The best description of inductive Bible study I’ve heard is this: a way of studying what is “in-duh-Bible.” Funny, but true.
If you’ve been around Bible study for any length of time, chances are you’ve heard about the inductive method. And maybe you have the general sense that it’s good to study inductively but are unclear exactly what people mean when they use that term. Well, the concept of inductive study usually refers to a series of questions we can ask about a passage of Scripture—what does it say? (observation or comprehension), what does it mean? (interpretation), and what do I do? (application). These questions will help us understand the Bible more faithfully.
What Does it Say?
(Observation or Comprehension)
The first part of observation is looking at the context. I had a professor in seminary who began every class the exact same way. He would start a sentence, and we, in unison, would respond.
Jay: Shalom, class.
Class: Shalom, Jay.
Jay: Start with the Bible . . .
Class: Not with the commentaries.
Jay: Context is . . .
It was his way of ingraining in us the very basic truth that every biblical text is rooted in a context—three different types of contexts, to be precise: literary, historical, and redemptive-historical (also called theological, biblical, or canonical).
Literary context is exactly what it sounds like—it accounts for the literature of and around the text. The first thing we do is identify the genre the author chose to use. The Bible contains multiple different forms of writing: poetry, narrative, law, wisdom, prophecy, letters (called epistles), and apocalyptic. And it is important to first identify the genre because the genre will dictate how we are to understand the passage.
To use a classic example, Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV). This is a proverb, not a promise. Proverbs are part of wisdom literature and are generalized truth statements based on observation of the way the world usually works. This means if our children depart from the way we trained them, it’s not that God hasn’t made good on a promise. But the general statement of truth still holds—and we have hope while we wait and ask God to make this true in the life of our children.
After we account for the genre, we look to see what words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books surround the passage we’re studying.
I think of it as concentric circles as you move out from your passage. Tim Keller said, “. . . the meaning is discovered by looking at context, context, context. To understand the meaning of a sentence, we must ask, ‘How does this verse fit within the rest of the passage?’ To understand the meaning of the passage, we must ask, ‘How does this fit within the rest of the book?’”1
Look at the passage you’re studying in the context of the surrounding passages. Do the passages that come immediately before or after add any insight? Where does this passage fit into the flow of the entire book? What does it contribute? Why is the author telling this story at this particular point in his writing?
Literary Context helps us to see what the author is highlighting.
Historical Context is also what it sounds like—it involves considering the world in which the text is located. We ask questions about the cultures, customs, languages, and historical events occurring at the time the text was written. And we pay close attention to both who the author and audience were.
Understanding the original audience—the person or group of people to whom the book was first written—is crucial in the process of faithful interpretation. I had a professor who used to say that the Bible was written for you, but it was not written to you! And, if we are going to understand any text, we have to first understand what it meant to whom it was written, the first audience. As Gordon Fee said, “a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers.”2
Which means, the question is not, “What does this text mean to me?”, but instead, “What did this text mean to them?”
So, for historical context, we ask questions like: Who was the author? To whom was he writing? Why was he writing? What was the setting? What was happening in the world of the original audience?
Lastly, we want to consider the Redemptive-Historical Context. This accounts for where and how a particular text fits into the overarching story of the Bible. The Bible’s story is progressive (meaning, we know more about God at the end of the story than we did at the beginning). So we want to ask questions like: What do the people the passage is written to or about know about God at this point in the story? What covenants govern this era of the story? Is this before or after the Law was given? Is this before or after Jesus’s death and resurrection?
The last tools of observation involve simply slowing down to read and reread the text. We want to pay attention to the details! We look for repeated words, synonyms, verb tenses, contrasts, and comparisons. I like to print the entire passage out with room to mark and take notes as I spend time reading and rereading.
What Does it Mean?
Only after we’ve spent time looking at what the text says can we begin to ask what the text might mean.
The tendency for most of us is to start with this question. But to faithfully interpret Scripture, we need to first account for everything we’ve talked about so far: genre, context, original audience, author, and so forth.
I’ve found one of the most helpful tools to use as we interpret Scripture is to look at what is called the Fallen Condition Focus.3 This involves thinking as the original audience again and asking: What was going on in their lives that required this text to be written to them? What were they struggling with?
We look to see if the original audience was fallen, fragile, faltering, or finite. Sometimes, the original audience was struggling with a sin problem—they were fallen. But not everything in Scripture (or in life) is a sin problem. Human beings, both in the world of the Bible as well as now, are also fragile, faltering, and finite. Jonah faltered when he got on the ship to Tarshish; the Israelites were fragile when they were afraid of Goliath; and Peter was finite when he confessed Jesus was the Christ but had no idea what that actually meant!
Looking for the FCF is one of the most helpful tools you can use as you seek to faithfully interpret the passage.
What Do I Do?
The Bible is not a book that is meant only to be understood; it is meant to change us. Meaning: we don’t study the Bible to merely be informed; we study the Bible to be transformed.
Because that is the end goal—not just knowledge, but a transformed life. We want our study of God’s Word to transform every bit of us: what we think, how we think, what we do, how we act, how we react, how we feel, what we love, our hopes, desires, agendas, ambitions—everything about us!
So, we don’t just study a passage and ask what it says and what it means. We ask God to show us what a faithful response looks like. We ask questions like: How did the author want his audience to respond? Is there a truth I am to believe, a command I am to obey, a change I am to make, or a sin I am to confess? Am I being called to worship, trust, rest, believe, or repent?
God gave us His Word so that we would know Him. It is living and active and, by His Spirit, He illumes it for us; He opens our eyes and gives us ears to hear. He acts on us through His Word and uses it to conform us more and more and more into the image of Jesus. So study His Word faithfully. It will not return void.
If you want to learn more about how to study your Bible, check out Lifeway Women Academy—online, on demand courses for women, by women on topics like hermeneutics, theology, and more. You’ll learn from teachers like Jen Wilkin, Elizabeth Woodson, Courtney Doctor, and more.
- Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 38.
- Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 74.
- Bryan Chapell originally coined the term, but Zack Eswine expanded it and included the last three categories: faltering, finite, and fragile.
Courtney Doctor is an author and Bible teacher. She received an MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary in 2013 and is the author of In View of God’s Mercies, a 9-session study on the book of Romans, From Garden to Glory: A Bible Study on the Bible’s Story, Steadfast: A Devotional Bible Study on the Book of James, and co-author of Remember Your Joy: A Bible Study of Salvation Stories in the Old Testament. She currently serves as the Coordinator of Women’s Initiatives for The Gospel Coalition. Her greatest desire in all of this is to be able to faithfully study, apply, and teach the Word of God and help others to do the same.
God has blessed Courtney and her husband, Craig, with four wonderful children, two amazing daughters-in-law, five precious grandchildren, and a spunky Bernedoodle named Walter. Find her online at courtneydoctor.org.