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Inductive Bible Study teaches that you observe, interpret, and then apply scripture, and has lots of specific things you should observe such as word repetitions, structural elements such as comparisons and contrasts, etc. (Appologies if I've described that poorly).

How does that technique compare to various hermeneutical approaches?

I'm pretty certain application goes beyond the scope of analyzing the text, but it seems like a lot of overlap in terms of techniques for analyzing the text and its meaning.

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4 Answers 4

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Howard Hendricks, in Living by the Book, identifies three questions that form the foundation of most approaches to studying the Bible. These are:

  • What does it [the text] say?
  • What does it mean?
  • What does it mean for me?

Inductive Bible study would seem to address all three of these, while hermeneutics is primarily focused on the first two. (Although it might address the third indirectly, that's not really its focus.)

Another difference is in the language of study. Hermeneutics frequently involves study of the original languages in trying to answer "what does it say/mean?", while an inductive study is frequently done in the native tongue of the one doing the study.

That said, I'm not sure that they're really all that different - they do seem to be subsets or supersets of the same set of tools.

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I agree with GalacticCowboy's answer that there's a good deal of overlap between the approaches—especially when it comes to observation and interpretation. Roughly speaking the difference amounts to nothing more than who is doing the work.

I'm not sure if other traditions have anything quite like inductive Bible study, so the rest of this answer is informed by my own Protestant background.

A good inductive study will level the playing field between participants since the foundation of the method starts with observations of the text itself. Interpretation springs from the observations rather than doctrine or outside knowledge. Ideally, all participants will have equal access to resources such as cross references, concordances, Bible dictionaries (for historical background), interlinear Bibles, and so on. The studies I've been involved in do not allow commentaries or evidence that shortcuts the interpretive processes. So if you've spent years listening to sermons, you still have to do the work of discovering meaning in the text as if you've never had any interaction with the Biblical texts at all. (In theory, of course. In practice, "chruched" people get lazy and turn off their brains without some prodding. Human nature, I guess.)

Hermeneutics is the set of tools scholars use to produce commentaries. In some ways the rules of the game are more strict and less accessible since commentators are expected to know and interact with other commentaries. But if you spend time reading commentaries, you'll find that often their notes don't strictly adhere to the text under examination. To take an example more or less at random, John MacArthur, an expository giant if ever their was one, takes time out of a sermon on Ephesians 5:18 ("And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit," ESV) to talk about Timothy Leary. (Not that I think MacArthur went off track in the sermon, but that not everything you read in a commentary follows the rules of biblical hermeneutics.)

In addition, Biblical commentators tend to work alone, which inductive studies usually occur groups. As such, published commentaries are more likely to have interpretations that are novel and Bible studies search for consensus.

These approaches most strongly overlap when they directly engage with the text at hand. Those of us who participate in inductive studies would do well to borrow methods, tools and techniques from our professional brothers and sisters. Recently, for instance, popular works by Bart D. Ehrman (notably Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why) have led our study to occasionally engage in textual criticism. Thanks in part to books like C. S. Lewis' The Four Loves, we go back to the original languages to try and understand our text's nuance. Similarly, N. T. Wright's exceptional work in the milieu of the first century has spurred me to consider interpretations better grounded in the Bible's historical context. John Piper has been a strong influence, not just for his tightly reasoned approach to exegesis, but also his tireless drive to follow the text where ever it may lead.

Following the examples of these men (and I'd be remiss to not mention Kay Arthur and Beth Moore), a good inductive Bible study encourages the participants to dig deep and not rest on the casual interpretation so many Christians are content with. Like all scholars, individuals are expected to think about the texts and form opinions. Differences in opinion are resolved by the application of reason in the from of debates. Over time, the best solutions to interpretive problems become the answers accepted by consensus. Even so, new evidence can always lead to radical reinterpretations if required.

In the end, the goal of both methods is the same: producing clear understanding of sometimes difficult, ancient documents.

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@Ray: Thanks for helping clear up my use of terms. I've tried again. Does the latest version use "hermeneutics" more appropriately? –  Jon Ericson Oct 13 '11 at 19:36
I would say that that is a more accurate use of the terms. –  Ray Oct 13 '11 at 20:30
An unrelated comment: I would have to say, to be fair, the participants in an inductive study are using many of the same hermeneutical tools as the scholars producing commentaries. The answer seems to suggest that hermeneutics is only practiced by those who are aware of it. I would say that you can't not do it. What the OP is asking seems to be more about questions like which of those hermeneutical tools are used in inductive study. –  Ray Oct 13 '11 at 20:35

I think that you are really asking for the difference between Inductive Bible Study and Biblical Exegesis. Hermeneutics is a method (conscious of not) of interpretation. I often describe hermeneutics as the set of assumptions that we bring to the text that guides how we will interpret it. The very act of reading is hermeneutical. People can study and examine their hermeneutical assumptions, and choose what hermeneutical "key" or "lens" they will use to approach Scripture. That said, our embedded theology will continue to influence the interpretive process.

Biblical Exegesis is biblical study as opposed to Bible study, or rather a more academic look at the text, although exegeses should conclude with a hermeneutical section that evaluates the meaning of the text in light of the exegetical analysis. The primary purpose of Exegesis is what did the text mean to the original author and/or hearers in its original context. The hermeneutical portion addresses how that meaning can translate to our own context.

Inductive Bible Study (IBS) as "Bible Study" is intended to focus more on the faith implications for living than the more academic exegesis. Exegesis and IBS have different purposes and both have their uses.

My wife has a degree in Biblical Studies where IBS was the primary approach. I have a M. Div. and IBS was never mentioned in seminary - we focused exclusively on exegesis with hermeneutical interpretation for what the exegesis reveals about God's Word.

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IBS is meant to cover the whole spectrum of interpretation, from original context to modern application. –  curiousdannii Aug 5 at 1:47

You might actually say that Inductive Bible Study is a hermeneutical method.

Hermeneutics is the science/philosophy of interpretation. There are lots of different hermeneutical methods that have been used throughout history, Inductive Bible Study being one such method popular today.

Another method used a lot today are the Historical-Critical Method, which may be what you had in mind, which is a more academic approach to studying the language and history of the text to try and uncover the meaning to the original author or readers. You could also employ a Literary Method, which would study the text "as literature", looking for things like plot in the narrative sections of poetic structure in the Psalms to try and better understand what the author meant. More recently, a whole host of "reader-response" and "post-Modern" methods have emerged which attempt to read the text from very specific perspectives. All of these are Hermeneutical Methods.

Hermeneutics itself has to do with identifying what the principles, assumptions, and theories are which lie behind any given method. So for instance, some of the assumptions of Inductive Bible Study are that modern translations are reliable enough that we can spot things like patterns, that their is a distinction between the "meaning" of the text and our personal application of it (what it means to me), and that the meaning of the text is "plain" (in other words, it isn't written in code, it can be interpreted at face value). Those assumptions and the principles that are derived from them aren't true of every hermeneutical method (for example, many medieval theologians interpreted a lot of texts as allegorical rather than as having a plain meaning).

So Inductive Bible Study is a hermeneutical method that can be distinguished from other hermeneutical methods, if that makes sense.

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