A Bible Study Method
For those who have been reading this blog over the past 2 years, you will know that I have a passion for helping people understand the Bible. One of the major problems facing our society is that far too many people are, for all practical reasons, biblically illiterate. There are many in the church who are so, but there are probably many more outside the church who fit this category. I am not talking about the person who knows what the Bible says, and chooses to reject it. I am talking about the person who knows just enough of the Bible in order to quote a verse, but does not understand how that verse stands in its immediate context and in the context of the Bible as a whole. I have in mind those who can quote Matthew 7:1 and tell people not to judge, but who do not have enough understanding to realize that this passage is speaking about hypocrisy rather than providing a blanket prohibition on judgment (as is shown by the immediate context of Matthew 7:1-5). I am talking about the person who sincerely believes that Genesis 2:7 teaches the life begins at first breath, when the context does not allow this interpretation. I am talking about the person who sincerely believes that Philippians 4:13 applies to football games. These are the individuals that I am speaking about. This is the most dangerous type of biblical illiteracy, because it gives a person the idea that he or she knows more about the text than he or she actually does.
The best solution, in my opinion, to biblical illiteracy is to have a good bible study method. But what does a good Bible study method look like? There is one method that I have been taught in the past that I think is great for all groups: laypersons, pastors, and biblical scholars. It involves three simple steps that are easily memorable and can be applied to any passage of Scripture. The three steps are: Observation, Interpretation, and Application. Each of these will be explained in turn.
Before you begin using this Bible study method, there are several things that you should do. Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand the text in front of you. If you do not know which passage of Scripture you should study, ask for wisdom in this area, as well. It may also be a wise idea for you to study the same passages as one or more of your friends, and to compare notes when your study of this passage is complete. Begin reading the passage in a reliable Bible translation (for personal study, I recommend the ESV or NASB. For exegetical work, I would also add the NRSV to this list.)
Observation is simply the art of noticing things in Scripture. In this step, you are going to ask yourself, "What does this passage say?" As you study the Bible, you will make many observations. Some of these observations will be more significant than others. The important thing is that a person reads Scripture and begins to see things in the text that he or she would not have seen if he or she had not started studying the text in the first place. Some best practices for this step would be as follows:
- Read the passage of Scripture several times, with as much of the literary context as possible.
- Write down the observations that you made about the text, especially those things that stick out to you.
- Underline or highlight anything in the passage that seems significant.
- Don't give yourself a time limit for this. Keep making observations until you feel comfortable with the amount of information that you have.
- Ask as many good questions as possible, including questions about the author, location, political circumstances, literary context, and cultural customs surrounding the letter.
- Allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. That is, never interpret a passage of Scripture in isolation from the rest of Scripture.
- Do not conflate your interpretation of a passage with what the passage actually says. Scripture is infallible. Our interpretations are not.