The 5 Best Books on How to Study the Bible
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2.15
There is no substitute for proper, detailed, and methodical bible study. The Bible is not the kind of book that you read on a breezy summer afternoon to flitter away the time. Consider God’s assessment of his own words found in Isaiah 66.2, “but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” There is not one other volume on the planet we should give such attention. There is no other book that is more worthy of rigorous and reverential study.
It may be that the sum total of your “bible study” consists of asking these 5 questions: 1. Is there an example to follow? 2. Is there is a sin to avoid? 3. Is there a command to obey? 4. Is there a promise to claim? 5. What does this passage teach me about Christ? If so, that’s great, there’s a time and place for those questions. Especially number five. However, in order to “rightly” divide the word of truth the first question cannot be, “How can I apply this passage to my day?” Rather the first question must be, “What does this passage mean?”
This is the task of “exegesis” and these 5 tools will help you accomplish that very task. I should clarify that this is not a traditional “top 5” list in that it does not start with the best book and carry on to a mediocre one. This list ranks the books from beginner to advanced, i.e., the first book is best for those just beginning their journey in bible study and the last one for those a long way down the path.
1. Beginner - How to Study the Bible (John MacArthur)
At 140 pages this a quick read and a breezy introduction to the science and art of bible study. MacArthur bases his approach on four “foundations” that are easy enough to follow and are meant to be applied in consecutive order, “read, interpret, meditate, and teach.” This is by far the most practical of the five but also the most superficial. A great gift for a new believer or a younger brother/sister in Christ.
2. Beginner-Intermediate - Living by the Book (Howard G. Hendricks; William D. Hendricks)
At 392 pages this volume stretches the limits of the beginner category and takes a peak into the world of intermediate bible study. The tripartite approach found here is the most helpful and easily memorized shorthand for bible study: 1. Observation 2. Interpretation 3. Application. The beginner-intermediate student will especially appreciate the Ten Strategies to First-Rate Reading and Five Keys to Interpretation. The overall process is much the same as you would find in any exegetical handbook with the difference that a lot of time was clearly spent on making this guide as user-friendly as possible. I highly recommend this tool and would rate it as the best of the crop if it were not for the Andy Naselli’s new book ranking at number three in this list.
3. Intermediate - How to Understand and Apply the New Testament (Andrew David Naselli)
Contrary to popular opinion Naselli makes the interesting argument that the first step should be genre analysis and not textual criticism. This is not only an interesting point but the first-fruits of the type of insight you will find from start to finish. Naselli has quite obviously spent many hours “studying” the topic of bible study and the result is a unique and refreshing guide that stands head and shoulders above the rest. He includes material you will find in the beginner books but not in a condescending way. He also includes material you will find in the advanced handbooks (such as chapters on biblical, historical, systematic, and practical theology) but not in a hieroglyphic way. Intermediate students will especially appreciate the chapter on “argument diagrams.” He presents three models (arcing, bracketing, phrasing) that help with the indispensable task of tracing the flow of an author’s argument. If you are one of those strange specimens who dip their toes in the deep waters of Ελληνιστική Κοινή than there is also a very helpful chapter on Greek grammar. Don’t miss the principles for word studies (second only to D.A. Carson’s guide), and the appendices at the back are a delicious icing on the cake. My only criticism, and this is true of all intermediate-advanced handbooks, is that their own methodology takes a vacation when considering 1 Corinthians 11.2-16. This work is no exception and you will find that, as you do, in the chapter on Historical-Cultural Context (pg 165). Other than that I recommend this volume over any other on the list.
4. Intermediate-Advanced - A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis (Craig L. Blomberg)
Blomberg’s handbook is essentially an advanced version of Living by the Book (No. 2 in this list). Considering its advanced material it is very clearly laid out and well written so as to provide an easy read for a deep subject. Blomberg’s work is superior to Naselli’s only in the chapter on application. The intermediate-advanced student would do well to take note of the paragraphs on common pitfalls in application, important/dangerous presuppositions, evaluating the level of specificity, and distinguishing levels of authority. At this point the book delves into the world of “hermeneutics” but depending on who you speak to the exegesis/hermeneutics gap is not as wide as you might think (see The Hermeneutical Spiral below). If you are so inclined you may also find the exegetical checklist in the appendix helpful for daily study.
5. Advanced - New Testament Exegesis (Gordon D. Fee)
This exegetical guide is the shortest of the more advanced books but easily the most technical, at least the first two steps are. In the preface to the first edition Fee states himself that “many of the crucial things require some working knowledge of the original language.” However, he also states, “it also is written to encourage the use of Greek by those whose knowledge of the language has grown rusty.” If that’s you then this is your guide. This work is unique in the sense that the author was never taught exegesis himself and never attended seminary (though he is a retired seminary professor). Another distinctive of this work is that “it is assumed that the guide is not necessarily to be read through in a sitting but that it will be used in conjunction with the actual work of exegesis.” If you’re not a Greek geek then Naselli’s guide is worth the extra money. As Fee says himself, “the person without Greek who is willing to do a bit of extra work can enter into the full joys of this discipline.” Though this book is mainly advanced it was my first exposure to methodical exegesis and there is enough common language in it for the keen beginner to start the journey.
Exegetical Fallacies (D.A. Carson)
Carson is a great thinker but not the clearest writer. Though this book is not easy to read it is massively helpful as a refresher course on common errors in exegesis. It is not a proper exegetical handbook but is an indispensable companion. The chapters on word study fallacies and logical fallacies alone are worth the price of the whole volume. Carson writes in the introduction, “exegetical fallacies are painfully frequent among us.” Buy this book if not for that reason alone.
The Hermeneutical Spiral (Grant R. Osborne)
This is the biggest (over 500 pages) and most comprehensive of all the books listed. Think of it as the amplified version of Naselli’s boook. Again this is not a proper exegetical handbook in the same sense that the first five books are. Also, the title may be misleading since Osborne uses a slightly different definition of hermeneutics, “hermeneutics is the overall term while exegesis and “contextualization” … are the two aspects of that larger task” (pg21). Another distinctive is the imagery he uses to describe the process of bible study, he writes, “biblical interpretation entails a “spiral” from text to context, from its original meaning to its contextualization, or significance for the church today” (pg22). This imagery is largely used to contrast the “hermeneutical circle” proposed by post-modern scholars who do not believe we can ever detect the “true meaning” of a text. If you already own an advanced exegetical handbook this volume will be of most use to you in part three: Applied Hermeneutics. This is the section where Osborne deals with hermeneutics as traditionally defined. You will find similar material in Blomberg’s chapter on the same subject but not as much helpful detail.
How to Read a Book (Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren)
“You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, "I understand," before you can say any one of the following things: "I agree," or "I disagree," or "I suspend judgment.” (pg 141). This is a secular book. It is, however, as relevant today as it was in 1940. Highly recommended.