As a follow-up post to my previous post where I gave a basic Bible Study glossary, I’m tossing up my general helps/guidelines for basic Bible study that I use with the College and Career bible study that I lead. Seeing that most good hermeneutics books are, well, several hundred page works, please understand that this is a bare essentials guide. I call it The Cleanly Dozen because these aren’t hard rules, but more helpful guidelines to help people clean up their bible study and arrive at a greater measure of clarity when they attempt to study the scriptures for themselves. Maybe this will be informative to those who have contacted me with questions about this stuff, and may help you in your own efforts at unpacking the scriptures.
1. The ultimate goal of Bible study is knowing God & being like Christ; both are summed up in one word – “obedience”. The proximate goal of Bible study isn’t to find an obscure fact or answer a question that’s always bothered you; at best, those things are side-benefits. The proximate goal of Bible study is to allow the scriptures to inform you where you need to change (thinking, action, etc.) and formulate a plan of action to obey. All people respond to scripture in one of two ways: change or sin.
2. The meaning of the scripture is unveiled by the Spirit of God in harmony with the words he used in the writing of the scripture.
a. You cannot understand the Bible with just prayer or study alone; you need both.
b. The idea of any passage having a meaning in contradiction to, or utterly removed from, the grammatical and contextual meaning of its actual words is a hallmark of false religion.
3. The meaning of a word is determined by its immediate context, not in a concordance or lexicon. “Context” basically means “setting”; setting in the sentence, passage, pericope, book, testament, theology, history, geography, etc.
a. Generally speaking, finding the meaning of a word in a specific passage never necessitates going to other passages of scripture. Cross references will provide theological/historical background to a term and its usage, but the meaning of a word in any book of the Bible is almost never discovered by flipping somewhere else in the Bible.
b. Always dig into the context. Ask yourself “What is the subject matter in the preceding passage(s)? Is there problem being addressed? Is there a story being told? Who is writing and who are they addressing? What kind of literature am I reading? What genre is this?” etc.
c. Word Studies tell you what the word means in other verses, but not what it means here. The semantic range of a word means almost nothing; the fact that a word carries a certain meaning somewhere else doesn’t mean that it carries that same meaning in other verses.
4. Words in general may have a large amount of possible meanings (which would be listed in a lexicon), but each word in each verse of scripture carries one actual meaning.
a. Contextual clues that may help you determine the meaning of unclear words/phrases:
i. Repetition (a difficult word/phrase is sometimes clarified or explained when it is restated/expanded upon in a following passage).
ii. Subject Matter (a difficult word/phrase will sometimes have its possible meanings narrowed down by the subject being discussed in the pericope).
iii. Contrast (a difficult word/phrase will sometimes be understood in the light of what is contrasted against it)
iv. Explanation (sometimes the scriptures simply provide an explanation of a difficult word/phrase if you just read on).
v. Description (sometimes a difficult word/phrase is described in such a way as to help unpack its meaning, though the meaning isn’t obvious from a surface reading of the text).
vi. Word Pictures & Figures of Speech (sometimes a difficult word/phrase is unpacked by a metaphor/simile/etc. or word picture that helps you narrow down the meaning of the word/phrase.)
5. Verbs drive a sentence. When you’re unpacking a passage of scripture and you want to grasp the meaning, digging into nouns will often give you some historic details and theological setting, but it won’t actually help you understand the passage you’re unpacking. Verbs are the engines that drive a sentence in every language.
6. Dialogue drives a narrative. When you’re reading a section of the Bible that is narrative in genre, the part that is most important isn’t what is done. The part that is most important is what is said, and then what is done in response to what is said. Dialogue is the engine behind action in all narrative.
7. When you see an “ought”, “should”, “must” or any other command language, you’ve got a command to be obeyed (an imperative). Imperatives are always something to memorize.
8. When you see a “because” (or “for”, “since”, “so that”, “seeing that”), you’re being told a reason for something. Read what’s before and after the “because” carefully; following an argument is the first step in understanding an argument.
9. When you see an unclear pronoun (him, her, them, they, you, etc.), it’s usually referring to the nearest proper noun (the antecedent of the pronoun). Probably half the misapplied scripture stems from misunderstood pronouns; just because the Bible says “you”, it’s not necessarily addressing you directly or personally.
10. When you come to a hard text, remember several things:
a. A text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text. (pulling a passage from its context is a guaranteed means of misunderstanding it.)
b. Biblical authors didn’t switch topics at random in mid-sentence/thought.
c. The details support the main idea, and the main idea is built from the details. (If you dig into a verse and come out with a meaning that doesn’t fit with the flow of the passage, you need to re-evaluate your work.)
d. You rarely need to import other scripture to understand the straightforward meaning of a passage. (see 3c. It’s so important, I thought it was worth mentioning twice)
e. Be patient and prayerful. (Some passages of Scripture are hard to understand [Prov. 25:2, 2 Peter 3:15-16], but the Bible is objectively true; it’s true whether you understand it or not.)
f. The problem is with the interpreter, not the scripture.
11. If you have a word/passage where there are 2 or more possible meanings, plug in each meaning and see which one makes the most sense.
12. If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense. Words mean what they normally mean unless you have good reason to abandon their common meaning. The Bible is full of figures of speech, but just because something could be a metaphor doesn’t mean that it is. (i.e. Matt. 4:2. The simple fact that the phrase ” forty days and forty nights” occurs frequently in the scripture is insufficient reason to declare that it is a metaphor in Matt. 4:2 for something like “a time of testing” or “a time of purification”. In order to declare that something is a metaphor, you need sufficient reason. That reason will be found in the immediate context, not another verse in another book of scripture.)
I hope that is beneficial and helpful to some of my readers.
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “Get Er Ragged!” Unger