Last week I started a series on Inductive Bible Study. We looked at the first step which is observation. Today I will be going over the second step, interpretation.
One of the problems we run into isdoing interpretation first and never getting around to observing what the text actually says. Once you have taken a look at the passage you’re studying and examined it then it is time to interpret what you have and check to see if you have missed anything.
What are we dealing with?
We are going to look at the four levels of a passage and what interpretive questions we should be asking.
Now is the time to make note of the literary genre of the passage. Is it prose or poetry? What kind of poem is it? What kind of story is it? Is Paul quoting an ancient 1st century Christian hymn? Some of these questions you will not be able to answer (or think to ask) unless you are going through a commentary. I highly recommend consulting commentaries after you have studied the passage for yourself.
Next are the structural questions. How is this paragraph related to the rest in this section? How is the author of Hebrews developing his argument? What theme is John focusing on now? What is the subject, verb, and object of this sentence?
Sometimes it is not entirely clear what is going on in a particular passage. Usually if you’ve studied a passage and it is unclear what the author is talking about it is probably unclear to many others as well.
When translation teams come across unclear passages they usually prefer to maintain the ambiguity of the passage otherwise they are doing more interpretation than translation.
When you run across an ambiguous passage and have studied it thoroughly then it is time to consult a commentary (or better yet, two or three). The good ones will tell you:
- the interpretive options
- the arguments for and against each option
- which view they hold to
Of course commentators are limited to the amount of space they have so they will not treat all passages as in-depth as they could.
Did you run across any difficult or significant terms? Look them up in a dictionary and, if you have one, possibly a Bible dictionary. What are the potential meanings of the word? Remember context is everything so find the meaning that makes the most sense. If none of the options make sense then keep digging. This is another point where a commentary will come in handy. If the term is significant often times a commentator will talk about it.
Another good tool to have for this exercise is a concordance. Strong’s concordance is the most popular. Using this tool will help you find where else in the Bible the word you are studying occurs. Seeing it used in different parts of the Bible will give you a better feel for what it can possibly mean in the passage you’re studying. Although many words occur but once in scripture.
The question of atmosphere can sometimes be answered before all others. In other cases it takes some studying to be able to discern. The atmosphere hinges on every feature we just went over. It can be determined by the genre, structure, or terms of the passage. It is usually a combination of all three.
The questions to ask for each level of interpretation
These are the questions you will need to ask for every level of the passage. Which means you will be asking them as you go through the four levels of the passage that we went over above.
The first is to define or explain what something means. This is naturally the first question you ask when you deal with terms. However think this through when you are handling the genre.
When you are going through the book of Revelation what does it mean that it is apocalyptic? Understanding that the nature of apocalyptic literature involves bizarre dreams, visions, and imagery you won’t be too thrown off by the subject matter.
The second question is the rational question, why did the author write this and why did he put it in this particular place within his work. This question comes to mind when we are dealing with the structure of a passage but it is good to bring it up for the other levels as well.
Many of the terms in the Bible have synonyms. However, most words do not share every meaning their synonym contains. So a question to ask is, why did the author use this word instead of another? Was he looking to put the emphases on a nuance that only this word encompasses? Or was it merely a stylistic choice?
The third and final question is, what are the possible implications of this passage? Many start with this question. Or worse, they tell the text what its possible implications are instead of asking it.
Once you have done the hard work of observation and have asked the other questions then it is time to look for the implications. This is the bridge to application.
For instance, there are a lot of issues we deal with today that the apostles either did not have to face or did not have the leisure time to address in the first century. However, drawing principles from scripture and then carrying out their logical implications will help to answer many of the issues we are faced with today.
This isn’t the last step, the final step is Application. We were meant to do Christianity and studying the Bible is just one part of what it means to be a Christian, so stay tuned for tomorrow’s post!
As always feel free to leave comment. Let me know what you think about this post or you can contact me and let me know what you want to see covered in a future post.