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The Inductive Method of Bible Study

My first four blog posts demonstrated the importance of context. We looked at elements in the story of Samson that are better understood in their textual, historical, cultural and geographic context. They illustrated why we need a systematic approach to Bible study, but they did not tell you how to go about that study. This post will introduce you to the inductive method, or inductive approach, to Bible study.

As I state on my Before You Begin page, however, the whole purpose of this blog is to help struggling Christians develop the skills they need to dig deep into God’s Word. Today we’ll begin with the how, and we’ll do that through the inductive method mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

Don’t let the term intimidate you. It’s only a label for a way of processing information that you already use in everyday life. The inductive approach takes you from the particulars to the general. In contrast, the deductive approach begins with the general and moves into the specifics.

What Does Inductive Method Mean?

If I looked up every verse in the Bible that includes the word love, I would be starting with the general concept – in this case, love – and moving to specific statements about love. Topical studies, such as this one, are deductive. They provide an overview of a subject, but rarely do they offer deep insight.

An inductive approach, on the other hand, might begin with me closely reading 1 Corinthians 13, probably multiple times. I would jot down things I noticed each time I read the passage, and I would examine the context. I would consider who wrote the chapter, and to whom. For key words in the passage, I would look at the Greek behind the English translation. Only after spending time with the text would the general thrust of the passage become clear. That’s moving from the specifics to the general. That’s inductive!

There are three basic elements, or stages, to the inductive method: observation, interpretation and application. All three are important, as is the order.

Look. Really Look!

First you will want to observe. To do that, you must read a section of Scripture as many times as possible. “How many is that?” you ask. I can’t really tell you because any number I choose would be completely arbitrary. I will say this, though. The more you examine the text, the more you’ll see. (Okay, I give up! Here’s an arbitrary number: six. Why six? That’s the arbitrary number Professor Hartley used when I took his Seminar in Biblical Interpretation 27 years ago!)

As you read a passage, jot down any words or ideas that seem to be stressed. Do the same for words that are repeated, especially if they appear three or more times. Is there a reference to some animal you don’t recognize, or a farm implement? What about some custom that doesn’t make sense to you?

Make a note of anything that stands out or seems odd. Do this every time you read through the passage. If you’re like me, you might jot an idea down your second time through a section of Scripture, add to it the fourth time, scratch something out the fifth time.… You get the point!

One of the Best Inductive “Tools”

After you’ve spent some time really looking at the text, you’ll undoubtedly begin to have questions. Great! Write those questions down, no matter how insignificant they may seem. And keep on asking them. How far did they travel? Where is ___? How big is ___? Why did he react that way? How could she be so brave?

You’ll find that questions end up being some of the best Bible study tools you’ve ever used. That’s because they take you from being a passive recipient, yawning as you read, to poring over Scripture trying to find the answer to each of your questions!

Interpreting a Passage

Once you’ve completed the observation stage, you will have put yourself into the shoes of the original audience. You’ll have a good understanding of all the elements that affected their thinking. You’ll see the nuances of Scripture you might have missed before. You’ll be ready to interpret the passage fairly and honestly.

Outlining a passage is the first step in interpretation. Perhaps that sounds strange, but consider this. To outline a passage, you have to understand its structure. That means seeing the big picture, and how the small pieces fit together. The outline is something like a road map that will help you analyze and interpret what you have read within the framework of the passage.

What Does This Mean to Me?

The final stage of the inductive method is application. Once you understand what Scripture meant to the original audience, you’ll be equipped to extend and apply that message to your life.

But if you put the cart before the horse, applying Scriptures you don’t really understand to your 21st Century life, you may end up with some strange ideas. By following these steps, you’ll be much less likely to misunderstand a text. And you’ll find that studying your Bible is a much richer experience!

Next Week’s Assignment

This is just the beginning of your journey. We’ll discuss more about the observation stage of the inductive method next week. In the meantime, try this technique out with the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. Don’t limit yourself to the parable. Read the whole chapter, and do that six times, writing down your observations and your questions.

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