I grew up near the Illinois River and spent many hours traveling up and down the river’s meandering path. Do you know why natural waterways never follow a straight path? Because on their own, they always take the path of least resistance.
Have you ever considered that your life may be avoiding opportunities to grow deep in God’s Word by following a path of hours of mindless social media, entertainment, gaming, or internet viewing? Perhaps you have tried reading the Bible and found it unfruitful or unproductive. You may have decided it wasn’t worth the effort. But maybe you weren’t studying it as effectively as you could. There are three ways that you can study the Bible that can radically change your understanding of this greatest of books.
Although presented separately, these are not three unassociated disciplines, but each builds on the previous one.
1. Focused (Exegesis)
We can read the Bible in a focused way when we zoom in on a passage to understand it correctly. This is also called “exegesis.” It is determining the author’s intended meaning of a passage to his original audience.
“C” stands for “context.” The literary and historical contexts are the first things to investigate.
- The literary context of a passage considers the original language and the meaning of words. Followed by the grammatical relationships within sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Finally, the literary genre plays an essential role in proper interpretation. The Bible’s various genres include law, poetry, historical narratives, letters, and apocalyptic literature.
- The historical context refers to the Scripture’s “who” (authorship), “when” (date), “where” (location), “what” (purpose), and “why” (occasion). It is the real-life situation in which the book arose, including the geographical context and historical/political context. You don’t have to know every detail of the history surrounding a text to understand it, but you should have a general idea.
“I” stands for “interpretation.” In one sense, this part is easy once you have grasped the context. There is only one meaning of a text: the author’s intended meaning to his original audience.
That meaning should be the simplest, conventional, and obvious literal interpretation. Proper interpretation requires we get into the original audience’s shoes.
“A” is for “application.” Although there is only one meaning, there can be multiple applications. That is discovered by searching for some universal truth or “eternal” principle behind the Scripture that can be applied to our contemporary world today and to us specifically.
Going through this three-step process is a helpful method for reading Scripture in a “focused” way.
2. Big Story (Biblical Theology)
All of Scripture is a progression of God’s unfolding revelation historically. So studying the big story of the Bible (or biblical theology) looks at the Bible historically, seeing it as a unified unfolding of successive stages involving a variety of people.
This big story approach ultimately describes each writer’s message within the overall message of Scripture (both Old Testament and New Testament) that points to Jesus. Often this helps us carry an idea or theme through the story of Scripture from beginning to end (like “sacrifice”).
3. Topics (Systematic Theology)
Studying topics in the Bible, or systematic theology, uses the foundations laid by biblical theology. It collects all of the biblical information throughout the 1,500 years of Bible writing and organizes it according to specific topics, like an encyclopedia on one Bible topic.
Systematic theology answers the question, “What does the whole Bible teach about a given topic?”: such as the Holy Spirit, angels, sin, or the church.
Which Way Is Best?
With so many ways to study the Bible, your future journeys into Scripture need never be dull again. All of these ways of studying the Bible is useful.
- Exegesis helps us start with a passage to really understand it
- Biblical theology helps us track an idea through the whole story of the Bible
- Systematic theology gives us an orderly summary of all the places in the Bible that mention a particular topic
All of these ways are useful and should be enjoyed. Starting with a focused reading of Bible passages through exegesis will be a regular habit in the Bible for most of us. But if you are ever reading in the Old Testament, try to figure out how an idea you are seeing is fulfilled in the New Testament (hint: the book of Hebrews is particularly helpful for us with this). Or the next time you do an internet search about finding Bible verses for a topic, realize that you are doing systematic theology!
And more importantly, than perfecting any of these study methods, make sure that whatever study approach you are using, you are ultimately using your time studying the Bible to draw you closer to knowing the One who speaks through it.