Inductive vs deductive Bible study

Note: This post is written by my husband. An ordained Presbyterian pastor, he has plenty of experience both studying the Bible and leading Bible studies.

Inductive versus Deductive: Does there need to be a conflict?

I lead a couple of Bible Studies. Recently, as we finished one of them, and the group looked at what would be next (I decided to let them choose), they came across the terms “Deductive Bible Study/Reasoning” and “Inductive Bible Study/Reasoning”. When researched, articles promoting one were always very dismissive of the other. And the members of the study still didn’t really get what the point was. So, I am writing this article to try to give MY take on it.

I don’t claim to be an expert. I don’t have a degree in education, or educational methods. I have a Master of Science in Molecular Biology, and a Master of Divinity; but I am no PhD in Theology, Scientific Method, or even Behavioral Psychology. I am just a second career pastor of a couple of small but vibrant churches. I happen to be massively intuitive in my thought processes according to every Psych measure like the Kinsey’s temperament sorter, Myers-Briggs, and MMP2; but almost all my training is in utilizing deductive approaches (laboratory researcher, etc.). So, I am going to give you my “insightful” and “intuitive” take as I analyze this issue. 😉 Don’t expect any final conclusions as to which is better – where would be the fun in that? Rather expect encouragement to seek your own answers. As an aside, this will also hopefully help others understand what it means when people and companies throw around such terms for their products.

To me, the real key difference between deductive and inductive approaches can be summed up in two different words: “Construction” versus” immersion”.

Learning Languages

In language (my experience only), the deductive approach builds vocabulary up, teaches grammar, and then asks the student to begin putting together coherent sentences and ideas in that language. The hardest thing to overcome is thinking first in your home language, and then having to translate that into valid constructs in the second language, since they frequently don’t follow the same rules. On the other hand, it makes you very effective at analyzing a new language, making interdisciplinary links, and tends (with adults) to be remembered longer. Immersive techniques put up pictures of objects and simply list their name in the new language, forcing you to associate the word directly with the object. It is a different view of “vocabulary” that impels you to set aside your first language in order to functionally recognize things in the new language. They also start out immediately teaching conversational language or phrases, before doing any grammar. You pick up grammar/sentence structure the way most children do – by imitation.

Some languages lend themselves to deductive learning, like Biblical Greek, or most Romance languages. They have extensive, regular rules for conjugation and grammar, and vocabularies that tend to be singular, where a word really means one thing. In Greek, for example, there are five words for love; and each relates to a different aspect of love. Others are far better learning inductively. English has as many exceptions to its rules as it has rules, and borrows words from every language on earth just about. Biblical Hebrew is highly emotionally colored, but very imprecise (the word “Yom” can mean 1×24 hour day, 1 year, 1 era, or 1 indeterminate period of time that is very long – context sets the meaning).

Deductive Bible Study

Bible study can be approached in much the same manner. Deductive studies tend to look verse by verse, and pick them apart in the search for meaning. You then put them together with the other verses to form a greater meaning and construct. It is kind of like taking the data points in an experiment, and then trying to see what it tells you. This is then placed against the tapestry of historical context to check it, and then is compared to today’s historical context for application.

In this kind of study, as in research, you come at the study with certain axiomatic understandings or ideas underlying your work; but you must strive to be objective at all times. One of my axioms is that the Bible is “as relevant today as it was when written because human nature hasn’t changed”. Passages will almost always tell us something about our fallen nature, God’s nature, our relationship, and/or the way we should reflect the new, God-nature we gained in Salvation. If something doesn’t seem to do that, then I need to look for a new understanding with that passage.

This is called “exegesis” (which means “to pull out of”). You pull the meaning of the passage out of the pieces that make up the passage, taking it apart like a Lego structure. It can give deep meaning and understanding to the person who follows this path. This is good!

The danger (which I think has twisted much of today’s scholarship) is called “eisegesis” (which means “to put into”). If you cannot maintain objectivity, then there is a tendency to throw out obvious/simple interpretations that disagree or refute your own preset perspective, much as scientists who have been getting in trouble recently for deliberately leaving out data points and studies in order to “prove” their theory. They “read into” every passage their own ideology; and if it disagrees, then it is either wrong, out-of-date, or somehow got lost in translation. People on both ends of the theological spectrum do this. It is sometimes called “proof-texting”, as people take single verses or even half verses out of context in order to prove their arguments. It is also sometimes falsely called “Biblical criticism”. I say false because their deconstruction does not serve the purpose of understanding the Scripture better as God’s Word, but serves the purpose of supporting their own ideology. This is not good.

Inductive Bible Study

Inductive Study (to me) follows the immersion approach. You start with the passage as a whole. You try to get a “grand scheme of things” from the get-go, and dive into the historical context immediately. Your goal is to understand how the writer actually thought, and to understand their meaning and intent by understanding them. By understanding them, your application becomes almost instinctive – you apply that understanding to today’s historical context and issue. In some ways, it is kind of like the arguments people have today about the Constitution. Do we look at “original intent”, and try to apply those principles enshrined in the Constitution by these men in the same manner today? Or do we treat it as a “living document” that can be pulled out of that context and reshaped to fit today’s context as we gain our own (different) understandings and ideas? “Originalists” are being inductive in their approach; “Modernists” are being deductive in their approach. The question is, are they exegetical or eisegetical in their process and interpretation?

But I digress. Inductive studies are great for topical and relational studies and sermons. The ideal of learning to think like these great saints of God, and ultimately Jesus Christ through our openness to the Spirit is a powerful one. Our goal is to reflect God’s love, and what it means to be a follower of Christ. The danger is sloppiness. Inductive studies (much like inductive learning of language) can lead to sloppy understandings, idiomatic “accents” where your understanding is limited to whatever relational/doctrinal/historical context you started in, and poor scholarship. In your concern for both the “grand scheme of things”, and “looking beneath the surface”, you fail to see the obvious, simple meanings that are present in the text. Meanings that should be shaping your interpretations as much as anything else – meanings that are crucial in the deductive process.

So what?

So now we move out of the intellectual part of the article, and into the “coaching” or “exhortation”. We ask: “So what do we do, then? Is there a better way?” Well, like most things in life, I believe that the answer if far more complicated and takes far more effort than what most people seem to think. For following Christ, and living out the life of a disciple, it requires both kinds of study, and both practices. You must be aware of the simple meanings of the texts, and the most basic doctrines and theology. For example, I am sorry but you cannot legitimately call yourself “Christian” if you do not believe that Christ was God. That is explicit in the Scriptures. Likewise, while not explicitly outlined in the Scriptures, if you do not believe in the Trinity, you cannot call yourself an orthodox believer, and part of the church historical and universal. This doctrine has been successfully proven over many centuries, against all opposition, and to deny it is to throw away logic and understanding – or the Christian faith as a whole, no matter what you claim.

Again I digress. You must be aware of the straightforward meanings; do the study to insure that they are correct linguistically and historically, and then dive with that understanding into the mind and heart of God as represented in that same Scripture in order to better “glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” and to seek to bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through our faith and witness. It requires personal study at home, as well as in groups; and the soul-deep knowledge that it is about God, not us. It requires understanding/admitting that it is about worshipping and serving God both as individuals with our lives, and together with others in the Body of Christ which is the church – not ourselves, and our own desires. It requires the intuition of faith, the deeper cultural understandings of the truly aware, and the intellectual honesty of deductive reasoning to be a well-rounded disciple. It is something we should all seek.

I always like to say that Christians, of all people, should be the ultimate realists, because we can understand the fallen nature of man, the transcendent nature of God, and the transformed and transformative nature of the true believer. We can see and understand what has happened in the past, what is likely now, and what honestly could be; and we hope for the best as we work towards our goals of loving and serving our Lord and Savior. Apply both inductive and deductive reasoning and approaches in life and in study, and always be honest. When you do, you will find a wealth of knowledge, meaning, and purpose that you goes beyond what you can imagine.

6 Responses to Inductive vs deductive Bible study

  1. Kathi Ligon says:

    Thank you! Where do you preach & teach? Kathi Ligon

  2. Kathi Ligon says:

    Is your “relevant today as it was when it was written because human nature hasn’t changed” your own axiom or someone else’s? Thank you again Kathi Ligon

    • Pauline says:

      My husband (who wrote this article) says he made up that axiom himself. To answer the question in your other comment, he pastors two small rural churches in southeast Iowa.

  3. Lewis John Pugh says:

    So, are you saying that to deduce is to draw out, and thereby being a definition of exegesis and conversely, that eisegesis is to induce, that is to insert an external meaning and thereby change the thing being examined?

    • Pauline says:

      A good question. Those phrases of “pull out of” and “put/place into” are the literal translations of the Greek words. Certainly, eisegesis does involve “putting into”, forcing, (or “inducing”) an outcome; so in that way it meets the definitions you put forth. However, it does not follow that therefore the inductive method automatically utilizes eisegesis. As I noted in my article, however, the best word for summarizing the inductive method is “immersion”. It draws more on the concept of the first definition in the Miriam Webster dictionary:

      1a. To move by persuasion or influence, or
      1b. To call forth by influence or stimulation

      Please note that neither of these definitions involves direct causation or force. It involves emotional and cultural understanding, and persuasion that is beyond what is solely logical.

      The second definition of “induce” does deal with direct causation; but this is not the goal of inductive study, and eisegesis can occur with either deductive OR inductive approaches.

      The definition for deduce that I use is the second definition in the Miriam-Webster Dictionary:

      2. To trace the course of

      BTW, the first definition is circular, saying “To determine by… deduction”. You should never define a word in terms of itself, in my opinion.

      Thus exegesis is very much in line with the second definition of deduce, as you find the individual pieces of a puzzle and put them together into a sensible whole. You see how they fit together, what the connections are, and draw meaning from those to get the “big picture”.

      Eisegesis is not the primary nor the greatest fruit of the inductive method. It is merely a great danger to be avoided when doing either kind of study.

  4. Pauline says:

    Note: The reply I just posted is from my husband.

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