We begin our Bible study with certain assumptions, which are statements about the Biblical data we are about to face. By applying deductive reasoning, we make a decision concerning each particular piece of data.
But our approach from then on is analytical. That is, we first separate a passage of the Bible into its constituent parts, then by applying inductive reasoning to every piece of data, we gather the particular pieces together to make a whole or conclusion based upon a careful study of each piece.
Before we proceed, one point must be stressed. The first step in Bible study is READ THE BIBLE. Actually, this step only is obvious intellectually, since in practice it is often neglected. Sometimes we are lazy. Sometimes we think we know what it says already and don't bother to read it. And sometimes we have something that seems more urgent at the time. However, there is no substitute for reading the Bible.
Reading does not mean that our eyes have traveled over all the verses and arrived at the end of the passage. Reading means slowly, carefully reflecting upon each verse. We must get in the habit of holding a pen or pencil as we read, and mark our Bible. We underline, draw arrows from one word to another, make a mark in the margin next to something we might want to concentrate on later.
Also, reading does not mean that we read the passage once. We should become so familiar with it that we have certain facts already fixed in our minds. A day or so before we seriously begin to analyze a passage we should read it many times over, then ponder it from time to time before we actually sit down to study. This procedure will help to insulate us from the influence of wrong ideas that might creep in before we begin. Furthermore, if we read the passage ahead of time, we will see the big picture, which will help us avoid missing obvious points and guide us in the right direction later on.
Inductive Bible study must begin with ALL the data.
This point grows out of the fact that the whole Bible is one piece of truth (Matthew 4:4, I Timothy 3:16). No matter where we find a word or idea, if it is in the Bible, we must take it into account.
This is an extremely important step. Probably most errors are caused by not including one or two items that were omitted in the analysis prior to making a conclusion. We use this principle every day. When we can't find the keys to the car in the morning, do we just sit in a chair and decide not to go to work? No! We look for them. We make sure we have considered all possibilities before we draw a conclusion and then act upon that conclusion. A good scientist will be sure to not reject any data even though at the time it doesn't seem relevant.
Related to the fact that all available data must be incorporated in our analysis is the fact that only those items that are in the Bible can be trusted as reliable facts. The exclusive inventory of data is contained within the Bible alone, as we read in John 17:17 and Revelation 22:18. Since all the data within the Bible comes from one source, God, He is therefore the authority we have to support the reliability of the facts at hand. Data from any other source comes from an unknown authority. No matter what anyone claims to the contrary, extra-biblical information does not come from God. Incorporating such data in an analysis will necessarily modify our conclusions. Therefore if our analysis includes extra-biblical data, no maker how carefully and skillfully done, it cannot be trusted.
Finally, we must keep an open mind for missing data. All the pieces count. So we cannot, as humans with limited ability, assume we have at the first try properly included all the data. Whether we have or not is not important in the beginning of our study. We must strive to do so, but we must always keep our conclusions tentative until enough time has gone by for us to be reasonably sure that we have not overlooked any relevant items.
Observing of all the data
Now then, how do we go about gathering the data? The answer is, through observation. Observation is a skill, an acquired skill, acquired through hours of practice. Observation is not a matter of just looking at something, but recognizing the value of a piece of data or of the importance of a relationship between different pieces of data.
We greatly increase our powers of observation when we know ahead of time what we are looking for. It is a lot easier to find something when we have seen it before. Therefore we must sharpen our observational skills by becoming familiar with how the Bible is written. We will then become expectant observers and be more likely to find something in a passage.
The variety and intricacy of expression in the Bible is a delight and the foundation of its beauty. And yet all the literary forms which we find in the Bible are really nothing more than a summation of all their verses. We must not be overly impressed by these literary forms of expression for they must still be studied objectively. The poetry of the psalms or the rigorous logic of Romans are composed of verses, one after another, that must be analyzed for their content. Essentially they are data banks. We do not rest our case on a form of literature. Rather we compare the details of a verse with details in another part of the Bible, no maker where they are found. This approach is the foundation of an analytical, inductive study of God's Word. For example, we know that the expression in John 1:29, "Behold, the Lamb of God," is a figure. We can decide for ourselves that Christ is not an animal. Nevertheless only a careful analysis of the Bible can help us know what we are to think about the word "Lamb."
There are so many things to find in the Bible that it will not be possible in this discussion to list them all. But perhaps the following suggestions will help as we begin our personal study. Eventually we will learn to recognize things that recur as we do our own research.
1. We must learn to recognize comparisons. The Bible often puts together things that are similar in order to add to our understanding. Some words associated with, but not limited to, the concept of comparison are: "even so," "so," "as," "likewise," "neither," "nor." For example, in II Samuel 18:32 David understood very well the gruesome comparison which the messenger used to tell him that his son Absalom was dead. Also in Matthew 5:48 we read about the perfect standard of God which we must meet, and attained only by those in Christ. Sometimes the comparison can be between two negative things, as we read in Isaiah 59:6.
2. Contrasts are also important to notice. A great deal is learned about one thing by showing how much it is not like another. Contrasting is essentially putting together two opposites in order to point out their different characteristics. Words that are sometimes associated with contrasts are: "but," "however," "rather." Notice, for example, how the great curses of God in Deuteronomy 28:15-68 are introduced and separated from the first 14 verses of that chapter by the little word "but" in verse 15. In another example, the contrast displayed in Ephesians 2:4-5 gives us a reason to rejoice.
3. The Bible also contains expressions which emphasize purpose. There is a reason God wrote the Bible. It is therefore not surprising to see His plan and purpose expressed many times in His Word. Sometimes, but not always, the words "that," "in order that," and "because" are associated with purpose. The concept of purpose is rooted in the fact of design. God designed the creation and His salvation. Through the Bible's expressions of purpose we learn about God's plan. For example, the counsel expressed in Ephesians 5:25 is seen to be deliberate and purposeful by the following verse (verse 26).
Furthermore, from expressions of purpose, we learn about God's motivation for doing what He sets out to do. For example, in Ephesians 1:4 we read that God shows us His salvation, not only with a plan in mind, but also with the desire that we would be "before Him in love." Furthermore, in verse 12 of the same chapter we see that God is motivated to carry out His plan of salvation so "that we should be to the praise of His glory."
4. We must learn to recognize conclusions that are frequently expressed in the Bible. Words like "therefore," "wherefore," "thus," "so," are clues that verse contains a conclusion. For example, Isaiah 59:16 concludes with the fact that God Himself must save the human race from sin, since no man was found to do the job. In another example, Romans 3:20 is the conclusion which is based on all that has come before.
5. We must notice the Bible's use of repetition and restatement of the same facts in different ways. These two concepts are exceedingly common in the Bible. They are like the concept of comparison, yet more explicit.
Many wrong conclusions have resulted from separating ideas that are really repetitions or restatements of the same concept. For example, Psalm 85:1-4 is not a list of different blessings which God gives, but restatements of the same blessing, namely, salvation from sin. Therefore the phrases, "Thou hast been favorable unto the land," "brought back the captivity of Jacob," "forgiven the iniquities of Thy people," and "covered all their sin," are all statements of the same thought. To support this, the psalmist in verse 3 rejoices that he does not have to face the wrath of God. The real issue of Psalm 85 concerns the spiritual matter of salvation from sin and its consequent judgment from God.
Similarly, Romans 4:25 is not talking about two different things. God is not dissecting His plan of salvation by associating "delivered" with "offenses" and "raised again" with "justification." In other words, Jesus was not first delivered (crucified) in order to take care of our offenses and then raised again so that we could be justified. The removal of our offenses and our justification are all one thing. Furthermore, they are dependent upon one complete work of salvation which includes both the death and resurrection of our Lord. In fact, Romans 5:9 rearranges two terms, making justification a result of Christ's shed blood ("delivered"). We can get into serious trouble when we try to separate things that are really different views of one idea.
6. Sometimes there is a progression in logic that needs to be recognized. For example, if it is true that nothing can separate us from the love of God, as the last verses of Romans 8 boast, why then was the nation of Jews cut off? The answer is found in Romans 9, 10 and 11. There is therefore a natural, logical connection between Romans 8 and the following chapters.
This concept of progression in logic illustrates the danger of taking the New Testament chapter divisions too seriously. These chapter breaks are not inspired and can sometimes be a hindrance to our understanding of a thought that follows from one chapter into another. For example, the discussion between Jesus and His disciples in John 13:31 flows smoothly into Chapter 14 without a break in logical continuity. In John 13:36-37 Peter asks first, "Whither goest Thou?" and second, "Why cannot I follow Thee now?" The answer to the first question is found in the next chapter, Chapter 14, verse 2. Jesus is going to the cross. The answer to the second question is found in Chapter 14, verses 3-6. The disciples could not follow Jesus now because He had not yet gone to the cross. After He had died He would return and show them the way to go.
Sometimes the concept of progression is not dealing so much with a strict logical discussion but rather with a sequence of events as they commonly occur in the world. For example, Psalm 84:5-7 can be seen as a description of the progress which a Christian makes through the world. First of all, the phrase, "whose strength is in thee (God)" in verse 5, when compared to Exodus 15:2, is seen to be a statement of a person's salvation. This is supported by the other phrase, "in whose heart are the ways of them," which is another way of stating that Jesus, the Way, is in his heart. In the next verse we find that the Christian journey takes us through the valley of Baca, or weeping, and this identifies with the trials a Christian must experience in his pilgrimage (Compare II Timothy 3:12). But as the journey continues into verse 7, we see the Christian victorious as he goes from strength to strength. And finally, at the end of his journey, he dies and appears before God in Heaven.
7. We must learn to recognize expressions which convey summary or which convey a principle. A summary is similar to but a little different than a conclusion. A conclusion is a particular statement that necessarily follows or is consequence of the logical argument in a passage. A summary, on the other hand, simply restates all the different parts of the argument in one simple sentence. Sometimes the Bible helps us by tying all the different threads of a passage together into one small statement. For example, verse 27 is a summary of the 12th chapter of I Corinthians. Everything Paul has been discussing concerning the details of the different parts of the church really boils down to the fact that the church is one body of Christ and that the body is composed of different, equally important members.
A principle is similar to a summary in that it is a straightforward statement of fact. But unlike a summary, it can stand independent of all the rest of the Bible. A principle is simply a statement of fact as God presents it, sort of a Bible maxim, like those found in Proverbs. Principles are not modified by anything else in the Bible; they are always true in every case, just as they are read. For example, I Corinthians 4:2 is a statement that is always true.
Sometimes principles function as a summary when they come at the end of a discussion. At other times they function as a thesis statement, when they lead into a discussion. For example, Romans 8:1, as well as Colossians 3:1, are thesis statements which the following verses expand and illustrate.
8. We must learn to recognize illustrations in the Bible. Illustrations and examples abound. They clarify the logic in a passage and help to apply the principles that God lays down. Two good illustrations are found in the 12th chapter of Hebrews, one in verse 2 and the other in verses 14-17.
9. We must also be on the lookout for explicit definitions that the Bible sometimes makes. These definitions are important because they give terms certain specific meanings and these terms can then be used as clues to unlock more obscure passages. The verses Psalm 119:105 and I John 5:3 contain two of the many definitions found in the Bible.
10. It is important to observe the grammar of a passage. What is the subject of the sentence? Which nouns or pronouns are the direct or indirect objects of the verbs or the prepositions? What are the tenses of the verbs? What are the modifiers of the verbs and nouns? What is significant about the prepositions?
11. We must be sensitive to ellipses. They are common in the Bible. Elliptical statements have one or more words omitted that are obviously understood but must be mentally inserted to make the expression complete. It is like saying, "John cleaned his room and Mary hers." Her what? Her "room." The additional word, "room," completes the thought. For example, Romans 5:4 contains two elliptical phrases that could be completed as, "and patience worketh experience and experience worketh hope," in order to be parallel to the last phrase of the previous verse. In an other example, the phrase "but we an incorruptible" in I Corinthians 9:25 is an ellipsis. The word "crown" must be mentally inserted at the end of the phrase, as it appears at the end of the previous phrase. These two examples show that sometimes verses in the immediate context help us supply the missing word.
Sometimes the missing word, or rather the word that must be inserted to complete the thought, takes a little more effort to find, as the example of John 5:31 will demonstrate. This is an important example of an ellipsis because properly understanding it helps us dispel an apparent contradiction. According to John 8:18, Jesus claims to bear witness of Himself. Yet in John 5:31, He seems to say that a self-witness is invalid. However, John 5:31 is really an elliptical statement whose message is completed by mentally inserting the word "alone" between the words "I" and "bear." We could rephrase it as, "If I alone bear witness to myself." The idea is that according to His own law, at least 2 or 3 witnesses are needed to validate a witness (II Cor. 13:1). So Jesus says, "If I am the sole witness to myself, then my witness is not credible. But I have many witness besides myself." Chapter 5 lists those witnesses. The works He did were one witness (John 5:36). Another witness was the Father (John 5:7). Still another witness was the scriptures (John 5:39).
12. Sometimes the Bible uses litotes. They are statements with a positive meaning but expressed in a negative way. For example, the words "no small tempest" in Acts 27:20 refer to a storm so fierce that they expected to perish.
13. The Bible will sometimes use a synecdoche. That is a grammatical construction in which a part is used to represent the whole or the whole is used for a part. The phrase "eight souls were saved by water" in I Peter 3:20 really refers to the whole persons, their bodies too, and not just to their spiritual parts. Also, Matthew 2:3 really means only those people in Jerusalem who heard and cared about the wise men's arrival. Similarly, the words "the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness" does not mean all the children, that is all the Jews, but only those who are not saved. After all, John the Baptist, Nicodemus, and Paul were "children of the kingdom" and yet were not "cast out."
14. Context is all the verses that surround the part of the Bible in which we are interested. The context of a verse is the neighborhood in which we find it. It is, so to speak, the environment in which a verse is immersed. We must learn to observe the verses which come before and after the part of the Bible we seek to understand.
By the word context we are referring to the Biblical context alone. The context can be immediate, those words and phrases that are only a few verses away. Or the context can be extended, namely, words and phrases that are in different parts of the same book or in different parts of the Bible. But the context that matters is always limited to the Bible alone. Some Bible teachers say that we should include the historical or social context in our study of a passage, implying that the norms of the society at the time the passage was written are important for a true understanding of that passage. But we must face the fact that such information is extra-Biblical. In other words, the historical information may be very interesting but it is not admissible evidence in our evaluation of a passage. One of the assumptions which is foundational to our study of the Bible is that the Bible is a closed book. We gather data from the Bible alone. We must not allow anything other than the Biblical data to influence our analysis and conclusions.
The value of context rests upon the premise that each verse in the Bible is related somehow to the passage in which it is found. We expect, for example, if most of the verses in a passage are describing a particular subject, that the rest of the verses do as well. Context is our frame of reference for beginning to think out what a passage or verse is teaching. By seeking how it fits into its surroundings we are studying a passage "in context."
Observing the context in our Bible study helps us in two different ways. First, trying to reconcile each verse in a passage with the context keeps us on track and less likely to go off on wild flights of fanciful thought. We may not think anything we like about a verse but must somehow compare our thoughts with what is being said by the verses in the neighborhood. We do not have unlimited choices when we seek the meaning of a verse; rather, we are constrained in our options by the meaning of the surrounding verses. That is, there must be some compatibility among them all. To insist upon a meaning of a verse that is very different from the message of the verses that surround it is a violation of scripture. It is called "taking a verse out of context." Secondly, the context, immediate or extended, can give us strong clues to the meaning of difficult verses. We always learn by going from the known to the unknown. And the more we understand about some verses in the Bible, the more it will help us with other verses which may not be so easy to understand.
Finally, it is important to keep the right balance of influence between the immediate and the extended context. It is natural that the immediate context would command so much of our attention. It is understandable that the verses right there before our eyes would impress us so much. Furthermore, we should expect the logic within the immediate context to flow through the verse in which we are interested. That verse should somehow make sense in the immediate context. We must not diminish the weight of the immediate context in our Bible study. However, it is also a big mistake to ignore the extended context. Both are needed. Relevant parts of the Bible that are quite removed from our verse should be consulted, especially if they contain words and phrases similar to those which we find in the verse we are studying. Comparing the content of the extended context is nothing more than gathering all the data. Incidentally, not only do we look for identical words and phrases in other parts of the Bible, but also we compare similar thoughts as well.
A good understanding of the concept of context is necessary for achieving sound results in our study of the Bible. Serious mistakes will result from a wrong application of context. Therefore, in Chapter 10 a study in Acts 1 is given to help us properly fix this concept in our minds. It illustrates the different ways in which the concept of context can be used.
15. The Bible also uses irony, exclamatory expressions, and many other ways of stating truth. Only as we study the Bible for ourselves will we grow to recognize these different forms of expression.
The list of things that we might find in the Bible is very long. How can we possibly keep all these things in mind as we search the scriptures? We cannot. Neither should we expect to. We only need to find a few things in order to begin our own Bible study. As we mature, we will get better and better, finding things which we had previously overlooked. Remember, no one has so mastered the skill of observation that he cannot improve. Nothing in the Bible is out of our reach because of our lack of experience. It simply means that it may take quite a long time at first to find our answers. Rather than rush too soon to a trusted teacher, we must practice patience.
Our powers of observation increase dramatically when we start by asking the right questions. The art of Bible study is the art of asking the right questions. Unless we ask the right questions, we will not receive any helpful answers. For example, a lawyer asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). Jesus never directly answered his question. Instead He taught him that he must ask the right question, which was 'To whom am I a neighbor?' (Luke 10:36). We know from verse 25 that he did not obtain the answer he desired, because he was not interested in asking the right questions.
Act like a detective. Challenge the Bible. What does each word mean? Why do some words appear after other words? Is there a key verse in the passage? What are the contrasts and comparisons in the verse? Is there a progression, illustration, command, promise, warning? Notice the logic in every verse. For example, in I Corinthians 15:57 God does not say that He gives us the tools to obtain victory on our own, but that He gives us the victory. And so the outcome of any spiritual conflict is already an accomplished fact before we enter into the struggle.
Remember, the Bible is tough. It can take the sternest inquiry you give it. It can take it and come out vindicated as a trustworthy document.
Furthermore, questions are a wonderful motivation. They stimulate us to think. We are encouraged to find the answers to questions we pose to ourselves. By nature we love a puzzle and questions help us to keep thinking about an issue, even when we are away from our desk.
As a warning, do not fall into the lazy habit of generalizing about facts. We must insist on knowing all the specific and concrete details. We do not know what will turn out to be important later on. So make sure to have all the facts in front of you and work overtime to be sure you get the facts accurately. Get the names, places and exact relationships clearly in your mind: who, what, where, when, why, how much, how many, how fast. These and many more precise questions must be asked. We must not rest until we find precise answers to them. Only specific and concrete details will allow us to think clearly about a subject.
Perhaps at this point we might be discouraged at all the rules that seem to bury us before we even begin our study of God's Word. One of the greatest assets for Bible study is our natural curiosity. By no means should our sense of wonder be extinguished before we begin. And so it is appropriate to emphasize the importance of just reading and studying the Bible for ourselves. There is no substitute for our own personal musings and reflections, separated from the influence of anything else.
However, it is very easy to ask questions about a passage. It is possible to wonder about a million things and never resolve one of them. Therefore rules have value, for they guide our curiosity. Rules are the tools that help us find answers to the questions we ask. In fact, if properly used, rules actually increase our desire to know and allow us to make the most of the time we spend with the Bible as we go from one discovery to another.
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