How to Study the Bible

In follow-up to my last post about George Guthrie’s book Read the Bible for Life, I wanted to give some more thoughts on how to study the Bible in practical ways.

Let the Bible speak for itself

“The Word of God is living and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).

Given that this is true, there is no better place to turn to understand the Bible than the Bible itself! The Bible is not up for personal interpretation:

“But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:20-21).

The entirety of the Bible is open for personal application – that is taking the meaning and interpretation of the text and putting it into practice in your own life: but it is never right to think about a text, “what does this mean to me?” – you must always ask instead, “how does this apply to me?”. The difference is subtle, but vital – one follows postmodernistic thinking that says there are no absolutes and that your truth is ok for you, but my truth is good for me (and those two ‘truths’ may be contradictory); the other believes that God meant what He said and what has been preserved in the Bible, and that it needs to be applied and lived-out in each of us personally.

Exegete – don’t Eisegete

Most closely related to the concept of letting the Word speak for itself is to never read into (ie eisegete) the text: always read out of (ie exegete) the text. This topic was covered in a question I asked on Christianity.SE this past August.

“The only answer that seems reasonable would be that you read into Scripture the meaning you want it to have when you disagree with the actual meaning.

To read into Scripture what is not there is to put oneself as somehow over Scripture as more of an authority on the matter than the Scriptures themselves. There are definitely two distinct approaches to the Scriptures.

Two people will see in the Scriptures something that differs from either their own ideas or their own deeds. One person will conclude, The Bible must be wrong, and then misinterprets it to make it agree with him. Another will conclude, I must be wrong, and changes his ideas or his life to agree with the Bible.

I would argue that only one of these is a true follower of Jesus and of His teachings. Eisegesis is never appropriate.” —Narnian

Know the style of the text

The next vital aspect of studying the Bible is to understand the literary style employed by the author. There are several styles employed in the Scripture, which each have their own methods of understanding and interpretation:

  • Historic Narrative
    • examples of books that employ this style
      • Genesis, Joshua, 1&2 Samuel, Esther, Job*, Daniel^, Matthew, Acts, etc
  • Poetic
    • examples of books that employ this style
      • Job*, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon
  • Prophetic
    • examples of books that employ this style
      • Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel^, Obadiah, Revelation
  • Parabolic
    • examples of books that employ this style (most of Jesus’ recorded sermons and parables)
      • Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
  • Didactic
    • examples of books that employ this style
      • Leviticus, The New Testament Epistles
  • Apocalyptic
    • examples of books that employ this style
      • Daniel^, Revelation

Learn the external context relating to the author’s circumstances

Part of this is similar to the next section, but understanding the historical and cultural context of a given author (eg Matthew or Isaiah) helps to shine extra light on not only what they wrote and how they wrote, but why they wrote in the manner in which they did.

There are a host of resources that can help in this area, but a general interest in history is a great boon to finding nuggets, too 🙂

Use reliable study tools

The following study tools should be at your ready disposal if possible:

Concluding thoughts

David Platt’s book Radical is a treatise on letting the Word of God do its own job – to enlighten, encourage, and admonish the reader, with the ultimate goal of showing sinners their utter hopelessness away from Jesus so they can turn to Him.

It is easy to get lost in lots of theological and doctrinal discussions – they have their place, and can be very useful, but when we move Scripture from the point of preeminence, we lose the opportunity to hear God.

*Job is unique in that it typically employs a poetic style to recount a historical narrative
^Daniel is unique in that it records in historical narrative style history, prophecy, and apocalyptic text