As a teacher of the Inductive Bible Study Method I am often asked, “What is Inductive Bible Study?”. Unfortunately, there is really no short answer to that question. Inductive Bible Study is more of an approach to the Bible than it is any particular technique. In fact the “Inductive Method” that we teach in the School of Biblical Studies is really a collection of Bible study techniques combined in such a way as to help the student maintain an “inductive posture” toward the text. The shortest description I can give of this approach is this, “Inductive study is an approach to the Bible that helps the student build their conclusions from observations of the text.” In other words – observation first, conclusions second. Sounds simple, but there are complications. To illustrate let me tell a very old folk tale.
The Two Travelers and the Farmer
A traveler came upon an old farmer hoeing in his field beside the road. Eager to rest his feet, the wanderer hailed the countryman, who seemed happy enough to straighten his back and talk for a moment. “What sort of people live in the next town?” asked the stranger.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer, answering the question with another question.
“They were a bad lot. Troublemakers all, and lazy too. The most selfish people in the world, and not a one of them to be trusted. I’m happy to be leaving the scoundrels.”
“Is that so?” replied the old farmer. “Well, I’m afraid that you’ll find the same sort in the next town.
Disappointed, the traveler trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work.
Some time later another stranger, coming from the same direction, hailed the farmer, and they stopped to talk. “What sort of people live in the next town?” he asked.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer once again.
“They were the best people in the world. Hard working, honest, and friendly. I’m sorry to be leaving them.”
“Fear not,” said the farmer. “You’ll find the same sort in the next town.”
-North American Folk Tail (Source uncertain)
This story illustrates many points but the one I think is the most relevant to Biblical study is that people tend to see what they expect to see. Or to put it another way, what people bring to the Bible greatly influences what they take away from the Bible. How do we prevent this? By doing all we can to set aside our preconceived ideas about the text and focus on two things – reading and observation -forgoing judgment until we have thoroughly analyzed the text. We need to learn to let the text speak. We need to let our observations drive our conclusions. Rather than simply taking our conclusions to the text for testing, or worse yet, merely looking for validation of what we already believe or have been told. The text is always right and proper interpretation is defined as what the author meant and what the original readers would have understood. To understand the author and original readers of the text we must first identify them and their issues. This is historical context and it is critical to our understanding of what the text is really saying. Our situation should not even be considered until we understand what was meant when it was written. To sum up, understand what the text says, who wrote it, and as much about the original readers as you can. Careful reading of the text in its proper historical context is the key to proper interpretation.
After we have discovered the meaning in the original historical context we are finally ready to take that giant leap forward in time and culture to our present time and circumstances. By identifying the timeless truths at work under the specifics of the text, we can then begin to ask questions about why these truths are significant today. The timeless truths driving the ancient solutions then become the truths directing our modern applications. By building these disciplines in students it is possible to train them to truly listen to the text each time they read it, rather than simply seeing what they expect to see.
The three main steps of inductive study to remember are these:
Observation – What the text actually says.
Interpretation – What the text meant to those to whom it was originally written.
Application – How do we respond to the timeless truths of the text today?
Text first, original audience second, our perspective last. The Bible was written for us – not to us. Use the clear passages to understand the obscure passages, and most of all pray. And may God enlighten you as you continue to explore his word.
Tom Possin is the director of the School of Biblical Studies in Lakeside, Montana