Reading, understanding, interpreting, and properly applying the word of God to life and ministry is the work of Bible study. The essence of this work is the systematic and methodical analysis of the biblical text. The methods that one uses to understand the text of Scripture will vary in keeping with one’s presuppositions concerning the nature of the Bible and the preunderstandings of the interpreter. A methodical study of the Bible considers the nature and state of the biblical text, the issues related to the interpreter, and a procedure for discovering authorial intent.
The Nature of the Bible
Revelation. We begin with the assumption (or presupposition) that the Bible is the revealed word of God, the contents of which were progressively made known to authors guided by the Holy Spirit. God guided the authors of Scripture, using their personalities and writing styles, so that the canonical books of the Bible were composed exactly as God intended. These books in their original form are inspired and inerrant. The word of God is true and trustworthy and thus a reliable rule for faith and practice.
The ability of God to communicate with his creation, along with his desire to make himself known to his human creatures, is the essence of revelation. The preservation of God’s communication, the revelation of his will to people in the word of God, is what makes the Bible a unique literary document, distinguished from all other literary productions. God manifests himself in a general way to all people through creation and conscience (general revelation) and in a special way to select individuals at particular times (special revelation). These communications and manifestations are available now only by consulting certain sacred writings. The revelation given by God and recorded by people in the canon of Scripture is what God spoke in the past. However, the living and abiding nature of the word (Heb. 4:12) spoken in a past, historical context continues to be relevant. The voice of God can still be heard today. Just as revelation determines how theology is formulated, so revelation determines how a biblical text is to be read in the process of literary analysis.
Given the nature of the Bible’s origin, it is historically accurate in what it teaches. This accuracy is not limited to spiritual and doctrinal issues; it is inseparably connected with the historical and factual. Thus, when the Bible makes reference to political and historical figures, it speaks with authority and accuracy.
Accessibility and clarity. The word of God is a written text revealed and inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16–17), who engaged about fifty authors over a period of approximately eleven hundred years. The OT text was originally recorded in Hebrew and Aramaic (Gen. 31:47; Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–26; Jer. 10:11). The NT text was originally recorded in Koine Greek. Since the text was composed using the languages and literary conventions of the day, it was written to be intelligible and understandable. The biblical text has been distributed throughout the world and translated into just about every major language, so that the text continues to be accessible to many people today.
As Martin Luther observes in The Bondage of the Will, the clarity of the Bible is twofold. There is external clarity that can be discerned through the laws of grammar, and there is internal clarity attained through the work of the Holy Spirit illuminating the reader of Scripture. Related to these points is the perspicuity of Scripture, which refers to the clarity of Scripture in its main points. Unnuanced, these principles can create unfortunate misunderstandings. The clarity and perspicuity of Scripture relate to the result or the outcome of Bible study and only to major teachings. The intended message of Scripture is clear, understandable, and accessible.
Historical, literary, and theological aspects. While the Bible is written to be clear and accessible, the process of discerning the clarity is complex and involves a thorough examination of the historical, literary/linguistic, and theological aspects of each biblical text. Since the Bible is a document characterized by literary, historical, and theological impulses, it must be interpreted with these impulses in mind.
The historical character of the text affirms that the historical details (culture, setting, time, people or characters in the story, and readers of the composition) of a narrative are absolutely essential to the meaning and the message of the text. Historical details create the stage for what God is doing with his people in time and space. Historical details remind the reader that the written word has a context. The text is anchored to time and place.
The literary character of the text involves both the rhetorical strategies and the linguistic factors of a written text that are critical to the communication process. The act of literary communication involves the author/sender sending a message or text to the reader/recipient. The Bible must be interpreted in keeping with the act of literary communication: author, reader, and text. Literary types, structural development, and discourse function are formal features of the text that contribute to the communicating author’s intended meaning. The OT uses at least five basic literary types or genres: law, historical narrative, poetry, wisdom, and apocalyptic. The NT uses some of the same literary types, as well as parables and the epistolary, or letter, form. Gospel can also be considered a distinct literary form.
Finally, the text has a theological aspect, an ideology, a message, and an intention that God reveals on the historical stage by means of appropriate literary devices.
Unity and diversity. There is a definite unity to the diversity of the Bible that must be grasped in the interpretive process. Opinions vary depending on one’s understanding of the origin and nature of Scripture. Some readers stress the diversity of the biblical text, choosing to highlight apparent contradictions and irresolvable situations. Others go to the other extreme and may be in danger of oversimplifying, collapsing contexts, and ignoring the message of the text. Consider, for example, the importance of not reading too much into the discussion of faith and works as developed by Paul and James. The diversity of emphasis in these two authors is not contradictory in the overall message of the Bible.
Diversity obviously exists in the languages, writers, cultures, and message of various books of the Bible. However, given the reality of divine authorship, these diverse pieces are woven together coherently. There are longitudinal themes such as kingdom, covenant, and messiah that run from the OT into the NT. In addition, there is the developed use of terminology across both Testaments with terms such as “redemption” and “the word.”
The unity/diversity aspect of the biblical text ultimately contributes to an enriched understanding of both biblical and systematic theology. Biblical theology tends to consider the diversity of the writers and the different time periods and is willing to let diverse themes stand together. Systematic theology, which builds upon the findings of biblical theology, is more attentive to the unity of Scripture. These approaches complement each other and encourage what is called an “analogy of faith.” Once again, Luther gave shape to this phrase by opposing the ecclesiastical tradition of the church in favor of Scripture as the basis of dogma. The “analogy of faith” principle advocates that doctrine must cohere and not contradict the holistic teaching of Scripture. Doctrine cannot be a formulation of a few proof texts.
Summary. These summations concerning the nature of Scripture are by no means exhaustive, but they do provide a foundation for determining the nature and use of various interpretive methods. The process of interpretation will be given more attention below, but at this point it is worth emphasizing that methods of Bible study must contribute to the discovery of the author’s intended meaning. Since God is the ultimate author, our concern is to know his intended meaning. This goal is not without challenge. Many conclude that original authorial intent is unattainable because of the distance between our present cultural and historical situation and that of the biblical writers. An additional obstacle is the variety of interpretations that arise from community use of the biblical text. The challenges of time, culture, geography, and language can be faced successfully to arrive at the clear meaning of Scripture by means of a methodical analysis of all aspects of the biblical text.
The Role of the Interpreter
Before considering the relation of the interpreter to the process of Bible study methods, it is helpful to sort out who is the audience of a text. Written texts are composed with someone in mind, an original audience or recipients, who may or may not read the finished product. Beyond the original readers there is an extended audience of readers throughout time, including us, who read and interpret the word of God and seek to apply it to their lives.
Preunderstandings and presuppositions. The readers of the biblical text apply the methods of Bible study in order to understand the intended meaning of Scripture. In addition to the science of methodology there is an art to interpretation that involves recognizing personal preunderstandings brought to the text and presuppositions influencing an interpretation of the textual data.
So how do we differentiate a preunderstanding from a presupposition? “Preunderstanding” refers to the preconceived notions and understandings that one brings to the text, which have been formulated, both consciously and subconsciously, before one actually studies the text in detail. This includes specific experiences and encounters with the text that tend to make us assume that we already understand it. Sensitivity to preunderstanding reminds us that we are never approaching the text for the first time, completely neutral or totally objective. Our personal experiences, cultural influences (music, movies, literature), family background, church, race, and nationality are factors influencing our preunderstanding. These preunderstandings are ultimately corrected or nurtured by the constant influence of the biblical text.
Presuppositions, on the other hand, are the faith commitments held by Christians that do not change each time they study the Bible (in contrast to preunderstanding). This article, for example, began with a statement of presuppositions regarding God and the Bible. The analogy of faith deems such presuppositions to be unchangeable constants.
Approach to the text. How, then, should the interpreter approach the text? Although total objectivity is not a realistic goal, Christian readers do want to understand what God has revealed for them. So, the text is approached through faith and by means of the Holy Spirit, who gives understanding of the word that God authored. In order for this to happen, the reader must stand before the biblical text and allow it to speak rather than standing behind it to push it in a predetermined direction. The goal of Bible study is discovery of meaning, not creation of meaning.
A critical factor in Bible study is the realization that the process is an exercise with sacred dimensions. The primary object in this task is to know God, to understand his will, and to love and trust him, which is Paul’s desire for all Christians (Col. 1:9–14; Eph. 1:15–23; 3:14; Phil. 3:8–13). God is glorified when we find our joy and delight in him through an enriched understanding of his word. This can happen when one depends upon the Holy Spirit for understanding (1 Cor. 2:9–16). The study of the sacred text is a delicate balance of thinking, working, and analyzing while reverently and humbly depending upon the Spirit.
The Methods of Bible Study
Terminology. The activity of interpretation is best described as a spiral, a twist of assorted factors that take the reader from the intention of the original context to the present context of life within the community of the church. The process involves terms and procedures that can be confusing. The word “hermeneutics” is most commonly understood to describe the science and art of biblical interpretation. The goal of hermeneutics is to discern the original intent of the text (“what it meant”) and the contemporary significance of the text (“what it means”). Scholars regularly discuss which of these two is primary in hermeneutical process. The term, however, is broad enough to cover both aspects.
The English word “exegesis” is derived from a Greek term meaning “to lead out.” When applied to Bible study, it defines the nature of the work as taking meaning out of the text and not reading meaning into it. The exegetical process involves the study of words, syntax, grammar, and theology. Another critical term, “contextualization,” refers to an aspect of the interpretive process involving cross-cultural communication of the text’s significance for today.
Defining these key terms in hermeneutics brings to the surface an ongoing discussion associated with Bible study, the question of meaning, which is defined in several ways. Meaning is understood by some as the author’s intention. Some scholars explain meaning as referent (what the author is talking about), others describe it as sense (what is being said about the referent), and finally it can be understood as significance (a contemporary, cross-cultural significance).
Inductive Bible study. How one gets to meaning involves a process of study, the crux of which is the practice of inductive Bible study. Although this objective process can be defined in several ways, it is distinguished by four key elements.
(1) The first element is observation. This involves a careful, close reading of the text to determine exactly what it says. This step makes repeated use of the who, what, when, where, and why questions that enable the reader to become fully saturated with the particulars of the passage. Attention to textual detail will result in accurate interpretation. Observation requires a will to observe, exactness in making observations, and persistence and endurance in the process. Observation is focused on the words of the passage, the structure (the relations and interrelations between terms), the literary form, and the atmosphere or tone. (2) Interpretation follows. The goal of this element is to define meaning and to answer the question, What does this text mean? (3) Correlation, the third element, asks, How does this text relate to the rest of the Bible (cf. analogy of faith)? (4) The fourth element, application, asks, What does this text mean to me?
Each step in the inductive process is elaborate and includes its own particular interests and issues that are critical for determining meaning. Take, for example, the issues of meaning associated with the second step, interpretation. This process must be fully engaged for accuracy in interpretation. The business of interpretation involves a constant interaction of parts. Microaspects are observed in light of macrofeatures, and vice versa.
The interpretive process of the text is fairly standard. Given the nature of inductive analysis, the inductive process begins at the microlevel of examining and interpreting terms, words, and sentences. It then highlights the next structural levels of paragraphs, units of paragraphs, chapters, and then the book itself.
Context and literary type. Since context and literary type are critical elements in the exercise of analysis, attention will be given to each. It is often said that context determines meaning. This statement is a reminder that a term, a theme, or a structural element is ultimately governed by a larger set of factors. The term “trunk,” for example, in the context of a family vacation could refer to what is packed, whereas in the conversation of lumberjacks it could be a reference to a tree. Context takes into consideration all historical referents. In addition, context includes all the individual parts of a composition (phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters). Examination of a book’s particular historical context involves also looking at the geography, politics, economics, and cultural practices of a given audience featured. The danger of ignoring context in biblical study is that original authorial intent is replaced with all kinds of self-centered textual understandings.
Literary type is also a critical factor in the inductive process. Another word for literary form is genre, derived from a French term that can be translated “kind, sort, style.” It denotes a type or species of literature or literary form. Genre analysis profitably yields an understanding of the author’s intention in a given literary composition. For example, genre triggers the reader’s expectations and reading strategy. Genre guides the reader in understanding how to read and interpret a given text. For example, we read and interpret a story differently from the way we read and interpret a poem. Each of these genres has its own rules and strategies for communicating meaning. Genre analysis involves observing the form along with the mood, setting, function, and content of the text.
Each literary type has a set of distinctive characteristics that must be examined. To understand what the biblical authors are saying (and what God is saying through them), we must play by the rules of the literary genre that they selected. Genre is a generalization or an abstraction within which variation occurs. Thus, a genre may be defined broadly and include many texts that share fewer traits, while on the other hand it may be defined in a more narrow way and include fewer texts sharing many more traits.
The process of genre analysis is undertaken inductively. The analysis begins with the literary class, continues with the individual texts, and then interacts with both. Genre can be understood only by analyzing the parts of a given text. Although there are plenty of helpful textbooks devoted to virtually every literary type, one must keep in mind that genre descriptions arise out of the details of the text. Genre is not a predescribed form that is imposed on the text for the discovery of authorial intent.
Once the historical, literary, and theological aspects of the particular book are settled, the book is then analyzed in its specific canonical context (NT or OT) and then considered in the overall canon (the Bible). The results of this process are then pursued in relation to the interests of biblical and systematic theology.
Summary. The method of inductive Bible study is not only a specific procedure of analysis, but also a guide for a variety of methodical practices. The process of inductive Bible study encourages a spirit of attention to detail and reminds the reader of the overall goal in interpretation: to know what the text meant and means. In addition, the very nature of the inductive method promotes a curiosity and yields a definite joy of discovery. The inductive process is a guide to the interpreter in an analysis of either the Hebrew or the Greek text.
Other methods of Bible study. There are other methods of Bible study associated with distinct views of the Bible’s nature and origin. These critical methods of interpretation arise out of a discussion regarding how the Bible should be interpreted. The history of this discussion goes all the way back to the third century AD with the debates between the Alexandrians and Antiochians. The sixteenth-century Reformation, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and the twentieth century were significant turning points that yielded new ways of conceiving the world and the biblical text. Thus, it is important to understand that there are no neutral methods of biblical interpretation.
Historical-critical approaches. The more-popular critical methods of Bible study came to the forefront in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries with the rise of deism and rationalism. The prevailing opinion of this time was the fundamental similarity of all historical texts and all historical events. The historical-critical method was founded on the principles of criticism, analogy, and correlation. The supernatural origin of the Bible is denied, and it is considered to be a book like all other historical documents. The biblical text is viewed as a tradition created. It is an artifact of the evolutionary process preserved and passed along to a subsequent generation and must be approached with an attitude of doubt.
In contrast to the approach taken in this article, the historical-critical understanding of the locus of revelation is not the biblical text revealed by God. The locus of revelation shifts outside the text. The reader no longer looks to the text to hear the word of God. The reader now looks behind or beyond the biblical text to another story, one that is independent of the biblical text. Instead of studying a process of progressive revelation, the historical-critical methodologies are committed to sorting out complex historical traditions. Sources are identified, sorted chronologically, and studied for their distinctive themes. The methods are sometimes organized according to the particular interests of schools of thought: history of religions, history of traditions, history of forms, history of redactions.
Literary approaches. Finally, there are methods of Bible study associated with the set of literary presuppositions. First, this approach to the biblical text takes an ahistorical view of the text. In other words, there is no concern for its historical cause and effect. It is concerned only with a synchronic analysis of the finished product. Second, the text is viewed as an autonomous entity. Once a text is completed, it has a life of its own. The interpretive process is then devoted to the text’s final form, looking at the whole instead of the parts. Meaning comes from the language and style of the text. Finally, meaning is understood as aesthetics; it is not related to authorial intention or a historical occasion. Theoretically, the literary approach views the text as if it is cut off from an author and from a historical context. In this construct, meaning shifts from the past to the present. Interpretation then is an interaction of text and reader. The methods of interpretation associated with these literary presuppositions include literary criticism, rhetorical criticism, structuralism, narrative criticism, and reader response criticism.