Whether you’re new to Bible study or just need a new approach, inductive Bible study is a simple method with proven results.
What is inductive Bible study?
Simply put, inductive Bible study is a three-step process you can bring to any text in the Bible to help you understand, interpret, and apply what you’re reading. In short, an inductive approach to the Scriptures is one way to allow the Word of God to shape your life.
So how do we get started?
It may seem obvious, but the first step to effective Bible study is to read a passage of Scripture. We read things all day long—emails, text messages, street signs, blog posts—but the type of reading we need for inductive Bible study is a bit more intentional.
Pretend you’re trying to solve a mystery. To do so, you’ll have to pay careful attention to all the details and ask yourself some basic questions. Like a good journalist or detective, don’t take anything for granted. As you read and reread, ask the following questions of the passage you’re studying:
- Who? Who are the people or groups mentioned in the text?
- What? What are the actions or events taking place? Also, what objects figure into the story? What important or strange words are used? Are any repeated?
- Why? Why is a figure or group acting in a certain way? Can you discern motives? (It’s important to stick with what Scripture actually says rather than jump to conclusions.)
- Where? Are any place names mentioned? Does the passage involve a change of scene from one location to another?
- When? Are there any clues related to the year or time period? Can you determine the time of day or day of the week? Are there any seasonal festivals mentioned?
- How? Look for words that indicate how something is happening. Does the text indicate something miraculous took place? (Don’t assume—just stick with what can be read plainly.)
You may need to read the passage several times to catch everything. It may be helpful to read through once or twice for each of the six questions.
Record your observations. Some people simply use a notebook. Others use a color-coded system to mark the pages of their Bible. There’s no right or wrong way to jot down what you’ve observed; the important thing is that you do it.
Take note of important words and words you don’t immediately understand. But don’t forget the little words—conjunctions and prepositions. These reveal connections, so don’t skip over them.
Now that we’ve soaked up what the Bible passage we’re studying actually says, it’s time to focus on what it means. Essentially, we’re attempting to discover what the author was trying to communicate to his original audience.
To do this, we’ll need to ask ourselves some more questions:
- What is the historical and cultural background of this passage?
- Who wrote this book of the Bible? What was the purpose? Occasion?
- What is the genre of literature? Is it poetry or narrative? Prophecy or correspondence?
It’s best to try to answer these questions on your own before consulting “the professionals,” but it’s fine to fill in the gaps with a good study Bible or commentary. Just remember to check against the text of Scripture to make sure what you’re learning is accurate.
This is also a good time to review your own observations and make double-sure you haven’t made any assumptions of the text. Believe it or not this is much easier to do with the passages of Scripture we know by heart.
Use a Bible with a cross-reference system, and be sure to read the other passages of Scripture connected to your passage. The Bible is often the best interpreter of the Bible.
You may also want to read your passage again in several English translations. The commonalities and differences between translations will help you notice points of agreement and disagreement between Bible scholars as to the plain meaning of a verse.
- The simplest meaning of a text is often the right one.
- If your proposed interpretation couldn’t have been what the passage’s original audience would’ve understood, it cannot be the right one.
- Be sure you’re not twisting Scripture to accommodate your own preconceptions.
- Look for echoes of the gospel in your passage. The Holy Spirit is the Author of all Scripture, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find Jesus in places we might not expect.
Learning about Scripture can be rewarding, but filling our heads with Bible knowledge is never enough.
Remember what James said about the Word of God: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” Our goal with Bible study must always be to apply it to our lives.
This final step of the inductive Bible study method is to determine what the passage we’re studying means for us today.
Remember those six questions we asked at the beginning, back in the observation stage—Who? What? Why? Where? When? How? Now it’s time to ask those same questions again, but with our own lives in view.
Keep in mind that application doesn’t always involve doing something. Sometimes the application of a text requires a change of mind or heart.
Inductive Bible study isn’t the only way to approach Scripture, but the method offers a powerful tool that anyone can use to draw near to God.
Over to you
Bible study is a lifelong journey, so keep your notes. Looking back a few years from now, you’ll be amazed at how far God has taken you.