Inductive Bible Study

August 2009

I have just returned from a three-month Sabbatical in North America. During this time I had further confirmation of a growing sense that Inductive Bible Study is going out of fashion in formal theological education. Below is a reflection about this.

(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 SMS 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.

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 is 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 giveshis 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 a any 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 grapping 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]

A Special Note:

Greek and Hebrew study is not essential for inductive study but it greatly enhances it. I’ve always maintained that the most influential Bible teacher in my life is my mother, who may never even have attended any class on how to study the Bible. Certainly, she does not know any Greek or Hebrew. But I believe a knowledge of the original languages really helps those who are going to teach the Word of God to God’s people.

One of the greatest values of learning the original languages is that of getting a feel of the background from which the eternal Word came. You sense the atmosphere of scripture and that helps you interpret more accurately. Recent advances in the study of semantics (relating to the meaning of language) are helping us to be careful in not coming to unnecessary conclusions when we study the Bible, especially using the original languages. The most helpful book I have read on this is D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies (Baker).

You can see that I do not agree with those who say that, with the multiplicity of translations and all the commentaries and other resources available today, we can do away with the study of the original languages in seminaries. Those who lead God’s people into understanding God’s Word would be greatly helped if they get a feel of how the Bible was written originally by studying the original languages. It is hard work, and today with all the resources we have to access information quickly, studying what the original language says seems to be very counter-cultural. But our Seminaries are primarily not in the business of producing technicians who know how to handle available resources. They are in the business of nurturing men and women of the Word—people who can not only access resources but also who can think biblically, people who have a close relationship with the greatest wealth there is in the world—the Word of God. It is worth going through rigorous study in order to become more skilled in handling such a great treasure.


Another NOTE: I have Struck Gold! Colour pencils are great friends of inductive study, as they help you highlight the different themes that appear in a passage. For years I have been looking for a good colour pencil marker which will not damage or seep through Bible paper. Christian Book Distributors ( sell a four-colour set that is quite expensive and does not write or erase easily. The American company Crayola is now selling “Twistables Colored Pencils.” There are 12 or 20 different colours in a set. They have a point that can be retracted by twisting. And the colours can be easily erased. You often revise your interpretations in inductive Bible study and erasing is done often! I have been having fun marking up my Bible and my Deuteronomy manuscript! Try it, you’ll like it! If you can’t get this colour pencils and a pencil sharpener will do the job for you!

[1] From Lyle Dorsett, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer (Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), p. 100.