Why do you study the Bible? What motivates you to crack open your Bible and read the Word of God? Is it to find a word to help you through your day? Do you want to grow in your relationship with God? No matter your reason, one of your goals should be to understand and make application of what you’re reading. There are lots of Bible study methods and teachings out there that will help you to that end. One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is with a method called inductive Bible study.
The inductive Bible study method is a great approach to study Scripture and it’s the focus of this week’s Bible study tip. We’ll be using Richard Alan Fuhr Jr. & Andreas J. Köstenberger’s fantastic book titled Inductive Bible Study as the general outline for this tip. In addition, we will take a look at a great new resource that will enhance your inductive Bible study. So, let’s dive in!
What is Inductive Bible Study?
Before we can talk about the how to of the inductive Bible study method, we must first define what it is. At its simplest, inductive Bible study is a simple and effective step-by-step approach to interpreting and studying the Bible. It is time tested and generally regarded by Bible-believing Christians to be the best way to study Scripture. The goal is to walk you through the steps of reading and interpreting Scripture to applying it to your life.
Deduction vs. Induction
When it comes to learning, we generally approach it from one of two directions. Either we: 1) bring our own assumptions and use the guiding force behind our study, or 2) we begin with our subject and draw any conclusions based on what we learn from our study. The first method is called deduction and the second is called induction. In the realm of the general sciences, neither approach is better or worse than the other. Each has its pros and cons, and can be useful in different scenarios.
In the sciences, deduction is a method we find ourselves using quite often. We come to science with general principles guiding our study and we make specific hypotheses based on those principles. The work then tests those principles and assumptions to make conclusions. The idea is to move from a general understanding to a more precise and specific understanding. We’re moving from the broad to the specific. We know generalities about something and our study allows us to know things more precisely.
Induction, on the other hand, moves in the opposite direction. If deduction begins with assumptions, induction starts with the evidence at hand. It looks at the evidence and makes conclusions based on what we can learn from that evidence. For example, in a court of law, jurors are asked to reach a verdict based on the evidence presented to them. They are to leave behind their assumptions and make a ruling based on the facts alone.Inductive Bible study draws its conclusions from the text, not our assumptions. Click To Tweet
Inductive Bible Study
When it comes to the Word of God, inductive Bible study is the best way to study. We want to interpret and understand the Scripture based on the evidence presented to us, instead of our preconceived notions of what we want or assume the text says.
The inductive Bible study method helps us achieve our goal of understanding Scripture and making application for our lives. It does this by treating the Bible as it should. We first observe what the text says before we interpret and apply it. This means we treat it with respect, as the Word of God, and don’t move quickly or haphazardly.
The Hermeneutical Triad
A large part of understanding the Bible rightly requires looking at it through the proper lenses. Unlike many books we read today, the Bible is: old, a compilation of many writings, and a religious book. As such, we must keep all those things in mind when we study the Bible. In addition, each facet plays a key role in the right interpretation of Scripture.
First, the Bible is a historical book. It is several thousand years old and was written over centuries. This means we cannot approach it like a book written in the 21st Century. There is a different culture and background we must keep in mind when we study. Not to mention, the Bible’s authors wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine (common) Greek. Each language is old and requires translation into modern vernacular. We must keep this in mind when studying.
Second, the Bible contains many different literary genres. We cannot read each book of the Bible the same way. Scripture contains history, prophecy, letters, apocalyptic literature, poetry, and so on. Each passage needs to be read and understood based on its given genre, which, in turn, affects how we interpret it.
Finally, we must understand that it is a theological book. God wrote and teaches us about himself in the Bible. This is another fact we cannot ignore in our interpretation.
This hermeneutical triangle plays a significant role in shaping how we move through each step of the inductive Bible study method. So, with that in mind, let’s move into to the how to of inductive Bible study.We must consider history, literature, and theology in every aspect of inductive Bible study. Without it, we may fail to get the correct interpretation. Click To Tweet
How to Do Inductive Bible Study
Given everything above, it sounds like the inductive Bible study method is a complicated way to study. That couldn’t be further from the truth. When it comes down to it, the inductive approach contains three primary steps:
- Observation: What does the Bible say?
- Interpretation: What does the Bible mean?
- Application: How do the Bible apply to my life today?
Yes, there are things we must do within each step, but the general approach to the inductive Bible study method is three steps. We must observe the text before we can interpret it. Then, once we’ve rightly interpreted the text, we can make appropriate application to our lives.
Let’s start with observation.
The first step to inductive Bible study is observing and engaging with the text of Scripture. Here we seek to gain a basic understanding of what the text says. At this point in the study our goal is not making any conclusions. Instead, the objective is looking at the text and asking the right questions to get all the information we need to start interpreting the passage.
There are five steps to observation:
- Compare Translations
- Ask Questions
- Find Key Words
- Observe Literary Features
- Analyze the Structure
Let’s look at how each step plays a role in helping you observe the passage we’re studying.
Step 0: Read the Text
This goes without saying, but the absolute first step we need to take is reading our passage in our primary Bible translation. Before we can take any additional steps, we must familiarize ourselves with the text we’re studying. Once we’ve done that we’re free to move to the first step.
Step 1: Compare Translations
While there is no one right Bible translation and we often have one we prefer over others, multiple Bible translations can prove helpful in our studies. One of the best ways to begin making observations in our passage is by reading it in a few translations.
Remember, the Bible is an old book and was originally written in ancient languages. Any Bible we use is a translation from those original languages. With that in mind, each translation team comes with their own translation philosophies and thoughts on how the Bible should read. Therefore, using multiple translations allows us to observe these differences implemented by translators, and might also point out where there are difficulties in relaying what the original text says.
Another benefit of using multiple translations is that one translation may make it easier for us to understand the main point of the passage. This is one reason why I start with an essentially literal translation like the ESV, but also read something like the NLT, which is more on the end of being a dynamic thought-for-thought translation.
The overall goal in this step is noting differences between translations and using them to help you understand what’s being said in the text.
Step 2: Ask Questions
The key to engaging the text in a thoughtful manner is asking the right questions. It’s like sitting in a classroom lecture. As you listen to the teacher, your mind engages the information presented to you, which allows you to then ask the teacher relevant questions that further enhance your understanding of the material. This is what we’re doing in this step; we’re “listening” to the text as we observe it and asking the questions that will lead us to a right interpretation.
As Fuhr and Köstenberger write in Inductive Bible Study, there are four kinds of interpretive questions we should ask when observing the text.
- Questions of Content: These questions seek to understand the substance of the text and the significance of its content. Who, what, where, and when are the types of questions you generally ask at this point.
- Questions of Relationship: These questions probe the relations of words, phrases, and concepts within and between literary units. With these questions your goal is figuring out how the text relates to other areas of Scripture, both near and far. How does it relate to what precedes and comes after?
- Questions of Intention: These questions probe authorial intention. There is always a reason why an author said what he said or didn’t say and how he said it. Our questions here will help us ponder they why questions.
- Questions of Implication: These questions explore the implications and ramifications of interpretations. What inferences can be made based on what is happening in the text? How will a given interpretation impact the rest of Scripture?
But how do you ask the right questions? Again, Fuhr and Köstenberger provide suggestions for asking the right questions in the following list:
- Observations should be a springboard for interpretive questions
- When asking interpretive questions, don’t limit yourself to general questions of content
- Seek questions deeper than just “Who?” “Why?” “Where?” “What?” and “How?” More elaborate questions are preferable
- Ask both broad (questions of intent and purpose) and narrow (questions pertaining to word meanings, etc.) questions
- Speculate regarding possible answers to your interpretive questions
- Allow your knowledge of biblical and theological issues to influence your questions
- The question-asking process begins with observation but may continue throughout the process of interpretation and into application
- Some questions relate more to application than to interpretation
- Do not ask questions simply for the sake of asking questions! Quality is better than quantity
- Do not feel compelled to answer interpretive questions prematurely
Step 3: Find Key Words
As we read the text and ask questions, words and phrases should begin to stand out. These are things we want to note because they will help us in our interpretation later. While there will be obvious words that stand out, we also want to look for words with significance.
What kind of words are we looking for? We’re looking for anything that conveys meaning that will help us interpret the text.
- Are there words that are significant within the context?
- Do we find words that are repeated or are synonyms?
- Are there words that may have theological significance?
- Does the text mention places or things we need to look up to understand better?
- Are there figures or speech or symbols that need to be understood?
The goal here is to make note of these words so we can investigate them in the step of interpretation.
Step 4: Observe Literary Features
The fourth step in observation requires us to look for literary features as we attentively read the text. Here we look for things like repetition, comparison and contrast, conjunctions, illustrations, and the like. Are figures of speech being used? Is the author using a certain tone in his writing?
Highlight and underline such phrases. Make connections between points and visualize how the passage fits together. Mark repeated words, phrases, or ideas. Be attentive and look for any associations and observations you can make of the text.
Step 5: Analyze the Structure
The final step in observation is examining the structure of the passage. It may not seem obvious, but the way an author presents the text can help us make better interpretations.
We begin by first recognizing the genre used in the passage. Before we can examine the structure, we must first know what type of literature we are dealing with. From there, we look for any key segments and ways to break up the text.
- What are the boundaries where a larger portion of Scripture begins and ends?
- Is there cohesion between the units?
- Is the text structured to convey a certain message?
Why is this step important? Well, when we understand the structure and genre of the text we’re dealing with, it makes it easier to understand the language and other components used by the author, which ultimately informs how we interpret the text.
With our observation complete, we can move to the second step, which is interpretation. In this step we are investigating the text based on the questions we asked and what we uncovered in our step of observation. We are not jumping to any conclusions about a text’s meaning at this point. Instead, we are still letting the text reveal itself. Like observation, interpretation includes five steps:
- Consider the Context
- Compare Scripture with Scripture
- Word Studies
- Topical Studies
- Consult Other Resources
Let’s take a look at each step in order.
Step 1: Consider the Context
The first step to interpretation is considering the context. In this step we look at the book or passage we’re studying and place it within its proper boundaries. Within this step we also keep in mind the hermeneutical triad of history, literature, and theology.
Using the hermeneutical triad, let’s see how we would view each context to help our interpretation.
- What is the geopolitical context? Is there anything significant going on in the world at this time as it relates to this text?
- Are there aspects of culture we must keep in mind?
- What are the setting, situation, and occasion for this writing?
- Where does this fall in Scripture? Is it Old or New Testament?
- What section of the New or Old Testament is it contained in?
- What is the genre and/or sub-genre? Are there multiple genres?
- How does the passage relate to what precedes and follows?
- What is the surrounding context?
- What is the main idea of the passage?
- What are the key themes presented in the text?
- What covenants are in place at the time when the passage is written? How does this impact the text?
- How does the passage relate to the overarching meta narrative of the gospel?
When we ask such questions we get to the heart of the circumstances surrounding the passage we’re studying and where it fits in the Bible and history in general. With this key information in hand we are equipped to move to the next step.
Step 2: Compare Scripture with Scripture
As we’ve stated in a previous Bible study tip, the best way to interpret Scripture is to allow it to interpret itself. The second step of interpretation is doing just that. Since I covered this at length in a previous tip, I will refer you to that Bible study tip for an in-depth look at how to approach this step.
Step 3: Word Studies
The third step of interpretation involves looking at all those interesting words we found during the observation phase of our study. At this point we want to call on the aide of both context and our theological lexicons to help us discover the meaning of words and phrases. This step is important because we must understand the meaning of words if we are going to interpret any passage correctly.
Therefore, this step finds us conducting word studies on all the words and phrases we need help with. Again, this is something we covered extensively in a previous Bible study tip, so I will refer you there for the full methodology.
The goal of this step is figuring out what a word could mean so you can then place it back in its context to find out what it does mean.
Step 4: Topical Studies
The fourth step of interpretation looks at the whole of Scripture to understand what it teaches about a given theme or topic. In many respects this is similar to the step of comparing Scripture with Scripture, but with a thematic correlation in mind. Comparing Scripture with Scripture helps us interpret the text, whereas thematic studies seek to more broadly synthesize Scripture.
Like with the two previous steps, we have covered the details of how to do this in a previous tip, and will refer you there.
Step 5: Consult Other Resources
Up to this point we have consulted very few outside resources. At most, we’ve consulted resources that give us general background on Scripture and lexicons that define words. We have not touched resources like commentaries and study Bibles. It is now, at the fifth and final step of interpretation, that we consult these resources.
The purpose for referencing these resources is to enhance our study of Scripture. It also has the added benefit of double checking our findings. While Bible study is highly personal, we do not study in isolation from the rest of church history and the Body of Christ. We should and must lean on our brothers and sisters in the faith to help us understand God’s Word. This is why we should, as a last step of interpretation, consult the works of others.
Bible study tools you might want to consider referencing in this step include:
- Bible dictionaries
- Study Bibles
- Bible handbooks and surveys
- Bible atlases
- Journals and articles
The final step of the inductive Bible study method is application. God spoke to his people when the Bible was written. And God continues to speak to his people today through those same words. Therefore, it is important for us to know how we should apply what the Bible says and teaches to our lives. This step will do just that.
Like with observation and interpretation, application has a couple steps, which include:
- Establish the Relevance
- Appropriate the Meaning
Let’s have a look at each step.
Step 1: Establish the Relevance
When we study a passage of Scripture, one thing we quickly learn is that finding application can prove quite difficult. Sometimes this is because the immediate context of a passage is not relevant for this day and age. Therefore, we must determine a text’s relevance before seeking application.
The first step in the process is evaluating the text. We make our evaluation by asking questions like:
- What is the author’s intent in writing?
- What is the application for the original audience?
- Is the text helping us know something or is it telling us to do something?
- What is the underlying principle of the text?
- Based on that principle, how does it relate to today?
- How can I apply this text?
Asking questions like this will help us make appropriate application.
Step 2: Appropriate the Meaning
Knowing what the Bible says means nothing if we don’t apply it to our lives. The second step of application moves us beyond simply knowing what the principle or application is to making it a part of our lives. In this step, we are wholly relying on the Holy Spirit to guide us, because we can do nothing in the Christian life without his help.
There are no guidelines on how this should take place. But, it does require some thought on the part of the Bible student. This involves some introspection and asking how the passage and application impacts us. How is the Holy Spirit moving us to respond to the passage? From there, we must meditate on the Scripture and then put that application into action.
That is the end result of the inductive Bible study method. We move from reading & observing the text, to interpreting it, so we can then live it out.Inductive Bible study is as simple as 1, 2, 3. 1) Observe the text, 2) Interpret the text, and 3) Apply the text. Click To Tweet
Marking Up Your Bible
In the inductive Bible study method, one thing that gets talked about a lot is writing in and marking up your Bible. This step helps you visualize the observations you make as you engage with the text. If you search the Internet for ways to mark up your Bible, there is no end to the systems and information you will find.
One system referenced often is Kay Arthur’s inductive Bible study markings from Precept Ministries International. This method, as you can see in the image below, is a colorful way of marking up your Bible and noting your observations. The key provided in study Bibles such as the New Inductive Study Bible helps you know what key words, ideas, and concepts to look for as you observe the text. There are, of course, other ways of doing it, but this method is by far the most popular & widely used.
While the most popular, Precept’s approach is not the only way to do inductive Bible study. I would encourage you to look at their system and adapt it to your own needs. Use it as a foundation and modify it as needed. One thing I like to do is create my own highlighting systems, which makes it easier for me to identify things while studying and returning to them at a later date. I will mark up things one way in a print Bible, and do something completely different in my Bible software, like below.
The goal in marking up your Bible is this: find or create a system that works for you. Make it: 1) easy to use, 2) easy to remember, and 3) easy to identify later.
ESV Journaling New Testament Inductive Edition
Now, when it comes to doing inductive Bible study, you need nothing more than a Bible and a notebook. But, that doesn’t mean other tools cannot be helpful. There are lots of resources available that will help you study God’s Word. One tool I’m excited about is the ESV Journaling New Testament Inductive Edition. It’s a Bible from Crossway that is perfect for inductive Bible study.
A good part of the inductive Bible study method is making observations so you can interpret and make application. This step includes marking up your Bible so you can visualize those observations. What makes this edition of the ESV Journaling New Testament great is that it uses a single-column paragraph format with 3/8-inch space in between each line of Bible text. This format gives you ample room to mark up the text and make notes without feeling cluttered or having to squeeze it between lines of text. The wide margins also make it easier to jot longer notes in the margin.
The cream colored paper is ideal for writing and taking notes, whether in pen or pencil. You can rest assured that you will be able to read your notes and markings for years to come.
The 9.5 font used in this Bible is readable and makes the size of the Bible easy to toss in a bag. It is worth noting that this is only a New Testament edition, which is what helps keep the size manageable. So, if you’re looking to inductively study the Old Testament in this format, you’re out of luck at this time. I’m sure Crossway will release an Old Testament version at some point in the future.
Ways to Use It
When it comes to usage, the ESV Journaling New Testament Inductive Edition is great in many scenarios. Obviously, it is the ideal tool for in-depth personal study using the inductive Bible study method. It’s perfect for taking notes and is better suited for this task than something like the ESV Scripture Journals or a regular Bible.
I also can see pastors and teachers getting a lot of use out of this Bible as they prepare sermons or lessons. There is ample room for preparing a sermon or lesson outline and marking key words and passages. This is a great first step in the process of doing either of those tasks, while also providing a more permanent archive for your notes than a scratch sheet of paper or notepad.
Another scenario where this Bible shines is in one-on-one Bible study. Imagine sitting down with someone and teaching them how to study the Bible. Don’t just do an inductive Bible study by yourself, teach someone else how to do it using this Bible.
Finally, it’s a great Bible for taking notes during the Sunday morning sermon. It has plenty of room to make sermon notes, while also providing space for your own thoughts.
A Surefire Bible Study Method
Inductive Bible study is a surefire method for getting the most out of your Bible study. The steps are simple: 1) observe, 2) interpret, and 3) apply. If there’s one Bible study method you implement, inductive Bible study should be it. It’s a one-stop shop for studying God’s Word.
And, if you want to learn more about the inductive Bible study method, I heartily recommend picking up a copy of Inductive Bible Study by Richard Fuhr & Andreas Köstenberger.
Weekly Study Prompts
This week, meditate and journal on the following passages:
- Monday – Acts 2-3
- Tuesday – Acts 4-5
- Wednesday – Acts 6
- Thursday – Acts 7
- Friday – Acts 8-9
- Memory Verses: Acts 2:42; 4:31
- Fuhr, R. A., Jr., & Köstenberger, A. J. (2016). Inductive Bible study: Observation, interpretation, and application through the lenses of history, literature, and theology. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, pp. 77-83.
- Fuhr, R. A., Jr., & Köstenberger, A. J. (2016). Inductive Bible study: Observation, interpretation, and application through the lenses of history, literature, and theology. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, p 87.