By Steve Curtis
The purpose of this article is to examine a few methods of Bible study. One may not consciously recognize different methods of study, but may have used different methods in his own personal study or in preparation for and participation in Bible classes. In discussing these methods, our focus will be on three things: (1) techniques of different study methods; (2) advantages and disadvantages of each study method; and (3) study methods in relationship to personal study and Bible classes.
I would like to thank brother Donnie Rader for asking me to contribute to this special issue. In no way do I claim to be an authority on methods of Bible study. Everyone does not use the same methods and techniques. However, this article contains personal observations and is written in hopes that some might benefit.
The purpose of this method is to get an overall view of a subject. This may mean getting a broad view of the Bible as a whole, a broad view of a particular book of the Bible such as Genesis or Acts, or a broad view of a particular period of the Bible such as surveying the prophets, the kings, the life of Christ, or the epistles of Paul. It is easy to find good outlines in each of these areas that will help an individual.
Can you imagine working a thousand piece puzzle without knowing what the finished product looks like? Just taking one piece, it would be difficult to get a general idea of where it fits into the picture. Does it go in the top or bottom, left or right? Without any idea of the finished product, would you pick up a piece and examine it for every detail to place it where it belonged exactly? Or, would it be easier to put all the pieces with a flat edge together, all the blue pieces together, etc.? By getting a general idea of each piece, eventually one could put all the flat pieces together to form the border, all the blue pieces together to form the sky, and so on. Eventually, by taking a general observation of each piece, one could have an overview of the whole picture. Now, imagine the difficulty someone with no overview or broad picture of the Bible would have trying to take one piece and understand the whole.
The advantage of surveying a subject would be getting a broader picture. To get a broader view of the Bible, reading is essential. Read to get a general idea as opposed to under- standing every detail and remembering every fact. In Acts 7, we find one of the longest recorded sermons. Stephen preached this sermon to the Jews. His main point, found in verse 51, is “You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.” How does he develop this point? Starting back in verse 2, Stephen uses an overview of the history of the Jews to show their fathers had rejected deliverers such as Joseph and Moses just as they had rejected Christ, the Son of God. Without his audience having an overall view of their history, Stephen could not have made his point as forcibly as he did. Think about how difficult it would be to understand the book of Hebrews without any idea of the tabernacle, the sacrifices, and the function of the priests under the law of Moses. Having an overview of the entire Bible will assist one in understanding biblical principles and contexts of Scripture.
No one method discussed in this article can stand on its own. The disadvantage to this method, if taken alone, would be a lack of knowledge concerning terms and principles contained within the context of Scripture. With just an overview of the Bible, one might believe the Ten Commandments are applicable today. One might believe instrumental music is acceptable in worship because king David used it. Terms, verses, contexts of Scripture, and Biblical principles can be greatly abused when one is satisfied with just a general picture of the Bible.
Individually, each person will have to determine how in-depth his survey will be. One might consider his knowledge of the overall Bible and the amount of time to invest in the survey to determine how in-depth the survey would be. This method of study will be a good means by which to build and fortify one’s foundation of faith. In a Bible class environment, the class needs to understand the purpose of the survey and the amount of time to complete it. A disciplined teacher will keep the class on track and focused on the broad picture and overall view. Examining every detail may cause the class to miss the forest for the trees.
The purpose of this method is to examine each detail to have a fuller understanding of all that God has to say. Using this method, one may consider several factors. If one were going to do a detailed study of the book of James or the book of Joshua, factors such as authorship, date of writing, reason for being written, who is being addressed, and their home life should be considered. Also, one should include consideration of political, social, economic, and geographical settings. If one were to do a detailed study on marriage, it would be important to consider all of God’s word on that subject. Factors such as how the term is used in the Old Testament and New Testament would be important. Defining the term as it is used in its different forms and in its original use would be important to a full understanding.
The advantage of using a detailed study is being able to achieve a good understanding concerning all God has to say on a particular subject or in a particular context of Scripture. For example, a detailed study avoids taking a subject like the Ten Commandments or instrumental music out of context. The disadvantages of this method would be the self- discipline involved in such a committed effort, the time required, and the necessity of having a good library with at least a Bible dictionary, commentaries, concor- dance, and some type of Bible encyclopedia. Some may find it is hard to make time for such a study and may not have access to good library materials.
For the individual who would use this method, time allowing for thorough investigation of those factors mentioned above is important. With the proper attitude, this method will help to build upon the foundation of our faith. In a Bible class environment, students must be willing to invest the amount of time and effort at home to participate and fully benefit from such a Bible class study. Only well prepared teachers can bring each detail to light.
Verse By Verse
The purpose of this method is to examine the whole context of a particular book of the Bible. This provides a wonderful opportunity to consider every aspect of God’s word. Certainly detail is an important aspect of this method. One may consider comparing several translations of the text, defining important words and key passages within the text and examining what commentators have written. After such, it is important to organize information and thoughts into an outline so that each verse, each sentence, each paragraph and chapter are understood in relationship to the whole book.
The advantage of such a study is that it equips the individual not only with a thorough understanding of God’s word, but also assists one in understanding words and verses within the context of their use. Most of us have probably experienced studying with someone who jumps around the Scriptures, taking words and passages out of their context to support some false idea. Some denominationalist may read Acts 16:15, which tells us that Lydia and her household were baptized, as proof for infant baptism. Some of our liberal brethren may take passages like Galatians 6:10, “do good unto all men,” and James 1:27, “pure and undefiled religion . . . is to visit the orphans and widows,” out of context for authority for the church to show benevolence to non-saints or for working through human institutions. Some brethren might read Acts 11:20 concerning the Christians “preaching the Lord Jesus” as proof that they did not preach the church, but the Lord. A good verse by verse study of these passages in their context would help avoid some misunderstandings. One disadvantage a person might consider when using this method is that information from the study might not be profitable without understanding it in relationship with the broader overview of the Bible. Therefore, some may not find such a study interesting.
Individually, one can select a particular context that he does not fully understand or has not studied in detail. Taking good notes as the study progresses, one could eventually have his own personal commentary. Consideration for the age and maturity of students should be considered in a Bible class environment. Again each student must put forth effort at home to benefit from such a study. The teacher should not allow the study to become so detailed that the class loses interest.
The purpose of this method is to examine a word or subject comprehensively. This method of study might begin by using a concordance to locate as many passages as possible that refer to the subject of interest. Study each passage within its context to determine which passages contribute insight into understanding the subject or topic. The goal would be to learn everything possible God has said on a particular subject.
The advantage of a topical study is that it enables one to examine and understand all that God has said on a particular subject. This is an asset in personal work, teaching Bible classes, delivering sermons, extending invitations, etc. For example, take the topic of baptism. Using a topical study, we find that the Bible teaches that baptism is essential unto salvation (Mark 16:16; 1 Pet. 3:21). Baptism is for the remission of sins and follows repentance (Acts 2:38). The action of baptism for the remission of sins involves a burial (Rom. 6:4). What type or kind of burial is baptism? It is a burial in water (Acts 8:38). If all one knew about baptism was from Mark 16:16, how would he be able to know that baptism for the remission of sins is immersion in water? How would one be able to teach others all that God has said on the subject?
Any one of these methods by itself is not sufficient. This method becomes a disadvantage if there is no understanding of how the topic fits into the broader scope of the Bible. If one only has a topical knowledge of the Bible, he does not have a full understanding of God’s word. Many are probably familiar with the story of the six blind men who were asked to identify an elephant. Each man was given a different part. If each man’s idea of an elephant was only as extensive as the part he held, we know he would not fully understand what an elephant is.
Individually, anyone interested in teaching must have some topical knowledge of basic Bible subjects. Since everyone is to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason of the hope that is in you,” it will do us well to equip ourselves with such knowledge. One might start with a subject he lacks knowledge of or he may choose some subject that will assist him in studying with a particular individual. Unfortunately, some never consider all the Bible has to say on a particular topic. Therefore, it is an effective means of teaching in a Bible class. It would be wise for the teacher to have studied the topic comprehensively to avoid seeming contradictions and taking passages out of context.
As mentioned before, I do not claim to be an authority in this area and now you know I have not lied. Hopefully, these observations will make us more consciously aware of different methods of study, see the importance of each, and the necessity of not being satisfied with just one approach in Bible study.