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Reflections on Inductive Bible Study, part 1 by Ajith Fernando
I was once teaching a week-long course to some first generation Christians active in Christian ministry on how to study the Bible and use it in ministry. I found that many of my students were latching on to an inspiring thought from the passages we were studying, forgetting the context in which that thought appears and ultimately missing out on the message of the passage. So I had to keep asking them over and over again questions like, "What does the passage really say?" "Why does Paul say that?" It was a desperate battle. At one time I was so concerned that I sent SOS text messages to about 20 people asking them to pray that somehow God will break through and help them to learn how to read and study the Bible. I think the basic problem was that they have not really learned to read!
The battle went on for the whole week until I believe God’s Spirit broke through to them. I am confident that those who persevere in using what they learned will develop skills for a lifetime of thrilling study of the Word. By the end of the course many of the students told me that they had never realised that there is so much to get from the Scriptures. The Bible says that ALL Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). I tried to explain to my students that by not looking at what the author, who was inspired by the Holy Spirit, intended to say we are actually showing disrespect to God who inspired the author to write what he did in the passage. We are making a personal decision that one particular statement which grabs our attention is what we must focus on rather than looking at the passage which God inspired and the message it conveys.
One of the students in this class asked me how one can read the difficult passages in the prophets without giving up out of boredom. As I thought about it, I realised that these passages are boring to some because there aren’t many of the "inspiring" thoughts in those passages which grab their attention and they latch on to. Instead, what we have is a message from God, burning in the prophet’s mind, which he wants to communicate to his audience. If we look for that message, we will find many very helpful insights into the mind of God. Even studying the prophets is not boring if you look for the overall message the prophet is seeking to communicate.
Having said this we must agree that there are times when God does grab us with a personal message from a single spot in a larger passage. But that is an exception to the rule. The God who inspired all of Scripture can send us a message through a little portion of the passage if he wants to. But he usually works through the message he wanted the biblical writer to convey. That is the message we must labour to discover.
The best way I know of getting at the main thrust of a passage and gleaning things we would otherwise miss is inductive Bible study. This is the method I use almost everyday when I read the Bible. I will be eternally grateful to God for giving me the opportunity of studying under two great advocates of Inductive Bible study—Robert A. Traina at Asbury Seminary and Daniel P. Fuller who was my Masters degree mentor at Fuller Seminary.
I can describe inductive study using two statements.
• Sitting with the attitude of a child: "I want to learn what God, my Father, has caused to be written in this passage to make me strong and grow."
• Looking with the skill of a detective—I do not want to miss any evidence in my search for what this passage really says, what it means, implies and tells me regarding my behaviour.
Usually inductive Bible study is divided into three steps: Observation, interpretation and application.
One of the many benefits of inductive study is that you begin to relish Bible study. Oletta Wald called her classic book on the topic, The Joy of Discovery. Despite all the talk about Postmoderns not being interested in objective truth—inductive study to find who is guilty of a crime is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the west. Mystery TV programmes and books continue to be immensely popular. The world still finds thrill in the discovery of truth.
Discovering biblical truth does not only give the short term thrill that the solving of a mystery gives—it gives life, it feeds the eternal joy that God has given us, it helps us to be moulded to what we were made to be—individuals conformed to the image of Christ. When we are what we were made to be, we have the shalom that God gives—his peace, his wholeness and his health. The basic thirst of life is gone as we drink of the living water. The basic hunger of life is gone as we taste and see that the Lord is good and feed on the Bread of life. But discovery of this water and bread has given rise to a new thirst, a new hunger—a hunger and a thirst for righteousness and for more of God. Getting this becomes a supreme ambition in life—with every discovery bringing more joy! And the surest source of discovering these things is the Bible.
This is a day of study Bibles and resources for every conceivable kind of person and every conceivable need in Bible study. A bookstore manager gave me a statistic of how many different editions of the English Bible there are about ten years ago—it was a few thousand. I was shocked then by the number, and I know that many more have been released since then! All these studies can obscure the message of the Bible. It can hinder us from digging into the text and experiencing the excitement of grappling with God’s Word. I believe many of these Bible study resources are very helpful. I am happy to say that the commentary section is my favourite section of my library. But other books must never take us away from looking at what the Bible says. This is the great value of inductive Bible study—it gets us into the text.
God used A. W. Tozer to place so many urgently needed truths before the church that he was called a twentieth century prophet. In the 1940s he published a few thoughts about studying the Bible which are much more urgently needed today than when he first wrote them. "To get to the root I recommend a plain text Bible and diligent application of two knees on the floor. Beware of too many footnotes." He argued that it "is a dangerous and costly practice to consult men every time we reach" a passage that is difficult to understand. By far "the best rule is: Go to God first about the meaning of the text."1
1) From Lyle Dorsett, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer (Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), p. 100.
Tomorrow, Ajith will blog on the importance of studying biblical languages in relation to inductive Bible study.
Ajith Fernando, ThM, DD, is national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka and a Bible expositor with a worldwide ministry. He studied at Asbury Theological Seminary and Fuller Seminary, and presently leads the English language minatory in Colombo. He is active in Colombo Theological Seminary as chairman of the academic affairs committee. He is the author of Acts in the NIV Application Commentary series.
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