September 21, 2009

The OIA Method of Studying the Bible

There are many ways to study the Scriptures. Supposedly, Watchman Nee used "twenty different methods," though I haven't seen a list.

A simple but helpful technique that any of us can use has been called the OIA Method: Observe, Interpret, Apply. Studying the Bible this way is also referred to as "inductive," study because the goal is to read more like a detective, drawing careful conclusions from the particulars of a specific text, rather than making vague claims based on a mishmash of memories of various passages or simply rehearsing prior knowledge or opinion about the text at hand.

Step 1 (Observe): Observe what the passage appears to say to its original audience.
Step 2 (Interpret): Interpret your observations. What do they seem to mean or imply in the context?
Step 3 (Apply): Apply the interpretations to your own life or to the modern day.

One strength of OIA for believers or others more familiar with the Bible's common interpretations is that we are more likely to strip away some of the baggage of prior interpretation that so easily entangles, and to better hear what the scriptures are saying. When successful, we are freed from some of the filtering lenses that we all have received from our own cultures, families, and church traditions, and which color, alter, and delete what our senses take in.

A second strength of this method is that it helps us read a text more like a newcomer to the passage or to the faith would, to find common ground for discussion of scripture with those who are curious, and to see the obstacles to understanding that a particular passage presents.

Much could be said about the details of the OIA method, but here are a handful of keys that I have benefitted from in my own study of the Bible.

Keys to Observation:

  1. Temporarily set aside previous understanding of the passage. Try to read with "fresh eyes."
  2. Make a list of everything you notice. Don't evaluate or filter your observations yet.
  3. Include what the passage does not say, in contrast to what it does say.
  4. Be patient. Don't jump to the "what this means" step.
  5. Record your questions. Questions don't mean failure. Far from it, when approaching an ancient text from another culture. They might just mean that you're now actually paying attention, finally able to see something that you never saw before.
  6. Note what surprises you, or what you expected to find.
Keys to Interpretation:
  1. Fight the urge to trot out a familiar interpretation. Ask whether the observations actually lead you to such a conclusion.
  2. Be willing to wait for more evidence. Don't panic, thinking that you must know the meaning, or thinking that a real believer or a smarter reader would surely be able to figure everything out immediately.
  3. Ponder what your observations might have meant to the original audience in the original time, language, and culture. Obviously, this is difficult to know with certainty, but think about it. And consider becoming more educated on this critical topic.
  4. Ask why these facts were included in the passage and others weren't.
  5. Keep your focus tight. Don't jump around among other passages that you think might be related, or that you have always heard discussed alongside this one. Be particularly careful of parallel passages in the gospels. Your immediate goal should be to understand what the author was driving at, not just to create harmonized timelines or similar distractions.
  6. Be willing to entertain interpretations that are novel, problematic, or even "heretical." These will energize your quest for better understanding.
Keys to Application:
  1. Realize that application doesn't have to be universal. "What does the passage mean to me?" is a valid question.
  2. Look for similarities between the characters in the passage and yourself.
  3. Ask how you are similar to the original audience and how you are different from them.
  4. Question the assumption of superiority for your modern context. Maybe this ancient text should speak to your life, too.
  5. Decide what points are still not clear to you, and move on to the next section of the book. Extended context often sheds more light.
  6. Pray for understanding, wisdom, and patience. Before, as, and after you read.
Frankly, much of this list applies to critical reading of any text and to reaping personal profit from reading—to being changed by it. And really, isn't that the point of worthwhile reading?


franklins7 said...

Truly brilliant!! I may pass this along to some others. Think you should be teaching in YWAM or some other worthwhile venue!!! Think we will re-apply some of this in our studies! Good to be objective and let the Word speak to you, rather than subjective and try to get the Word to back up your own foolishness!!!

keo said...

And thank you to IVCF for teaching it to me. Now if we could just stop generating the foolishness in the first place....