The purpose or goal in studying a book is to understand its various themes and strands of thought as an integrated whole. Generally this is done by performing an initial synthesis of the book where major and minor themes are noted and difficult passages are surfaced. Along with this is the need to place the book in its life setting, involving an initial attempt to understand why it was written, by whom, and under what circumstances. These first few readings are initial, preparatory, and survey in nature. One is not in the best possible position to understand the significance of the beginning of a novel until one has read the entire work. In other words, the first initial readings of a book are crucial to gaining a proper perspective on the content. After this preliminary stage is completed, however, the reader will want to carry out a more detailed analysis of the various parts (i.e., words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and the basic unit of the paragraph). After this second step is completed, the reader will want to return to a synthesis of the book in order to better understand the meaning of the various statements throughout the book in proper relation to the whole. This includes developing a statement regarding the meaning of each paragraph as well as a statement for the entire book. In the end one is pressed to ask how the meaning of this book contributes to the canon as a whole and what difference it should make in my life and in the life of the church.
The purpose or goal of topical study is to arrive at an understanding of a specific topic in scripture either within a book, author (i.e., several books), the NT or OT, or the entire bible itself. For example, one could do a topical study on “love” in Paul. In this case, one would study every passage where the term occurs, as well as those where the concept is present and the term is not. The study part is not complete until the reader has developed a statement about the essence of the topic as well as how it relates to other topics in scripture with which it is logically connected.
In certain ways, theological study is a subset of topical study, only the reader is interested in topics which are explicitly theological. Thus a person might want to study the names of God throughout scripture. This would be a massive study, but one could acquire a list of the various names and study each of them separately and together to see what they contribute to our understanding of God. One could study the topic of God’s grace, salvation, sin, demons, angels, etc. to see what the Bible teaches on each of these theological ideas.
There are several dangers to avoid in this kind of study and they’re all related to each other. First, make sure that you have a representative list of passages on your theological topic. It’s easy to prove our heresies with less than half the data! So, after you have acquired what you think is a representative list of passages to be examined, make sure that you allow each passage to speak on its own. Don’t pour other passages immediately into them so that either their meaning or force (more common) is altered or blunted. The opposite error when doing this kind of study is to fail to relate passages to each other and even more common, to fail to integrate one’s theology as a whole. This means that if I am studying “salvation” I will want to relate my findings to my doctrine of God, Christ, the Spirit, etc. and this brings me to another caution worth noting. Be careful to remember that while the essence of certain truths in scripture never changes, there are stages in the progressive unfolding through history of those truths or doctrines. For example, be careful of reading a full blown doctrine of the trinity into OT texts. It isn’t there. The unique relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit had to await the incarnation and post cross period of salvation history. Now this does not mean that God was not a trinity in the OT. He was, is, and always will be a trinity. He just didn’t really let us in on that until the period of the NT.
For the layman, the goal of historical study of the Bible is to acquire information about peoples, towns, cultural practices, religious beliefs, customs, languages, etc. of people(s) mentioned in the Bible. This will be gathered through an examination of the biblical texts in question as well as through consulting dictionaries, commentaries, maps of Bible lands, etc. This kind of study is necessary and very profitable in the process of correctly understanding the Bible. There are, however, two very real dangers here.
First, some students of the Bible have the attitude that all they need is an English Bible, paper, and pen and God will give them the rest. For them, the study of Biblical customs, beliefs, etc. is not only a waste of time, but it is so because it hinders the work of the Spirit which is entirely immediate and direct, not mediate and indirect. This is a defective attitude for several reasons. First, there is, depending on how one looks at it, a direct and immediate work of the Spirit (Rom 8:16), but while this does assure us of our status as children of God in a special sense, it in no way entails the correct interpretation of every passage simply by reading it in one’s own language. Second, this approach denies the impact of the obvious truth that the Bible was written in languages, cultures, and time periods far removed from our own. Third, and perhaps worst of all, is that the reader ignorant of Biblical backgrounds and history, simply imposes his own culture on the Bible, unwittingly in most cases, and blunts the force of scripture.12 While this statement is not intended in any way to take the Bible out of the hands of the layman, it is intended to jump start his/her curiosity about the historical context of the Bible and to learn more about it so that he/she can enjoy the Bible much more. You will not read the Bible for long if you’re not making gains in your understanding of it. Gaining a knowledge of the surroundings of the Bible is helpful for understanding all the Bible, but becomes especially acute in reading sections of the OT and the gospels. We miss a lot because we are insensitive to these issues.
The second error is to reduce all our study of the Bible to “quests” regarding answers to historical questions. This is the great error of the modern scholar who gains a great store of knowledge of the Bible’s origins, surroundings, and uses in various communities, but fails to realize the benefit of the message for himself. In his seductive claims to objectivity, that person, nonetheless, has missed the point at which the scriptural writers were aiming and is “outside” the faith community which gave rise to these writings. The person who has come to know Christ through Scripture, though he may remain ignorant of much of the history (at least for a while after his initial conversion, let’s say, though this may not be the case), is in a far better epistemological position to understand the realities to which Paul’s language points because he now possesses the spiritual capacity (i.e., the Spirit himself) to see whereas the pure historian does not. Again, we are not decrying historical study and theoretical recreation as it pertains to these ancient texts, but the person whose highest priority in approaching the text is to uncover the literary origins and relationship of the synoptics, may go away quite empty in the end.
The goal of biographical study is to put together a profile of the Biblical personage in question with the ultimate rationale to identify what we can learn from him or her to help us in our lives today. How can their relationship to God, either positive or negative, help us with our relationship with God? The following is a list of some of the questions that can be asked of people in the Bible:13 (1) Who were they? (2) Who were their parents and family? (3) What was their education and surroundings? (4) Why did they do such and such? (5) Did they ever come to believe in God? Where, why, and how? (6) How does what they did relate to what they believed about God, and in fact, teach us about what they really believed about God? (7) What were their positive and negative qualities? (8) What kind of mistakes did they make and did they learn from them? (9) What or who were the biggest influences on their lives? (10) What were their marriages and children like? (11) How are they viewed by other Biblical writers (e.g., Abraham by Luke in Acts or Paul in Romans 4)? (12) How did they grow as people or is there no evidence that they did? Was there a definitive turning point in their life? (13) How did they handle disappointment? Success? The list is endless.
We have chosen to do a book study first. Actually, for beginners it will be enough to learn to study a paragraph, since this is quite manageable and books are often times long and too challenging without mastering this step first.14 A person might ask, “why not start with verse study?” The reason is that the paragraph is the basic unit of thought, not the verse or sentence. We also note that the study of a paragraph is in certain respects basic to all other kinds of Bible study as well. Thus, all verses studied using the topical, theological, historical, or biographical method should be read at least in the context of the paragraph in which they’re found.
Perhaps you have a favorite verse and would like to reflect on it a little further. The first thing to do is to set limits (i.e., identify) on the paragraph in which it is found. Essentially you’re asking, “what unit of thought is this sentence (e.g., verse15) immediately related to?” The NET Bible divides the text according to commonly accepted paragraph divisions. So also the NASB. The NIV, however, with its focus on the diminished reading abilities of the average person these days, tends to break paragraphs up into two or more smaller paragraphs which are not really paragraphs, but smaller units of closely related thought (cf. The NET Bible with the NIV in Matthew 1-4). But the bottom line is, where ever one puts the paragraph divisions, one should make sure that what one claims as a paragraph actually has one major idea and is distinct in terms of what has come both before and after. See below in our practice section of this work.
Once the reader knows the paragraph division, the text should be read prayerfully a dozen times or more. This may amount to reading the equivalent of two to three chapters worth of material, so it’s not as bad as it might have initially sounded. Here are some important questions to ask as you read the material repetitively and meditatively. First, note what comes before this paragraph and what comes after. You may use the chapter or sectional titles in your Bible to help you with this. The question here, and it is sometimes difficult to answer, is how does what comes before prepare me for my paragraph and how does what comes afterward follow naturally (or not) from my paragraph? You may have to wait until you have read it many times before this becomes clear enough to make a statement about it. Second, how does the paragraph begin and how does it end? Does this provide a clue as to what the author’s talking about and a line of development through the paragraph? Third, can the paragraph itself be broken down into smaller units, perhaps one or two divisions. This may help me get a clear picture as to the development of the author’s thought. Fourth, what does the paragraph center on: (1) a person; (2) a place; (3) an idea or concept; (4) time; (5) an event? All of these elements will be present, but usually one or two dominate. What are they? Fifth, what are the key terms in this paragraph? Sometimes the author repeats a term over and over again. That’s because it’s important to him and generally essential to grasping his meaning. Notice also how various terms make you think, feel, or act.
By this stage you have read the paragraph so many times you may be sick of it. Hopefully not! In any case, it’s time to summarize the paragraph, that is, to boil it down to its basic idea. To do this, ask yourself two questions. First, ask yourself, “what is the author talking about?” That’s your subject. Second, ask yourself, “what does he say about what he’s talking about?” That’s the rest of the idea, the predicate or complement as some folks call it. By the way, you already do this all the time. Some of you work for corporations where it is not at all uncommon to attend seminars on this, that, or the other thing. When you go, you’ll take out your writing pad (or Palm Pilot these days) and try to distill what the speaker’s talking about and what he says about it. Perhaps he’s talking about a new kind of computer network system. That’s his subject, broadly speaking. Perhaps he gives you a lengthy description of the system, including features and benefits. This, then, is the complement or rest of his idea. You may summarize a two hour lecture (boring?) as: The “XYZ Network solutions” package (subject) has the following features: A,B, and C (complement). Thus every complete idea has two parts: (1) subject, and (2) complement or predicate. The Bible, in this sense, is no different. Every paragraph has a subject/complement or main idea. It is our job to discover what that is.
After you have read the paragraph many times and have drawn up a tentative subject/ complement statement, you are ready to look at other passages relating to your passage. Most Bibles have cross-references listed with each or nearly each verse. These should now be read. The question to ask is, “how does this passage from another part of scripture shed light on the verse or paragraph I’m studying right now. Therefore, suppose that I am studying Romans 1:1-7 and am at the point—having drawn up my provisional subject/complement—where I want to look at other verses related to the verses in this paragraph. As I begin now with Romans 1:1, I have decided to look at the beginning of Paul’s other letters, to compare them to Romans. I find that in none of his other letters does he begin with such a clear statement of the gospel’s connection to the OT and David. I conclude from this that I can expect to see more connections forged between the gospel and the OT. This, of course, is rampant throughout Romans.
Having looked at all the cross-references, many of which were probably found in the very book in which your paragraph is found, you are now ready to finalize your statement about the meaning of the paragraph. You may find that you don’t need to change anything. IN all likelihood, you will tweak it a little.
This step is really part of the previous step of revisiting your summary. The point here is to go through the paragraph and make sure that in one form or another, every verse contributes to your subject/complement statement and that no one is contrary to it. If you just can’t make a verse fit with your statement, you need to rethink your statement.
Many people like to choose a verse that really strikes a chord with them and then memorize it or ask God what he may be saying specifically to them. This leads to the next step.
Finally you will want to meditate on what you’ve learned, praying through it as you do: “Lord, what do you want to say to me, my family, my friends, those who do not know Christ yet, etc.?” Perhaps the Lord wants to change an attitude, praise you for something you’ve done, or redirect your steps. Listen for his voice as it comes to you through scripture.
12 Sometimes that “culture,” “background,” or more commonly called “tradition” is Christian and this too can blunt the force of certain texts. The common practice of readily and instantaneously identifying with the tax collector over the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 is proof of what we’re saying. The shock value of the parable is lost for Jesus assumes that you will identify with the Pharisee and be flabbergasted when the publican goes home justified and the Pharisee condemned!
13 It has been said that “more is caught than taught.” Perhaps this is why so much of the Biblical material is narrative—theological writing about people and their experiences with God.
15 Some Bible verses contain more than one sentence in English (e.g., Gal 2:20 NIV), but not all verses are complete sentences (e.g., Eph 2:14) and some sentences stretch out for several verses in the English translations, to say nothing of the originals.