The inductive study method is a rational, methodical way of engaging the Bible. Whether you are an academic or someone with little training in the study of Scripture, the inductive method provides a solid framework to study all of Scripture. Because it leads one to form his own conclusions about the text, the inductive method facilitates the individual disciple’s learning and growth.
History of the Inductive Study Method
Wilbert Webster White founded the inductive method in the late nineteenth century with his teacher and associate, William Rainey Harper. In response to Harper’s use of high-criticism in the study of Scripture, White suggested the Bible should be studied on its own merit. He believed any “criticism would be addressed by a direct literary study of the Bible. In the process of studying Scripture, the reader will find it authenticates itself.”
Careful study of Scripture within its own context, White taught, leads to a clear interpretation. All one needs to interpret a passage is the Holy Spirit and the details contained within the passage. A professor of mine would say we should be able to interpret and apply Scripture through the careful study of a passage without the need to go on a “bicycle trip through the Bible.”
After forming the basis for the inductive method, White continued to develop it as he taught it in India and England. When he returned to the Unites States, he founded The Biblical Seminary of New York where the inductive method was a central part of the curriculum. It would continue to be developed by professors in the school and ultimately spread to colleges and seminaries around the world including Asbury and Dallas Theological Seminary. I personally have experienced the inductive method at both Wheaton College and George Fox Evangelical Seminary.
What is the Inductive Study Method?
This method of scripture study is called the inductive method because it is based on the principles of inductive reasoning, the process of forming a general conclusion based on the observation of specific details. For example:
Many of my friends and co-workers play fantasy football.
ESPN and other sports media employ fantasy experts.
Players in the NFL reference fantasy football.
Therefore fantasy football must be very popular.
The observation of three specific details led to a general conclusion. The most well known example of inductive reasoning is Sherlock Holmes. Holmes forms conclusions about people and crime scenes based on the keen observation of a handful of details. When we study Scripture inductively, we examine the details of the text like Sherlock Holmes. The reader observes the details, and from her observation, forms an interpretation of the passage.
The inductive method takes seriously the value of each word, the author, the audience and the context in which a passage of Scripture was written. It zeroes in on a text and interprets it strictly within itself. It is an active and rational engagement with the Word of God in a way that helps a disciple understand the central idea of the passage.
How to study the Bible inductively
The inductive study method follows a simple, three step pattern: observe, interpret and apply. We observe the details of a passage. In light of those details, we then interpret the passage. Finally, we apply the interpretation to our lives.
The observation stage is like building a house. We examine the foundation by making general observations. For example, who wrote the passage? To whom was it written? Where does the passage fit in the larger story? Then we explore the structure of the passage. How is its message organized and developed? Finally, we observe the details, getting down to the level of specific words and sentence structure. When all of these are complete, we can stand back, observe the whole, and give an interpretation.
To begin with foundational observations, we read the passage from start to finish for a basic understanding of its contents. Then take a moment to understand its context within the book. If it is short, read the whole book. If it is longer, you may decide to skim it, but make sure you understand the literary context of the text. Is the passage at the beginning or the end of the book? Does it come before or after a specific teaching or exhortation? What happened in the story or teaching before this passage, and what happens after?
For example, an interpretation of Joseph’s interaction with his brothers when they come to Egypt for aid in Genesis 42 will need to take into account the full story of their relationship in Genesis 37. And a complete understanding of Paul’s teaching on the unity of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 should take into account his writing on the gifts in verses 4-11.
After reading the passage in context, it is time to make some initial observations.
Atmosphere – What is the tone and atmosphere of the passage? Is it light or heavy, encouraging or rebuking, etc.?
Where, when, who, what and why? –Where is the author or the story located? When does it take place, and when was it written? Who wrote it, and to whom was it written? Who are the characters? What happens? Why do the events happen? This is one place where it is appropriate to use an external resource. You may use a good study Bible or Bible dictionary to understand a little bit about who wrote the book, when it was written, who it was written to and so on. If the passage references locations, it is also helpful to use a good map.
These steps lay a solid foundation for the observations that follow.
Once we have the context, we will read the passage again and examine its structure. Divide the text into sections. In some cases there are clear divisions, as in Genesis 1:1-2:3. In others the divisions of a passage are less clear. There really is no right or wrong here. Chapter and verse breaks are not inspired and neither are the segments we define. Look for repetition, connecting ideas, transitions in thought or literary structure, and let them be your guide.
Once you have identified the sections, give them titles. If each were a chapter in a book, how would they be titled? Identifying and titling the sections allows us to see the progression of the story or the author’s message. It gives us a preliminary overview of the text’s meaning and breaks up the passage into manageable pieces for the detailed observation to come.
Once we have explored the foundation and structure of the passage, we will turn to the finer details. In this stage of the inductive method, we will be making a lot of very specific observations, so it is helpful to document them in some way. You may record your observations directly in your Bible, in an Excel or Word document or on a printed version of the text. Generally a practitioner of the inductive method will develop her own method of documentation. I have shared starting points in the Inductive Method Guide and an Excel document at the bottom of the article, but make these your own. Allow your process to evolve to suit your personal method of observation.
All our observations should be as specific as possible, and we want to constantly keep a wondering eye on why the observation is important. In an effort to be thorough and specific, writing our observations in complete sentences can be helpful. For example when documenting an observation from Genesis 1 it is better to note:
Every time the text says, “God said…” it is followed by either “And it was so” or “So God made…” There is an obvious connection between God’s speech and the creation of everything.
“God said…” followed by either “And it was so” or “So God made…”
There is a set of categories to guide us through the detailed observations. By no means are they the only categories, and a passage will not necessarily contain something from each one. These are simply reminders, guides for our observation. It is possible to practice the inductive method without these categories, but I find them to be immensely helpful.
Repetition – Does the author repeat anything? It could be the repetition of a key word, phrase, question, or idea. Repetition is often a way of indicating importance. A location or a person could also be the subject of repetition. What is the author saying about the person or place? What does the author seem to be highlighting or drawing our attention to in the repetition? What is the message in the repetition?
Progression of ideas – Sometimes the author develops an idea. It may be within the context of repetition or not. Is the author developing a thought? Is there an A + B = C logic in the text? Is the passage leading to a particular point? (John 21:15-17 contains a classic example of repetition and progression of ideas.)
Contrasts, comparisons and illustrations – Pay attention to contrasts and comparisons as well as illustrations. Are two people, locations, or things being compared or contrasted? Is there an illustration in the form of a metaphor or simile? What is communicated in the contrast, comparison, or illustration? (Psalm 1 is an example of comparison, contrast and illustrations.)
Lists – Does the passage contain any lists? What is the list, and what is it describing? How is the list ordered (e.g. chronologically, order of importance, etc.)? Is there a logical progression? (Galatians 5:16-26 compares and contrasts two lists.)
Reasons and results – Does the passage describe any cause and effect relationships? Is there an “if… then…” description? “Therefore,” “so,” and “in order that” are some key words that can indicate a statement of reasons and results. Is the author describing a desired result or one to avoid? (Romans 6:1-7 is full of reason and result statements.)
Advice, warnings and promises – Does the text contain any advice, warnings, or promises? These may be clearly stated or implied. What are the implications of the advice, warning or promise? Do the people in the passage listen and respond? (2 Chronicles 12-22 contains both promises and warnings.)
Questions – Are any questions asked in the passage? Is the question answered, or is it rhetorical? What is the answer to the question? What is the question communicating to the audience? (2 Corinthians 12:12-31 has a list of rhetorical questions.)
Grammatical construction – Is there anything noteworthy in the grammatical construction of the text? Look at the tenses of the verbs. Are they past, present or future? Observe the subject, object and verbs of sentences. Is there anything noteworthy in the grammatical construction? (Job 19:25-27 the tenses of verbs in this passage are noteworthy)
Emphatic statements – Sometimes an author will state something with great emphasis as Paul does in Galatians 5:12. Other places it is someone in the narrative. But anytime a passage contains a statement of great emphasis, we must pay attention. What is the emphatic statement, and why do you think the author speaks so strongly? (Luke 11:37-54 contains a series of emphatic statements from Jesus.)
Key words – Which words in the passage carry heightened importance? If these words were removed, the passage would lose a great deal of its meaning. These words may be repeated or hold a central place in the text. What is communicated in these words? What makes them central to the text? (“Heard” and “hearing” are key words in Luke 7:1-10.)
There is one final observation to make before moving to interpretation. Identify a key verse. Based on the foundation, structure and details you have observed so far, is there one verse on which the entire passage seems to hinge? Martin Scorsese once said a good film should have a single scene that perfectly encapsulates the theme of the movie. Is there a verse that does this for the passage, or is there a pivotal verse on which it turns?
Now we begin the journey from the details back to the whole. We will review our observations and see where they are pointing. In light of the observations, what is the passage saying? As soon as we land on an interpretation, we will write a one or two sentence statement, the central idea of the text. This is the second step in the inductive method.
As you observe, you are likely forming an interpretation. That is okay, but it is important to observe without prejudice, not allowing our assumptions about the passage’s interpretation to influence what we observe. When we allow preconceived ideas about the text to influence our observations, we may read an interpretation into the passage that is not there, and we are excluding the Holy Spirit from the process. The single most important element of reading Scripture is an open interaction with the activity of the Spirit.
This is an important moment to stop and remember that the study of Scripture is a spiritual discipline. It is a practice that cultivates a greater awareness of God’s presence and makes us aware of and helps root out obstacles to his presence. The Bible is living and active. We must always study with a mind attentive to the text and a heart attentive to the Spirit. We don’t study to understand the Bible. We study to know God.
When we form a central idea of the text, we won’t necessarily find all our observations pointing to a single idea, and it is possible a passage could have more than one. Take the first creation account in Genesis for example. There are a number of observations to be made. God speaks the world into creation. He not only creates the materials of the universe, but he orders them as well. Humanity is the only part of creation given a place of authority. There is a rhythmic nature to the text that abruptly shifts on the seventh day.
You can form a few different conclusions. You may suggest the passage is ultimately telling the story of God bringing order from chaos, that all things are created with a place and a purpose. You may conclude that the sharp turn in the rhythm at 2:1-3 makes Sabbath the highlight, that the creation account is as much an origin story of Sabbath as it is for the rest for creation.
Neither would be wrong. And you can see neither takes into account all of the details observed in the text. The task of the inductive reader is determining to what possible conclusions the details point. There will be details extraneous to the central idea, but they are not without purpose. These details may peak our interest and lead to further and deeper study. Or they may lead to another interpretation at a later date. Scripture is incredibly rich. As the living and active Word of God, it will speak differently into our lives at different times. If we read with the Holy Spirit, we will receive the interpretation we need in this season of our lives.
This is the final and most important step of the inductive method. Now that we have written the central idea of the text, what will we do with it? What does this passage mean for our lives? This will be personal and unique. We may have identical observations and write a similar central idea, but our applications will be unique.
Consider this prayerfully. Is there something you will change in light of this text? Is there something you will start doing or stop doing? What does the text tell you about God and his relationship with his creation? How does it impact your relationship with him?
Do not take this step lightly. We should not approach the written Word of God strictly as a means for gaining knowledge. If this is our intention, we are missing the great depth of Scripture, and we might as well be studying Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky. We read and study because of relationship. As important as the individual words are, it is the relationship found in the Word that is most important. And it is from this relationship we ask God to speak when we practice the inductive method.
A word on interpretation
It is important to make a final point about personal interpretation of Scripture. I am sure we have all heard wacky stories of people interpreting Scripture in odd and sometimes scary ways. While I believe very deeply that the individual disciple must engage Scripture personally to learn and be formed by it in his own life as a disciple, it would be naïve to ignore there is some danger here. Any time one is forming an opinion about what God is saying (through Scripture or elsewhere) a healthy amount of humility and caution is necessary.
Here are some helpful principles to keep in mind when interpreting Scripture. First, the teaching of the Bible will not contradict itself. While the inductive method interprets a passage within itself, the central idea will not conflict with God’s teaching elsewhere. A simple way checking your interpretation is to run it through the filter of the Ten Commandments and the fruits of the Spirit. If your interpretation goes against one of God’s commandments or is applied in a way that is not loving, joyful, peaceful, and so on, it is not a proper interpretation.
A second check comes from our growing relationship with God. When we grow as disciples and our relationship deepens, we come to know the voice of Jesus more clearly. Jesus tells us his followers will know his voice. As we grow to know him more, it will become easier to discern what is his voice in the text and what is our own or someone else’s.
The final check is an acknowledgment of the greater community of faith. While we interpret individually, we are a part of the Church. We cannot ignore the interpretation of Scripture that has come before us. If your interpretation takes you against the collective interpretation of Scripture, you will need to go deeper. If your interpretation leads you to a radical application, you would be wise to ask some trusted disciples for input.
Skye Jethani has a written a brilliant piece called “The Ten Commandments for interpreting Scripture.” He goes into far greater detail than I have here. I highly encourage you read his work and keep these in mind as you engage the Bible.