Friday, January 29, 2016

How to Study the Bible: Process and Principles

2 Timothy 2:15 NIV
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

 Today we're going to talk about how to study the Bible. We're going to look at a process and then at some principles of Bible Study. There are numerous "methods" of Bible Study out there, but they all fall basically into two camps: Deductive Bible Study or Inductive Bible Study.

Deductive Bible Study
A deductive Bible study is called that because it uses deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning begins with a hypothesis or an idea. After the hypothesis has been made, one gathers evidence to prove one's point. If the hypothesis is correct, the evidence will support it. If the hypothesis is wrong, the evidence won't support it. To "deduce" something means to work out a truth from things we already know.

A deductive Bible study begins from a point that the reader/teacher/preacher is trying to make, and then uses scripture to support that point. Most sermons and Bible studies are conducted this way.

We all use deductive reasoning from time to time, it's actually our default method of reasoning. The problem with it is that it is very subjective because it centers on the person's preconceived ideas and beliefs and not necessarily from facts actually gleaned from the passage. The tendency for the deductive student is to read his/her ideas and beliefs into the scriptures instead of extracting the truth from scripture.

Inductive Bible Study
Inductive Bible study uses inductive reasoning. To induce means to "persuade or bring about."
An inductive Bible study begins with the raw text of scripture and encourages participants to carefully read the text and draw conclusions directly from what the text itself says. Someone using the inductive method of Bible study, will read, observe and gather evidence, and then draw conclusions based on those observations.

Inductive Bible study is a much stronger way to establish truth and meaning than any other method of Bible study. The inductive method is far safer in that we put aside our preconceived notions, beliefs, etc. and allow scripture to interpret itself rather than forcing our meaning on it. It involves wrestling with the text itself in order to come to a solid conclusion. Unfortunately, it's also harder to do. We usually approach the text with presuppositions that we must do our best to put aside.

That said, you can probably deduce (ha ha) that I am going to recommend and teach the inductive method of Bible study. Even though it requires a little more effort on the participant, the rewards are tremendous.

Let me put some slides up on the screen and you tell me what you see.

You will notice the longer you look at these images, the more you see - and what you see changes. In slide #1 you saw a man's face, but when you looked at it closer you see the word "Liar" written in cursive. With slide #2 you saw either an old lady looking to the left, or you saw a profile of a young woman. Slide #3 is a bit more complex, you might see a golden chalice, two old people looking at one another, or a guitar player and a senorita.

This demonstrates that what you "see" is often influenced by what you read into something more than what is actually there.

The good news is that inductive Bible study, as daunting as it may sound to you, consists of only three steps along with a few principles (rules).

Let's start with the three steps and then move to the principles.

Three Steps of Inductive Bible Study

1.       Observation: What does the passage say?
2.       Interpretation: What does the passage mean?
3.       Application: How does this apply to me (us)?

The key to success in doing inductive study is to remember that the process always moves in this direction (slide), from observation, through interpretation, on to application. What we often do is let these three bleed over into each other, contaminating our findings. Let's look at each one.

Step 1 - Observation - What does the passage say?
·         What does the text actually say? Read and reread the passage carefully word for word.
·         Investigate key terms. (Bible dictionary, concordance, etc.)
·         Ask investigative questions such as Who-What-Where-When-Why and How?

The primary purpose of this stage is to collect as many facts as possible about what is said here. You've got to be curious and not take anything for granted. You may need to look some things up in a regular dictionary or a Bible dictionary or concordance. You should ask investigative type questions such as Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Look for words like therefore, then, and, also, but, however, or nevertheless. What is the main point of the section? What recurring words indicate a main idea? What elements, arguments, or illustrations does the author use to support that main point?  It is at this stage that a chapter might be outlined or a sentence diagrammed to see how the ideas of the author relate to one another. The purpose of this stage is focus. Explore the passage.

Step 2 - Interpretation - What does the passage mean?
·         Clarify the context (what was before and after, type of literature)
·         What is the author's point? What is he/she trying to say?
·         What did the passage mean to its original hearers?

Only after doing the legwork of careful observation are we in the position to ask, "What does the author mean by these words?" Not "What do these words mean to me?" But "What did they mean when they flowed from the pen of the original author to the eyes and ears of the original readers/hearers? What was the author's intent?" 

Step 3 - Application - How does this apply to me (us)?
·         How can I apply this passage to my life?
·         Use the S-P-A-C-E-P-E-T-S acrostic. Is there a
·         Sin to CONFESS?
·         Promise to CLAIM?
·         Attitude to CHANGE?
·         Command to OBEY?
·         Example to FOLLOW?
·         Prayer to PRAY?
·         Error to AVOID?
·         Truth to BELIEVE?
·         Something to THANK GOD FOR?

Only after discovering the meaning of a text in its own biblical time and place do we ask, "What does this mean to me?" We must be careful to distinguish between cultural facts and timeless principles. Focus on the main idea. What are the primary issues being addressed? What does teach me about God? What does it teach me about people? What does it teach me about me? 

Principles of Bible Study
Now that we've looked at the process, let's look at a few principles of Bible study.

1. Look for the Author's Intended Meaning
There is always one meaning to a passage of scripture and that meaning is the author's intended meaning. There may be more than one application, but the author had one meaning in mind when they wrote what they wrote, I made a statement last week that much of what we call "Bible Study" in churches today is little more than pooled ignorance. The example I used was a Bible study where a group of folks sit around in a circle and ask, "What does it mean to you?" There is only one meaning to a passage. The question being asked should be "How does what the author meant apply to you? Our first question should always be what does the author mean by these words and not what do these words mean to me?

When the author of a passage wrote what they wrote they had a single intended meaning attached to it. Interpretation must always be restricted to the writer's intentions. By the way that goes for non-scriptural writings as well. It also applies to oral communication. In a court of law, you can argue what someone meant by what they said, but what really matters is what the person speaking meant by what they said. Thus, the primary goal of interpreting scripture is to determine what the author's intended meaning was.

2. Read the Passage in Context
In reading the Bible, as with any literature, we need to have a grasp of the whole in order to fully understand and appreciate the parts.

For example: What does the following mean? “It was a ball.” The answer depends on the context. Consider the following sentences: The baseball umpire saw the pitch drift to the outside and said, “it was a ball.” We went to the dance last night; in fact, it was so formal “it was a ball.” As I was walking along the golf course I spotted something small and white in the tall grass, “it was a ball.” I had so much fun at the game night, “it was a ball.” In each case the word ball means something different. Thus, context determines meaning.

When we cut out little pieces of scripture to proof-text a belief we have, or to create a doctrine, we must be very, very careful. For example, imagine reading Paul's words in 1 Cor. Chapter 7 where Paul asks, "Are you married?" and then says, "if you're not married - don't look for a wife." Without taking into account the context of Paul's train of thought here, one might conclude the Bible commands celibacy (it doesn't!).

There are actually at least three different contexts we need to consider:

·   Situational Context
The first context is what I've been talking about above. Here I am referring to such things as who is talking, who is the person being written about talking to? Who is the author writing to? What is the purpose of his/her writing this, etc.

·   Cultural/Historical Context
The second context has to do with what was taking place in history and culture at the time the passage was written. That means we may have to check a commentary or our Bible's study notes. In Matthew 5:41 when Jesus made the statement "whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two" he was referring to the fairly common practice at the time where Roman soldiers would force the local citizenry to carry their gear for them. It helps to know what was going on at the time. Culturally speaking, how the group of people the passage was written to would have received the words against the backdrop of their culture? Knowing the culture of the writer and audience helps our understanding of what is being said. For instance, the fact that Palestine was primarily an agricultural society with certain views on the roles of men and women shapes how we hear 1 Cor. 14:34 where Paul said women should remain silent and not speak in church. When he did he was speaking into and from a certain culture, place and time. That means the cultural and historical context should be taken into account. We shouldn't try to make doctrine out of a cultural issue that's only mentioned once or twice in scripture. That's why women talk in church today.

·   Literary Context
Finally, we must also take into account the literary context. What type of literature is it? There are many different literary types in the Bible. There is history, poetry, prophecy, wisdom literature, gospel narratives, parables, letters, and apocalyptic literature. For instance, we read the Sermon on the Mount differently than we do the Book of Revelation or Paul's letter to Philemon. Knowing the type, or genre, of literature we are reading is essential to understanding it. Different genres require different expectations and interpretive strategies.

A related issue concerns figures of speech. When Jesus says if your eye causes you to sin it is better to pluck out your eye rather than be thrown into hell (Matt. 5:29) or when he says it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:24) he is using hyperbole - he's exaggerating to make a point.  The context informs whether or not Jesus is telling us to literally pluck out our eye or give away our wealth.

3. Read a Passage in Light of the Totality of Scripture
Whatever we read we must ask ourselves how what we are reading corresponds to the rest of Scripture. What I mean by that is that we should never base a doctrine or moral teaching of scripture on an obscure passage or something that is mentioned only once in the Bible. The most important ideas in the Bible are repeated more than once. When a text teaches something obscure or difficult and we can't find another passage to support it, we probably shouldn't attach too much significance to it. This doesn't mean what we've read isn't true at some level, but we shouldn't build our entire theology around that one obscure passage.

For example, there are churches that practice handling snakes and drinking poison, something they find written in the Bible only one place, Mark chapter 16 (and possibly in Acts where a snake attaches itself to Paul's hand). But when we look at the totality of scripture, deliberately handling poisonous snakes or drinking deadly liquids expecting God's protection is contrary to Christ's teaching. In Matthew 4:5-6, Satan tries to persuade Christ to throw Himself down from a pinnacle merely because He had a promise of protection. But Jesus rebukes Satan because he is misapplying the scripture he quotes from Psalm 91:11-12. Jesus says to Satan, as He says to anyone who delights in misapplying God's promise of protection, "You shall not tempt the LORD your God" (Matthew 4:7; quoted from Deuteronomy 6:16). Therefore, the practice of deliberately handling deadly snakes or drinking poisonous liquids should be seen in light of the totality of scripture.

Second, if one passage appears to teach something but it is vague, but another passage clearly teaches something else about that issue, always go with the clearer understanding over the less clear teaching. That is, we must determine the meaning of the unclear verse by examining the clear teaching of Scripture. The best example I can think of for this concerns the end times. Many claim they've figured out exactly when Jesus is coming back, but Jesus clearly taught that no one knows the day or hour when the Son of Man will return (Matt. 24:36) so anyone who does claim to know, by whatever calculations they are using, must not be right. Or back to Paul, and his issue with women - he is very clear in Galatians 3:28 that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." So if we're all the same, why do we treat women differently?

4. Read a FROM the passage, not INTO it
This principle goes back to what we've already talked about - how the inductive method is better. Let the text speak for and interpret itself, don't read things into it that aren't there, even if that thing is scriptural and something you believe in strongly. Reading into the Bible and not reading from the Bible is called eisegesis and it is not a good thing.

How do we do eisegesis? We do this by introducing our own assumptions, thoughts, and opinions into the text while ignoring what is actually there. Some people do this to facilitate their own agendas, theology and opinions. The vast majority of people who do it do so out of ignorance and poor teaching. And it is so very easy to do! Think of it this way. A text is simply symbols on a page.  Readers bring their own reading and recognition of those symbols, an understanding of what the words mean within the given social and historical context, and an understanding of the remarks within their own framework of what might make sense, or what they might imagine an author to have intended.  That means that there is no escaping the fact that, one way or another, we are responsible for the meaning we find in our reading.

What we want to do is draw the meaning out of the text, not put meaning there that doesn't exist. Doing that is called exegesis. Exegesis is extracting objectively from the Bible in a logical, systematic manner, discovering what a text is actually saying by careful reading of the Bible, and not reading things into it.

5. Use Your Brain
I say this last principle because for some reason some of us are afraid to engage our brains when we read and study scripture. We've gotten it into our heads that if we actually think through what's there we might somehow fall into unbelief. We check our brains at the door because we're afraid God will punish us, or others won't like us if we put the Bible to the same rigorous mental examination we would a news report or a history book.

Hear me on this - God is not threatened by our rolling up our sleeves and studying the Bible - in fact, I think the Bible really comes to life when we really dig in. I believe God loves it when we do! Yes, we want and need to hear the voices of our preachers and teachers. We need to hear the voices of the past - our glorious church tradition and the ways those before us interpreted scripture. Those traditions along with our own reasoning ability and our experience should always inform our thoughtful reading of scripture. But we need to think for ourselves too!

There is so much more to say about how we should process and interpret scripture - for instance, it is done best in community - like we have here. It removes a lot of the subjectivity as we listen for God's voice together. But this is about all we have time to cover in this introduction to the interpretation of Scripture.

Talk About It - Discussion Questions

1. Turn to a partner and explain to them the difference in "inductive" reasoning and "deductive" reasoning.

2. Turn to a friend and give them the three main steps of inductive Bible study

3. Do you agree or disagree that a passage of scripture has only one meaning? Why or why not?

4. Do you believe the Bible can stand up to the same rigorous examination we give to other texts or source material?

5. What is something new you learned today?

For Next Week - we will look at an overview of the gospels.

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