Bible Study Methods

Our approach to this passage of scripture (Acts 10:1 – 11:18) will be different than the highly-detailed approach we’ve taken in the past.  Luke’s narrative is a straightforward historical account, with a certain amount of repetition.  While there are some great word studies available to the reader in this passage, our understanding of the passage as a whole is more important. 

I don’t know what your study methods are, but it’s time to teach you what I mean by “study.”  Long ago I explained the three steps in inductive Bible study: observe, interpret, and apply — in that order!  I have spent most of my time in this blogsite doing that for you, holding you to what the words of scripture say (without clouding them with previously-learned orthodox interpretations) and then explaining what those words mean from a dispensational perspective.  Now we need to delve a little more deeply into methods of observation in order to do justice to our pending passage.

I can hear the moaning and groaning already!  I won’t take the time to remind you that God created you in His image (which includes the ability to think rationally) and gave you the Holy Spirit (who opens your understanding to the Bible’s truths) — just like Paul didn’t remind Philemon how much he owed him! (Philemon 19).  But claims like “I’m not smart enough” aside, sometimes believers reject good Bible study methods because of their association with a couple of other areas. 

(1) Sometimes these Bible study methods are called analytical Bible study methods.  That’s a misnomer, as it puts us in a position of authority over the Scriptures, implying that we somehow come from a position of superior intelligence.  This method is inductive, whereby we rationally gather the facts and distill understanding from them.  This places the Word of God in authority over us, not the other way around.  Believers are wary when they hear the word “analytical” partly because they have heard it associated with “analytical criticism” (“higher criticism”), a view of the Bible that leads to all sorts of claims that the Bible isn’t historically accurate or trustworthy.  So I’m not leading you into higher criticism and its heresies.  We’re headed for using the brain God gave you in smart, productive ways.

(2) It’s scientific!  (Now there’s a statement to make any modern believer suck in his breath!)  Calm down… I didn’t say it agreed with modern science’s claims.  You deserve to know that the scientists who began the Scientific Revolution hundreds of years ago were believers, and you will spend eternity with them.  They developed the “scientific method” to help them understand the world around them more accurately and reliably.  Contrary to many “scientists” today, they believed that the universe was created by the same intelligent Creator-God who we know as our personal Savior.  And because He was the ultimate thinker and organizer, they believed that the physical universe would yield up its secrets to an organized method of investigation because the universe itself was created according to an organized pattern, not self-arisen from chaos.  Their approach, this “scientific method”, would insure that the facts came first, and their understanding of how the universe worked would always remain subject to those facts.  Hmmm… now that should start to sound familiar!  In a nutshell, the scientific method (by which most of our understanding and progress arose) has four simple steps:

  • Observe the Phenomenon
  • State a Hypothesis (a proposed explanation)
  • Test the Hypothesis (do experiments to see if it’s right)
  • Improve the Hypothesis (fix the parts of the hypothesis that the experiments showed were wrong)

The steps above are then repeated over and over, each time resulting in an improved hypothesis — or ultimate rejection of the hypothesis for lack of evidence!  This repetitive nature of the scientific method is what drives science forward, for good or for evil.  Sometimes the scientific community leaves this pure method and gets stuck on the ideas of one great man.  It took the Royal College of London a hundred and forty years to concede that its own Isaac Newton’s ideas about the nature of gases were just wrong.  Someday the scientific community may look back on evolution the same way, and for the same reason — it was blinded by their own desire to remove God from the equation and their making of Charles Darwin into their demigod.

You will see that the study methods I am about to describe mirror the scientific method in some ways.  Please don’t be so foolish as to think I am saying the Bible can be proved scientifically.  On the contrary, once the facts are revealed, they must be accepted by faith!  The scientific method and the Bible study methods I’ll describe shortly are not a method of proof, but rather a method to make sure we have the facts right before we move forward.

Third, we must be good problem-solvers.  This isn’t an area where believers object, they just don’t know how to do it.  Computer programmers (like me) and janitors (like my friend Merri) do it, and so can you.  Some problems are too big to solve by themselves.  The way to do it is to divide and conquer.  See if you can divide the problem into a few smaller problems that can be solved, and when you have solved those, the big problem will be solved.  Sending an email message to a grandchild can be quite a challenge for a grandparent who hasn’t grown up with computers.  But if we break this problem into the smaller problems of turning on the computer, opening the email program, composing the email message, sending the email message, and closing the email program, it’s not so insurmountable.  Each of these sub-problems can also be broken down into smaller problems as well.

To me, studying means applying these tools in my study toolbox to get rational, believable and truthful understanding of the passage.  Reading through the Bible in a year, meditation, prayer (although important to this process), memorization, group discussions, study guides, and a zillion other approaches we’re told we should use as good Christians will not accomplish what these tools do.  All of those other methods maintain and improve our relationship with God, but are not very good at improving our knowledge of God.  And if we have incomplete (or worse, warped) knowledge of Him, our relationship to Him will be correspondingly flawed.

I am indebted to Hans Finzel, author of Unlocking the Scriptures — A Fresh, New Look at Inductive Bible Study (Victor Books, 1986, Wheaton IL, ISBN 0-89693-276-1).  Dr. Finzel, currently President of World Venture (http://www.worldventure.com/prespage.aspx?aliaspath=/News-And-Prayer/PresidentsPage/Bio) has done a masterful job of bringing time-tested rational Bible study methods down from the realm of theological academia to the level of the average believer.  The book is in study-guide format, and I strongly encourage all Christians to get a copy and work through it.

Under the category of Observation, here’s my personalized version of Dr. Finzel’s three-layered approach:

  • Observe the Whole Passage (read it straight through two or three times)
    • Write down your initial impressions, expecting to hone them later as you study (your hypothesis)
    • Write down overall facts — who, what, when, where (but not why!)
  • Observe the Parts (make an outline, begin testing your hypothesis, and divide and conquer)
    • Divide the passage into a few main sections (don’t necessarily use the sections provided by the editors of your particular Bible)
      • Make each main section a main point in the outline, giving it an appropriate title of your own
      • Write down why you decided to start and end the section where you did
    • Take each section from the previous step and apply the same process again, dividing your main sections into subsections and making each subsection an indented point in the outline
    • Look for relationships between sections and subsections (critical to interpretation later!) and note them next to your outline, such as:
      • comparisons (A is the same as B)
      • contrasts (A is the opposite of B)
      • repetition (literary triplets for emphasis, etc.)
      • cause and effect (because A happened, B followed; key word “therefore”)
      • explanation (premise A means explanation B)
      • illustration (premise A can be understood through parable B)
      • climax (because of A, B is great)
      • pivot (because of A the world is changed)
      • interchange (trading of ideas between characters)
      • preparation (training for future events and actions)
      • summary (A, B and C come together as D)
      • conclusion (logical sequence of statements that culminate in a final statement; key word “therefore”)
      • question posed and answered (rhetorical question and answer – “What then, shall we sin that grace may abound? Never!”)
    • Observe the Details (improve your hypothesis)
      • at each level of your outline, write in
        • Who (characters)
        • What (specific detailed events, statements, etc.)
        • Where (specific locations of action, characters, etc.)
        • When (time of day, season of year, etc.)
      • research the background of the passage
        • cultural and religious customs that might explain characters’ choices and actions
        • political structures that influenced the story
        • geographic characteristics and limitations (travel conditions, distances, etc.)
        • historical back-story leading up to the events of the passage
      • word studies (What words did the author use in the original language? Do they mean what we think they mean?)
      • parallel passages (find other passages that address the same issue and compare your findings to them)

This may all seem a bit overwhelming (okay, a lot…), but we’re only going to do the basic outline process in this blog post.  One other suggestion — the advent of personal computers has made it really easy to build a general outline, and then go back and expand it by inserting points between existing lines.  I can’t imagine trying to do this with pencil and paper!

I’ll bring this post to a close for now with this pair of quotes from the early pages of Hans Finzel’s book (pp. 8,9):

“Why do some pastors, Bible teachers, and Christian writers squeeze so much out of each verse, while others seem to draw a blank as they stare at the same sacred pages?  Could it be that some know how to search for the spiritual treasures of Scripture and others don’t?”

“So who’s got the key that will unlock the Scriptures?  You do!  The Bible is an open book to anyone who wants to unlock its truths, provided they are willing to bring to their study three ingredients that make up the key — time, a heart that is submitted to Jesus Christ, and a method of study.  With these key ingredients, you can unlock the Scriptures!”

Assignment: Read Acts 10:1 – 11:18 straight through three times and write down a few initial impressions.

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