Study the Word (part two): Meet My New Teacher, Sherlock Holmes

This is part two in a series on what I have learned to help me study the Word more effectively. You can read part one here

Growing up at a Christian school, I had a Bible class built into my schedule each year, and many of my teachers were significant influences in my understanding of Scripture and my personal walk with the Lord. Other influences, such as pastors and mentors, have also been a blessing as I have learned how to move my knowledge of Scripture out of the classroom and into real life. And, as of late, Sherlock Holmes has been the newest addition to the list of Bible teachers who have impacted my spiritual life.

I started reading Great Cases of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because I was looking for something fun to read this summer along with some denser books that are on my coffee table. Each case that Sherlock solves is its own short story, so I can easily sit down and read a little bit, then not pick it up again for a week and not be out of the storyline. Plus, I somehow acquired this really pretty copy, and books are especially fun to read when they look and feel classic, like I should be sitting on a picnic blanket alongside the river with a parasol, or perhaps in Belle’s library in Beast’s castle. (I mean, it’s the dream library, am I right?)

This summer, I want to focus on learning how to study the Bible correctly and effectively, both for growth in my personal walk with the Lord as well as growth in how to equip the students I am ministering to. I am watching a short video series from Dallas Theological Seminary and reading a couple different books to help me gain an understanding and appreciation of studying the Bible methodically: Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks, How to Read the Bible Like a Seminary Professor by Mark Yarbrough–and what was my for-fun book is now added to this list as well.

Of all of the different ways people have put together to help you study a Bible passage, Inductive Bible Study is perhaps the most commonly taught. This method teaches observation (what do you see?), interpretation (what does it mean?), and application (how does it work?).

I’m going to be honest, I learned this method in junior high or high school, and it has continually come up in other contexts, but I have always been resistant to it because the first step, observation, feels so tedious.

Observation is simply looking at what the words on paper say, but there are so many factors to consider when you observe. You want to consider the type of writing, the time period of the author, the grammatical significance of the words on their own, and the significance of the sentence in light of the paragraph, in light of the chapter, in light of the book. You should look for comparisons, contrasts, commands, promises, cause and effect statements, conclusive statements, etc. And when this method is taught, you are instructed to write all of this out.

My pride always convinced me that I have excellent reading comprehension–I mean, I scored pretty dang high for that section on the ACT­–so I was probably above spending much time on the observation part. That was just for people who weren’t good readers or who were baby Christians still unfamiliar with the Bible.

But I am learning that, when I skip observation, my ability to correctly interpret and apply the passage is hindered. I am not getting the full depth of the God-breathed words when I decide to just read it once then immediately determine what I think it means.

The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle connection: the more Sherlock stories I read, the more I recognized that Sherlock Holmes follows the same method of observation, interpretation, and application. His ability to make keen observations then interpret what those mean is what has made him famous! It’s the key to solving each mystery.

There are a few (convicting) lessons I have learned from Sherlock Holmes about how to more effectively read and study my Bible.

  1. Don’t go into observation having already determined your supposed application.

It can be easy to open your Bible looking at a specific passage to prove a certain point, but all too often that results in our unconsciously trying to make Scripture say what we want it to say. Observation has to come before interpretation and application in order to correctly understand the Word.

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes receives a letter requesting an audience with him, and Watson asks, “What do you imagine that it means?” Holmes responds, “I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

There are several ways I think this concept applies to our interpretation of Scripture. Don’t go to the Bible looking for Scripture to prove your own points. Be cautious that you don’t make up an application just to have something to say about a passage. And don’t assume you know what a passage is talking about just because of how you have heard it talked about in the past.

There’s a method and an order to most things in our world, from building a house to cooking a meal to solving a math problem, and reading the Bible is no exception.

  1. Nothing is insignificant.

In “A Case of Identity,” a Miss Mary Sutherland had entered Holmes’s house upset, and after asking her a couple of questions, he allows her to just talk, explaining her background and her family history and her relationship with her stepfather before she even begins to discuss the actual reason she was there. Watson observes: “I had expected to see Sherlock Holmes impatient under this rambling and inconsequential narrative, but, on the contrary, he had listened with the greatest concentration of attention.”

It turns out that these seemingly “inconsequential” details are a key in Holmes being able to understand what motives might have prompted her parents to be the conspirators behind Miss Sutherland’s mysteriously-disappeared fiancé.

When it comes to reading the Bible, there is a lot that is easy to overlook or skip. Genealogies, references to cities we don’t recognize, quotes from other parts of Scripture, metaphors that don’t make sense–these are all commonly skimmed over. In the past, if I was reading something that felt tedious or like background information, I had a habit of continuing to read ahead for the treasure instead of stopping to look for treasure in those verses, doing research to figure out why this would be in the Bible and even in this specific passage.

If every word of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), that includes endless lists of names of who begat whom. That includes the choice to mention a specific city, or closing greetings, or metaphors of animals and plants.

An example to study: the genealogy of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 1 versus Luke 3. Matthew’s record starts at Abraham and works forward in time, while Luke’s starts at Jesus and works backwards in time all the way to Adam. Matthew mentions key women in his, while Luke’s only mentions men. Matthew and Luke both had different purposes in writing their Gospel accounts, and these purposes are made clear in their selection of how to present the genealogy.

  1. Connect the passage you are reading to other parts of the Bible.

Look for commonalities in Scripture–how does it all connect? Though the Bible was written by over 40 different authors on three continents over 2000 years, because those authors were actually writing the words of God, it’s one cohesive book.

The ability to consider other situations is what led Sherlock Holmes to solve “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor.” When Holmes amazes his client by stating that he already had a conclusion, he tells him, “I have notes of several similar cases, though none, as I remarked before, which were quite as prompt. My whole examination served to turn my conjecture into a certainty.”

Sherlock Holmes considers other similar cases to aid in his present one; in the same way, consider what you know from other parts of the Word.

The ability to do this just takes practice. The more you read and study the Bible, the easier this becomes. The more I dig in to the different parts of the Bible (especially the Old Testament), the more I can connect various parts of the Bible as one whole book.

I taught through 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles this past semester while at the same time studying Jeremiah on my own. The Kings and Chronicles books provided me with an overview of the history of the divided kingdom, the generations of corrupt kings and disobedient people, and the development of what led God to the decision to punish his people through exile. Reading Jeremiah, I am thus able to understand the circumstances surrounding Jeremiah’s ministry and the examples of injustice he is referring to.

Another great example is the book of Hebrews. This powerful letter gains much more significance and depth when you have an understanding of the Old Testament, specifically the first five books of The Law. Being told that Jesus is your great high priest may not mean much until you know what a high priest was, just as learning that Jesus’ sacrifice once for all would have been an incredible relief to a people who were accustomed to the ongoing sacrificial system.

  1. Everything you need is there in the text, but observation is a learned skill over time.

In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” Holmes and Watson are trying to solve a mystery concerning an abandoned turkey with a valuable blue gem found inside, and their first major clue is finding the black felt hat alongside the turkey that was dropped. Holmes handed the hat to Watson and asked what he could gather about the owner. “I see nothing,” said I, handing it back to my friend. “On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your inferences.”

You can see everything (although, perhaps, there’s more to see if you know the original languages it was written in), yet you must learn know how to look at it, what questions to ask, and how to connect what you see to what it means.

Howard Hendricks wrote, “What makes one person a better Bible student than another? He can see more. That’s all. The same truth is available to both of them in the text. The only difference between them is what either one can see in a cubic foot of space.”

I am still learning how to slow down and spend time observing before I jump into deciding what a passage means, but my heart has been convicted that it is worth it to analyze and savor each inspired word. The following statement from Living by the Book really convicted me as I considered my perspective towards the Bible:

Too many “readers” are nothing but browsers. They turn pages the way they flip through channels on a TV set, looking for something to catch their interest. The Word doesn’t lend itself to that sort of approach. It requires conscious, concentrated effort. So read portions of the Bible over and over. The more you read them, the more clear they will become.

If you are looking for a good resource to teach you what to look for in observation, Dr. Hendricks’s book that I mentioned above is very thorough, almost to the point of being overwhelming, until you remember that the skill of observation will become more natural the longer you do it. While he is a fictional character, Sherlock Holmes’s own skills came through years of study and continuous involvement in cases that sharpened his abilities even more.

I want to dig in to everything God has revealed to us on the pages of Scripture, and I want to savor each word that he intentionally wrote to help us know him more and more.

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