How to Study the Bible: A Ten Step Approach

 Here is the short version of the ten steps, then explained more fully below. This approach is from Grant Osborne. (Other great resources are Kay Arthur’s How to Study Your Bible and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.)

  1. Outline the book as a whole
  2. Line diagram of a specific passage
  3. Grammatical study based on line diagram
  4. Semantics study: meaning of key words based on context
  5. Syntactical study: what is the relationship between the words, phrases and ideas in the passage?
  6. Historical background: what internal evidence is provided about the original setting?
  7. Genre: OT narratives, poetry, prophetic, apocalyptic, NT narrative, epistle
  8. Historical interpretation: how has this passage been understood throughout church history?
  9. Doctrines: what doctrines are taught in this passage; what other parts of the Bible teach the same doctrine?
  10. Homiletical synthesis: what is the significance of this text for Christian living and for the church?

As I sat at my desk this morning I opened my Bible to Hosea 1 intending to read chapters 1-7. In this process there were two primary entities (though I’m tempted to include my coffee as a third). Those two entities were the text before me (Hosea) and me the reader. The writer Hosea and his mind are no longer present; the only record we have is this text he left behind.

My interaction with this text unfolds in a dynamic that Grant Osborne describes as a hermeneutical spiral, by which he means the movement back and forth between the reader and the text, leading to a probable understanding of the author/Author’s intended meaning. This process culminates in the reader’s understanding of the passage for the current context and significance for the church.

This back and forth between text and context is the essence of the hermeneutical spiral, and assumes the reality that the interpreter approaches the text with “pre-understandings.” The reader comes with his own language, culture, and assumptions to the text. The spiral describes the process by which the text challenges those pre-understandings and reshapes the mind of the interpreter, who then engages the text again with a new point of reference based on the text itself.

Osborne points out that this spiral occurs throughout the interpretive process, a process that he outlines in ten steps. These steps progress from inductive study to deductive study, from the exegetical to the theological.

  1. The first step is for the reader to outline the book as a whole, in order to understand the broad intent of the author in writing. This allows for clarity in understanding any particular portion of the book or letter that has been written.
  2. The second stage then narrows attention to a particular passage, completing a line diagram of that passage. A diagram of the passage allows the interpreter to identify the individual linguistic elements of the passage.
  3. The third stage is then a grammatical study based on the line diagram, in which the relationship between various phrases is explored. Here the interpreter could be looking for transitional words such as “and,” “but,” “yet,” “neither,” “thus,” “therefore,” and other words like these, which signal the nature of the relationship between the concepts before and after the word. The goal of grammatical study is to identity flow of thought. How are the various small thoughts in this passage linked together to fit within the author’s broader purpose?
  4. The fourth stage of the process is a semantics study (“semantics” is the study of word meaning). This zooms in still further to the individual words of the passage. What do the significant words in this passage mean? Here Osborne points to the significance of context, believing the meaning of any word is found in the congruence of two factors: the semantic field (possible meanings of a word) and the immediate context in which the word is used.
  5. The fifth stage is syntactical study, evaluating the order and relationship of words and phrases. This moves beyond grammatical study in terms of precision, based largely on the new understanding gained in studying word meaning.
  6. The sixth stage is to reflect on the background in which the text was produced. What internal evidence does the document give as to its author, purpose, location, and audience? This historical material will often shed further light on the intended meaning of various explanations or exhortations the author provides.

These first six stages comprise “general hermeneutics,” which could be applied in a “scientific” sort of manner toward any text. They are not unique functions of biblical hermeneutics.

  1. The seventh step begins to address the Bible in particular. This step will involve the process of biblical study and theology. Specifically, the interpreter will want to begin by evaluating the genre of the book in which he is working. It has been pointed out that genre establishes the rules for the language game. In order to interpret sensibly, one needs to understand the type of literature he is handling.For instance, when interpreting Hebrew poetry, a student will want to give particular attention to the feature of parallelism, how the lines are linked together and what the relationship between these pairings might be. When reading narratives, it is important to identify the various characters and to evaluate how they are each portrayed. Their actions and outcomes may form the theological lesson that the author has in mind. Apocalyptic and prophetic literature rely heavily on symbolism, imagery, and symbolic use of numbers. Interpretation must allow for symbolism to function as a literary feature without demanding a woodenly literalistic understanding of these symbols.Beyond genre, the student of Scripture will want to evaluate biblical theology, how the Bible develops theology from the Old Testament into the New Testament. How are the testaments related to one another generally? How does a particular New Testament writer employ quotations or observations from the Old Testament?
  2. The eighth step moves into the realm of applied hermeneutics, beginning with an evaluation of the way in which Christians have understood the text historically. Are there key debates the church has had regarding how to interpret this passage? What doctrines has the church historically understood to flow from this passage? An especially helpful tool for this step is the Scripture index in Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Gregg R. Allison.
  3. This sets up the interpreter for the ninth step, which is a study of particular doctrines that the text addresses (systematic theology). This sort of evaluation will help the reader place a particular passage within the teaching of the Bible as a whole. How do the concerns of this passage fit with similar or apparently contrasting concerns in another passage?
  4. These nine steps prepare the interpreter of Scripture for the final homiletical synthesis of all the material. The main question in this tenth step regards the significance of the text being studied for the current church context and Christian living. Thus, Osborne describes the spiral as a meaning-significance model, where the meaning of the passage as intended by its author yields the significance of the passage for the church today.

The interpreter has not reached his goal until this tenth step has been finished. This is where the interpretive process culminates. As has been said, the goal of hermeneutics is the sermon, meaning that interpretation is aimed at understanding the way the passage challenges the Christian in a contemporary setting. The sermon is aimed first at the reader and then at the congregation that the reader might address.

The spiral motif is helpful in that it points out the dynamic relationship between the reader and text, encouraging the interpreter to seek the confrontation of the text and to open herself to having reshaped thoughts and attitudes. At the same time, the spiral is limited in its hermeneutical guidance. The real interpretive process lies in the ten-step process that Osborne outlines, whereas the spiral simply describes a reality that should be unfolding throughout every step of the process.

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