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How to Do a (Shorter) Synthetic Study of a Book of the Bible

How to Do a (Shorter) Synthetic Study 1 Copyright 2011 by Dr. David A. Dean. How to Do a (Shorter) Synthetic Study of a Book of the Bible The purpose of this paper is to teach you how to do a (shorter)
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How to Do a (Shorter) Synthetic Study 1 Copyright 2011 by Dr. David A. Dean. How to Do a (Shorter) Synthetic Study of a Book of the Bible The purpose of this paper is to teach you how to do a (shorter) synthetic study of a single book of the Bible. 1 This is a skill that will help you to gain a clear understanding of the meaning and message of a complete book of the Bible. First, the nature and purpose of a synthetic study will be explained. Next, you will find a sequential set of instructions on how to do a synthetic study. I will provide to you, along with this paper, two supplements: a sample synthetic study done on the book of Hosea, and a handout on the biblical covenants (which you will find helpful in answering the interpretive questions). Keep this paper and these additional handouts. You will (I hope) use them frequently in the future as you continue to study God s Word and to share it with others. What Is a Synthetic Study? What is a synthetic study? The key word here is synthetic. We are using the word synthetic with the meaning of gathering all of the information together into a coherent whole. In other words: A synthetic study is a detailed examination of a single book of the Bible, with the purpose of trying to discern the overall, unified message of that particular book as a whole. 2 In order to do a synthetic study, you will have to do both analysis and synthesis. Let s consider these important concepts briefly. What is the difference between synthesis and analysis? We are all familiar with analytic Bible study, though we may not use that term. The word analytic as I am using it here means breaking it down to see the parts or looking at the details. Most of us instinctively look for the details of the biblical text when we read Scripture. We examine words and phrases. We select particular Bible verses, and memorize them for the vital statements they make. The care with which we examine the details of the text is evidence of the fact that we value every bit of God s written Word to us. For example, many of us have memorized Romans 8:28, and have used it to comfort ourselves and others in difficult times. This is good! And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His good purpose. (Romans 8:28, NKJV) While it is good to memorize verses, it is even better to memorize blocks of verses or even whole paragraphs, because when we memorize just a single verse we may lose vital context that clarifies the true meaning of the verse. For example, looking at the next verse after 1 This is an updated guide to doing a synthetic study, with the number of interpretive questions reduced to 6 from the earlier 8. 2 Keep in mind that when we say book of the Bible some books of the Bible actually have two parts. For example, 1 & 2 Samuel together form a single book. The same is true of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles. If you do a synthetic study on any of these books, you must do the entire book, not just part (in other words, it would be a mistake to do a synthetic study on just 1 Samuel without also including 2 Samuel). 1 How to Do a (Shorter) Synthetic Study 2 Copyright 2011 by Dr. David A. Dean. Romans 8:28 will show us that the good to which Paul is referring here is not just any benefit, but a very specific one: And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His good purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:28-29, NKJV) Looking at the verses together reveals that the specific good to which Paul is referring is the benefit of being conformed to the image of Christ. 3 This is an example of a general principle of Bible interpretation called contextual interpretation : The principle of contextual interpretation: In order to properly understand any particular text of Scripture, we must examine that text within its context. When we do a synthetic study of a book, we are really applying the principle of contextual interpretation at the scale of an entire book. Please don t misunderstand what I am saying. Analytic study is both necessary and useful when we want to understand God s Word properly. But a complete study of an entire book of the Bible requires two steps, not just one: (1) First, we do analysis by examining the details of the text. (2) Then we do synthesis to discover how those details work together to reveal the message of the book as a whole. If we only do analysis, there is a danger that we will take a text and interpret it without paying proper attention to the context and the flow of the author s thought (what we call the argument of the book). 4 It takes both analysis and synthesis to discover the full message of a given book of the Bible. (Actually, the same rule applies even to selected portions of Scripture, or texts as we sometimes call them. We should always consult the context when we try to interpret any part of Scripture.) Analysis and synthesis go together. It is a little like a child examining a mechanical clock. Taking the clock apart (analysis) reveals the many intricate details of all those gears and levers and springs. But it is only by putting the clock back together (synthesis) that one can really learn what a clock is and how it works, and then use it for for its intended purpose. Why should we study the Bible synthetically? Why is it important that we do synthetic studies of complete books? It is important because each book of the Bible, like other well-written pieces of literature, was written by its 3 Christians often quote Romans 8:28 when hardships or calamities occur, in order to express the idea that the bad thing that has just happened will lead to other good things. For example, suppose that a Christian sister s marriage engagement falls apart. I quote Romans 8:28 to her and say, God must have prepared a better man for you to marry. If I do that, I am misusing the verse. In fact, the failed engagement may mean that the friend will never marry at all. If that is the case, a more accurate application of Romans 8:28 would be to recognize that a life as a single woman is both God s will for her and it is good, because that is God s chosen way to bring my Christian sister into conformity with the image of Christ. 4 In Bible study, the sequential flow of the author s thought is often called his argument. The idea is that the author is presenting a logical flow of thoughts in order to convey a well-organized message that will be clear and convincing to the reader. 2 How to Do a (Shorter) Synthetic Study 3 Copyright 2011 by Dr. David A. Dean. author for the purpose of communicating a unified message. 5 For example, the book of Judges contains many different stories. It recounts the actions of a number of judges or human deliverers in Israel, from the time of Joshua s death up until the time when Saul became king. There is much detail in these stories, and each of the individual stories can stand on its own. Yet the book as a whole delivers a single message, and if we only consider the stories as separate units, we will never see the message of the book as a whole. But studying the book as a whole might lead to a summary message something like this: During the time of the judges, Israel repeatedly falls into spiritual failure, leading to discipline by God and then deliverance by the judge chosen and empowered by God, demonstrating the lack of effective spiritual leadership in the nation and indicating the need for a godly king. 6 The difference between synthetic study and analytical study can be further illustrated by an example. If we study the story of Samson in Judges 13 to 16 in isolation without considering how it functions within the book as a whole (analysis), we will surely learn something significant about Samson and God s working in his life and the lives of the people of Israel. We may also discover some general principles that are applicable in our own personal walk with the Lord. Obviously, there is value to analytic study. But if we want to see the larger message that the author of Judges is communicating in the book as a whole, we need to study the book as a whole, and this requires a synthetic examination of the book. How to Do a Synthetic Study of a Bible Book Below I provide you a recipe for doing a synthetic study of a Bible book as a whole. Each step is listed and explained. You will notice that the first steps of the synthetic study are analytical. In other words, we look at the details (the parts of the book) before trying to discern how those parts work together (the whole book). Please note that it is vital that you do the steps in the order that is listed below. You must do analysis first before doing synthesis. Please note also that doing a synthetic study takes time a lot of time. Once you do a synthetic study, you will discover that the effort pays off. You will gain a deeper understanding of God s message to you and other believers in the book as a whole, and that understanding will benefit you and others to whom you minister for the rest of your life. Getting ready to do a synthetic study Before you start, make sure you have the following things available to use as you undertake the synthetic study. 5 When we speak about the author of a given book of the Bible, we are really speaking about the two authors of that book: the human writer, and the divine author, God the Holy Spirit, who supervised the writing of the book (see 2 Peter 1:20 21 and 2 Timothy 3:16 17). This dual authorship is unique, found in no other writing. And yet, because the human and divine authors worked together, the books of the Bible, like other wellwritten books, demonstration a cohesive message that can be discovered by analysis and synthesis. 6 This sentence, summarizing the message of the book of Judges as a whole, is an example of a message statement. It expresses my understanding of the book as the result of studying the book synthetically. The goal of a synthetic study of a book of the Bible is exactly this: a single, well-crafted statement that captures the message of the book as a whole. You will learn how to build message statements as we work through this paper. 3 How to Do a (Shorter) Synthetic Study 4 Copyright 2011 by Dr. David A. Dean. your Bible: You need at least one good literal translation (in English, I would recommend the NASB or NKJV, or the NIV if English is not your first language). Ideally, you want a Bible that you can mark up (using underlining, circling key words, drawing arrows, etc. whatever helps you to take note of the things that you observe as you read the text. You will often find it helpful to have another translation to consult in difficult or unclear passages. a way to record your observations: This could be a notepad or your computer word processor. Save your observations! You may want to look at them again in the future, and add to them when you return to study the book later. paper on which to draw: You will be drawing a visual chart of the Bible book. Although it is tempting to do this on your computer, you will find that drawing the chart by hand on paper will allow you to work more quickly and freely as your understanding of the book expands. (You can clean it up and produce a final version on the computer later, if you like.) lots of time: Doing a synthetic study takes time. Expect to spend at least 7 8 hours for a short book, and more for a longer book. This is not a one-afternoon or onenight project. Your study will be much more enjoyable and fruitful if you spread it out over several days or even weeks. Doing a bit at a time will allow your mind to percolate and mull over the observations that you make as you explore the book. The more time you take, the more depth your observations (analysis) and your conclusions (synthesis) will have. Think of the time you put into your study as a glad sacrifice of your time to the Lord. The steps of a synthetic study Here are the steps of a synthetic study. Remember, you need to do them in order. It is OK, however, to go back to earlier steps if you discover that you need more observation to complete the later parts of the study, or if you decide that you need to revise earlier parts as your understanding of the book deepens. Step #1: Read, and reread the book. Read and reread the book. Try to read the entire book in a single sitting. Then take a break let your mind percolate for a day or so. Then read it again! In this kind of reading you are trying to get familiar with the book as a whole. Don t get bogged down in the details read quickly. Try to read the book as you would read any other book or short article. If the book is short (like Ephesians or Haggai) read it six or seven times! Most of us have never read an entire book of the Bible in one sitting. We tend to just read short bits of one or two verses (this is reading them without context). Reading the entire book several times is probably the single most important part of doing a synthetic study. Don t shortchange this step. Step #2: Do general observations on the book. Observe the details of the book. This is the first step of analysis. Here you are looking for the building blocks from which the book as a whole is constructed. Every writer uses different building building blocks. Some of these are simple parts: key words, phrases, 4 How to Do a (Shorter) Synthetic Study 5 Copyright 2011 by Dr. David A. Dean. figures of speech. Others are structures or ways of connecting these parts: comparisons, contrasts, progressions, cause and effect, etc., and chiasms. 7 Take notes on what you observe. You can do this in two different ways. (1) Write in your Bible. Underline or circle the building blocks. Use arrows to show connections between the parts of the book. Write notes in the margins of your Bible to make sure you can remember why you circled or underlined or connected different verses or words or phrases. (2) Take notes on your paper pad or your computer word processor. You may find it helpful to use a table to record your observations. (In the sample synthetic study, I will give you some examples of my own observations and note-taking.) Remember, superficial observation will lead to superficial synthesis, and deeper, more careful observation will lead to deeper and more profound synthesis. Step #3: Make an outline of the book. Outline the book. Here we are talking about an ordinary, multilevel outline. Any Bible book outline that you make should have at least two levels; a one-level outline cannot express sufficient depth of observation to be of value to you in constructing a synthetic study. But the outline that you need to construct here is not a topical outline. We need a sentence outline. Every level of the outline should be expressed in a complete, grammatically correct sentence. For example, if you were outlining the book of Judges, you would have a sub-level on Samson. Consider these examples: 3. The judgeship of Samson (chapters 13 16). WRONG!!! (This is wrong because the entry is only a topic or label.) 3. The judgeship of Samson demonstrates that God provided supernatural empowerment to the judges not for their own benefit but for the benefit of the children of Israel and for the glory of God s name (chapters 13 16). RIGHT! Can you see the difference? Constructing a topical outline is easy and quick, because it doesn t contain much information or take much thought. But constructing a sentence outline forces you to think about (a) what this part of the book is about [the topic] and (b) what this part of the book says about the topic [an assertion or statement or principle concerning that topic]. Building a sentence outline takes more time, but it is much more useful than a topical outline. When you have finally constructed your sentence outline for the book, you will gain several benefits that a simple topical outline cannot provide. You will already be thinking about what the author is saying. You will have an outline that is actually recording your observations. When you return to your outline in the future, you will be able to remember why you built your outline as you did, and what you understood the author to be saying. You will be able to use the outline to help you teach portions of the book to others in the future. Be patient in this step. Constructing a sentence outline takes time, but it is well worth the effort. 7 For a good discussion of the building blocks of the Bible (and other literature) see Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Wheaton, IL; Victor Books, 1991). 5 How to Do a (Shorter) Synthetic Study 6 Copyright 2011 by Dr. David A. Dean. Step #4: Make a structural chart of the book. Make a structural, visual chart of the book. This step is fun and if you made a good sentence outline of the book, it should be easy. Here we are talking about a chart that identifies the key parts of the book and shows how they are assembled as a whole. A simple hand-drawn chart is sufficient (and doing it by hand, in pencil, will give you more freedom than trying to do it on your computer). There are lots of different ways to chart a book. I will give you an example in the sample synthetic study. Don t make your chart too complicated. It won t be able to contain all of the observations that you have made, nor will it be able to express all of the content of your sentence outline. But it will enable you to begin to synthesize the observations that you have already made into a picture of the book as a whole. At this point, don t worry about whether the chart is suitable for use in teaching others. The most important thing is that it helps you to visualize the book as a whole that is composed of the parts that you have discovered. You can clean up the chart later and make it suitable for teaching others. Step #5: Ask and answer the 6 interpretive questions. Ask and answer the six interpretive questions. There is nothing inspired about this list of questions. However, I think that you will find that answering these questions is an excellent way of discovering and clarifying the meaning and message of the book in your own thinking. Keep in mind that these are open-ended questions. In other words, you can supply a short answer or a longer one. The longer your answers are, the more thorough your study will be. But sometimes keeping your answers relatively short (by highlighting only the most important factors that answer the questions) will keep you focused on the big picture of the book and help you to avoid getting lost in the details. Let s list the questions, and then discuss each one and offer some examples of how to answer them. The first four are the most important. 1. What is the historical and theological setting of the book? 2. What situation, occasion, or problem provides the setting for the book? 3. What is God doing or revealing in the book, and how does He do it? 4. Identify (but do not quote) one to three key verses or passages for the book. 5. Construct a message statement for the book. ***[The goal of the study!]*** 6. [Optional] Relate the message of the book to the appropriate biblical covenants. [NOTE: For some books (like the NT epistles) there may be nothing to be said on this question. In such cases, you can skip this question.] Those are the six interpretive questions. Now let s discuss and explain each one briefly. 1. What is the historical and theological context of the book? By historical context we mean the place in history where the events of the book occurred (and/or when 6 How to Do a (Shorter) Synthetic Study 7 Copyright 2011 by Dr. David A. Dean. the book was written). 8 By theological context we mean the context of the book within God s interactions with mankind and God s revelation to mankind. 9 Here we also want to consider what promises, warnings, or expectatio
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