Deductive vs. Inductive Bible Study

Scientist“Method” comes from joining two Greek words: meta (with) + odos (road or way). This gives the rough meaning of “going with the way” or “a way of going.” A couple of methods of studying are deductive and inductive. You already do both of these.

Deductive Study

Deductive study is a “top-down” approach which begins with a stated “truth” or proposition and then moves down to examine the proofs. A deductive student starts with a proposition (“truth”), and examines all evidence to see if it really proves true. She starts with a view of the whole puzzle and then examines the parts.

For example, you might study birds. You read the definition for bird: “any warm-blooded vertebrate of the class Aves, having a body covered with feathers, forelimbs modified into wings, scaly legs, a beak, and no teeth, and bearing young in a hard-shelled egg.” (dictionary.com). Then you show how this definition is true as you examine storks, eagles, kingfishers, parrots, finches, etc. Each individual bird representative should fit the definition. If we find one bird which does not fit, we either must change the definition to include the difference we discovered or reclassify the “bird” we’re studying as something else. In this way we deductively study birds, but in order to do it someone had to supply a working definition before we started.

Be aware that too much deduction can land us in trouble. The Pharisees argued deductively that their fellow Jews should follow the traditions of the elders. Why? Because they believed those traditions were truth, just as Scripture was truth. Deductively, they assumed the traditions to be true, and they taught and preached to defend those traditions. We can fall into the same trap, if we’re not careful.

Inductive Study

Inductive study is a “bottom-up” approach which begins by examining individual facts or pieces and moves up to formulate more general propositions and conclusions. Scientific discovery is based on observation, interpretation, and application—the examination of how the parts relate to the whole. This form of study begins with the puzzle pieces and attempts to put the puzzle together.

EmuIn keeping with the above example, you might study animals and write down things you notice. Soon you discover that many animals bear live young and many others lay eggs, so you divide your animal list into those two categories. Among the egg-layers you discover that some eggs hatch in water and others on land, so you divide the animals that way. Among the eggs laid on land, you find some animals grow up to have feathers and others to have scales or some other skin, so you group all the feathered into one class. Eventually, in this way you end up working your way towards a definition which fits all feathered, egg-laying animals. You might say, at first, that all egg-layers with beaks or bills are birds…but then you run across the platypus and must readjust. You then say all egg-layers which have feathers and fly are birds…but then you run across penguins and ostriches, and adjust your definition again. Inductively, you are working from the details and forming a general definition for “bird.”

While usually more rewarding, inductive study is often more demanding than deductive because the inductive student must constantly compare, evaluate, and associate things together and think in order to formulate conclusions. When you study Scripture inductively, you have to think! The intensive cognitive component to inductive study discourages many would-be students from mastering this method. But be encouraged! After you practice a while, you’ll find it much easier.

The solution to destroying some of our own Pharisaical traditions is in the inductive study of Scripture. Instead of coming to the Bible to prove a truth we think we know, we come to Scripture to examine it carefully and see what it teaches us to do. Do you see the difference?

Inductive study asks lots of questions, following in the steps of our Lord and Savior, Jesus, who often led His learners through careful, intentional interrogation (i.e., Matthew 6.25-34; 7.3-4, 9-10, 16). Often when the Jewish leaders challenged Him, He would ask a simple question which confounded them and exposed their ill-intentions (i.e., Matthew 21.23-27, 28-32; 22.23-33, 41-45). We must learn to ask many questions of God’s word in order to draw out the meaning.

Any questions?