According to Richard Warren in 12 Dynamic Bible Study Methods, the secret of effective Bible study is knowing how to ask the right kinds of questions. There are different questions for each Bible study method. Write down insights as they come; the ultimate goal is application, not just interpretation. Make up your mind that you will regularly put some time into the study of the Bible. Below are several Bible study methods, followed by a description of widely available research tools.
Topical Bible Study: According to R. A. Torrey in How to Study the Bible for Greatest Profit, Bible students should take up various subjects, one by one, and search the Bible for what it has to say on these subjects. Collect and compare all the verses you can find on a particular topic. Select a biblical subject and trace it through a single book. Compile a list of words, collect Bible references, consider each one, and compare and group the references. Organize your conclusions into an outline that you can share with another person. It may be important to know what great men and women have to say on important subjects; but it is far more important to know what God has to say on these subjects. It is important, also, to know all that God has to say. The topical method of Bible study is simplest, most fascinating, and yields the greatest immediate results. Sometimes it will be necessary to look up other subjects that are closely related to the one in question. For example, if you wish to study what the teaching of God's Word is regarding the Atonement, you will not only look under the heading "Atonement" but also under the heading "Blood."
The Chapter Summary Method: According to Warren, the student should read a chapter of a Bible book at least five times, and then write down a summary of the central thoughts as well as the major points in the chapter. Make a list of the most important people. Why are they included? Choose a verse which summarizes the whole chapter or one which speaks to you personally. List any difficulties you may have with the chapter (such as statements you don't understand), questions, and key words of the chapter. Look for other verses that help clarify what the chapter is talking about. What are the major principles, insights, and lessons? Why does God want this passage in the Bible? Ask yourself a series of questions relating to the content of the chapter, and ending with a general summary of the chapter. Divide the chapter into its natural sections and find headings for them that describe their contents. Write down the leading facts of the chapter in their proper order. Make note of the persons mentioned in the chapter and of any analysis of their character. Think of what might be the central truth of the chapter, along with the key verses.
The Book Survey Method: Survey an entire book of the Bible by reading it through several times to get a general overview of its contents. Study the background of the book and make notes on its contents—the history, geography, culture, science, people, events, and topics covered. Outline and chart the key events and themes. Use Bible reference books to increase your understanding of the Word.
The Verse-by-Verse Analysis Method: Select one passage of Scripture and examine it in detail. Write out a personal paraphrase, list some questions and observations, find cross-references, record any insights, and write down a brief personal application for each verse.
The Thematic Method: Select a Bible theme to study. Then think of three to five questions you'd like to have answered about that theme. Next, study all the references you can find on your theme and record the answers to your questions. Think of topics such as: What should we strive for as Christians? What traits of a fool are given in this book or chapter?
The Word Study Method: Study the important words of the Bible. Find out how many times a word occurs in Scripture and how it is used. Find out the original meaning of the word. Compare translations, check the word's occurrences, and find the root meaning. Write an application.
The Character Analysis Method: Select a Bible character and research all the verses about that person in order to study his or her life and characteristics. Make notes on his or her attitudes, strengths, and weaknesses, and show how Bible truths are illustrated in his or her life. Live with that person during the study, walk in his or her shoes. See how he or she thinks, feels, and responds to circumstances. Choose a character quality you would like to work on yourself, and study what the Bible says about it. Select a situation in your own life to work on and memorize a verse that speaks to you.
The Devotional Method: Select a short passage of Scripture and meditate on it. Visualize the scene or the narrative. Put yourself into the biblical situation as an active participant. What would I say? How do I feel? Read through the passage several times, emphasizing a different word each time. Rephrase the passage in your own words to personalize it. Write out an application that is personal, practical, and possible. Ask yourself, Does this application help me become more like Jesus?
Concordance: This is a complete alphabetical listing of all the words in the Bible. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance or Young's Analytical Concordance are two popular editions. You can look up a key word and find the passage that you want, and even others that expand on it. A concordance can be very helpful in clarifying word meanings as you look them up in their various contexts.
Commentaries: These are collections of explanatory notes on and interpretations of the text of a book or section of the Bible. They explore the meaning of the biblical message by analyzing words used, grammar and syntax, and a passage's relation to the rest of the Bible. The New Bible Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Halley's Bible Handbook, and NIV Bible Commentary are popular. Commentaries are designed to expand on biblical passages through original language study, historical information, context, and in-depth review by scholars with various viewpoints and biases.
Study Bibles: These Bibles are designed to help you dig deeper into the text. They give background notes, a brief running commentary, maps, etc. Some popular editions are The Reformation Study Bible and the NIV Study Bible.
Lexicons: These are linguistic tools that help define word meanings and vocabulary. Even if you do not know the original Greek or Hebrew, these tools will help you understand word meanings and grammatical structure. Some give additional information about "morphological" variations, and some even provide references for where and how the words are used in other ancient literature.
Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias: These help explain many of the Bible's words, topics, customs, geography, etc. They often work just like a standard dictionary or encyclopedia, except that all the words and topics are found in Scripture. They can be great tools for finding more information so you can understand what is being said or what is going on in the biblical text. Titles such as The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and New Bible Dictionary are good. Some dictionaries go in-depth, providing more than just a general understanding of major theological points; these include Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, Ed., (Regency Reference Library, Zondervan) and Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.
Bible Almanacs: A good almanac has chapters on Bible chronology, archeology, peoples associated with biblical history (the Egyptians, Greeks, etc.), language history, geography, etc. My favorite is The Bible Almanac: A Comprehensive Handbook of the People of the Bible and How They Lived, by Packer, Tenney, and White.
Maps: Most Bibles, along with some reference books, include maps designed to show you where events happened; they give you a "where" perspective, especially for books such as Acts that describe a lot of traveling.
Books about the Bible: These books help the student understand what the Bible is about and give general overviews. One such book is the classic What the Bible Is All About by Henrietta Mears, founder of "Gospel Light," one of the largest and best producers of Sunday school curricula. Also, these two works are very helpful: With the Word, by Warren Wiersbe, provides a devotional overview; and Haley's Bible Handbook provides overviews and historical facts. C. S. Lewis is well-known as a popularizer of Christian knowledge and biblical understanding.
Bible Pamphlets: There are several editions of these laminated overviews of the Bible. They contain compact summaries of each of the books of the Old and New Testaments, along with key verses, names of the authors, dates, locations, etc.
Biblical History on DVD or CD: There are a variety of lectures, historical re-enactments, and documentaries available on DVD and CD. These programs can provide a good overview of main Bible themes and make study more interesting.
The Books of the Bible Summarized: A Concise Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis of Scripture Truths, by Keith Brooks (Baker Book House, 1980).
How to Study the Bible for Greatest Profit: The Methods and Fundamental Conditions of the Bible Study That Yield the Largest Results , by R. A. Torrey (Kessinger Publishing, 2007).
12 Dynamic Bible Study Methods, by Richard Warren (Victor Books, 1987).
Rick Sheridan, D.Tech, M.A., is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications at Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
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