By Wayne McDill
Approaching a text inductively calls for openness to the data in the text. It requires us to suspend judgment about the text’s message and let it speak. Of course no preacher comes to a text without any pre-understandings. We already have theological knowledge. We have knowledge of Scripture. We come with our theological traditions informing us as to the basics of Christian doctrine. Since we cannot just “unknow” all this, we must intentionally set it aside and approach the text with as much openness and objectivity as we can muster.
Inductive movement in the ideas of the text analysis requires not only this intention to let the text speak but the methods necessary to receive its message. Since our natural tendency is to assess what the text says by what we already think we know, we need inductive methods to keep us focused on the text in all its particulars. Even if you choose a text because it carries a theme you want to address, inductive methods will still keep you honest in allowing the text to deliver its message so that the sermon can express that same message.
An inductive method involves careful and detailed analysis rather than a search of the text for support for your ideas. It involves:
- discovering the text’s structure rather than imposing an outline on it,
- allowing the context to inform your understanding rather than taking the text in isolation,
- discerning the writer’s intended meaning rather than using his words for your own intentions, and
- the research necessary to augment your knowledge rather than ignoring the unknowns in the text.
Inductive elements in the text are the details that call for your careful attention. Like a scientific investigation, Bible study for preaching focuses on the particulars. It is the small pieces that have the biggest contribution to make. The words of the text are your clues to its message. So you will pay close attention to the word choices of the writer. You will look at the form and function of the words. You will define the words by their use in Scripture as a whole and in their particular context.
Expository preaching particularly requires an inductive approach to Bible study for sermon preparation. We will be tempted repeatedly with the “sermonizer’s trap,” the tendency to look for a sermon instead of examining the details for the meaning of the text. This results in a surface understanding of the riches of the text.
The nature of the Bible itself invites inductive study. It is a book of particulars with the universal truths of the revelation of God presented in specific historical settings. The prophets and preachers and writers of Scripture communicate in particulars.
Not only is the inductive approach to text study valuable because of the nature of the biblical materials; there are also a number of advantages to the preacher and the congregation. I consider there to be seven particular advantages to inductive Bible study:
- With inductive Bible study you can get to work whether you are particularly inspired or not. Let’s face it. Most of us preachers are looking for something to light our fire. We want an insight, a spark of inspiration, an angle on the truth that will get us moving with enthusiasm. We may spend a lot of time looking for something to stimulate us rather than actually studying. The inductive method described here is somewhat mechanical. You can work at your Bible study, inspired or not. I promise you, however, that somewhere along the way the ideas you discover will ignite your enthusiasm.
- In an inductive approach to Bible study, the preacher is a first-hand user of the primary documents, the Scriptures. A basic principle for effective research is the use of primary documents. Inductive Bible study begins with what the text actually says and involves a careful and systematic examination of it. What someone else thinks it says is given consideration in a later stage, after the preacher has observed what is in the text and systematically raised questions that come to mind about it.
- As a result of beginning with the text itself, the preacher is less dependent on the interpretations of others. Preachers are often uncertain about their qualifications to interpret the Bible. They are suspicious that the mysteries of the text are known only by that exclusive circle of scholars able to discern its secrets. They do not realize that an inductive method of Bible study will allow them to open its meaning for themselves. The Bible was given to reveal God, not to hide him. As we learn to examine the text carefully ourselves, we will be amazed to find that our favorite commentators often note the same insights we have already discovered.
- Inductive Bible study also allows the preacher to be more receptive to the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised, “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13 HCSB). Not only did the Holy Spirit inspire the writing of Scripture; he also illumines the reader to understand its meaning. If our sermon preparation methods have us using Scripture merely to support our own ideas, we will frustrate this ministry of illumination. If we examine the text inductively, however, we suspend our own conclusions to let it speak, opening the way for the Spirit to disclose its meaning.
- The inductive approach to Bible study means we have more enthusiasm for truths we have discovered ourselves. Oletta Wald named her book on inductive Bible study The Joy of Discovery. It is a most appropriate title. Inductive Bible study is a process of discovery. The preacher comes to the Bible with a commitment to let the text speak. A careful examination of every aspect of the passage leads to the discovery of insights never noticed before. We are eager to share those “new” insights in the sermon. Our enthusiasm is far beyond what we experience retelling some expert’s interpretation, and the audience can tell the difference.
- Using an inductive study method makes the preacher more creative in discerning the text’s meaning. Your joy in personally discovering insights from the text will get your creative instincts moving. Your mind will race to analogies, metaphors, descriptions, other passages, and contemporary meanings for textual insights. You will find yourself writing as fast as you can to record the explanations, the images, the evidence, and the applications that come to mind. By the time you complete your inductive study, you will have more than enough material for the sermon, and it is the fruit of your own study.
- Inductive Bible study assures that the preacher is better prepared for every kind of preaching. In this book are directions for preparing a theological outline of the text as the sermon structure. This traditional structure is probably the most familiar way to organize an expository sermon. There are other varieties of sermons that can also be effective. The oldest form is the verse-by-verse interpretation and application, called a homily. You may want to try an inductive or life-situation structure. You may take a narrative approach. Whatever the organization of the sermon, however, an inductive study of your text will better prepare you with content.
Adapted from 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching by Wayne McDill (B&H Publishing Group, 2006)