What Is Inductive Bible Study?

Inductive Bible Study is a tool in the toolkit for Bible readers. A critical part of Bible study is discovering what the biblical text means and then aiming to apply the biblical text to our lives faithfully.

Glasses over top highlighted scripture

Inductive Bible Study is the formal term for something many followers of Jesus do naturally. People who understand that the Bible is the very Word of God and has the power, through the Holy Spirit, to transform lives, desire not only to read the Bible but also to understand it and apply it to their lives. Included in that last sentence are the three basic steps of Inductive Bible Study—Observation (Read), Interpretation (Understand), and Application (What does this mean for my life?).

What Is the Difference Between Deductive and Inductive Bible Study?

The term “inductive” is used, regarding reasoning, when we look at a specific circumstance and, after understanding it, apply it to more general circumstances. Deductive reasoning is taking a more global or general circumstance and then looking for specifics to back it up.

For instance, if we do an inductive study of Luke 8:22-25, we first read that Jesus’ got in a boat with His disciples to cross a lake. As they set out, Jesus fell asleep. During the crossing, a storm arose, one that was so wild it unnerved the disciples, several of whom were seasoned fishermen. They cried out to Jesus to wake up because they were “perishing.” When Jesus awoke, He “rebuked” the wind and waves so that calm fell. That’s the story.

We can infer from this passage that Jesus had authority over the natural world—at least the wind and the waves. We can also infer that Jesus wants His followers to demonstrate their faith in Him during storms. These would be reasonable conclusions of an inductive study.

If we were doing a deductive Bible study on the extent of Jesus’ authority during His earthly ministry, we might cite this passage as evidence of that Jesus had authority over the natural world during His time here in the flesh. We might also reference His ability to walk on water or to curse the fig tree. If we were doing a deductive Bible study on what faith looks like, we might refer to this passage to illustrate that we are to display faith even when circumstances appear dire. This would be the angle of a deductive study.

One form of study seeks to discover the truth that emerges from an understanding of the text. The other form starts with a truth and goes to the text to seek examples. Both have their place but we’re going to explore the inductive method.

There are a variety of Bible study methods, many proving useful in different circumstances. We can do topical studies, thematic studies, chapter studies, word studies, journaling studies, biographical studies, book studies, and more. As a life-long student of the Bible now in my 60s, I’ve tried all these and more, but my day-to-day Bible time is generally devoted to the inductive method because I care deeply about not just reading and knowing God’s Word but also living it in ways that transform my character and my life.

What Are the Tools of Inductive Bible Study?

There are a couple of tools that come in handy when doing an inductive Bible study.

The first is a translation of the Bible. A Bible paraphrase is useful for reading and getting a fresh perspective on a passage, but a translation is best suited for study.

Second, it is useful to have access to a concordance either in hard copy or online. A concordance is an alphabetical list of all the words in the Bible (usually translation specific) with references to their original language and the meaning of the original word translated into English. This is helpful but not essential for most passages.

Third, some people like to have a notebook or journal to record their observations, questions, and thoughts regarding the application.

Fourth, it’s always helpful (though not essential) to have some kind of Bible dictionary that explains biblical or cultural terms with which we may not be familiar. These can also be found in hard copy or online.

What Are the Basic Steps of Inductive Bible Study?

The first step of inductive Bible study is simply to choose a passage and read it. This is the Observation step.

So, in the Luke 8:22-25 passage, we would simply read the story of Jesus falling asleep in the boat, being woken by the disciples to the storm, and Him silencing the storm. The story concludes with Jesus asking them “Where is your faith?” (8:25) The disciples marvel at His authority over the wind and waves.

We might ask if there are any words we don’t understand in this passage. It’s a pretty straightforward story, so then we could list our observations. We might observe that Jesus fell asleep like other humans. We might observe that the storm put the boat at risk—it was taking on water (and even the fisherman appeared to be afraid). Then, we observe Jesus calms the storm with just His words. He appears to rebuke the disciples for their lack of faith, and they marvel at His authority over the storm.

With Gospel stories, it can be helpful to read the same story in every Gospel in which it appears. So, in addition to reading the Luke 8:22-25 passage, we might also read Matthew 8:23–27 and Mark 4:35–41. There are slight differences in the wording that we would note. For instance, in the Mark passage, it seems as if the disciples are asking Jesus if He cares that they are perishing, not just making a statement of fear that they are.

If there is any question about word meanings or conflicts in the stories, it can be helpful to read a variety of translations or to look up specific words in a concordance for clarity. Make a list of any questions that arise about culture, setting, or cross-references. For this passage, a person may want to look up what lake this is. How large is it? What kind of boat might they have used?

The second step in the process is understanding the meaning of the passage. This is the Interpretation step.

Here is where we ask questions about context. What is the context of this story? Where does it come in Jesus’ ministry? What other stories are detailed in Luke 8? What has happened just prior to this story? What happens immediately after? Why does Jesus rebuke the disciples for their lack of faith? What have the disciples seen so far that should have set them up to have greater faith?

Be curious. Ask who, what, where, when, why, and how? Jot down keywords or repeated phrases. Is there a list? Don’t just skim the list, observe it carefully to see why those items or people are listed together.

For any passage of study, it’s wise to look at the context within the book the passage occurs but also the entire context of Scripture. Is it in the Old Testament or the New? Is the passage set in a book of Law, History, Poetry, Gospel, Epistle, or Prophecy? Are there similar passages that support our understanding of what this passage seems to be teaching? For this story, it would be fruitful to look at other times when Jesus talked about faith. This might lead to a greater word study on references to faith throughout the New Testament. Or you may choose to look at Jesus’ authority over the natural world. What other examples do you find? Or look at Jesus' authority over all things. This passage demonstrates His authority over the wind and waves. Where else do we see Him exercise authority (over sickness, demons, etc.)?

The time we spend in the interpretation step can be brief or can be extensive. For a daily time in God’s Word, we may simply recognize in this passage that Jesus has the power to calm storms and that He is strongly urging His followers to demonstrate their faith in Him.

Finally, in the third step, we want to ask what the passage, verse, or story we’ve read means to us? This is the Application step.

It’s wise to pray and ask God for wisdom to know how a specific passage should be applied in our own lives. For this story in Luke 8, we may understand how important it is that our lives demonstrate our faith for Jesus, even when life’s storms arise. So, we make it a point of daily prayer to ask God to increase our faith and show us where we have the opportunity to make it apparent for His glory.

With any form of Bible study, it’s wise to pray before we read, as we read, and as we consider how to apply God’s Word to our lives. While every believer is called to read God’s Word and obey it, we’re also called to live in a relationship with the community of believers. Within this community are some gifted to teach, to exhort, and to provide wisdom. As we draw conclusions about the application through our personal study, it’s wise to discuss our personal insights with other mature believers so we all can grow together and as a preventative against misapplications that sometimes occur because we’re human.

What Is the History and Origin of This Bible Study Method?

Many credit Howard Tillman Kuist, working under Wilbert W. White at The Bible Seminary in New York with originating this method of study. White had created a curriculum of Bible study used in the YMCA in 1899 that was inductive. When Kuist moved on to teach at Princeton Theological Seminary, he and Charles T. Haley further developed the method. Through the 40s and 50s, it became a popular method of such organizations as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, The Navigators, and Youth With a Mission. Kay Arthur’s Precept studies have also popularized the inductive study method for many believers today.

Why Should Christians Know about This?

The Bible is God’s Word. We are blessed to serve a God who desires to communicate with us. We all can do our best to understand it at whatever level of understanding we can attain and then apply that understanding to our lives. Through our relationship with Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, we are transformed as we live His revealed truth.

The inductive method of Bible study can be used for deep advanced theological studies, but it can also be used by ordinary believers reading His Word at the start or end of our days. It’s helpful when choosing a published Bible study to know the method the writer has used. We can trust that with published studies using the inductive method, the creator of the study is going to encourage us to follow the three steps. In times when God’s Word is under assault, as it is these days, it strengthens the whole Body of Christ for every believer to read the Bible and to walk through the steps of observation, interpretation, and application. In this way, we open the door for transformation that testifies to the power of Jesus.

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Lori Stanley RoeleveldLori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.