
List the different options. Identify all the options of what the passage could mean. Many passages could mean different things. For example 1 Cor 13:10 (NIV) says “but when perfection comes the imperfect disappears”. There are different options for what “perfection” refers to. It could be, the completion of the Bible, the 2nd coming of Christ, the maturity of the church or maybe even the beginning of post millennium eternal state. All of these have been espouse by someone. Depending on which you hold to will alter your view of the gift of tongues and prophecy which is part of what is being discussed in context.
Select the best option based on the all of your observations. Now its time to choose what you think the key message is of the given passage was. Decide what the author intended to convey. Don’t worry yet about what other passages say. Just pick the best based on what you have observed in ALL the steps above. Once you have then you can move on to the correlation of that choice to the rest of scripture.
The use of bible cross-references comes into play here to help someone check their interpretation against other scriptures. Some rules of thumb apply.
Correlate first to passages by the same author. It is not valid to jump around to different proof texts and say, “see there, this means that”. If an author writes something unclear, look to his other writings. He may be clearer in one of them. Indeed his later letters may clarify his intent better since he may be responding to people’s response to his earlier letter.
Correlate next to passages in the same testament and/or the same dispensation. The New Testament is exactly that, a new way of thinking. It has many connections to the old but the OT should not be used to adjust NT doctrine. Further it is also important to notice that most of the gospels were written to a people still under the Law. It is widely held that the days of grace, which we live under today, began in Acts at Pentecost with the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Correctly interpreting the events surrounding the Last Supper requires an understanding that the people involved were still living under law executing the Passover feast. The meaning of Jesus sending out the disciples in pairs in John 6 to preach “repentance” is understood not as indicative of today’s gospel message but as a repentance to the Mosaic law.
Correlate Gospels to Epistles. Most of the Epistles were written to correct doctrinal and behavioral problems that surfaced in the early church. A general rule of thumb is that where narrative descriptions of what was happening in a gospel conflict or are unclear, the clear prescriptions in Epistles should prevail.
Correlate only between Old Testament and New where I reason indicated by scripture to do so. OT quotes in the NT are good reasons to correlate this way but people often see similar words and jump to far to conclusions. This is a fun thing to do but one can get carried away. Another good reasons to do this are the presence of OT prophecies that are fulfilled in the NT or looking to the consistent character of God over history.
Correlate to Your Theology: Last but not least is correlating to a system of theology. Look at what this passages meaning does to your system of beliefs or those held by your church. Most people interpret scripture based on the theology they were taught when young by their parents or in a local church yet this is the last correlation to be applied if you are truly studying God word yourself. I would not be surprised if you changed your mind about something because of study carried out this way.
Make your decision on what principle the passage was meant by God to convey. Write the theological principle or timeless truth in your own words. Now you are ready for application.
This is the place where we take what we have learned and apply it to ourselves. This may sound simple yet for it to be effective it needs to be specific and produce measurable results.
Convert the timeless truth or theological principle into a personal principle. Here is where you decide how Gods principle should affect your life. What area of your life is in need of this truth? Interesting enough you may find that God has timed your study to coincide with some aspect of life you are dealing with. You probably wont have to look to far to find your personal application.
Identify what decisions you need to make because of it. Here it is important to be specific. General decisions are often forgotten soon after identifying them. Pray about these decisions and then decide what changes you are going to make in your life.
Identify what the expected outcomes (fruit) of those changes would look like. It is important to be specific here so you or another can measure the results.
Share your insights, decisions and expected outcomes with a Christian friend, mentor or accountability partner. This is an important part of self-evaluation. Paul writes in 2 Cor 13:5 “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith, test yourselves.” This I believe does not relate to testing your salvation but rather relates to seeing if you are living the Christian faith. Paul tells us in 1 Cor 2, that there are two options for the believer, that he lives as a “fleshly” or “worldly” person or as a “spiritual” person, one mature in the faith. This is the goal of your Bible study that you become mature in the faith attaining the whole measure of fullness in Christ. (Eph 4:11-13)
The structured inductive process above will allow one to extract absolute truth from scripture rather than reading into the passage meaning conjured up of their own experience, situation and perspective. Only when one does this can one be objective about truth in scripture. Now at the beginning of this article I did say scripture could just be read and reveal truth and that is the wonderful gift of the Holy spirit who reveals truth to us as our guide. So while I recommend this study methodology for gaining deeper insight or tackling controversial or doctrinal issues I also recommend devotional reading of scripture and let the Holy Spirit spread to you in it.
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