Studying the Bible: Observation, Interpretation, and Application
After listening to many of your teachings, I would like to know what you do when studying the Bible? – M.M.
When I'm studying the Bible I'm using an inductive technique, which means I allow scripture to interpret scripture. The inductive study process involves three steps: observation, interpretation and application. The main tool for each step is the Bible itself, meaning that when there is a question in my mind as to a passage's meaning, I first look to other scripture to provide the answer.
As I approach a text for the first time, I start with a careful observation of the passage. Even before studying the Bible passage, I try to obtain a good understanding of how the passage fits into its chapter thematically and into the entire book (and even the Bible) theologically. This means many hours of reading of scripture related to the passage under study. If I skip this step, I will often misunderstand the meaning of the passage or overlook some of its subtleties. I believe the failure to appreciate a passage’s context is the primary reason there is so much poor interpretation of scripture.
Having developed a good overall idea of the author’s purpose in writing the passage, I then go through the text carefully noting the W's in the text (e.g., who, what, when, where, why). I note any names and places, and I look for the most important words (typically action words or key adjectives). Then I spend time studying a little on those items I observed, especially trying to understand any historical or geographical references found in the text, references to Old Testament scripture as well as any Hebrew and Greek words that I found especially interesting.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of learning the history and customs of the times in which the author wrote as part of a good study process. Too often we try to move the events and words of the Bible into our present day experience before we have completely understood them in their own historical context. This would be similar to a teacher living in the first century trying to explain the meaning of a Tom Clancy novel without an understanding of our technology and culture. It would result in utter nonsense.
You may have wondered if I know Hebrew and Greek, and the answer is no. Nevertheless, I have a method for understanding the meaning of specific words in these languages. Again, I use an inductive style of research to identify the meaning of these words. Specifically, I find every occurrence of a given Greek or Hebrew word in the Bible and arrive at an understanding of all possible meanings from the context of its various uses. I have some other techniques and resources for understanding the underlying meaning of the original languages as well, and taken together I can usually get to the heart of a word's meaning without actually knowing the language.
Obviously, a working knowledge of the languages is preferable, but a student of scripture shouldn’t let their language limitations hold them back from studying in this way. The Holy Spirit will bring you what He wants you to know.
Of the three steps in inductive study, the observation step is the most important, because it will guard against confusion, misunderstanding or the misconceptions brought by poor teaching you have heard in the past. I usually don't read commentaries or other teaching texts (other than for language studies), because I don't want my view of the text to be biased. I trust the Holy Spirit to guide me to what are the key points He wants me to find. I also know I can't learn it all the first time (or even the fifth time!), so I don't worry if I miss something.
When I have completed the observation step, I move on to interpretation. This is the step most often neglected by teachers, in my experience. I frequently hear sermons where the speaker gives some brief observations of the text and jumps directly to application (i.e., making his point for the day) without spending even a minute interpreting the text. By interpretation, I mean the speaker makes no attempt to explain what the original author actually meant when he wrote the text. Remember, the author didn't have a three-point sermon in mind when he wrote his book or letter. Nor did the author expect the text to be applied to a wide range of meanings many centuries later (though God did, obviously).
Rather, the author had only one meaning and one purpose in writing, and unless we properly identify that one meaning in our study, we are bound to misinterpret the text. The fact that a given passage can be applied in ten different ways doesn't automatically mean that the author had all ten applications in mind when he wrote the text. So, I work very hard to determine (as best I can) what the author actually meant by what he wrote.
My favorite example of misusing a text this way can be found in Romans 10:13-15. This well-known passage is often used to support the application that Christians need to go out and evangelize, otherwise some people won't receive the gospel and be saved. Obviously, the need for Christians to go out and proclaim the Good News is a worthwhile point to make at any time, however those verses from Romans 10 have nothing to say on that point.
Ironically, Chapters 9-11 of Romans actually teach an opposite perspective in some sense (in that they explain why the Jewish people are not prone to receiving the Gospel), so to use these verses to support the idea that salvation is on the line for those who haven't heard the Gospel is actually an incorrect use of scripture.
Paul didn't have Christian evangelism on his mind when he wrote those words, so neither should we when we teach from them. We should seek to understand what Paul actually meant and then teach the passage in that way. If we want to preach on evangelism, we should seek out other passages which directly address that issue (and there are plenty), rather than misusing these verses in Romans.
The reason passages like Romans Chapter 10 are misused in this way is because men don't take time to properly understand the argument Paul was making in Romans 9-11 and then understand the text in the context of that argument. That is the step of interpretation, and it takes patience and a willingness at times to teach against conventional wisdom when such convention is a product of denominational bias or tradition rather than sound Biblical scholarship.
Finally, I try to incorporate an appropriate application into all my teaching. Not all teaching needs to have a direct application, since the Holy Spirit is ultimately the One responsible for making the application in the hearts of believers. Nevertheless, a good teaching can become a good preaching with an appropriate exhortation to the listeners to live a more Christ-like life in response to the lessons found in God's word.
The temptation in this step is to make every application a personal one, meaning relying on personal experience for every example. I've come to learn that this is not a good technique, as it makes the teaching sound very self-centered and it can become difficult for the audience to see themselves in the teaching. They become passive listeners unaccustomed to relating the teaching to their own lives.
I think the better use of application is to consider the most common or destructive patterns of behavior common to all men and women and allow those examples to come through in the teaching. In this way, people will more often see themselves in the text, and the conviction of the Holy Spirit will have its full effect.
In my own estimation, application is probably my weakest area, as it is not a natural aspect of my gifting. The observation and interpretation steps are often much easier for me, but I can struggle to find a good application, leading me to skip this step altogether. I nevertheless continue to work on my technique in the hope that God will make good use of me despite my weaknesses (or maybe because of them!).
I hope my answer has been helpful and worth the wait. I encourage you to build your own study disciplines, since the rewards of studying the Bible for yourself are far greater than any to be found in the teaching of others.
May the Lord bring you many opportunities to serve Him in the knowledge you have gained through your studies.