Adapted from the 8/21/2011 Sunday AM sermon:
Studying the Bible is one of the most important activities that a Christian can do. Along with prayer, Bible study is the life-blood of true discipleship. If a Christian desires to live like Christ, he must be on his knees in prayer and at his desk in study. But how does one study (and for that matter, preach) the Bible? Is there a certain method or approach that is correct?
In fact, there are several. Most Christians are instinctively drawn to a single approach, which is usually what they have most been exposed to. But to truly dig deeply into Scripture we must approach Scripture from multiple angles. Like the proverbial elephant, each approach allows us to see only a portion of the passage's truths.
The Analytical Approach – This is often called "verse-by-verse" studying, which some incorrectly equate with "Expository Preaching" (that is one form of Expository preaching). The method of this approach is to take a book or large portion of Scripture and systematically analyze each phrase in succession. Key elements to this approach are word studies and textual analysis. The greatest strength of the Analytical Approach is the attention it pays to the words and phrases used by the biblical author.
The Doctrinal Approach – This seeks to trace the Bible’s theological themes throughout all of Scripture. For example, one might seek to come to a deeper biblical understanding of God's attributes (such as God's sovereignty). He would then gather together those passages that deal with this topic and discern the Bible's overall teaching. This is the approach that Jesus recommends to the Pharisees in John 5:46. He chides them saying that if they truly understood the Pentateuch they would have believed in Jesus, essentially claiming that the doctrine of Christology can be seen in the five books of Moses. The Pharisees refused to approach Scripture this way, preferring instead an atomistic method that emphasized minutia.
The Synthetic Approach – One of the greatest weaknesses of the Analytical verse-by-verse approach is that it often leaves believers incapable of seeing the bigger picture. The Synthetic Approach strives to see how a passage fits within the “big picture” of Scripture's overarching story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. For example, is Isaac's near-sacrifice at the hands of his father merely the story of Abraham's faithfulness? Or are we able to see the larger spiritual metaphor of the salvation that the Lord would ultimately provide to his people? The greatest strength of the Synthetic Approach is that is allows us to see the forest, not just the trees.
The Historical Approach – The goal here is to understand the ways God has dealt with his people at various times in biblical history. Stephen's speech in Acts 7 is a good example of this approach. There Stephen (just before he is martyred) surveyed God's involvement with his people from the time of Abraham to his own day. He sought to place Jesus within the context of biblical history, noting that stiff-necked professing "believers" had a long-standing reputation of persecuting God's prophets. One might also use this approach to understand the differences--such as Paul's discussions of law (the old covenant) and grace (the new covenant). This method seeks to understand the unique historical context of God's dealings with Abraham, Solomon, and Josiah (among others), noting the similarities and differences.
The Biographical Approach – This method studies the great characters that God has included in His redemptive story. It understands that the stories and characters recorded in Scripture are, in and of themselves, instructive for the modern believer. Regarding these Old Testament stories, in 1 Corinthians 10:6 Paul tells us “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did”. In verse 11 he goes on to say that "they were written down for our instruction." Studying and preaching biographically isn't a sub-standard way of approaching God's word--in fact the apostle Paul expressly recommends this approach!
All of these methods are expository in nature, and one is not inherently better than the other. Biblical depth happens when one finally discerns the entire elephant.