Assess your reasons for studying
This will ultimately determine how you study as your presuppositions will certainly bias your approach to the Bible. We all have presuppositions and contrary to the claims of skeptics, there is no such thing as a ‘neutral observer’—for this reason you need to approach the Scriptures asking the question, ‘what must be in order for what is to be what it is?’ In other words, what has to be true in order for your presuppositions to be established as correct? I must exhort you to always be prepared to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if this means changing your position on certain issues. Truth should be the ultimate goal of any student seeking to understand the Scriptures. Above all, think critically!
Establish your hermeneutical principles
Hermeneutics are simply the system of interpretation we choose to employ in our study. I personally favor the historical-grammatical (literal) hermeneutic because I find it to be the only system of interpretation that does not ultimately contradict itself. This is not to be confused with ‘literalism’ (i.e. wooden literalism) which doesn’t allow various genres of literature to be what they are. For a quick overview of hermeneutical systems click here.
Build yourself a good reference library
This is imperative for good Bible study—admittedly most are not experts in the relevant fields of Biblical studies, and those who are experts in one or more fields are not experts in all fields—so ultimately we must rely on experts who have dedicated their professional lives to understanding specific aspects of the Bible.
Do not be misled into the thinking that because you are filled with the Holy Spirit that he will teach you all things and you have no need of men to teach you—this is intellectual suicide. Jesus gave the Church teachers for the equipping of the saints and the building up of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-12)—use them!
Every good reference library needs at the very least:
(A) A good quality commentary on the Bible
(B) Quality lexical aids (Hebrew & Greek)
(C) Good Bible Dictionaries (at least 2 for comparison)
(D) Multiple translations of the Bible (a parallel Bible is great for this)
(E) An exhaustive concordance or Bible software with a search engine
Don’t be duped into thinking that the apostles never needed all these materials so you don’t either—this type of thinking is WHY you NEED them! I’ll blog on that another time. Again, we have to remember that Bible study involves many specialized fields of research to include things such as linguistics, archeology, textual criticism, history, sociology, and much more, so in addition to these basics elements I would suggest purchasing materials in all of the relevant fields (or at least those relevant to your needs).
Allow me to encourage you to keep in touch with up to date materials from contemporary scholars rather than out of date materials that have become obsolete since their publication. I know it sounds appealing when you read in a catalogue or receive an email urging you to purchase a ‘time honored classic’ but resist the temptation to do so. Calvin’s Commentaries are good if you are studying what Calvin believed concerning certain matters, but they have little place in modern Biblical studies—much has been learned in the 400 years since he wrote.
Don’t be cheap!
Now building your library takes money and this is not an area to skimp—remember that this is an investment in your life and the lives of those whom you seek to help. Don’t buy a Strong’s Greek Dictionary simply because it’s only $10 while the BDAG is $130—the saying is true… you get what you pay for! You will need to prioritize what is essential for you at the time and purchase materials as you are able and as you need them. C. Michael Patton has written a good blog post here on his problems with free bible study programs and sites—I recommend reading it.
Study one subject at a time
Focus is key in Bible study—you need to narrow your field of research so as to gain as great an understanding as possible in any given area. It is easy (especially if you own a reference Bible) to go down rabbit trails and lose track of what it is that you were originally researching—avoid this habit at all costs. Pick a subject and stick to it. What I recommend is using your reference materials by first checking for all relevant passages on the subject in your concordance. After reading the passages (in multiple translations) identify the key words and use your lexical aids to gain a deeper understanding of what they meant in their original context. From here consult your commentaries and dictionaries to gain knowledge concerning the social setting, cultural context, textual issues, etc. At the end of this process you should have enough understanding to move to the next subject.
I pray that these tips will help those reading this post to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ!