Bible Study Guide

It's important to have a plan when you start to do something new, and Bible Study is no different in that respect. I've tried to outline some principles in the FAQ, but here is something more concrete, a plan based on a three-step approach to studying the Bible. This plan can be adapted for a variety of situations: you could use it for your own private study, for your preparation for a regular group Bible Study, or as a guide in starting a group study. But it depends on having some other things in place as well.

First, you will need a Bible! If you've read the previous FAQ section, you can probably guess that I am going to recommend the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version). It's widely available and also comes in a form with notes and study aids, the Oxford Annotated NRSV. Another good choice would be the NRSV with cross-references, so you have running notes on what other passages are related to or quoted in the passage you're reading.

Then you need to choose what you are going to study. It could be a book of the Bible, or the Sunday readings, or a theme (like covenants in the Old and New Testament or the titles that are applied to Jesus in the New Testament). Studying thematically is probably the hardest, because it involves choosing passages from different parts of the Bible that illustrate the theme and relating them. For private study, especially if you are new to Bible Study, I recommend choosing the Sunday readings at first. If you are going to join an existing Bible Study group, you'll probably chose partly based on what they are planning to study. If your parish has an Adult Christian Education Committee, they will likely be able to help you to find a group or even offer you training and support if you want to start up your own group.

Here is the three-step approach I recommend:

1. What Does it Say?

This sounds pretty easy, but may be harder than you think. It involves trying to figure out what all the words mean, what the context is, what purpose the passage serves in its context. Who is speaking or acting? Who is hearing, or watching, or affected? What did the events narrated seem to mean for those who were part of them? This is where it is important both to search out and read other passages in the Bible which are quoted or alluded to in the passage being studied and to use commentaries and other helps, if available.

For example, let's say that you are going to be studying the Gospel accounts of Jesus' sermon at Nazareth, the sermon that got him into so much trouble with his former neighbours. It's described in Mt 13.54-58, Mk 6.1-6, and Lk 4.16-30. So your first step is simply to read all three descriptions -- as you may suspect from the sheer number of verses, Luke provides the fullest account, quoting (or paraphrasing) the lesson from Isaiah that Jesus preached on and some of what he said. Compare the three to see how they are similar and how they are different. In the case of Luke, also look up and read the passages he quotes or refers to (Isaiah 61.1-2a, 1 Kings 17.8-16, 2 Kings 5.1-19). Reflect on what they mean and what Jesus might have had in mind. You might want to seek out some commentaries in the library or on the internet (see part 3 for some suggestions), especially if you don't have an annotated NRSV. Don't be afraid to make notes in your Bible if it helps you remember key points!

2. Why Was It Passed Down?

Why out of all the events in the history of Israel, or the proclamations of a prophet, or the activities of Jesus, was this particular passage remembered and recorded? What importance did it have to those who preserved it? A consideration of this step usually flows naturally from considering the first one, and they are often intertwined.

To continue with our example from Step 1, this is where you begin to ask why Luke is so different from Matthew and Mark here -- why did he think it was important to preserve so many more details. Given Luke's well-known interest in the inclusion of Gentiles in God's kingdom, are there links between that theme and this passage and the passages it quotes?

Steps 1 and 2 are important: they furnish us with the foundation and background we need to understand a passage. If we don't lay a sound foundation at this point, we may not be able to take the last step fruitfully. In these steps, the 'science,' or formal study, of the Bible, biblical exegesis, furnishes the tools we use to answer our questions in the form of commentaries and dictionaries and atlases. But there is more to the Bible than formal, academic study. It is too important a book to leave solely in the classroom or even the library. We must lay the foundation, but we must equally then begin to build on it. That is the last step:

3. What Can I Learn From It Today?

The Church's affirmation is that we can encounter God in the Bible, and by taking the last step, we open ourselves to that encounter. What does the Holy Spirit have to teach me as an individual or us as a community in this passage? There is no simple right or wrong answer to such a question: a passage will speak to us of different things at different times. When we are feeling far from God or discouraged in any way, this last step will be the hardest to take, but it is always a rewarding one. This final step is often best taken in a group who have all prepared individually by reading a passage and working through steps one and two. Not only does each one benefit from the insights of the others, but all can also share with one another what they think the teaching of the passage is for them in their lives. It is also a very good way to guard against misinterpretation, by comparing insights and understandings.

To continue with our example, at this point you should begin to ask how each of the three accounts of this event could speak to us. Do they show us different aspects of Jesus and his mission? If so, what can we learn from each of them about our own mission today?

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