Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, […] who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)
A historical perspective of this kind, apparently discouraging, must be tempered by a couple of simple observations. Over the years, many of the Bible’s interpretations have functioned as contrast agents, emphasizing aspects that required extra clarification, or as a scaffolding, enabling the consolidation of a deeper understanding of Scripture. In time, the scaffolding collapsed and the contrast agent was removed, but the Scripture’s message has become stronger. That the process of “trial and failure” still continues to this day shows the human mind’s constant predisposition to explore (even if some “discoveries” are merely echoes of biblical interpretations recurring over the centuries), but also the continuous fascination the Bible keeps exerting on humans. These are Paul’s emblematic words, Christ’s most prolific apostle, for his disciple Timothy. The fascination of properly interpreting God’s Word has motivated many earnest hearts and idealistic minds who hoped that by clarifying God’s message encapsulated in the books of the Bible they would be able to heal society from its sufferings. However, the world has never known a unique and unequivocal interpretation of the Bible. In fact, biblical convictions have fluctuated chaotically between the extreme of institutional interpretation, dogmatic and constraining, and that of personal interpretation belonging to those who believed the Holy Spirit explained to them and only to them the true meanings of the Bible.
Probably being the most read and interpreted book in history, the Scripture is a valuable study object for critical thinking enthusiasts. But because the Bible is a book to be researched beyond any other principles of critical thinking, it’s worth analyzing the study methods one can find useful in the endeavor to understand God’s Word.
Deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning…
Critical thinking implies reasoning from the premises toward the conclusion. With a valid deductive argument, provided that the premises are correct, the conclusion must be automatically correct as well. For example: “When the wind blows, the waves of the sea grow. Today the wind is blowing. Therefore the waves will be bigger today.” This is actually the most important quality of valid deductive argumentation — the fact that it offers indubitable conclusions.
However, deductive arguments have an important limit — they can only substantiate conclusions that are already implicitly included in the premises. In order to draw new conclusions, which are not already mentioned in the premises, one needs inductive reasoning.
Through inductive argumentation, we do not, however, obtain a conclusion that is necessarily true. It may have a big probability of being true, thus representing a solid inductive argument, but its truth cannot be guaranteed. For example: “Candidate X has not told us the truth. Candidate Y has not told us the truth. I am starting to believe none of the candidates will tell us the truth.” The explanation is found in the fact that the inductive argumentation starts from observation, from experience and tries to build patterns, models based on those observations. In such a scenario, any inductive inference can bring about a fallacy in the argumentation because our observations might not always be correct or true. One single counterexample can shatter the validity of the model we’ve built.
Despite these limitations, inductive reasoning has a big advantage — when contrary evidence appears, it makes us aware of the invalidity of the patterns or models we consider to be real.
Therefore, inductive reasoning actually shields us from the traps of superficial, superstitious or pseudoscientific thinking, which ignore evidence that goes against favorite thought patterns — fixed ideas, superstitions, conspiracy theories or pseudoscientific theories (for instance, like the ones regarding certain alternative treatments).
From an analytical perspective, deductive reasoning starts from true premises or assumed to be true (subjective) and, through valid reasoning, reaches conclusions that are objectively correct. Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, starts from generally objective observations but reaches rather subjective conclusions (of whose validity we cannot be absolutely certain).
…and the Bible
In the study of the Bible, when we start from premises acknowledged as truth or accepted by faith as truth and we connect them to each other in a valid manner, then the conclusions must be correct. Many Christian doctrinal statements are the result of such deductive arguments. (For example: “If Jesus Christ is the Son of God, everything He said is true. According to the testimony of the Bible, Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Therefore, everything He said is true.”)
When we start from our observations on the Bible’s text, on which we then build theories or patterns/models, the study approach is inductive. We cannot pretend the results are by all means true, but the more accurate the study is, the bigger the probability of them being true. As many other fields of knowledge, theology often uses inductive arguments.
On the flip-side we get different interpretations from some theologians, generated by their tendency to observe subjective patterns in the Bible. The deductive approach, however, also has its risks since it implies that someone else has previously systematized the theology of the Bible in order for us to use this summary as a study pattern. Hence the problem — a study pattern may be wrong when the person systematizing the Bible’s teaching did not consider all the necessary premises, or has also used false premises, influenced by his own preconceptions.
Still, from the previous observations we must not conclude we may never count on what we discover in the Bible.
Despite debated matters, for which a consensus has not been reached, there are essential Christian teachings which have or tend to have a form accepted in several Christian churches (the importance of Christ’s sacrifice, the certainty of the second coming or righteousness by faith etc.).
Furthermore, the Bible promises to give man (irrespective of his education level) everything he needs to be saved and guarantees that the Holy Spirit will help him distinguish, together with many other sincere believers, the true teachings of the Bible. At the same time, we know that discovering God is always an incomplete process. Therefore, our inability to understand everything does not prove that the essential truth for man’s salvation cannot be drawn from the Bible, nor does it encourage us to neglect studying it. God promises to let Himself be found by those who seek them.
How to study the Bible deductively?
The deductive study of the Bible requires starting from the syntheses of the principles discovered in the Bible as a whole (doctrinal statements) and seeking to understand if the used arguments are valid and logically connected. From this perspective, indoctrination, that is, conveying certain dogmas to go along with the Biblical texts on which those stand, cannot be considered deductive study because it does not deal with the evaluation and understanding of the logical validity of those dogmas.
The deductive method is used also when one systematizes the Bible’s theology. The researcher starts off with certain problems and studies the Scriptures in order to synthesize their message in doctrinal statements. The risk for such a researcher is for him to search the Bible for evidence to support his preferred hypotheses, in which case he may end up imposing conclusions (unbiblical doctrines) on the Bible that he reached by logically valid argumentation, but which started from wrong subjective premises.
How about inductively?
The inductive study method focuses on the Bible passages which are to be analyzed in detail, on a linguistic, grammatical, historical and cultural level, with the help of study questions (Where?, Who?, What?, When?, How?, Why?) (the process is called exegesis). The goal of this type of approach is to understand the primary message of the text and then to extract from it its contemporary meanings and applications. The inductive method consists of three actions: observation, interpretation and application. The weakness of this method is the deep focus on the details which may cause the researcher to lose track of the Bible’s big picture, thus rendering its conclusions vitiated.
Using the same method, the researcher may go from particular observations to identifying a model or a pattern, to formulating a theory. The risk such theories pose is, again, that of ignoring the Scripture’s overall view which may, one way or another, influence the developed theory.
The right conclusions
Due to their complementary, the inductive and deductive method must be combined when studying the Bible. Thus, a comprehensive and correct systematization of the Bible’s teachings starts with the work of the exegetes of the Bible, who unravel details and patterns used for the understanding of the antique languages, civilizations, religion and cultures of the Bible. Subsequently, the deductive method uses these theories and patters to systematize the teachings of the Bible which, in its turn, may generate, through deductive arguments, other doctrinal statements, unformulated as such in the Bible.
The process also works the other way around. The inductive study of the Bible often starts from general beliefs previously argued through deductive reasoning and already undertaken by the believer (we do not start from scratch with theology for every biblical passage we study). At the same time, the conclusions of the inductive study must be checked against the big picture of the Bible’s doctrines, and this is done by means of a deductive analysis.
The two methods must work together to balance out their vulnerabilities.
While deductive study may be altered by false dogmatic premises, inductive study may be vitiated by its inability to offer an understanding of the doctrines in the broader sense of biblical doctrines. What is important is that the theories formulated by someone through inductive study must not contradict the Bible’s big picture, and the deductively argued doctrines must not turn into dogmas that cannot be verified by inductive study.
We use inductive and deductive arguments daily. The analysis of their transposition in study methods of the Bible helps us better understand the weak and strong points, in order to use them with discernment when researching the Bible. The testimony of a large number of people of all ages and different educations, who search for God’s message in the Bible, constantly confirms that studying the Bible, far from being complicated, offers full satisfaction and benefits with each new study opportunity.
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.