Originally published September 28th, 2008
In as much as several of you lately, and many over
the years have asked how I go about Bible Study and why I think my approach is a
good one, I have decided to blog on that topic.
First off, I do three different types of Bible studies. Expository, topical, and word studies.
As I define the terms, an expository study is one were I select a passage, a chapter, a whole book, or some other contiguous grouping of words from the Bible, and then go verse by verse, looking at the verse, it’s context, the intended audience, the historical setting and any parallel or related passages, to gain an understanding of the grouping of words which I am examining.
I would say that a topical study, would be an examination of a specific subject, such as abortion, the rapture, tithing, marriage, etc.
Finally, a word study is where I begin by looking at a word in a verse or verses in English, where either I am uncertain of it’s usage, or just want to more fully understand it’s significance and nuances, Then look ate the original Greek or Hebrew word that was translated into the specific English word at the location in question. Once having identified the original language word, I then look at every occurrence of that word in the Greek or Hebrew to see the ways the word is used, and also consult works written for the purpose of original language study, such as Lexicons.
My favorite type is the topical study, but the methods I use are based on principles that can be applied not only in these different studies, but can be applied to other historical literature as well as current literature.
There are rules of interpretation than most conservative theologians agree upon. By and large, they look to me to be good common sense rules, so I try to stick to them. This minimizes the “that’s your interpretation” phenomenon, which is so silly. I prefer to have a good interpretation any day, than MY interpretation. Many of these rules come from traditional Jewish rules of interpretation. Now immediately, we must concede, that there are obviously limitations to these rules, or most Jews would have recognized their Messiah. The problem is, that we are human, we make mistakes, and we bring our own prejudices and preconceptions to the interpretive table. It is true for me, it is true for you also. So, sound rules are a foundation for understanding the Bible in a consistent manner, they are there to help you see past your own prejudices, but they will only work if you are willing to be consistent, and not change the rules to suit an interpretation you prefer.
So what are some of these rules? In no particular order.
Always examine a verse or passage in it’s context
This means that you look at the verses leading up to that passage, and following, so that you can see what the cubject actually is, being discussed. Ignore the chapter heading and number, these are man-made, it is up to you to determine when a subject begins and ends. Examining a passage in context, also involves not just reading and understanding the nearby verses, but also identify who is being addressed in a passage, for whom is the message intended. Sometimes it is a specific individual, some times Israel, sometimes the church, sometimes it applies universally to mankind, determine this. The historical context is also important, Understanding things about a time and place, can affect how you understand the passage. Context, is one of the most important aspects of Biblical interpretation.
Okay, suppose we have done all that. We have arrived at what we think the verse is saying and to whom. Remember that the scriptures are divinely inspired. Therefore, they will never contradict each other. We can use that to help us check our understanding of a verse or passage in question. The next rule is:
Compare Scripture with Scripture
Here, we search out other passages on the same topic. For example, let’s say we examined the ten commandments, and saw there: “Thou shalt not kill.” We have now the understanding that it is always wrong to kill. However, as we read in other places in the Bible, we find that God ordains wars, and prescribes putting people to death for certain crimes. Knowing that the God does not contradict himself, we understand that we must have a faulty understanding of “thou shalt not kill”. This brings us to another rule of interpretation.
Examine the Verse in the Original Language
Time was when you had to own quite a library to follow all of these rules effectively. In modern times, there are theological libraries in the form of software, which are substantially less expensive than they would be in printed form. Additionally, many of these helps are online. Go and experiment with sites such as blueletterbible.org, biblestudytools.com, and/or biblehub.com. You will find many things to aid your understanding on those sites. In the case of thou shalt not kill, we would find that a better translation of the Hebrew would have been “You shall do no murder”.
Another tool which is indispensable is a concordance. A concordance let’s you look up Bible verses by words that exist in English in the verse. For example, if you looked up the word “locusts”, you would discover the word occurs in 17 verses. The concordance would show you part of the verse - a partial context. This is useful if you want to find verses that have a word in common with a verse you are examining. Seeing the context, lets you see if the verse is related to the topic you are studying, or to the verse you are studying, In the Gospels for instance, the different authors some times have additional details that another Gospel writer left out. Perhaps you are wanting to find a particular verse you are thinking of, a concordance can be useful for that. This can also be done with online Bible search sites.
The next ones are not rules, but recommendations. Read a passage in several translations. Translations are not all alike, nor equally good, and none is without error. Most are pretty good for casual reading of the scriptures, but by reading a passage in a different version, you can often uncover some nuance, that you may want to explore further.
Additionally, it is a good idea to to read about a given passage in a commentary or two, or three. In that way, you reap the benefit of the work that someone has already put into understanding the passage you are looking at. Here again, none is without error. In fact, by reading commentaries, you may come across views you never considered. Consider them, but stick with the Bible text itself, which brings me to the next rule.
Let Scripture Interpret Scripture
What do we mean by that? Sometimes a verse you may be considering, is already discussed in another passage in the Bible. Since the Bible is inspired by God, you have to accept the Bible’s explanation of itself. How would you know that a passage is commented on in another section in the Bible? My primary answer is read the Bible until you are familiar with it. I realize than not everyone will follow this advice, so there are other ways. The commentaries I spoke of, will often point such passages out. A good reference Bible, such as Thompson’s Chain Referance Bible, will show related passages - a very helpful tool.
When reading a passage, assume it is literal,
unless there is a compelling reason not to.
In John 10:9 (NASB) Jesus says:
“I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.”
A literal translation of that would be to think of Jesus claiming to be a slab of wood on a hinge. There is no need to be so literal. The context of the passage will usually indicate what the author was saying. Parables and visions, similes and metaphors are frequently used in the bible. There is an excellent book on parable and metaphors, learn to spot them. Some times it may not be so obvious:
after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, that I may awaken him out of sleep.” 12 The disciples therefore said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. 14 Then Jesus therefore said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead",
In the passage above, we see that even the disciples took things too literally.
Understand the Historical Background
This takes some digging, but it is most helpful to understand figures of speech, customs and historical circumstances surrounding a passage. Where is the author, why is he there? To whom is he writing and why? These type of things are very useful to stay aware of. For example, some passages are written directly to a person of a people, and may not apply universally. Strive to avoid interpreting through the eyes of your own experience and culture. A helpful tool for this is the book: "The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah"
Keep with precedents
Some people love inventing new meanings for words. Understand what the words meant when they were written from the original languages, if you are working in your own language, understand the meaning of the word when they were translated. For example, you may run across the word “quick” in the King James Version. Quick meant ‘living’ or ‘alive’ in 1611, not ‘fast’. Many modern commentators have erred by insisting that certain words mean certain things that they did not mean when written, don’t make the same mistake and don’t make the mistake of assuming that what they say is true, do your own research.
Use Common Logic
This one seems like a no-brainer that I should not even have to mention. Ask yourself, if a given understanding of a passage makes sense. Be careful here though, not everyone thinks alike. When I say to ask if it makes sense, I don’t mean does it make sense to you! I mean is the conclusion a rational one given the words used, the circumstances etc. is it where the majority of scriptural evidence points you? Don’t make the mistake of using you logic to over-rule the plain revelation of scripture. For example, I don’t like hell. It makes no sense to me that such a place would exist, why punish someone eternally for things done during the short span of a lifetime. However, I must keep in mind, that my thoughts are not His thoughts, and my ways are not His ways, so, I go with what scripture plainly teaches - there is a Hell.
Recognize and determine the validity of inference
This is similar to the above. You may find it difficult, for example, to discover a verse that indicates God is a triune being. However, you might fine a verse that refers to a person known as the Holy Spirit, and that the person is called God. You might find a reference to the fact that there is a person called the Father, who is also called God. Then you may find a reference to a person who is called the Son, again, He is called God also. You will find verses that indicate the these person are distinct. You will also find versed that categorically state that there is only one God. Putting them all together, we realize that there are three separate persons who are each God, and there is only one God. Therefore, the three persons are the one God. That is inference. For some, this makes no sense, I have no problem with it. This is a case however, where you may have to suspend what you think is logic, and accept that this is what is revealed in scripture, we have no right to over-ride revelation with our opinions.
Recognize the unity of scripture
The 66 books that make up the Bible each has it’s own story to tell. However, there is one author behind each of them, and He has His story to tell as well. When you read and study the Bible, be aware that there are themes that thread their way through the various books of the Bible, some books cannot be fully understood without the benefit of the other books. If you have an interpretation of a passage, that is a contradiction to another passage, then you have not reached a correct understanding, for God does not contradict Himself.
There may be more that I am forgetting, I will add them in if they occur to me, but that is the way that I approach the study of the scriptures, I hope some of these principles, are ones that you will find helpful in your own studies. Be Blessed!
Ω Omegaman 2.0
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