Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Is "Inductive Bible Study" Appropriate for Scripture?

I value the tools of inductive Bible study. I believe that I am a competent scholar of the original meaning of the Bible because Asbury Seminary equipped me with the tools of inductive study. Inductive Bible Study is the evangelical method of choice in relation to the Bible. Grant Osborne's The Hermeneutical Spiral is now a classic evangelical Bible method book, and its first section is straight inductive Bible study.

What is inductive Bible study? It is a "scientific" method for determining the meaning of a text. It asks, "What is the most probable original meaning of this passage given the way words work in historical and literary contexts?"

So what is the problem? It is three-fold:

1. We can observe that evangelical scholars do not actually practice what they preach with regard to inductive method. They regularly go through the motions of the inductive method. But when the data approaches certain "boundaries" (pre-suppositions, Hays and Duvall would say), they shift from the most probable interpretation of the data to a possible interpretation that fits with their evangelical faith.

Of course many evangelical scholars might deny this practice, but I observe it time and time again. Even Osborne's book exemplifies this practice. His presentation of inductive method in the first 180 is highly technical and scholarly. But as soon as he gets to biblical genres, his theological beliefs begin to color his presentation in a noticeable way.

2. The Protestant drive to read "the Bible alone," led, in the modern era, to an emphasis on the original, historic, literal meaning of the Bible as the locus of God's word in the Bible. Ironically, however, attention to the literal meaning of the New Testament leads us to the realization that the New Testament authors themselves did not practice inductive Bible study method. Rather, the NT authors regularly read the OT texts to various degrees metaphorically, allegorically, in short, not in terms of what it actually meant originally.

There is a kind of crisis in "biblical theology," which has historically been oriented around the original meaning. The book by Joel Green I've been reviewing is moving in the right direction (final installment on Friday). The driving forces behind his argument are 1) the polysemy of textual meaning coupled with 2) the impossibility of objectivity anyway, and 3) a conversion of ways of thinking to an orientation to hearing/seeing Christian meanings. His result is to argue that it is not necessarily the original meaning of the biblical text, arrived at by objective inductive study, that is the meaning of the Bible of interest to us as Christians.

But the question I find myself asking even after Green's book is whether he would allow that the most likely original meaning might find itself in serious tension with the "converted mind" of the Christian reader. I must admit that I ultimately find myself drawn back to the medieval multiple senses of Scripture--literal, figurative, allegorical, anagogical. I cannot deny the validity of inductive Bible study as a method for determining the most probable original meaning of a text. Yet I cannot deny with Green that this is not at all necessarily the meaning most important for the believer.

Reading the Bible as Scripture does involve a mind converted and oriented around Christian meanings, but there is no set rule as to what level of meaning it turns out to be. The IBS meaning is a valid meaning, and it is an important meaning in the "flow of revelation." But it is not necessarily the most important meaning for believers. This is a meaning that comes from a converted mind and the mind of the Spirit.

It will be interesting to see what happens to IBS in the days to come and what happens to evangelical hermeneutics.


Anonymous said...

It has been said that our prejudices influence our perceptions, so Calvinists read the Bible and see Calvinism and Arminians see Arminianism, etc. The church fathers have been strongly criticized because they used, if I understand this, an allegorical approach to preaching and study, yet they were astute enough to give us the Creeds and the Canon of Scripture. They didn't feel bound in any way to original intent, it would seem.

My questions are these: how do I get the wisdom to know how to properly interpret scripture as was mentioned in the post about Steve DeNeff, and how objective can I truly hope to be (rather than subjective, obviously). In other words, how do I know when I've gotten it right?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Evangelicalsim and fundamentalism has universalized the Apostle Paul in the Scriptures, while Roman Catholicism used "pagan" understandings to develop tradition.

Paul was speaking to different communities of faith within differnt contexts and different needs. He was not speaking a universal message in these texts.
The book of Timothy was written later, as tradition to be handed down. For, initially, Paul had understood faith in apocalyptic terms as the early believers did, which was a looking toward to the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Universalization of a religion was not what Paul was about. He was a humanitarian, in that sense, and understood, as Jesus had illustrated in his life and Stephen had lived before him, that truth was not about "religion". It was not about religion at all, but a life lived in a mature way in service to others. Faith is not defined in this sense by doctrines or dogma, but by love of individuals and specific communites.

Paul sought a metaphor to illustrate God's love for his communities and that was found in Jesus' life of self-giving to those that were "outside the camp" of Judiasm.

Today, Christianity has become a "world religion" in the same sense that Judiasm was in Jesus and Paul's day...I think we need a reformation...

But, as I say this, what does it mean? Transition from the early church to Paul...and Paul to the early Church Fathers....and then the Church to the Reformation/Scriptures....Scripture and Reformational theology to???

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Perhaps it is more in line with being "living epistles" known and read by all an exemplary life in commitment to the values that one holds most important. That is maturity and is not about religion...or religious understanding, where there is a framework (a text) where judgment can be made based upon the standardized measure (tradition), so that there is conformity (religion).

Kevin Wright said...

This is a great post. I suppose my concern lies with the fact that when we engage in IBS, we end up reading Scripture in very much the same way someone like Troeltsch did. While we may not share all of Troeltsch's assumptions, we ultimately end up reading the Bible in much the same way we would read the Illiad (instead of asking, "what does this tell me about God," we ask "What does this tell me about Homer?")

But, if we presuppose an open system in which the Bible was written through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit working through the authors (and even redactors for all you Wellhausen fans), and allow to presuppositions to truly shape the way we interpret Scripture, then all of a sudden IBS seems like a vapid and pallid way to interact with the canon. Your reference to returning to the medieval method of interpreting Scripture is on the right track, I think. This approach opens the door up for communal discernment regarding Scripture and at the same time insulates us from fundamentalism. So will you be changing the curriculum at IWU anytime soon?

Mike Cline said...

In "Spiritual Theology" by Simon Chan (1998), he proposes the need for Christianity to rediscover the "evocability" of doing theology. He says that theology should be both "devotional" (see Anselm) and that devotions should be "theological" (see Merton). The line between dogma and devotion is quite unclear in a "spiritual theology."

In order to come to this type of theological training, Chan calls on evangelicals (especially) to rediscover a bit of their charismatic roots. The polarization between "enthusiasm and rationalistic theology" need not exist to the degree it does. Johnathan Edwards himself had a place for "the surprising work of God" in his understanding of grace. Chan argues that Protestant have largely followed Calvin's understanding of mystical union as soteriological without even considering the "secret energy of the spirit" that Calvin talked about.

Ideally to Chan, everyone would probably read a lot of the Puritans and be "both charismatic and ascetic" (askein = to train).

Could it be that our fear of Pentecostalism and spirituality is what is holding back the current Holiness movement (and larger evangelicalism) from embracing a method beyond simple IBS? Could we experience Scripture as "vocative text" (I know there has been some work done on this). The idea that we may just be able to do that is probably saving my evangelical mind right now

Matt Guthrie said...

Interesting post and an idea I struggle with every week as I prepare a sermon. As an Asbury grad trained under Bauer & Dongell, I am IBS all the way. I work really hard to discover what it meant to those original readers. But I then have to work really hard to dsscover what God wants it to mean this week to the folks in my church who will be reading and listening to it. And that's where I find myself having to do what Ken says we do when we don't "practice what we preach" when it comes to IBS.

I'm not schooled enough to discuss all the various reviews of this method by the scholars and big-name Bible heads. I do know several things though. Despite the IBS indoctrination (which I say is valuable the right way to begin), at ATS the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was always emphasized. And I'll never forget Joe Dongell's words in class on the first day when he said (and I paraphrase), "After you have done all the research and are writing your conclusion, write your assumptions you brought to the text first. There's no sense in denying them."

Finally, I echo some of John Mark's sentiments. Allegory was taught as a no-no. But how else can you get meaning out of some of the texts? I remember having to give myself permission preach on a text allegorically once. It took about a year to get over the neurosis. Thankfully I'm healed and liberated from that. LOL.

Anonymous said...


Helpful and provocative thoughts. Call me old-fashioned (well, actually maybe just a modernist), but I still maintain that a distinction between exegesis (the task of approximating "original meaning") and appropriation (discerning the text's relevance for us) is helpful. I would then say that we have thought that exegesis was the heavy lifting and appropriation a matter of common sense, and we were wrong about that. Observing the history of the church's interpretation of the Bible might have saved us from making that assumption. The question remains for me what the relation of exegesis is to appropriation, but I suppose it is the Protestant in me that is wary of abandoning this definition of "exegesis," as "original meaning" seems to be a useful heuristic for church always being reformed through renewing its attention to Scripture.


Ken Schenck said...

I want to make it clear what I am not saying. By affirming traditions of interpretation rooted in the Spirit (Mike) and in Christian tradition, I am not denying the validity of inductive Bible study method for identifying the most likely original meaning (Woody, good comment on where the hardest work is!, although I am claiming that many evangelicals do not actually follow the method consistently in practice, which is why evangelical scholarship is sometimes considered bad scholarship). In my opinion, we should approach the original meaning of the Bible in the same way we would approach the original meaning of the Iliad (Kevin, but with supernaturalist presuppositions, of course).

What I am claiming is that IBS is neither historically nor practically the method that results in a properly Christian reading of Scripture, which is often a different meaning for the same words. Ultimately, we are forced to see the locus of Scriptural authority outside the words themselves, either fragmented in individual contexts (evangelicalism), in the reader-oriented inspiration of the Spirit (pentecostalism/revivalism), or in the community of believers throughout the centuries (catholic).

My thoughts...

Luca said...

Wow,there are so many different presuppositions represented in the various posts! Many are naturalistic and rationalist in nature--setting one's own understanding (or the authority of another) as the authority whereby elements in Scripture are evaluated. Still, the supernaturalistic approach is being represented--searching for the deep dark meaning of Scripture. Both the existential and dogmatic approaches are mentioned as well.

Rather than arguing the point for point and tit for tat, might I suggest and/or their workshop entitled "How to Study the Bible." Inductive study is only a tool so that individuals can discover truth for themselves under the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit.