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The Inductive Method of Bible Study - The Basics

Inductive Bible study consists of three component parts, which we will look at separately, but which frequently overlap in practice. These three parts are observation, interpretation, and application.

Observation answers the question: What does the passage say?  It is the foundation which must be laid if you want to accurately interpret and properly apply God's Word. Have you ever read a book, chapter, or verse of the Bible and five minutes later been unable to remember anything you have read? So often we read the Bible with our eyes but not with our mind. There are several reasons for this. Either

  • we think God's Word will magically make an impression on us without any effort on our part, or
  • we don't really believe we can understand what we've read, or
  • we are waiting for the pastor to teach on this section of Scripture so we'll know what to believe.

Often, however, we forget what we have read simply because we don't know what to look for in the text. Therefore, in the first part of this book you are going to learn what to look for when you read your Bible.

Because observation is discovering what the passage is saying, it requires time and practice. You'll discover that the more you read and get to know a book of the Bible, the more its truths will become obvious to you. You'll be awed at the wealth of spiritual riches contained in even the shortest books of the Bible—and you will have discovered it yourself! You will know that you know!

Interpretation answers the question:  What does the passage mean? And the basis for accurate interpretation is always careful observation.  Interpretation is the process of discovering what the passage means. As you carefully observe Scripture, the meaning will become apparent. However, if you rush into interpretation without laying the vital foundation of accurate observation, your understanding will be colored  by  your  presuppositions—what you think, what you feel, or what other people have said, rather than what God's Word says.

Interpretation is not necessarily a separate step from observation, for often, as you carefully observe the text, at that very moment you begin to see what it means. Thus, interpretation flows out of observation.

However, interpretation can also involve separate actions or steps that go beyond merely observing the immediate text.  One of these exercises is investigating cross-references. First and foremost, let Scripture interpret Scripture. You may also use other helps, such as word studies or the evaluation of resources such as commentaries and Bible dictionaries to check your conclusions or to supplement your understanding of the historical or cultural setting of the text.

What we are going to do is to give you principles of interpretation and  offer  special  sections  to  guide  you  in  handling  different  types  of writing, including figures of speech, parables, and allegories. We'll also show you how to do word studies and how to use Bible study tools that will greatly enhance your learning.  It's going to be exciting—and so enlightening!

Application answers the question:  How does the meaning of this passage apply to me? Usually this is the first thing we want to know when we read the Bible, but proper application actually begins with belief which then results in being and doing. Once you know what a passage means, you are not only responsible for putting it into practice in your own life, but accountable if you don't!  Ultimately, then, the goal of personal Bible study is a transformed life and a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ.

Application is not a third step in the inductive process. Rather, application  takes  place  as  you  are  confronted  with  truth  and  decide  to respond in obedience to that truth. The basis for application is 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

When you know what God says, what He means, and how to put His truths into practice, you will be equipped for every circumstance of life. To be equipped for every good work of life—totally prepared to handle every situation in a way that honors God—is not only possible, it is God's will. And that's what you will learn how to do if you will apply these study principles. Oh, the hundreds of stories we could tell you about what God has done because people disciplined themselves to know His Word in this way. It would thrill your heart! But right now stories aren't our  purpose; getting you into the Word  inductively is! Then, friend, you can tell your own story! We'd love to hear it!

When you know what God says, what He means, and how to put His truths into practice, you will be equipped for every circumstance of life.

 How Observation, Interpretation, and Application Relate to Each Other

Accurate interpretation and correct application rest on the accuracy of your observations. Therefore, it is vital that you develop observation skills, even if at first they seem time-consuming or you feel less than adequate and even awkward doing them. Studying inductively is a learning process that does not happen overnight.  It happens by doing—doing over and over again, until the doing becomes almost a habit, and a wonderful one at that.

As  you  go  through  the  inductive  process,  you'll  sometimes  find observation, interpretation, and application happening simultaneously. God can give you insight at any point in your study, so be sensitive to His leading. When words or passages make an impression on you, stop for a moment and meditate on what God has shown you. Bring the plumb line of truth against what you believe and how you are living.

When you know what God says, what He means, and how to put His truths into practice, you will be equipped for every circumstance of life.

Through a diligent study of God's Word, under the guidance of His Spirit, you'll drop a strong anchor that will hold in the storms of life. You will know your God. And when you know your God, not only will you be strong, but you will do great exploits for Him (Daniel 11:32).

Kay Arthur and her husband, Jack, are the founders of Precept Ministries International. This ministry reaches hundreds of thousands of people internationally through "Precept Upon Precept" Bible studies and Kay's radio and television program Precepts for Life. Kay is the bestselling author of more than 100 books and Bible studies, and is also the active spokeswoman for The New Inductive Study Bible.

Article adapted from How to Study the Bible by Kay Arthur (Harvest House Publishers © 2001.)