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The Five Steps of Bible Study

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(By Mark Fontecchio)

Amidst the natural beauty of the hills of Northern Wisconsin emerge stories that appear to be too ridiculous to be true. Such is the story of Bill and Bob (not their real names). These two brothers worked for many years remodeling homes, but what made them different from most carpenters/contractors is that neither of them could read at all (including numbers). Because they were identical twins, they developed a unique system for communicating measurements. Since their arms, fingers, hands, and other features were essentially the same size, they used this to communicate the given measurements to each other. Even though this ingenious system worked for them, consider the complications. They always had to work alone because no one else had the same size body parts. Further, it became a nightmare when these two characters showed up at the local building supply to order windows and doors. Imagine getting an order for a window that is twenty-seven and a half hands wide!

bible-study Thankfully, God did not communicate this way with mankind. Instead, He used language to communicate His truth to us. Even though 2,000 years have passed since our Savior came, we can know with certainty the message of God’s Word. But how is this possible? With all of the different interpretations of the Bible, how can one group of Christians claim to have certainty in their interpretation of God’s Word? The answer is found by analyzing how we approach the Bible.

The Five Steps

The first step in Bible study is to study a given passage of Scripture in its context. This is done using the literal-grammatical historical method, which means:

(1) The passage under consideration should be studied according to the normal meaning of language. How is the word or statement normally understood? (2) The passage should be studied according to the rules of grammar; exegesis demands an examination of the nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc., for a proper understanding of the passage. (3) The passage should be studied in its historical context. What were the political, social, and particularly the cultural circumstances surrounding it? (Enns 1989, 21).

At this point in the process, the focus is on the immediate context of the passage. When words are spoken (or written) they have meaning within the context of a given time and location. Because the meaning of words can change with time, we need to make sure that we are looking at the meaning of the words within the historical context of when they were written. Using the normal rules of grammar, the interpreter should be able to come to an understanding of the intended meaning of the text.

The second step of studying the Bible is to link, or to expand our focus by cross-referencing Scripture with Scripture. This step expands the focus beyond the given passage to integrate or synthesize the truth from other passages of Scripture. This is also called, “theological cross-referencing” (Hixson and Fontecchio 2013, 19). The goal at this step is to expand the focus beyond the passage being studied, to take into account the full counsel of God’s Word. As our knowledge of the Word of God increases, so will our ability to accurately cross-reference.

Our study in the first two steps should lead us to be able to organize our conclusions from Scripture into a well-stated summary or doctrinal statement. This helps us to develop a grid or a filter so that we can examine truths from outside the Bible. It is also beneficial to others as we can readily show them our belief on any given doctrine from Scripture. It should be noted that these first three steps are the development phase and are a repeated and lifelong process. Our conclusions from the Word of God will be refined as we grow in our knowledge and understanding of God’s Word. Repeated study of texts will provide fresh insights and deeper comprehension of the meaning intended by God. Utilizing the summary statement of belief should help us to have a biblical worldview.

The last two steps bring us to the implementation phase of Bible study. At this point the student of Scripture is to evaluate any claims of truth with the statement of belief described in step three. Ultimately, we are using the Scriptures as a filter to help us process all of the claims of truth that are present in this world. Those that line up with the teaching of Scripture (or don’t violate the clear teaching of Scripture) should be welcomed and embraced as truth. Any claim that is in contradiction with the Scriptures should be rejected.

The final step of Bible study is often overlooked by many students of Scripture. It is to apply what you have learned to your own life. The entire purpose of studying the Word of God is to change our lives, to be conformed to the image of Christ. If you study the Word of God but never apply it, all that has taken place is a mere intellectual exercise. This instruction is clearly echoed throughout the Word of God:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves (James 1:22).

Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You (Ps. 119:11).

How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word (Ps. 119:9).

Certainly believers should be seeking to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ Jesus (2 Pet. 3:18), but the goal is to live out the truth we learn in Scripture.

Mistakes in the Interpretative Process

The literal-grammatical-historical method should lead the believer in Christ to the right interpretation. However, it should be self-evident that mistakes will enter the interpretative process, and a failure to follow this method leads to the incorrect understanding of Scripture.  In truth, it could happen in any of the steps of Bible study. The greatest opportunity for errors to enter into the process is in the theological cross-referencing. It is altogether too easy to take passages out of context. Further, not taking into account the entire teaching of the Bible on a given topic (not expanding our study far enough) can lead us into error.

A second common failure in Bible study is in the failure to apply the Word of God to our lives. When Christians have moral failures, this is where they stop short. This is a danger for any Christian, but especially those within the ministry. Knowledge of the Word of God is simply not enough; it must be applied to protect us from the dangers of sin.

The Needed Correction

There are a number of disturbing trends within the Christian faith that undermine the sound interpretation of Scripture by believers. The result is that the Body of Christ is being stunted in its growth and understanding of God’s Word. Postmodernism and the deconstruction of language have led individuals to find their own meaning within the text. Allegorical interpretation allows interpreters to conceive in their mind the alleged hidden meaning of the text. There is only one solution, “In returning to the centrality of the Scriptures, the church must also return to the fundamental rules of literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics—rules such as singularity of meaning and analytical, contextual interpretation” (Hixson 2013, 267). Learning to accurately handle the Word of God is a lifelong process. Let us all, “be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

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The Holy Bible: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982.

Enns, Paul P. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989.

Hixson, J.B. Getting the Gospel Wrong: The Evangelical Crisis No One Is Talking About (Revised Edition). Duluth, MN: Grace Gospel Press, 2013.

Hixson, J.B. and Mark Fontecchio. What Lies Ahead: A Biblical Overview of the End Times. Brenham, TX: Lucid Books, 2013.


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