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(This presentation is based on Methodical Bible Study by Robert A. Traina, first published in 1952.  Dr. Traina taught at The Biblical Seminary in New York, where UBF director Sarah Barry studied under him.)

INDUCTIVE BIBLE STUDY

2 Timothy 2:15

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

What is inductive Bible study?

There are two basic types of reasoning: deductive and inductive.  Deductive reasoning starts with general principles and uses them to derive individual facts.  Inductive reasoning begins by accumulating facts and, from there, develops general statements and conclusions.  Both types of reasoning are useful. Mathematics, for example, is based on deductive reasoning, whereas natural sciences like biology and chemistry should be inductive.  The Bible should be studied inductively, from the author’s point of view.  In the past, psychologists used something called the Rorschach inkblot test. Look at the picture: what do you see?  A termite, a racecar, a woman’s body? A person’s response tells something about the person, but it says very little about the drawing itself or the one who drew it. Many people approach the Bible subjectively, interpreting Scriptures in their own way.  But the Bible is not an inkblot. The Bible is an objective body of literature; it contains objective meaning and truth waiting to be discovered.  The best way to discover its meaning is to study whole passages and books of the Bible inductively.

Inductive Bible study should be direct and independent. The main text is the Bible itself, not commentaries or books about the Bible. We should study the Bible in our own native language.  Very few people have the expertise to handle the original Hebrew or Greek with authority or improve upon the existing translations.  Studying the Bible in your own language allows you to more easily think about the meaning and leads you to a deeper level or understanding. Inductive Bible study should be literary.  The Bible is literature, and we need to pay attention to the literary forms. It should be psychological; one must try to understand the mind of the author. It should be comprehensive, covering the whole Bible.  It should be sincere and reverent, with deep respect for God and prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit, without whom we cannot understand God’s word (1Co 2:14).  And it should be assimilative. The purpose of Bible study is not just to give us knowledge, but to draw us to God and help us to become holy people.

In our ministry, we uphold the authority of the Scriptures.  Article 3 in the UBF Statement of Belief says: “We believe that the Bible is inspired by God; that it is the truth; that it is the final authority in faith and practice.” Yet the authority of the Scriptures requires them to be correctly interpreted and applied. In Methodical Bible Study (p. 169), Dr. Traina states:

For the Scriptures are really authoritative only if they are used as the basis for formulating one’s beliefs, and not if they are merely employed to support one’s dogmatic positions.

Drawing upon the Bible to reinforce your own ideas—even if those ideas are true—is a misuse of God’s word.  The Bible warns us not to add anything to Scripture or to take away from it (Rev 22:18-19). Inductive study is the best way to approach and handle the Bible with respect as the word of God.

Inductive Bible study has three main steps: observation, interpretation and application. Let’s think about each of these steps in turn.

Step 1: Observation

Observation is to notice what the passage actually says.  This may seem obvious or trivial. We sometimes try to skip this step, or we do it quickly and superficially. In our personal Bible study, this is usually the weakest link. Careful, thorough observation requires skill, thought and much effort.  Our powers of observation need to be developed.

There is a famous story about Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), professor of zoology at Harvard University and one of the most prominent natural scientists of the nineteenth century.  A young man came to his lab and asked if he could begin to study insects.  Dr. Agassiz said, “Very well.”  Then he gave him a jar containing a fish. He said, “Take this fish and look at it, and then tell me what you have seen.”  He was not allowed to use any instruments except his eyes. The student looked at the fish for about ten minutes, then went in search of Dr. Agassiz to tell him what he had learned.  But Dr. Agassiz had left the lab and would not return for several hours. The student waited and waited.   In his boredom, he picked up a pencil and started to draw a picture of the fish.  Then he began to see countless details which he had overlooked before.  The professor returned and asked him what he saw, and he recited a number of facts.  Dr. Agassiz frowned and said, “Look again, look again,” and left for the day.  That student stayed awake all night thinking about the fish, looking it over in his mind, and the next day mentioned a few more things.  Dr. Agassiz said, “Look more!  Look more!”  For three days, the student was forced to sit at the table doing nothing but looking at the fish.  On the fourth day, Dr. Agassiz brought out another fish of the same group, and told the student to find the similarities and differences between the two fish.  After a while, he brought out another fish, and then another.  This went on and on.  After eight months, Dr. Agassiz finally put the fish away and allowed him to begin work on what he wanted to do, the study of insects. That student never forgot what he learned from Dr. Agassiz about the importance of careful observation.

We need to apply those same principles of observation to Scripture.  We should become like CSI detectives, searching for clues that will unlock the mysteries of the Bible.  According to Dr. Traina, observation should be made in four areas: terms, structure, literary form, and atmosphere.

Terms. A term is a word as it is used in a particular context.  In American English, the word trunk has many different meanings—the main part of a tree, the long nose of an elephant, a big suitcase or a storage area of a car—but in any given context only one of these meanings applies.  When examining a Bible passage, identify all the terms and make sure that you understand their meanings.  Pay special attention to uncommon terms, or to ordinary terms used in unusual way.  Notice the terms that seem especially important.  A commonplace word like the is usually unimportant, but in sometimes it may be very important.  For example, John 1:1 says: “In the beginning was the Word…”  The meaning would be quite different if it said, “In the beginning was a Word…”  Identify whether a term is being used literally or figuratively.  A literal term retains its usual meaning, whereas a figurative term is symbolic.  Consider the word tree in Genesis 2:17, where God said: “…but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…”  Is the tree figurative or literal?  It’s literal, because the author meant to convey a real tree with branches, leaves and fruit.  In contrast, Paul in Romans 11:24: “After all, you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature…”  From the context, we know that Paul is referring not to an actual tree, but to Gentile believers in Christ; so Paul’s use of the term is figurative.  

Structure. Structure is the manner in which the terms are grouped and arranged.  Units of structure are phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and so on.  Notice where each sentence begins and where it ends.   What is the subject?  Identify the main verb, object, the modifiers (adjectives and adverbs), prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses.  Notice the links or bridges between units that imply logical relations. For example, when the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore…” it typically means that what comes before and after are linked, e.g. as cause and effect.  The word and between units suggests that they are similar; the word but indicates a contrast.  Examining units, links and bridges will reveal the obvious structure that lies on the surface of the passage, but we should also look for structure that lies below the surface.  For example, Genesis 18:1-8 describes what happened when the Lord and two angels appeared to Abraham.  Genesis 19:1-3 is a parallel passage describing what happened when the two angels appeared to Lot.  This sets up a comparison and contrast between Abraham and Lot.  Structural relations are often set up between persons, between events, between ideas. Every author has to be selective, deciding what to include and what to omit.  Thinking about what details have been omitted sometimes helps to reveal the structure.  Notice how much space (e.g. how many verses) is devoted to a given person, event or idea. Look for repetition of key words or phrases.  Counting how many times a given word appears in a passage often helps us to see what is being emphasized.

Literary form. The Bible is literature, and literature comes in different forms.  Here is a list of the literary forms found in the Bible, along with examples of each:

  1. Logical discourse (Letters of Paul; Sermon on the Mount)
  2. Narrative prose (Genesis, most of the Gospels)
  3. Poetry (Psalms)
  4. Dramatic prose (much of Isaiah)
  5. Parable (parables of Jesus)
  6. Apocalyptic (Daniel, Revelation)

Whenever we study a passage, we should identify its form.  Then we should consider why the author chose to use that form.

Atmosphere. Atmosphere is the underlying tone or spirit of a passage: joy, despair, thanksgiving, awe, humility, and so on.  Sometimes more than one of these are present at the same time.  Identify the atmospheric elements.

Example of observation. The best way to carry out the observation step is to look at the passage very carefully and then start to write your observations down.  If you really apply your mind, you can easily write down twenty, thirty, fifty, or even a hundred observations about a short passage.  Here’s an example using tonight’s passage, John 1:1-5.

 

(1) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (2) He was with God in the beginning. (3) Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (4) In him was life, and that life was the light of men. (5) The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

What is the literary form? It seems to be dramatic prose.  It states facts and describes events, but not in an ordinary, matter-of-fact way.  What is the atmosphere? It seems to be thoughtful, contemplative. Now here are a few specific observations that I made.

  1. The time setting: In the beginning (used in both 1 and 2)
  2. Word is an unusual term.
  3. Word is preceded by the rather than a.
  4. The only verb appearing in verse 1 is “to be.”
  5. Verses 1-4 are past tense; verse 5 switches to present perfect.
  6. In verse 2, Word is personified as He.
  7. Subjects of these sentences are Word (or him), life, and light.
  8. The Word was with God and, at the same time, was God.
  9. Verse 3 says that the world was made through him rather than by him.
  10. Made appears three times in verse 3.
  11. Verse 3 states the same idea twice.
  12. The language in verse 3 is completely universal: “all things” and “nothing”
  13. In him (verse 4) is an unusual expression to apply to a person.
  14. Verse 4 is past tense.
  15. Life (verse 4) is a significant term and may have deep meaning.
  16. Light of men is also interesting; light seems to be figurative.
  17. The term men (verse 4) is plural
  18. Light and darkness coexist in verse 5.
  19. Darkness (5) is personified.
  20. Understood (5) could also be rendered overcome.

 

Step 2: Interpretation

After observation comes interpretation. The process of interpretation is complicated, and Dr. Traina describes several different phases.  There is a definitive phase in which you discover the basic meaning of the particular terms, phrases and sentences.  Then comes a rational phase, when you try to discover the reason or reasons why the author makes those particular statements.  These include both the general reasons (why they are true and necessary) and the immediate reasons (why they were needed in that literary context and historical situation).  Finally, there is an implicational phase in which you try to understand the wider meaning and general implications of the statements and teachings.

In practice, the best way to begin interpretation is by questioning. Ask lots of questions.  These questions should be based on the observations that you made.  What is the meaning of a particular term?  What is implied by a particular structure?  If two or more things are presented as similar or different, in what ways are they similar or different? The most important and difficult question is why.  Why did the author choose to say this rather than that?  Answering questions about the author’s motives usually involves speculation, because the motives are rarely made explicit.  The answers will not always be clear.  But the questions, especially the why’s, need to be asked.  Ask many more questions than you can answer.

Example.  Here are some example questions based on the observations we made about John 1:1-5.

  1. When does this take place?  The beginning of what?
  2. What is Word?  Why does the author use Word rather than Jesus or Christ?
  3. What does the definite article the signify here?
  4. What is the significance of “to be”?  Could this be related to the name of God, “I AM”?
  5. What does the change in tense signify?
  6. Why is it important to know that the Word is also a person?
  7. What are the relationships among these three subjects?
  8. How can the Word be with God and God at the same time?
  9. Is through him any different from by him?  If so, what does this suggest about the process of creation?
  10. Why do the readers need to know that the Word is the maker of all things?
  11. Do the two parts of verse 3 mean essentially the same thing, or are they different?
  12. Is the universality of creation surprising or important?
  13. What does in him really mean?
  14. Why is verse 4 in past tense? Does that mean that something has changed over time regarding man’s relationship to God?
  15. What is the exact meaning of life?
  16. What is light of men?  Why do men need light?
  17. Does the plurality of men mean something about mankind as a whole rather than as individuals, or about man’s relationship to his fellow man?
  18. How can light and darkness coexist?
  19. What or who is darkness, and what are its characteristics?
  20. Is understood similar in any way to overcome?

When you ask lots of questions, some of them will seem unimportant.  Others will seem impossibly hard.   We should ask them anyway. When asking questions, defer judgment about their relevance or their difficulty.  A question that at first glance seems trivial may, at a later time, become highly important. 

Answer the questions.  Now comes the really hard part.  Answer the questions as thoroughly as you can.  Start with the ones that seem easy, and then move on to the harder ones. Many of your answers will be uncertain. If there are multiple possible answers, note them all. If you honestly don’t know the answer to a question and cannot even guess, put it aside and try to answer it later.  The quality of your Bible study could be measured not by how many questions you answer, but by how many questions you raised that you have not been able to answer.

Giving answers presupposes that you have some knowledge or basis for doing so.  From where does this knowledge or basis come?  To generate answers, we draw on many different resources.  One resource is spiritual sense.  God really does speak to us through his word, and we need to ask the Spirit of God to help us.  Another is common sense.  Common sense is a most important tool for judgment about all aspects of life, including the Bible. But be aware that teachings of the Bible do sometimes violate the common sense of sinful man, so we have to be ready to discard common sense on occasion.  Experience.  If something is true, it will be borne out in human experience.  Becoming a thoughtful observer of people and of life often helps us to correct faulty interpretations of Scripture.  Language.  Compare alternative translations. Consult lexicons and Bible dictionaries. But don’t overdo it.  Those things are tools, not an end in themselves.  When trying to understand the language of the Bible, focus on the obvious; don’t look for hidden meanings that may not be there.  Other Bible verses and passages.  The best interpreter of the Bible is the Bible.  Interpret Scripture with Scripture.  But again, don’t overdo it.  When other verses or passages of the Bible come to mind, don’t immediately jump to them; struggle to understand the passage at hand first, on its own terms.  Authorship. To understand a passage, you should know something about the author.  To understand the book of Jude, for example, we need to find out who Jude was. Divine inspiration does not mean that the human author is irrelevant; it means that God was working and speaking through him.  Historical context.  Learn what you can about the time and historical context, and use that knowledge to guide your understanding.   Progress of God’s revelation. God revealed himself to men progressively over time. The authors of the New Testament knew the Old Testament, but the authors of the Old did not know the New.  The Old Testament is the preparation; the New Testament is the fulfillment.  It would be wrong to interpret the Old Testament as if it were complete, or to interpret the New Testament as if it came first.  Unity and diversity. The books of the Bible present a unified picture of God, but they are not all the same.  Each book has its own special viewpoint. Interpretations of others.  Interpreting the Bible is a social process, and we should always be prepared to learn from godly people whom we respect. 

Errors of interpretation.  Here are some common errors and pitfalls that people fall into.  These should be avoided. Fragmentary interpretation: Treating the Scripture as isolated verses. Each verse should be understood in context. Dogmatic: Looking in the Bible to support previously held beliefs. With a fragmentary and dogmatic approach, you can use the Bible to prove almost anything! Rationalistic: Trying to explain away the supernatural or miraculous aspects of Bible passage. Mythological:  Claiming that the Bible presents myths rather than actual historical events. Historical: Treating the Bible as just a history book.  The Bible is historical, of course, but it is much more; it is history with a spiritual purpose. Allegorical: Paying too much attention to details in parables.  A parable says that “A is like B” in some way, not that “A=B” in every way. Literal: Some will say that everything in the Bible must be interpreted literally.  This is a natural conservative reaction against mythological and rationalistic interpretations.  But it ignores the fact that many parts of the Bible were intended by the authors to be figurative, e.g. Paul’s description of the olive tree in Romans 11:24.  Not everything in the Bible was meant to be taken literally. Typological: Some will say that everything in the Old Testament represents something in the New.  The Old Testament foreshadows the New Testament in general and in many specific places, but not in every detail. Predictive: Trying to show how many world events were specifically predicted in the Bible.  Of course, the Bible does contain prophecy, but prophecy is not the same as prediction.  A Biblical prophet was a spiritual teacher, not a fortune teller.  Many prophecies in the Bible are fulfilled over and over. Systematized:  Trying to fit the Bible into a comprehensive, man-made theological framework (e.g. Dispensationalism). The Bible does not easily fit into any theological system. Perhaps God intentionally wrote it that way to keep us from thinking that we figured it all out. The big chain:  Looking at the Bible as a maze of cross references and trying to explain each passage in light of comparable ones.  Comparisons are helpful, but each passage should be understood first in its own right.  Encyclopedic: Some say that the Bible contains the answer to every possible human question.  The Bible is remarkably relevant to all people, but it is not exhaustive; it contains both specific answers and general principles, and on some issues it is may be silent.

Step 3: Application

The first phase of application is evaluation.

Evaluation. Evaluation is to assess the worth of something.  After you see a movie, you may say, “That movie was good,” or “That movie was great.” A good movie entertains you for two hours.  A great movie makes you think.  A great movie will be remembered for a long time. Every person who watches a movie evaluates it.  Similarly, every person who studies a Bible passage will evaluate it, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to decide whether it is worthwhile.

Can a Christian really evaluate the worth of the Bible, which we claim to be the word of God?  No and yes.  On the one hand, if the Bible is the word of God, we should not put ourselves in the place of judgment.  We should not accept certain parts because we like them and reject others that we don’t like.  All of the Bible is God’s word.  All of the Bible is relevant and should be studied, believed and obeyed.

On the other hand, not everything in the Bible is meant to have equal importance.  We don’t treat the parts of the Bible equally.  For example, we study the Gospel of John a lot more than we study Leviticus.  And when we study a passage, we usually choose a “key verse” and extract one or two or three main points.  The points may differ from one time to the next, or from one person to the next.  But these points are extracted through a process of evaluation. Individual parts of the Bible have varying degrees of pertinence and value to us.  So do individual passages. Evaluation means to decide what’s really important in the passage.  But don’t attempt this until you have already done a good job of observation and interpretation.  Evaluation has two aspects: general and specific.

General evaluation. Is this part of the Bible of any value for modern times, or is it worthless?  Ask this question.  The answer ought to be yes, but we must still ask it of ourselves. One should have a clear, well defined attitude toward the Bible, knowing what we believe about it and why.   If the Bible is true, then it will stand up to all tests of coherence, historical accuracy, and so on.

 

Specific evaluation. What is the exact worth of this particular passage? When and where and for whom are they worthwhile?  Which of the truths are local (for that time) and which are timeless?  Local truths should not be treated as general (e.g. John’s gospel makes many negative comments about Jews; this does not mean that we should despise Jewish people).  The ultimate standard for evaluating Scripture is Jesus Christ. We must evaluate the Old Testament in light of the teachings of Jesus.  For example, the dietary laws of the Old Testament must be evaluated in light Jesus’ declaration that all foods are clean (Mk 7:19).  And we must rely on what the apostles taught about Jesus and the gospel message. For example, God’s promises to Abraham.about his offspring in the book of Genesis must be evaluated in light of Paul’s explanation in Galatians chapter 3.

 

When evaluating teachings in the Bible, we need to decide which teachings are universal, and which are about local practices and situations.  This is especially important in evaluating the writings of Paul.  For example, 1 Timothy 2:12 says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” In general, the Old Testament teaches laws, but the New Testament teaches principles.  Teachings like this must be evaluated in light of the gospel of Jesus.  The gospel of Jesus has freed us from the law (Gal 5:1). Christians have freedom to follow their consciences; we must act out of sincere desire to please God and to serve our fellow human beings.   So we must interpret passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 very cautiously.  In many cases, a New Testament teaching is given to a specific person in one situation, but that teaching could be applied to anyone at any time (e.g. John 3:16).  Here is some practical advice for specific evaluation.

 

  1. Don’t judge too quickly.  Sometimes “I don’t know” is the best answer. Keep an open mind.  There is more to Bible than meets the eye. Every serious student of the Bible has been wrong about something.
  2. Don’t be subjective.  We sometimes want the Bible to say certain things to support our practices, but that is a dangerous game.
  3. Pay attention to the author’s purpose.  Every passage was written for certain purposes but not for others. A recipe for pumpkin pie was never intended to teach someone how to build a nuclear bomb. Think about what the limitations might be.
  4. Think carefully about the historical context, and be aware that human moral codes change. For example, slavery was a fact of life both in the Old and New Testament times.  Biblical teachings about slavery should not be used to support slavery today. The original motivation for a teaching about slavery may have been good in its day, but applying it in modern times would be totally inappropriate.
  5. Don’t be discouraged by apparent discrepancies. The Bible as it exists today does contain some discrepancies.  We should wrestle with them, not overlook or dismiss them.  But don’t blow them out of proportion.  Birth certificates often contain errors regarding dates, spellings of names, and so on, but that should not lead us to conclude that the person in question was never born.  A large proportion of alleged discrepancies in the Bible are traceable to copyist errors, different methods of measuring times, etc.  Others are not.  Wrestling with discrepancies can sometimes be extremely revealing and rewarding.

Application.   Once we have properly interpreted a passage evaluated the relevance of the specific teachings, the application will naturally follow.  In the algebraic equation X + Y =Z, the value of Z is fully determined once X and Y become known. Application logically follows from interpretation plus evaluation.  Application should not be general or theoretical but personal and practical.  Bible truths should be applied both to myself and to others. If something is true, it will apply locally, nationally and universally; to believers and non-believers.  Certain parts of the Bible (eg Romans 6) are for believers and not unbelievers.  But real truth is universal.

The final step: Correlation

Earlier I said that inductive Bible study has three steps: observation, interpretation and application.  But there is another step called correlation.  Correlation occurs when we accumulate what we learn from the Bible over a long period of time and use it to shape our world-view and our way of life.  As we study the Bible, we begin to form a coherent understanding of God; this forms the basis of theology.  We begin to understand the nature of human beings, which forms the basis of anthropology.  We build up an understanding of how God wants us to behave, which forms the basis of ethics; and so on. This world desperately needs people who have built up their world-views and lives on the basis of inductive Bible study.

In conclusion.  Many Christians open the Bible and immediately ask, “What does this passage mean to me?”  That puts the cart before the horse.  Before asking “What does this passage mean to me?” one must decide, “What does this passage mean?” And before that, we should ask, “What does this passage actually say?”  Inductive Bible study requires intense effort, concentration and powers of observation.  May God help us to study the Bible inductively and teach us to correctly handle the word of truth.