A Method for Personal Bible Study
Written by: Thomas A. Schaff Posted on: 02/22/2003
Category: Bible Studies
Source: Thomas A. Schaff
PERSONAL BIBLE STUDY
by Thomas A. Schaff
TABLE OF CONTENTS
<0>....Preface & Introduction
<1>... Assumptions and Deductive Reasoning
<2>....Analysis and Inductive Reasoning
<3>... Additional Insights
Some Family Radio School of the Bible students expressed a desire to know
how to study the bible on their own. Their need provided the motivation to
write this booklet.
Perhaps you have a method of studying the Bible that works well for you.
In that case I humbly submit this booklet in the hope that there may be a few
ideas you might use to make your own personal study of God's Word more
effective and meaningful. If you are new to Bible study, I welcome you to a
wonderful adventure that will last your whole life.
You will notice that most of the scripture references were not written
out. I expect you to open your Bible and look up the verses to see if they
support the points made in this booklet. This leads to the most important
point we could possibly make. The Bible is preeminent. Nothing, this booklet
included, should take the place of spending your own time and effort in the
Bible. The purpose and objective of this booklet is to motivate you to study
the Bible for yourself. Study guides, Bible courses and other helps have some
value. But there is no substitute for the cultivation and nurture of your own
walk with God based upon a personal confrontation with His Word. It is my hope
that this booklet will equip you with a few of the tools necessary to conduct
your own independent study of the Bible.
It is my prayer that God will make His Word dwell in you richly, to the
praise of His glory and the salvation of many. May an accurate and faithful
study of the Bible encourage you to walk more trustingly and obediently. I
wish you the Lord's richest blessing.
Sincerely in Christ,
Thomas A. Schaff
How the contents of this booklet will help you depends upon your prior
experience in Bible study and your goals. If you have studied for years, you
may wish to just read it through once, put it aside, and then go back to your
own Bible study armed with whatever you found helpful. Or you may want to read
it slowly, stop at the end of each main part, and turn to a book of the Bible
to see if you can apply what you learned. If you are new to the Bible and have
never studied it, you may be eager to get going and are not interested in
wading through a lot of instructions. Maybe your immediate goal is just to
know enough to get started. In that case we suggest you read item A and item E
of "II Analysis and Inductive Reasoning", as well as the illustrations in "IV
Illustrations." Once you have spent a little time in the Bible for yourself,
you may want to look over the rest of the booklet in order to obtain a more
complete perspective on how to study the Bible.
This booklet is not an exhaustive treatment of the subject of how to
study the Bible; but thought was given to many ideas which, if carefully
applied, should lead you to a mature and serious in depth study of the Bible.
Whether you are a veteran Bible student or a novice, this booklet is offered
as a source of ideas which you can adopt as you think best.
(You may receive this booklet - free of charge - simply by leaving your name
PERSONAL BIBLE STUDY
What does Bible study mean? That is, how do we study the Bible and what
results can we expect?
I Assumptions and Deductive Reasoning
We must approach the Bible with a bias. We must trust that the Bible is
the only trustworthy source of truth of all that it declares. All the accounts
of historical places, names, times and events are assumed to be accurate and
true. We believe from the outset in the integrity of the contents of the
Bible. This of course is a natural consequence of our trust in the God who
wrote it. We therfore must come with a prejudice of faith that God alone has
the character to be trusted...as we read, "...let God be true but every man a
liar!" (Romans 3:4)... and that what He wrote reflects that trustworthy
character, not only in the original autographs but also in the Bible we have
today. Because we adhere to certain assumptions, we will be influenced by them
as we look at the Bible. Whenever we make a decision about a particular piece
of data based upon a prior assumption, we are applying deductive reasoning.
The key idea to keep in mind is that the results of our Bible study will
depend upon how we view the data, which is in turn a result of our
assunptions. These then are some of the assumptions and deductions with which
we approach the Bible.
A. The Bible is the Word of God.
This is, first of all, the testimony of those who write it. For example,
this was David's attitude in II Samuel 23:2; this was Paul's attitudein I
Thessalonians 2:13. The authors also realized the inspiration of each other.
(See II Peter 3:16.) Secondly, we notice that each word is very important,
given to us for a purpose. For example in Galatians 3:16 the whole discussion
depends on one letter, the plural form of the word "seed." Therefore we must
honor the Bible as a holy volume. We must treat each detail with respect. This
assumption leads to the following practical points.
1. A Bible with explanatory notes in the margin should not be used. It
leads us to rely upon the notes, since they are an easy reference, and to form
thoughts that are "in the Bible" when they are really only in the notes.
2. The words are as important as the thoughts. The integrity and
reliability of one rests upon the other. So we must not tolerate a view that
says the Bible "contains" the Word of God rather than "is" the Word of God. If
the details in the Bible are not reliable, then we can have no confidence in
its message. Similarly, studying a paraphrase is not studying the Bible. A
paraphrase is no better than a commentary on the Bible. And in a way it is
worse than a commentary. Many times people will read and study a paraphrase
and think they have spent time with the Bible. This error is encouraged by the
fact that some paraphrases actually contain the word "Bible" in their title.
3. Every part of the Bible applies in Bible study. As long as it's in the
Bible it is relevant and must be taken into account before a firm conclusion
can be made.
Furthermore, one part of the Bible does not have greater authority than
another part. Some commentators put a greater significance upon upon the words
of the New Testament than those of the Old Testament. Also some Bibles
unfortunately print the words of Jesus in red to emphasize them. But every
part of the Bible was authored by God and commands equal respect. Therefore we
must never think that certain verses have more weight or importance than other
verses simply because of where we find them in the Bible.
4. The awkwardness in some passages is often a signal that some special
truth is to be found there. Rather than try to dismiss these problems as
errors or seek a "better" translation, we should investigate the structure and
parts of difficult passages to find the reason God wrote it as He did.
B. The Bible is Dynamic.
We read in Hebrews 4:12 that the Bible not only informs us but it forms us
as well. The Bible insists upon personal application. And application can be
viewed as the passage being fulfilled in our lives. This is true whether we
accept or reject its teaching, because the Bible not only shows us truth but
also shows who we are as we react to it. Any time spent with the Bible will
influence our thoughts and actions. This assumption leads to the following
1. As we read in Isaiah 55:8-11, God's Word will do the work God intends
it to do. A real God is working through real truth.
2. We do not stop with an objective review of the Bible. The Bible is not
open for inspection, like a laboratory specimen. It commands a Christian
response (II Timothy 3:16.). Remember, when we study the Bible, the Bible is
also studying us.
3. We do not have to worry about what portion of the Bible to study,
thinking that if we study this part of the Bible we will be missing something
valuable in another part. We must remember God is a Person. And whenever we
spend time with the Bible we have spent time with God, Someone who cares a
great deal for our souls and rejoices to fellowship with us. We will never
lose out when we study the Bible. After all, God is in control even in our
Bible study, and He will guide us in the truth we need to know.
4. Sometimes we find ourselves spending a long time unraveling all the
interesting things we find just within one verse. It might seem that we will
never make it through the passage which we have chosen to study. And in our
concern for progress, we might abandon our in depth study of one verse and try
a more cursory study which allows us to cover more verses.
But a shallower more extensive study might leave us wondering if we missed
something valuable. A very real struggle can develop between choosing a slow
or fast pace; either way we might feel that there are things we would be
losing. Sometimes this conflict can immobilize a Bible student. He just can't
decide how to pace himself and stops, at least for awhile, any significant
Bible study at all. But we must remember that Bible study is not measured in
the number of verses we cover at one time, nor in the number of insights we
are able to glean from one verse. Rather, the Bible is where we meet God to
hear His Word. Again, God is a Person. When we open the Bible, God is speaking
to us. And the verses we study are what He wants to say to us. The most
important thing for us to remember is not to focus upon the quantity of
information we learn but to remain faithful to whatever spiritual truth God
has entrusted to our care.
5. Because the Bible is the expression of a living God who wants to talk
to us, because He is the almighty Creator of all that is and we are weak, we
need to ask Him to help us. Prayer is a requirement to Bible study, as we read
in James 1:5. We might pray before we start; we might pray in the middle of
our study; we might pray at the end of our study; we might pray when we are
away from our study and meditating upon what we learned.
Prayer reminds us of our dependence upon God and the gratitude we should
have for all that He has given us, including the marvelous gift of His
precious Word. We will then have the proper attitude whenever we discover
something in the Bible - pride and boasting will be replaced by joy and
wonder. As a matter of fact, Bible study will teach us how God thinks and
therefore how to talk to Him in prayer.
C. The Bible is a Spiritual Book.
This was what Jesus expected His listeners to understand when He spoke to
them in John 6:63. The Bible is not only accurate in history and in all the
facts it states, but it answers the questions of the heart. It is written to
resolve spiritual issues of the soul (John 20:31). In fact, the Bible is the
only source of spiritual knowledge that is dependable.
Too often some Bible students accuse others of "spiritualizing" passages,
while they champion a literal interpretation of scriptures. This view
displays a fundamental confusion of terms. We must keep in mind that the
term literal, correctly understood, is describing our observations of a
passage, and the term spiritual refers to our interpretation of that same
passage. It is not possible to interpret a passage literally. The term literal
tells how we look at the passage, not what we think about it.
All good Bible students look at the Bible literally. In other words, all
good Bible students will agree that we must be faithful to all the facts we
observe just as they are presented in the Bible. We must read the Bible
literal word by literal word. Each concrete and specific fact must be noted.
Unless we adhere to the literal facts, just as the Bible presents them we
have essentially an empty Bible. Facts are, then, not what they seem and we
may believe what we choose. No! All Bible students who respect God's integrity
read the Bible literally. The real question is whether the literal facts
convey a spiritual idea or a material idea. Spiritual is not the opposite of
literal, but rather the opposite of material.
The key point is that spiritual refers to content. When we say that the
Bible is a spiritual book we mean that every part is dealing with spiritual
subject matter: real literal sin, real literal salvation, real literal
judgment and wrath, real victory over sin.
An extermely important corollary to the assumption that it is a spiritual
book is that the Bible everywhere deals with the Gospel and specifically with
the Lord Jesus Christ. This was what Jesus taught as the central theme of all
the scriptures (John 5:39 and Luke 24:27). We should expect to find some
aspect of the Gospel in every part of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.
For example, Old Testament believers had a trust in God's Christ as their
Savior. (See John 8:56 and 12:41). In Hebrews 4:2 we read that the Gospel was
preached to those who wandered in the wilderness. In that case only the first
few books of the Bible had been written. Space does not permit to list the
many other references that support this corollary. However, it is one of the
most important concepts which help unlock the meaning of the scriptures.
The assumption that the Bible is a spiritual book is based upon the fact
that the Bible is God-centered, and that John 4:24 applies to our view of
God's Word as well as His Person. It is about His will, His glory, His
perspective, His promises and His fulfillment.
At this point one potential misunderstanding must be averted. There is a
material interpretation to many of the literal facts that we read in the
Bible. The account of the flood given in Genesis Chapters 6 through 9 has an
historical, materical basis. This must be so since the integrity of the Bible
is rooted in the accuracy of the historical accounts of the people, places and
events it describes. Nevertheless, since the Bible is a spiritual book, we
should expect to see more than just a physical material point to what God set
down in the pages of scripture. For example, the greatest value of Genesis 6-9
is what a careful examination of those chapters can tell us about the return
of the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 17:26,27). It is very common for a passage to
have both an obvious material as well as a not so obvious (and more important)
spiritual dimension. For example, Hosea 11:1 is a simple and straightforward
reference to the nation of Israel when God led His people out of Egypt under
the leadership of His servant Moses. However, it is also appropriate to ask if
this verse also is a reference to the Gospel in any way. With the help of
Matthew 2:15 we can see that it does indeed have a spiritual or Gospel
In fact, some passages set in an historical setting have only a spiritual
dimension. This is illustrated in II Samuel 7:12,13. The phrase "thy seed"
(v.12) cannot refer to David's son Solomon. For one thing, the "seed's"
throne was to be established forever (v. 13) and we read in I Kings 11:11 that
Solomon's lineage was cut off. Furthermore, II Peter 3:10 dismisses any
potential for a material interpretation. This world will be destroyed and no
material never-ending throne can be established. The real interpretation and
the only one that will fit the literal fact of "forever" is the spiritual
kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ which goes on into eternity. (Compare Acts
In this context a few words should be said about parables. What are
parables? In the Bible they are stories that contain a spiritual meaning. The
story itself may involve real historical events, or it may be a story that did
not necessarily happen but was constructed in order to make a spiritual point.
Where do we find them. Here is a surprise. The whole Bible is a parable.
This is a natural consequence of the assumption we made, which was that the
Bible is a spiritual book. We should expect to see the Lord Jesus Christ and
His Gospel on every page of the Bible. For example, an obscure passage as
Ecclesiastes 12:11 can be compared with John 10:11, to show that even here we
learn about the exclusive and unique authority of Christ's words. It is an
Old Testament statement of Matthew 7:28 & 29.
But we do not have to rely upon surmisings when we state that the whole
Bible, even in its historical parts, is written in parables. For this is the
expressed testimony of the Bible itself. Psalm 78:2 states, "I will open my
mouth in a parable," and then proceeds to relate the history of Israel up to
the time of David. Likewise in the New Testament we see that Mark 4:34 reveals
that everything Jesus said had a spiritual dimension to it. It is therefore
appropriate in studying the Bible to ask, "What does this teach about Jesus
Christ and His plan of salvation?"
As a further thought it is often stated that parables are given to clarify
an idea. Actually, according to Mark 4:11 & 12, parables are given to hide
truth from those who do not have ears to hear. This agrees with another
assumption which we will make, namely, that we must be a true believer before
we can secure a real understanding of the Bible. If the whole Bible is a
spiritual message, and so qualifies as a parable, then only those who are
spiritually alive can receive it.
D. The Bible Interprets Itself.
Whenever we are faced with a problem in our study of the Bible, we must
ask, "How am I to understand what this word or phrase means?" There can be
only one answer to that question. We must go back to the Bible and see how
that word or phrase is used in all of the other places in the Bible in which
it appears. We do not have a bias that is sometimes expressed, "literal unless
proven otherwise," but rather we say "Biblical," period! As we learned above,
taking something literally does not mean anything. All Bible students look at
the data objectively, just as it is presented, or literally. What is implied
by the expression just quoted is "physical or material unless proven
otherwise." But is does not matter what we think is the obvious meaning of a
word or phrase; the issue is what the Bible means by these words.
Therefore the Bible can be looked at as a dictionary for terms which we
encounter. We must make comparisons of items within the Bible, sift out that
which is common and follow logic to its conclusion. For example, if we read in
I John 1:5 that "God is light" (A=B), and Jesus says in John 8:12, "I am the
light" (C=B), then we conclude that Jesus is God (A=C). Words which we use in
everyday speech may very well have a different emphasis in the Bible. We must
cultivate the habit of I Corinthians 2:13, which is compare spiritual things
with spiritual things.
A common tendency is to place a great deal of significance on the secular
history or cultural context of passages. This is only interesting material
after we have made our study based on all verses in the Bible that tell how to
solve our problem. As far as Biblical research is concerned, we are interested
only in the historical or cultural facts presented in the Bible itself. We
make conclusions based only on the reservoir of material contained in the
Bible. This must be the case since God is writing for all men of all ages.
There are really only two cultures: Christian and worldly. There is only one
history; God's triumph of His salvation plan through the ages.
E. The Bible Can Really Be Understood Only By a True Believer
Famous intellectual theologians notwithstanding, Psalm 19:7 states that
those who put their trust in God are the ones who are truly wise, no matter
how simple they appear to the world. We should expect this for two reasons.
First, as I Corinthians 1:27-31 teaches, God will get all the glory for
what we learn, since we are basically foolish people whom God has redeemed,
and any wisdom we achieve as we study God's Word is really the work of God,
and not the result of our academic expertise. And second, it is just plain
impossible for someone who has only natural ears to hear spiritual truths (I
Corinthians 2:9,14). The Bible puts it another way in Mark 4:9. Only God can
give us the ears to hear His Word. That is, we must be saved to benefit from
Bible study. An unsaved person will only gain some superficial moralistic
knowledge. This kind of hearer goes his own way after studying the Bible; and
as James 1:25,26 states, such a person has a vain or empty experience. But if
he becomes saved through this knowledge he has achieved real wisdom. True
wisdom from Bible study comes to those who are willing to obey what they find
therein (Job 28:28).
II Analysis and Inductive Reasoning
We begin our Bible study with certain assumptions, which are statements
about the Biblical data we are about to face. By applying deductive reasoning,
we make a decision concerning each particular piece of data.
But our approach from then on is analytical. That is, we first separate a
passage of the Bible into its constituent parts, then by applying inductive
reasoning to every piece of data, we gather the particular pieces together to
make a whole or conclusion based upon a careful study of each piece.
Before we proceed, one point must be stressed. The first step in Bible
study is READ THE BIBLE. Actually, this step is only obvious intellectually,
since in practice it is often neglected. Sometimes we are lazy; sometimes we
think we know what is says already and don't bother to read it; and sometimes
we have something that seems more urgent at the time. However, there is no
substitute for reading the Bible.
Reading does not mean that our eyes have traveled over all the verses and
arrived at the end of the passage. Reading means slowly, carefully reflecting
upon each verse. We must get in the habit of holding a pen or pencil as we
read, and mark our Bible. We underline, draw arrows from one word to
another, make a mark in the margin next to something we might want to
concentrate on later.
Also, reading does not mean that we read the passage once. We should
become so familiar with it that we have certain facts already fixed in our
minds. A day or so before we seriously begin to analyze a passage we should
read it many times over, then ponder it from time to time before we actually
sit down to study. this procedure will help to insulate us from the influence
of wrong ideas that might creep in before we begin. Furthermore, if we read
the passage ahead of time, we will see the big picture, which will help us
avoid missing obvious points and guide us in the right direction later on.
A. Inductive Bible Study Must Begin With ALL the Data.
This point grows out of the fact that the whole Bible is one piece of
truth (Matthew 4:4, I Timothy 3:16). No matter where we find a word or idea,
if it is in the Bible we must take it into account.
This is an extremely important step. Probably most errors are caused by
not including one or two items that were omitted in the analysis prior to
making a conclusion. We use this principle every day. When we can't find the
keys to the car in the morning, do we just sit in a chair and decide not to go
to work? No! We look for them. We make sure we have considered all
possibliities before we draw a conclusion and then act upon that conclusion. A
good scientist will be sure not to reject any data even though at the time it
doesn't seem relevant.
Related to the fact that all available data must be incorporated in our
analysis is the fact that only those items that are in the Bible can be
trusted as reliable facts. The exclusive inventory of data is contained
within the Bible alone, as we read in John 17:17 and Revelation 22:18. Since
all the data within the Bible comes from one source, God, He is therefore the
authority we have to support the reliability of the facts at hand. Data from
any other source comes from an unknown authority. No matter what anyone claims
to the contrary extra-Biblical information does not come from God.
Incorporating such data in an analysis will necessarily modify our
conclusions. Therefore our analysis, no matter how carefully and skillfully
done, cannot be trusted.
Finally, we must keep an open mind for missing data. All the pieces count.
So we cannot, as humans with limited ability, assume we have at the first try
properly included all the data. Whether we have or not is not important in
the beginning of our study. We must strive to do so, but we must always keep
our conclusions tentative until enough time has gone by for us to be
reasonably sure that we have not overlooked any relevant items.
Now then, how do we go about gathering the data? The answer is, through
observation. Observation is a skill, an acquired skill, acquired through hours
of practice. Observation is not a matter of just looking at something, but
recognizing the value of a piece of data or of the importance of a
relationship between different pieces of data.
We greatly increase our powers of observation when we know ahead of time
what we are looking for. It is a lot easier to find something when we have
seen it before. Therefore we must sharpen our observational skills by becoming
familiar with how the Bible is written. We will then become expectant
observers and be more likely to find something in a passage.
The variety and intricacy of expression in the Bible is a delight and the
foundation of its beauty. And yet all the literary forms which we find in the
Bible are really nothing more than a summation of all their verses. We must
not be overly impressed by these literary forms of expression for they must
still be studied objectively. The poetry of the psalms or the rigorous logic
of Romans are composed of verses, one after another, that must be analyzed for
their content. Essentially they are data banks. We do not rest our case on a
form of literature. Rather we compare the details of a verse with details in
another part of the Bible, no matter where they are found. This approach is
the foundation of an analytical inductive study of God's Word. For example, we
know that the expression in John 1:29, "Behold, the Lamb of God," is a figure.
We can decide for ourselves that Christ is not an animal. Nevertheless only a
careful analysis of the Bible can help us know what we are to think about the
There are so many things to find in the Bible that it will not be possible
in this discussion to list them all. But perhaps the following list of
suggestions will help as we begin our personal study. Eventually we will learn
to recognize things that reoccur as we do our
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