Review: Methodical Bible Study

Methodical Bible Study. Robert A. Traina. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2002 (First published in 1952).

Summary: The foundational text and manual in the inductive Bible study movement.

I am a product of inductive Bible study. As a young Christian, I struggled to understand the meaning of scripture for myself and to be sure that the ways in which I applied it didn’t simply reflect an imposition of my own desires on the text of scripture. My life was revolutionized by a soft-spoken woman of scripture at an InterVarsity training conference in the summer of 1974. Barbara Boyd taught us how to carefully observe what was in a passage of scripture, giving titles to paragraphs, observing repeated words, contrasts, comparisons, and other of what she termed “laws of composition.” She taught us to identify significant observations, that tied parts of passages together and to turn them into interpretive questions that led us to wrestle with the passage’s meaning, often distilling that into a sentence describing a central theme. She then suggested ways we might apply this truth–a promise to trust, an example to follow or avoid, a command to obey, and so forth. She taught us how to turn our own study into Bible studies we could lead with fellow students. What I learned that summer not only made me a better student of scripture–it made me a better student as I applied what I learned to carefully reading other texts–whether the poetry of Wordsworth or a text in physiological psychology. And what I learned that summer, I continue to use and teach to this day.

I don’t know whether it was Ms. Boyd or someone else who mentioned that this approach derived from the work of Dr. Robert A. Traina, He served as a professor at the Biblical Seminary in New York, and later at Asbury Theological Seminary. Methodical Bible Study was first published in 1952. It quickly became the reference text for the growing inductive Bible study movement. “Inductive” refers to the inference of general principles from particular observations. It contrasts with deductive reasoning, which begins with general principles and infers particular instances from them. With regard to Bible study, it is the process of coming to the text, as far as possible, without preconceptions of what one will find, and carefully observing the details of the text using the reporters questions (who, what, when, where, how), our senses and imagination with narratives, and looking for the devices writers use to point to meaning.

Traina’s text truly is methodical, offering very detailed instruction. For example, the outline of his chapter on observation covers three pages. He begins with definition, purpose, and requisites of observation, and then looking at various kinds of things one observes in the text: definitions of terms, the atmosphere of the passage, the structure of a passage, utilizing paragraphs in the English Bible, various literary devices that reveal structure (what we later called “laws of composition”), and the various literary forms of scripture. Similar outlines follow for the steps of interpretation, evaluation and application, and correlation. He provides exercises for the student throughout the process.

The bulk of the book is devoted to observation and interpretation. In interpretation, he teaches moving from observations to interpretive questions. He gives an example of a study of Psalm 23 where he has 52 observations about which he asks interpretative questions. He recognizes both subjective factors in interpretation including personal experience, and objective factors including etymology, inflections, context, literary forms, atmosphere, author’s viewpoint, historical background, and other factors. The challenge is to integrate and summarize all these factors. He allows that there is never a perfect or uniform outcome, but that the outcome should arise from careful interpretive questioning of our observations of the text.

The last two parts concern, first evaluation and application, and second correlation. In the first, the focus is on discerning between the the truths that are local and particular to the original readers, and those of timeless character that bear on our own lives. Correlation then relates the insights from a particular passage to our study of other passages within a book, and to other books in scripture. In my experience, this step is often omitted, which can be a serious problem of inductive study. We see the “trees” of particular passages, but miss the “forest” within which they live in scripture. Sadly, Traina spends only five pages on this final step.

Traina also includes appendices on the use of charts in study, on word studies using the example of the word “Holy,” various kinds of logical outlines, and how to use the book (which he refers to as a manual) in teaching.

Inductive Bible study has been criticized as being too “cognitive.” The terms “inductive” and “methodical” no doubt contribute to this perception. Traina encourages the use of imagination, and affective aspects in one’s work. What is evident is a disciplined and rigorous approach to biblical texts, considering them worthy of the careful study we give other texts.

As mentioned above, failing to correlate what we learn with other scripture, can lead either to fragmented understanding, or sometimes doctrinal distortions built around one text the neglect of others. I also think greater thoughtfulness about the role of deduction in this process could be helpful. Would not our understanding of larger themes of scripture sometimes inform or even modify truths inductively arrived at in a particular text?

I would also like to see a greater consciousness of the cultural backgrounds and other presuppositions and preconceptions we bring to the text. In 2014, an updated posthumous work, co-authored work with David R. Bauer was published under the title Inductive Bible Study. At least from the table of contents, I see no discussion of the cross-cultural applicability of these methods. This is increasingly urgent as abolitionist, decolonized, and feminist readings of scripture (responses to oppressive, Western imperialist, and patriarchal readings) are put forward. Inductive study at its best comes to the text with a radical openness to what we might find in the text. However without clarity and discernment about the implicit biases each of us bring (true of all the readings just mentioned), and perhaps study with those who come from different cultural situations, we will simply reproduce these biases in our study findings, apart from the radical intervention of God’s Spirit.

Traina’s method is based on the use of the English text of scripture, with limited discussion of the use of original language resources (the 2014 work with Bauer includes an appendix on this). The focus on vernacular is helpful for lay readers. He does not discuss application of his methods to other languages than English.

The overall experience of reading this book left two impressions. One was, “so that’s where the training came from that so influenced me!” I found myself profoundly grateful for that. Second, I was reminded of the rigor and care we learned in studying a passage of scripture. I recognize in myself the times when I’ve cut corners or prepared sloppily to teach or lead others into the text. I suspect for many of today’s readers, Traina may seem “over the top.” But I also realize the hours of work any musician or other artists, creating works of excellence, put into their craft. Traina’s work seems directed to forming individuals who will become like these in their study of scripture and like Ezra, who “devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).

3 thoughts on “Review: Methodical Bible Study

  1. Bob: Traina is right behind me on the shelf. I have used, referred to, and recommended it to others many times over the last 40+ years. Oletta Wald’s Joy of Discovery in Bible Study, rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1975) may help some “ease into” Traina since Wald acknowledges in her “Introduction” that Traina’s Methodical Bible Study is the basis for her manual (pg. 6 in my well-worn copy). The Joy of Teaching Discovery Bible Study was added in 1976 by Augsburg. The New Joy of Discovery in Bible Study, rev. ed. was published by Augsburg Fortress Press in 2002, and The New Joy of Discovery, Teacher’s Guide the same year.
    Of special interest, at least to me as I taught classes using Traina and Wald over the years in several churches, was footnote 6 on Clarence Edward Flynn’s poem under “Persistence in Observation” on pg. 33 in my 1952 edition of Traina. That led me to Samuel H. Scudder’s “The Student, The Fish, and Agassiz.” There was no looking back once I devoured that, just lots of “looking.”
    See Justin Taylor’s blog post, “Agassiz and the Fish” (16 NOV 2009; reposted 30 APR 2013), on The Gospel Coalition at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/agassiz-and-the-fish/ [accessed 22 DEC 2022], and https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/agassiz-and-the-fish-2/ [accessed 22 DEC 2022].
    Note: Taylor’s links to Dr. David Howard, Jr.’s Bethel Seminary site no longer function.
    See also “How Agassiz Taught Professor Scudder,” by Samuel H. Scudder,” on Allen’s English Classes at AU at http://www.allenenglish.me/source-readings/agassiz-fish.html [accessed 22 DEC 2022].
    Allen’s documentation:
    “Reference
    Scudder, Samuel H. “How Agassiz Taught Professor Scudder.” Louis Agassiz as a Teacher, edited by Lane Cooper. Originally published in Every Saturday, 4 Apr. 1874.
    This article was found in:
    Scudder, Samuel H. “How Agassiz Taught Professor Scudder.” Project Gutenberg, 1 Dec. 2004, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/7020/pg7020.html. Accessed 14 July 2021.”

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  2. Thanks, Bob! I continue to use this method (modified for the circumstances of the refugee and other international women) in Bible study every week. It’s amazing that women who have been in the church a long, long time have come to our study and been refreshed and empowered!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: December 2022 | Bob on Books

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