There are a number of good books on the subject of hermeneutics (the science of Bible interpretation). Some of these works present some very valuable tools in successfully studying the greatest book of all, the Bible. I shall herein attempt, however, to present relatively simple material regarding studying the Bible.
Approach the Bible with the right attitude. Many approach the Bible simply to prove what they already believe or to find fault with the Bible. The right attitude is to engage in a study of the Bible because you believe it is the infallible word of the Being who created and loves you (Ps. 119: 89, 138, 2 Tim. 3: 16, 17).
A respect and love for the truth must characterize the student. A disciple is a student who learns to obey (Jn. 8: 31, 32, Jn. 15: 8). Love of the truth is a prerequisite (2 Thes. 2: 10-12). We must believe God’s word, the Bible, is of God, his final revelation, and that we must not distort or change it in any way (Jude 3; Rev. 22: 18, 19; Gal. 1: 6-9). The motivation to study the scriptures is “…if ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples (learner and doer, dm) indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8: 31, 32).
A study of the scriptures is required. The primary reason there is so much confusion regarding what the Bible is believed to teach is because of the lack of actual Bible study. Some believe in special revelation, the Holy Spirit reveals truth directly to them apart from the Bible or the Spirit provides them with an esoteric meaning of the scriptures. Some just randomly open a page in the Bible and read a verse, making their own arbitrary application. Others, carelessly and without any sound discipline “read” the scriptures (no study). Their goal is simply to read the Bible from cover to cover once every two years. “Study to show thyself approved unto God,” Paul enjoins on Timothy, “a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2: 15).
Beloved we must study or give diligence to handle aright the word of truth (ASV). The Bible is how we learn and determine if others are teaching the truth (Acts 17: 11, I Jn. 4: 1).
Approach the Bible with order and system. The Bible has natural divisions (see “The Bible” in the subject index on the Archives page). We must learn and catalog these divisions and natural sections. You would not turn to the gospels (Matthew – John) to learn of the meat that the Jew was forbidden to eat under the Law of Moses (Lev. 11). You certainly would not go to Leviticus (third book in the Pentateuch) to learn of Jesus’ life (found in the gospels). Those who randomly turn to Leviticus 11 and bind the avoidance of certain meats on people today are in violation of I Timothy 4: 3, 4. In this vein, it must be realized that one verse may modify, qualify, and/or augment another verse.
When we access a given verse of scripture, we need to have a general understanding of the design and scope of the book in which the verse is found. I mentioned Acts 17: 11 under “a study of the scriptures is required.” The verse shows what nobility involves, daily searching the scriptures, “whether those things were so.” The book of Acts is a presentation and documentation of the history of the early church (Acts 1: 1-4, ca. 30 years). Acts contains accounts of the beginning of the gospel and church and how people became Christians. Possessing a general knowledge of Acts enhances our appreciation of the described action found in Acts 17: 11. We need to realize that verse eleven is actually part of a paragraph or passage (Acts 17: 10-15). This passage (vss. 10-15) is part of a sequential presentation of Paul’s second trip in preaching the gospel. Hence, Acts 17: 10-15 (in which verse eleven occurs) is part of Acts 15: 36 – 18: 22). Paul began this second trip at Antioch and concluded it at Caesarea and returned to Antioch (Acts 15: 35, 36; 18: 22). This second trip involved about three years, and they traveled through large districts of Asia Minor, visited the European cities of Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea (Acts 17: 11), Athens, and Corinth (Acts 15: 33-18: 22). See the difference in studying the Bible and in just “reading” it?
An understanding of any prevailing customs in addition to the design and scope of the book. Foot washing, the holy kiss, and the “veil” involved customs and practices which are mentioned and “used” in the teaching of different books of the Bible (Jn. 13: Rom. 16: 16; I Cor. 11). Some, not understanding these contemporary, indigenous customs have been guilty of making ananchronistic arguments (person, object, thing or event that is chronologically out of place…, see “The Truth About the ‘Veil'” in subject index under “Time Studies”).
Employ the right method of study. D. R. Dungan in his acclaimed work on hermeneutics commented thus on method: “Methods aregeneral and rules are special, hence the method governs all rules, and directs their use” (Hermeneutics, pg. 48). Professor Dungan proceeds to list a host of incorrect but common methods used in Bible study. Methods such as the mystical, allegorical, spiritual, hierarchical, rationalistic, and literal. After having exposed the fallacies of each of these often employed methods of interpretation, Dungan then introduces the inductive method. “A leading or drawing off a general fact from a number of instances…” writes Dungan in explaining the inductive method (Ibid., pg. 82). In other words, the inductive method (used by every reliable science) gathers all the pertinent information on a given subject and then makes the necessary deductions. Hence, the truth, whole truth is established.
The use of good study aid books. A good exhaustive Bible concordance is of great value to the student. In order to deduce you must first induce. You can look up the word baptism and baptize, for instance, in a concordance and establish the Bible’s teaching, as a whole, on that subject. You can learn the action (immersion, Col. 2: 12), the element (water, I Pet. 3: 20, 21), the subjects (Acts 2: 38, 37), and the purpose of baptism (Acts 2: 38, 22: 16, see “Water Baptism” in the subject index). A good Bible dictionary helps you to understand the meaning(s) of words. Commentaries can help you to intelligently approach a study of the Bible (see the links to study aids on my Links page, accessed from Archives). I used a commentary to quickly review the second trip of Paul in Acts (see “approach the Bible with order and system”). Of course, man is fallible and we must double check man’s work.
Some simple rules of Bible study. Always allow, when possible, the Bible to interpret itself. If you compare related verses and passages, you can, to a large extent, allow the Bible to explain itself. Using the earlier example of baptism, by comparing Acts 16: 33 with such verses as Acts 2: 38 and I Peter 3: 20, 21, you see why they were “baptized straightway (immediately, dm).” Always establish who the speaker or writer is and to whom he is speaking (the devil is also quoted in the Bible, Matt. 4: 6). Study a word or phrase in the verse, context, and even remote context in which it occurs. Learn all the rules of syntax you can and apply them. Make use of the telescopic and microscopic approach, broadly study a subject and then focus in on all the minute detail.
Concerned reader, this material on “how to study the Bible” is by no means exhaustive. However, if these truths and principles herein taught are applied, one will be well on the way to being a successful and blessed student of the Bible, “handling aright the word of truth.”