Chapter 18 - The Procedure for Studying Topics
Whether your topic is a doctrine, an aspect of Christian living, a biographical study, or any other type of subject, do not be satisfied merely to look up the topic in one of the interpretive aids. Naturally, you will want to find out what others say about the topic later, but for now you want to go directly to the Bible.
Topical study in the Bible requires that you make a conscious effort to be open-minded and objective. Instead of coming to the Bible in order to prove your point, come expecting to discover. Form the habit of reserving final conclusions until all the evidence is in.
Also beware of the fallacy of determining your beliefs on the basis of your experience. Learn to evaluate your experience in the light of the Bible, not vice versa.
The eight steps in the procedure for studying topics in the Bible are:
- Find and Sort
Step 1 - Pray
See Step 1 in Chapter 17.
Step 2 - Delimit
You should delimit your general topic. In other words, narrow it down to a very specific topic.
First, write down your general topic. Then write out all the specific questions you can think of which pertain to that topic. Then identify those questions which must be answered first, in order for the other questions to be answered. Concentrate your study on those basic questions. You will be able to answer the other questions relatively easily after you have settled the basic issues. Many topical studies go astray because the fundamental questions are not answered first.
Step 3 - Recall
Search your own mind. Write out your present assumptions, definitions, concepts, and ideas on this topic. Be careful not to extend your present assumptions and ideas into the Bible as you study this topic. By recalling your present assumptions and ideas on the topic and thus identifying the mental "baggage" which you bring to the study, you will be able to be more objective during your study and let the Bible speak for itself. After you have completed your study of the topic you can evaluate your initial assumptions and ideas.
Step 4 - Find and Sort
Obtain the references for all the Bible passages which are relevant to your topic. Begin by searching your memory for Bible passages which mention, discuss, or illustrate the topic. Then find more references by using your complete concordance or by doing an electronic search with your Bible study software. You will need to have a list of the key words for performing this search. Refer to what you wrote out under Step 2 and list all the key words used in your basic questions, along with synonyms for those key words. Then do a systematic search using those key words and synonyms and list all the references where each of the words is used.
Finding all the verses which use a certain English word is easy. The printed concordances are organized around the various English words, based on a particular translation. (The electronic search will allow a search for the same English word in various translations.) However, if you search based only on the English words, your study will not be as accurate or as complete as it could be. You should also search using the original Hebrew or Greek words.
Keep in mind that translation is not a simple mechanical process. For example, when translating from the Greek, the translator does not merely substitute an equivalent English word for every Greek word. A Greek word that is translated into one English word in one passage may be translated into a different English word in a different passage. Furthermore, the same English word which represents one Greek word in one passage may represent a different Greek word in a different passage.
For instance, the word " servant" in the New Testament of the NIV represents several different Greek words, including doulos, pais, and diakonos, each of which has a slightly different definition. Thus, if you are studying about servants, it would help you interpret each passage more accurately if you are aware of these various Greek words and their literal definitions. Your complete concordance will give you the various Greek words represented by any given English word along with their literal definitions.
But your study is not complete yet, because each of the Greek words which is translated servant may have been translated into other English words in other passages. For example, diakonos is sometimes translated "minister" and sometimes "deacon." Again, your complete concordance will list the additional English words used to translate any given Greek word. You can find these additional occurrences of the Greek word by doing an original language search in your Bible software, or by looking up the additional English words in your complete concordance.
A full set of instructions on how to use your concordance can be found in its preface or introduction. Your study of words and topics will always be more accurate and complete if you focus your attention on the Greek and Hebrew words rather than merely on the English words.
As you are doing this research, take careful note of the literal definitions of each Greek or Hebrew word, and of the differences between the definitions of the various words which are translated into the same English word. Keep in mind, however, that a word is defined ultimately by its usage in a particular context; thus the literal meaning given in the concordance or lexicon cannot always be forced onto the word as it appears in the various contexts where you find it. Of course, the current (at the time of writing), commonly accepted literal understanding of the word should be your starting point in interpreting its meaning in any given passage.
Beware of becoming overly mechanical in your attention to words. Remember that the same word is often used to refer to different concepts. For example, consider the apostle John's use of the word world (Greek: kosmos) in John 3:16 with his use of the same word in 1 John 2:15. Also remember that different words are often used to refer to the same concept.
You can also find additional passages by using a topical Bible such as Nave's Topical Bible, or a concordance which lists words used in several modern translations such as The Zondervan Expanded Concordance . The main difference between a concordance and a topical Bible is that a concordance lists merely the verses that use a certain word, whereas a topical Bible lists passages which include a certain idea or concept , even though the word for that idea or concept may not appear in the passage. When you use a topical Bible, you must not assume just because a passage is listed under a certain topic that the passage is actually talking about that topic. That is for you to determine.
After you have found all the passages that are relevant to your topic, you must sort them. As you come to each reference, look up the passage and read it in its context. Then classify it by writing down the reference under one of the following four headings.
Category 1: Definitive-long passages.
This category includes passages which meet all four of the following requirements:
- Definitely and directly on the subject (more than merely related to the subject by inference)
- Only one likely interpretation
- Not Figurative
- Extended, that is, several sentences rather than merely an incidental reference to the subject
Category 2: Definitive-short passages.
These passages meet the same requirements as above except that they are brief, often just one sentence.
Category 3: Inferential passages.
These passages imply something about the subject; they indirectly say something about your topic.
Category 4: Vague passages.
Such passages have two or more possible interpretations. Many figurative passages will end up in this category.
Beware of the temptation of placing passages into category 1 or category 2 merely because they appear to favor the viewpoint you were hoping to find. Be as objective as possible in your sorting. This, of course, is an initial categorization; you may want to reclassify many of the passages as you study them more in depth. Keep a careful record in your notebook of all the references which belong in each category. You may find it helpful to keep your list of references under each category in Bible-book-order.
Step 5 - Scrutinize
Scrutinize, analyze, examine, meditate on each passage. Make a thorough study of each passage in turn, beginning with category 1.
Give special attention to the context of each passage. Note the single main point that is being made in the immediate context. There is a great temptation, especially in topical study, to study passages only in the light of the other parallel or related passages, so that the other passages become the context. However, each passage must be examined primarily in the light of its own context. Compare passage with passage only after you have "compared" each passage with its own context.
Furthermore, keep in mind the fact that revelation progressed gradually throughout Bible history, and each passage must be understood in the context of its own dispensation.
In studying each passage in its own context, especially in studying the first two categories of passages, it would be wise to adopt a procedure similar to Step 4 of the procedure for studying books, as explained in Chapter 17, including the following nine operations.
Sometimes the passage you are studying becomes a puzzle because its interpretation hinges on the precise meaning of one particular word in the passage. You will need to do a word study before you can complete your study of that passage. There are some principles regarding word studies which are important to keep in mind. You will remember that each word is usually defined by its immediate context. But, when the context allows the word to have several meanings, or several shades of meaning, and each of those several meanings makes sense in that passage, another factor other than the context becomes increasingly important in determining the precise meaning that the word has in that passage. It is the current (at the time of writing) usage of a word that supplies the starting point for understanding the word in any given passage. Since the word's current usage is always the starting point, you will need to find out how that word is used in its entire Testament. In other words, with the help of your complete concordance, find out how that particular Greek word is used throughout the New Testament or how that particular Hebrew word is used throughout the Old Testament, even in passages which do not directly relate to your topic. It is especially helpful to find out how the author of the passage you are puzzled about uses that particular word elsewhere in the same book or in other books. If you find that the word has a wide variety of meanings in the other passages where it is used, then you will not be able to dogmatically adopt any of those meanings for the word in your puzzling passage. However, if you find that the word is consistently used to mean just one thing in those other passages, then you have good reason to adopt that one meaning for the word in your puzzling passage. Of course, the fewer times a word is used in its Testament, the less valid this process becomes.
- Carefully read the passage and its context for meaning . Read it several times, sometimes in different translations for comparison. Do not read meaning into the passage. What is the one main point being made in this context? Find the sentence which best expresses the main point of the immediate context and then note how the other sentences relate to this key sentence. This will help you identify how this passage functions in relation to its context.
- Respace the text.
- Outline the passage.
- Ask six standard questions (Who? When? Where? What? How? Why?).
- Note grammatical details.
- Identify relationships.
- Alter the wording.
- Paraphrase the passage.
- Condense the passage.
Word studies (including the studies of the etymologies of words) are intentionally de-emphasized in this book. An overemphasis on word studies often comes from a basic misconception about the nature of language. Meanings do not adhere in words, but in human beings. Thus, the really significant question is not "What does this word mean?" but "What does the biblical writer mean when he uses this word?" Now, of course, certain words are customarily used to express certain meanings, and dictionaries tell us what those customary meanings are. Also, an awareness of the lexical (dictionary) definition of a particular word is a necessary element in the process of interpretation. Nevertheless, no writer is limited to customary usage when he expresses his thoughts. Thought is bigger than language. Words are the servants of the writer or speaker; they are not his master. Words are the flexible raw materials of the craftsman, but as with any other expressive art, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Although a tentative meaning of a word can be gained from a study of that word in isolation, a full grasp of the meaning of that word in a given passage must go beyond the lexicon to an examination of the word in context. Similarly, although a rudimentary idea of the meaning of a passage can be gained from the study of the various words in isolation, a proper grasp of the meaning of that passage must go beyond isolated words to an examination of the passage as a whole.
What can an emphasis on word studies lead to? Some people build their theology, not on a study of what the biblical writers say, but on what the lexicons and etymology reference works say about isolated terms. Thus, they pay more attention to word-definitions-in-isolation than to words-in-relation-to-each-other in context. They pay more attention to etymologies (the flow of historical usage of a word) than to the flow of the argument of the biblical writer. This procedure violates the nature of language and results in a theology which reflects the lexicon more that it reflects the Bible. Thus, word studies should never be an end in themselves. Nor should they be the starting point of one's study of theology. In fact, as far as Bible interpretation is concerned, word studies have no reason for existence in themselves; they are legitimate only when they are incorporated as part of a study of a passage, as explained above.
When you are studying several passages on a given topic, remember to interpret the less clear passages (inferential and vague passages) in light of the clear ones. As you study each passage in turn, you will probably reclassify some of your passages into different categories. In fact, you may decide after thorough examination, that some passages do not belong in any of the four categories. You may discover that some passages which appeared to be relevant to the topic at first reading actually bear no relationship at all to the topic. Preserve your notes on these passages, however, especially if you suspect that others might build a case for their viewpoint on any of these irrelevant passages. Sometimes it is just as important to know why a passage does not settle an issue as it is to know what a passage does say about the issue.
Do not limit your thinking to the traditional structure or "sides" of the problem, especially with debatable topics. Ask new questions. Look for unexplored ways of putting the evidence together. For example, do not confine your possible solutions to merely dichotomy or trichotomy, merely Calvinism or Arminianism, etc. Search for other ways of organizing your ideas.
After you have come this far in your study of your topic, you may find that you need to lay a better foundation for yourself by setting the study aside for a while in order to study some other area which is basic to your study. For example, after studying about Satan, you may realize that you should also study the subject of angels in general before you draw your conclusions. Or after studying the topic of tongues, you may realize that you should also study the baptism and filling of the Holy Spirit before you draw your conclusions.
Step 6 - Synthesize
Put it all together. After you have studied through all the passages in each category, review all of your research, especially your findings from the passages which end up in the first two categories. Your conclusions should not be based on vague passages. Write out your conclusions in a carefully worded statement in your own words. Constantly ask yourself,
Then write out the questions which still puzzle you, the issues which are still unresolved in your thinking. Also think through the implications your findings have for other related areas of doctrine, Christian living, etc.
- Are my interpretations and conclusions based on good evidence in Scripture?
- Have I examined all of the evidence which is relevant to this topic?, and
- Have I considered all the alternative interpretations?
Step 7 - Compare
Up to this point you should have used interpretive aids sparingly. Now, however, you should compare your understanding of the topic with the understandings of others by using a variety of interpretive aids. When you find different conclusions, examine carefully the reasons they give for their conclusions. Then reexamine the reasons for your own. Remember that the Bible is the final authority on this topic.
Also compare your findings with what you have already discovered in your study of other Bible books and topics. Relate and integrate.
Step 8 - Apply
Put the teachings you have discovered to use in your life and share your findings with others.
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