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Five Guidelines to Studying The Bible

I’ve been engaged recently in studying the theology around the belief systems of pre-adamism and co-adamism. I won’t get into the details of what these are in this article. But I will say that I’ve been applying a set of five principles or guides to help me understand what kind of foundation these belief systems are based upon. While these topics are interesting, they fail my five-fold test for sound biblical theology. 

I’d like to share my five guidelines with you in hopes you will find them valuable in your own study of the Bible. I’ll list each guide and make a brief comment on each one.

1. The topic or theology you are studying must be sourced from scripture only.

Scripture should be our first and last resort when it comes to understanding a topic on which the Bible speaks. To use pre-adamism as an example, is this theology based squarely on scripture? No. It brings in other ideas that are determinative over scripture or that interpret something that seems alien to the scripture. If I cannot formulate my theology from scripture, then I likely have a bad theology.

2. There must not be any redefining of Hebrew or Greek terms that might artificially stretch or redefine accepted terms.

How many of us theology amateurs like to resource online or other resources that present Hebrew and Greek definitions? We like saying that the “real” or more “nuanced” definition of a word really means this or that. Poppycock. We usually end up butchering the text this way, but we’re not educated enough to realize it. I’ve been guilty of this. 

Sometimes, when the words are simple, we do okay. But, I have found that many times, even in my own experience, that since we don’t know how to read Hebrew or Greek, and all of the nuances these ancient languages have, that we sometimes make fools out of ourselves. Having online and other resources are helpful, but they don’t beat out the person who has spent a great deal of education and study over many years contemplating these things. If I have a Hebrew or Greek issue, I go to one of my friends in pastoral ministry that has knowledgable in these areas. 

If we have to bring in new definitions or change the words, chances are we are maligning the text. 

3. The theology or topic we are studying must not force assumptions from outside the biblical text, upon the text, in an effort to explain something that can’t be explained by, or isn’t obvious by scripture alone. 

To use pre-adamism as an example, this theology teaches that God created other men prior to Adam that became the black and Mongol races and are not part of God’s plan for salvation. This is nonsense. It is forcing an idea upon the text that is not to be found anywhere in the text. It’s a form a racism that tries to make the Bible speak to its error to justify it. These things are not obvious in the text, and the outside perspective changes the meaning of the text and therefore should be rejected. 

4. The theology must encompass all references in both Old Testament and New Testament passages related to the topic.

If you have to leave out a passage, or several passages that discuss your topic while you are trying to develop your theology about the topic, then you are amiss. Admittedly, this can be a daunting task. But it is well worth the time to explore everything that scripture has to say about a topic at hand. If the theology you are developing around your topic seems more confusing the more you add scripture to it, then it is confusing because it is most likely wrong. Don’t try to “prove” a topic. Let the text guide you to where it is naturally going. 

5. Scientific, historical, or cultural discoveries may be helpful in understanding the biblical text, but they must not be determinative of the theology being developed.

Because the scripture was written in a different time and in a different culture than our own there are times when we need some outside research to help us understand what might be said. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this as long as it does not become determinative. Here’s a brief example. 

In John 19:7-8 scripture says of Pilate, “The Jews answered [Pilate], ‘We have a law, and according to that law [Jesus] ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.’ When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid.”

Why was Pilate more afraid of Jesus’ claim? The scripture doesn’t really say it plainly because at the time it was written, the people of that culture didn’t need an explanation. Pilate’s reason for fear was part of the culture. But we no longer have Pilate’s perspective. What was his perspective? A little historical study tells us that Pilate, being a Roman, believed in gods and demigods. Pilate was more afraid because in his mind if he was about to kill a demigod he would answer for it in eternity. Thus, his fear.

This little tidbit doesn’t change the interpretation of the passage. It helps draw it out for us to understand. That is acceptable. But if something from outside scripture changes the plain meaning of the passage, then we have likely erred and have not arrived at the deep meaning we think we are getting. We are getting deep error.


Studying scripture is not something we do just by reading the text devotionally, or by looking up a few references of a topic that suddenly seems interesting at the moment. Studying scripture is a discipline that takes time, time, time, attention, contemplation, research, and more time, time, time. If you want to milk the word for everything it has for you, then you need a disciplined approach to study. Otherwise, you’ll wind up knowing more than when you began, but you’ll just end up knowing more error.

Tom Terry is head of Global Broadcast Strategy for JESUS Film Project and serves as General Manager of The Better FM, an online radio station for Asia. Tom is also the author of several books, including Bible studies and "Like An Eagle," his biography about living in Mongolia for ten years. In addition to these things, he is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theological Studies with Whitefield Theological Seminary.
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