From “Scope” to “Microscope”: An Approach to Bible Study
As you might be able to tell from my previous post, my approach to Bible study does not take a path that is conventional by any means in most evangelical churches. Many of us are used to the “topical” method where we decide on a topic we want to study and find passages that address it. We then string those passages together and seek to apply what they teach. The main problem with this manner of study is that you are forced to focus on a particular set of verses that were never intended to be removed from their immediate context. They are “orphaned”, and then forced to live with other “orphans”. This, in turn, can lead to “proof-texting” which is a way to make a verse say whatever the reader wants it to say instead of what the author intended it to convey. It’s just plain hermeneutical irresponsibility.
Others may choose to study a book of the Bible. They start with the first few verses, study them, and draw some applications from that periscope of verses. This is a little better because you are at least staying within a book. And as you progress in your study the flow of the book will begin to appear and connections can be made. The purpose of the book, the author’s intention, the issues that the original audience were dealing with start becoming clear. But, I believe there is still a better way.
I want to argue that the Bible was not meant to be read in chunks. We are to read the parts IN LIGHT OF THE WHOLE. We go from “scope” to “microscope”. Let me explain.
Start by reading the book (or at least a few chapters of the book if it is a long one) to get the natural literary context in your mind. This is the “scope” of the book. At this stage of the study, one should ignore (yes, really ignore) the chapter and verse numbers. Preferably, get yourself a paragraph or an “additive-free” Bible where the publisher has removed those numbers for you. Several apps have a way of removing the chapter and verse numbers. All that you will see are the paragraph indentations. This is not the time to “stop and smell the roses”, per se. Just read the book, or at least, a large portion of the book all the way through. Immerse yourself in the flow of the text. Here’s why I recommend doing this: any part of a book (verses, paragraphs, chapters) can only be understood well in light of the whole. Even individual word meanings can only be made clear in light of the words that come before and after, that is, in light of its CONTEXT. Verses have a context as well: the verses that come before and after. Same goes for paragraphs and chapters. So, to understand the “scope” of a book is to get a general idea of what the entire book is trying to convey. We commit to reading the largest available unit: the letter, the psalm, the gospel, the collection of prophecies. We read it as a unit. Rereading the book until you are familiar with the general flow and the literary style of the author may take you several attempts, but it’s worth it.
You might be asking: “How many times should I read the book?” Well, that will depend on you. The length and genre (epistle, narrative, poetry, etc) will also be a factor. I’m hesitant to suggest a specific number of times. The general structure and flow of some books are easier to grasp than others. The shorter books (1 John, Philemon, etc) may not require more than 5 or 6 readings. But as a general rule, I would suggest reading the book for at least a week before proceeding to the next step. You may need to stay in a book a little longer to get a grip on its structure.
(Sidenote: Forget about study helps during this time. Resist the temptation to pull out that great commentary. Just read the text of Scripture. You’ll be surprised how much makes sense without those study helps. And if you don’t understand something, welcome to the club. It really is ok to not understand everything you read the first, second, or … In many cases, the meaning of the text (i.e. what the author intended to communicate) will make itself clear as you read.
My good friend and brother in the Lord, Chance Fisher, also made a great suggestion. I was reading the book of John and what I did was divide up the book (chapter 1-7, 8-14, 15-21). I would read the first seven chapter for a week or so. Then the following week read the next 7, and so on. He suggested reading the first seven on day 1, the next seven, on day 2, and the last seven on day 3. Then start over again. This is a good idea because it does make you focus on the entire book in a relatively short period of time instead of an extended period in one portion of the book.)
Then, and only then, are we ready to start at the “microscope” level. Here we begin our “study” of the details. The basic unit of study at this level is the paragraph. Sometimes it may be multiple paragraphs if the author is continuing a thought, idea, topic, or argument over more than one. Depending on how detailed you want or need to get, you can begin your study of the individual sentences, phrases, and words in the paragraph. You will have already begun to see the natural divisions within the book when you read them whole and know how to divide it up properly for detailed study. This kind of “microscope” study can now be truly profitable because you have a clearer picture of the whole or “scope” of the book. You’ll be in a better position to discern whether your understanding of particular verses fit within the context or “scope” of the book itself. Commentaries, Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other study helps can be used to help clarify passages that are particularly thorny or unclear. These helps can now be used with some discernment because you have done the work of getting a relatively good grasp of the book’s flow of argument, themes, important ideas, and the like; all of which you began to see at the “scope” level.
I am convinced that one of the reasons we have so many different interpretations is because we focus on the level of the “microscope” at the expense of understanding the general “scope” or literary context of a book. Many start dissecting before they understand WHAT they are dissecting. The main idea is to read the parts in light of the whole! Stepping back and getting the “scope” first before using the “microscope” will lead to a richer, more rewarding, and more responsible time of study.