Review: Inductive Bible Study by David R. Bauer and Robert A. Traina

9781441214515Bauer, David R., and Robert A. Traina. Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.

Although the digital age and Bible translation have made Scripture more and more available, it seems that the Bible is also less and less understood today. Biblical illiteracy is on the rise in North America, and even within the Church many view the Bible as a sealed book. Perhaps more than ever, the Church is in need of a Bible study method that the average layperson can practice fruitfully on a daily basis.

In the face of this need, Bauer and Traina’s recent Inductive Bible Study is a welcome contribution that will prove useful for professors, pastors, and church leaders alike. Inductive Bible Study is an updated and expanded version of Robert Traina’s Methodical Bible Study (1952), the book that popularized the method that has become known as “inductive Bible study.” In its own day, Methodical Bible Study impacted many noted evangelicals, not least Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message. As Peterson writes in his foreword to Inductive Bible Study, his firsthand exposure to Traina’s method in seminary transformed him and shaped his entire ministry (xi). This sequel to Traina’s classic recasts this tried and true method for the twenty-first century.

Inductive Bible Study unfolds in five parts. Part 1, “Theoretical Foundations,” contains ten brief chapters that set forth the conceptual grounding for the method. Chapter 1 discusses the nature of inductive study: the method Bauer and Traina advocate is inductive in that it bases its conclusions on evidential and conditional premises. Deductive reasoning, by contrast, relies on presuppositional and absolute premises (22). In short, inductive study starts with observed elements in the text and builds toward conclusions rather than assuming that certain things are true a priori and then forcing the text to conform to these presuppositions. This inductive method is facilitated by an “inductive spirit” of “radical openness to any conclusion required by the biblical evidence” (18). The other chapters probe other foundational elements, but as the book’s name implies, this inductive element is the linchpin of the method.

In Part 2, “Observing and Asking,” the authors discuss the first stage of the inductive method: observation. Because inductive study moves from evidence to inferences, it is key that observation comes before interpretation or application. Across three chapters, Bauer and Traina discuss how to observe books-as-wholes, parts-as-wholes, and individual passages.

Part 3, “Answering or Interpreting,” discusses how to move from the data observed in the first stage of study to the proper inferences that can be drawn from that data. For Bauer and Traina, this basically involves formulating questions and premises from the passage and then answering them or drawing out their significance.

In Part 4, “Evaluating and Appropriating,” the authors discuss how to responsibly apply the knowledge gained from the foregoing study to the present. Although many Bible readers jump straight from text to application, Bauer and Traina emphasize that this stage must come logically after observing and interpreting: “One can assess the meaning of the biblical text only after one has grasped that meaning” (281).

Part 5, “Correlation,” rounds out the volume by addressing how to relate the message of a particular passage to the rest of its corpus and ultimately the rest of the canon. For many Christians, this oft-neglected element will prove very fruitful because it forces one to connect a particular passage to the overarching meta-narrative of Scripture.

The volume also includes a number of helpful appendices that give additional information on various elements of the inductive method.

In the remainder of this review, I would like to outline three strengths of this book that make it an essential for scholars, pastors, and serious laypeople everywhere and also note two weaknesses of the volume.

First, why should scholars, pastors, and serious laypeople buy this book?

  • Methodical. The inductive method that Bauer and Traina advocate encourages interpreters to move in a logical order from observation through interpretation and to application and correlation rather than jumping straight from hasty interpretations to disconnected applications. The inductive method also promotes an attitude of openness to Scripture that will guard against self-affirming interpretations. In short, this is a method that will grow you as an interpreter and will yield great fruit as you teach your students or congregation members to practice it.
  • Heart-language. Because this method emphasizes the biblical book as the major unit of study it is ideal for studying Scripture in one’s native tongue. Because the method moves from whole-book survey to section surveys and finally to individual passages, it encourages interpreters to think contextually and shows laypeople who do not know Hebrew and Greek how much they can learn from Scripture. To be sure, the original languages have their place in this method, but for the many laypeople who will never learn them, this will be a breath of fresh air.
  • Holistic. Because Bauer and Traina integrate application and correlation into the hermeneutical process, these crucial elements are not left to the side as they sometimes are. Thorough observation and interpretation plus discerning application and correlation equal transformed lives.

Second, in my view this volume leaves something to be desired in two areas. One is compositional; the other is hermeneutical.

  • Length. Because Inductive Bible Study attempts to be “a comprehensive guide” to practicing hermeneutics, it often has much more to say than the average layperson can bear. In my view, Parts 1 and 2 are gold; Parts 3–5 often include more detail than is necessary. Those who plan on teaching will benefit from the full discussions (possibly skimming some parts), but if you want something to give to members of your congregation or Sunday school class, there are briefer presentations of the method available (I know of at least one by two relatives of mine).
  • Radical openness? On one level Bauer and Traina’s emphasis on the inductive spirit of radical openness is a helpful corrective to interpreters who force the text into their notions of what it must mean. However, this comes at a hermeneutical cost. By placing the radically open interpreter as the ultimate hermeneutical authority, Bauer and Traina are in danger of eschewing important hermeneutical guides such as the creeds. (After all, many of the early heretics would have likely contended that they were simply being radically open to the text!) Although I am sure that this is not the authors’ intention, I would contend that an attitude of openness to the text and humility toward others—especially the others of the orthodox Christian tradition—is more balanced and will result in a more productive dialogue between exegesis and tradition.

In conclusion, Inductive Bible Study is an important volume that interpreters and teachers of Scripture everywhere should read and put into practice. The inductive method bore much fruit when Robert Traina popularized it over sixty years ago in Methodical Bible Study, and this updated and expanded exposition of the method likewise has much potential for the Church today.

My thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy.

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