April 16, 2020
Now, finally, we will take a brief look at how to study the Bible using the inductive method. Bible study, particularly with the inductive method we will be learning here, is where you are spending time looking into the Bible to see what it says about itself, God, and humanity. You are letting the word of God speak for itself. We accomplish this through tools and learning skills to help us “observe the text, dig out the meaning, and then apply it to our lives.” The three basic steps of the inductive Bible study method are: Observation, Interpretation, and Application.
There are a range of questions to ask the Scriptures throughout these steps, but this will be an overview to help get you started. If you’re looking to deepen your grasp of the three steps, I would highly encourage you to read Kay Arthur’s How to Study Your Bible: Discover the Life-Changing Approach to God's Word. She is a prolific author, speaker, and teacher of the inductive Bible study method and President of Precept Ministries that teaches people all over the world how to study and know the Bible for themselves.
Let’s get started!
Prayer: Pray “Open my eyes to see the wonderful truths in your instructions” (Psalms 119:18).
Tip: If you are new to this method, it is recommended you start practicing this method with a short book of the Bible, like the Book of James, for instance.
Step 1: Observation (What does this passage say?)
This is the foundation. This is where we are not only reading the Bible with our eyes, but also with our minds. Here you are reading and re-reading (repetition is the key to observation and understanding) to observe the context, discovering what the biblical author intended to communicate to their original audience. Understanding the context is key before making an interpretation and application. Without establishing proper context, we can easily read into the text what we want it to say based on our assumptions and experiences. This can (and unfortunately throughout church history has) lead to unbiblical and heretical applications of the text. The inductive Bible study method has developed some categories and questions to help you look more closely at the text and establish an accurate context that will serve as the basis for your interpretation and application: who, what, when, where, why, and how.
- Who: Who is the author? Major ideas?
- When: When was it written?
- Where: Where was this done?
- Why: Why was there a need for this to be written?
- How: How was it done? How did it happen?
You are also observing:
- Words that are repeated multiple times in a passage
- Anything written as a list
- Words that indicate a change in topic or time
- Words that contrast one thing against another
- Words that indicate cause and effect
Here you are learning the historical background, dates, key people, and whatever information the text plainly gives. This helps in setting up the context for accurate interpretation. This is where a good study Bible comes in handy because they often provide summaries at the beginning of each book that details a lot of this information.
More on step 1 can be found here.
Step 2: Interpretation (What does this passage mean?)
Here you are seeking to understand what the biblical author meant to communicate to his original audience by understanding the historical and cultural background of the text.
This may mean looking up words you do not understand in a good “Bible Dictionary” or using a “concordance” to cross-reference to other passages for better clarity and understanding. Again, this is where having a good study Bible that combines all these tools is helpful. The best interpretation of Scripture is Scripture. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture means considering the passage in light of the surrounding verses and chapters, the book in which it is found, and the entire word of God. If you’ve already taken the step of reading the Bible from start-to-finish, you will already have a fuller understanding of God’s over-arching story, which is the context needed to interpret the Scriptures. You will find yourself remembering themes, characters, references to things in the past, and more. You will simply have a more complete context before digging into the nitty-gritty of a specific passage. Therefore, when seeking to know what something means, ask yourself (as Kay Arthur has written): “Is my interpretation consistent with the theme, purpose, and structure of the book in which it is found? Is it consistent with other scriptures about the same subject? Am I considering the historical and cultural context of what is being said?”
To gain an “interpretation” of the text, you are using the understanding you have gained from “observation” and the examination of the context to interpret the plain meaning of scripture, not a hidden meaning. I found these questions used in this article to be helpful:
- What did the author intend for his readers to understand?
- How does this passage unfold a broader theme of this particular book of the Bible?
- What doctrinal or moral problem was he addressing?
- What action did he want readers or listeners to take?
- What is still unclear? (Are the confusing terms or phrases used elsewhere in this book, or elsewhere in the Bible?). Before reaching for your dictionary, allow Scripture to define its own terms contextually through cross referencing.
Bible Translations: Remember that when you read the Bible you are reading a translation (the Bible was originally written in Hebrew (most of the Old Testament; although a few portions were written in Aramaic) and Greek (the New Testament). Here is a short list of some easy-to-read versions of the Bible: English Standard Version (ESV), Christian Standard Bible (CSB), New International Version (NIV), and New Living Translation (NLT). Any of these Bible translations strike a good balance between literal word-for-word translation and contemporary phraseology.
Study Bibles: All of the aforementioned translations are available in study Bible versions. Study Bibles typically include extra materials for greater understanding of the text by providing historical context, geographical information, character profiles, word dictionaries, commentary, etc. Some even provide book introductions for each of the 66 books, so the reader gets an overview of what they are about to read. I cannot overemphasize the advantages of having a good study Bible. There are libraries full of resources to help you study the Bible. You can pull out several different kinds of books, commentaries, maps, and concordances to study God’s word, but for the average individual person who is not writing a theological doctoral thesis, a simple study Bible that combines several of these tools into one volume is a sufficient tool for better understanding God’s word.
You can find more on step 2 here.
Step 3: Application (How does this apply to me?)
The goal of Bible study is not merely knowledge, but to get to know God and apply his truths to our lives. Once we know what a particular passage means, we are now responsible for putting it into practice in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Kay Arthur has written, “When you know what God says, what He means, and how to put His truths into practice, you will be equipped for every circumstance of life.”
More on step 3 is available here.
Tip: Designate a study time once a week. Studying takes time. We don’t have to set unrealistic expectations for ourselves about studying the Bible by saying we are going to do it every day (even though we should make reading God’s word, even if it is just a chapter or a few verses, a daily goal). The goal is not how fast or how much ground we cover but that we habitually do it. The point is to get close to God by knowing, understanding, and applying his word.
Write it down: Certainly, all of this should warrant you to write it down! Either by notebook, computer, or even app—keep track of what you are learning!
During this time of isolation and quarantine, getting closer to the one who created us is a great use of our time. This life comes with so many distractions that can take our eyes off of who and what matters most. Let us see this time as a gift and use it to receive comfort and truth from God.