Better Bible Study Tip #9: Observe, Then Interpret, Then Apply, In That Order

Not all Bible study methods are created equal. Unfortunately, some very popular methods of Bible study just aren’t that good.

Think about the way topical Bible studies are often done. The student begins with some premise in mind, such as a particular topic or application they want to make from scripture. And then they begin searching for all the scriptures that correspond to that subject. “Ready references” and Google searches can be very helpful in this part of the process.

Although topical studies can be done well when they are done very carefully by Bible students who already know their Bibles well, they can also be dangerous. Mining scripture for a particular point of application can easily lead to false conclusions, because it usually fails to carefully observe important details about the text, such as context.

This approach to Bible study tends to increase the possibility of false conclusions due to confirmation bias. We all have preconceived ideas about what we think the Bible teaches. When we mine through scripture for a particular idea, we will usually find what we are looking for, even if our preconceived ideas are wrong. Even many experienced preachers with high levels of Bible education tend to fall into this type of mistake.

Objectiveness requires an openness to the text. That’s why good Bible study begins with observation before any conclusions are drawn. Since we cannot simply “unknow” our preconceived ideas, we must intentionally set them aside and approach the text with as much openness and objectivity as we can possibly muster.

Better Bible study begins with careful observation of what a text actually says rather than a search for information that will support our ideas. When we observe before we interpret and apply, we will be far more likely to discover the text’s structure, rather than impose our own outline on it. We will be more likely to let the inspired context inform our understanding rather than taking a text in isolation. We will be more likely to discover the inspired author’s intended meaning rather than using his words for our own intentions. We will be more likely to discover the shortcomings in our own understanding rather than ignoring the unknowns in the text. When we begin with observation of the text, we will be less dependent on the interpretations of others, and more dependent on the original authors.

Another benefit of putting observation before interpretation and application is that it is more exciting. There’s something thrilling about discovering something new about the Bible. A Bible student should approach the text with a commitment to let the text speak for itself. A careful examination of the text will often lead to the discovery of new insights we have never noticed before. When this happens, we will find ourselves eager to share our insights with others! By the time we finish our study, we will have enjoyed the process so much that we will be eager to study the Bible more.

Who said that Bible study has to be boring? Start with observation, then interpret, then apply, in that order.