What is Inductive?
“Inductive” is the opposite of “deductive.” Broadly speaking, an inductive approach is when you start with the details of something and then move outwards toward the general.
For Bible study, that means you don’t begin with a topic (like “Romantic Relationships”) or a lesson (like “Find Purpose in Your Work”) and then try to find specific verses that make a teaching point. Instead, an inductive study focuses on one passage of the Bible and then moves toward these two goals:
- Discover what a biblical author intended to communicate to their original audience.
- Encounter Jesus and be transformed by his Word.
Inductive is more of an attitude than a method. It’s about being deeply curious about the Bible. It’s about not consuming the Bible as preprocessed food, but embracing the messy and mysterious path to clarity. It’s questions and conversations and discovering God’s message together. It’s believing that the Bible is worth studying closely, can be understood by common people with God’s help, and should be put into practice.
Those who use the inductive approach appreciate how it keeps the Bible itself at the center of the conversation. Once familiar with the style, everyone can participate and contribute to the study. (In fact, someone who is new to the Bible might have the clearest vision and most helpful questions because their mind isn’t yet crowded with previous sermons and teachings.)
Where did Inductive come from?
The inductive approach was first applied formally to Bible study in the 1800s. Today, it’s used widely among Christians. InterVarsity’s style is just one of many unique expressions of inductive Bible study.
An InterVarsity staff named Paul Byer pioneered doing inductive study using a manuscript in the 1950s. Since then, InterVarsity has cultivated an inductive approach to Bible study using manuscripts in small group communities.
How Do You Study Inductively?
The inductive approach to Bible Study features three steps: Observation, Interpretation, and Application. This is sometimes shortened to simply OIA.
Observation | What Does the Text Say?
The first step is to pay close attention to what the text actually says. “Observations” are things you notice about the text that everyone else looking at it can see and agree on. At first, you might think that after you’ve read the passage once there is nothing left to observe. But, the inductive approach has developed some categories to help you look more closely at the text and deeply observe a passage.
The interpretation step is centered on asking questions of the text. What do you find intriguing, confusing, or troubling? What questions does the author seem to want the readers to wrestle with? Honest and thoughtful questions push us back into the passage and help us engage it deeply.
You then answer the questions from the text. You use the immediate context to help you define terms. You develop theories that make sense across all of your observations. You use cultural and historical background to help you understand the perspective of the author and the original audience. However, you avoid using resources that the original audience wouldn’t have had access to, like commentaries or parts of the Bible that weren’t yet written.
Application | How is God Inviting Us to Respond?
The word “application” can be misleading here because it sounds like you can lift out of the Bible what you would like to apply to your own life, like applying lip balm. Instead, think of application as God inviting you to align with his Word. Our part is to listen, discern, and then to obey. The Holy Spirit inspires and empowers our response.
The inductive approach assumes that we cannot truly understand something that we haven’t applied in practice. It is not enough to grasp with our minds the teaching of the Bible. We don’t really know the Bible until after we leave the study and embody its teaching.