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Topical Studies January 7, 2010

Posted by TJ Friend in General Principles.
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Hello, again. Last week we talked about the importance of concordances and a little bit about how to use them. Today I want to go more in depth on topical studies and how to do them. It seems that most people start off with topical studies before  moving on to studying whole passages. Conceptually, topical studies are easier and depending on the topic could also require less study time. Topical studies are good because they allow you to look at a topic from a wide variety of contexts and come to a deeper understanding of what it is all about. Exegetical studies are studies which focus in on a specific passage and drawing out its intended meaning. While a topic may be mentioned in a specific passage to truly understand the topic you need to look at many different contexts and (if possible) all the contexts which it occurs in. To be thorough, when you do a topical study, you should also do exegetical studies of each individual passage the topic occurs in. This is probably the biggest problem with topical studies. When people read through so many passages, there is little or no motivation to study them out to make sure they are not taking the topic out of context. Even with this potential to eisegete some passages, I think topical studies are a good starting point for studying the Word. Alright lets do some topical studies.

Step 1: Pick a Topic

The first thing you need to do is find something you are interested in studying. You can pick a character in the Bible that you want to learn more about like Elijah, Abraham, Joseph, Ehud, Barnabas, or even Og. You can pick a theological idea like sin, angels, the resurrection, baptism or faith. You can pick a place like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Patmos, Mt. Sinai or the Jordan River. You can pick random topics like hospitality, sandals, clouds, fruit, swords, or donkeys. You can pick abstract topics like the questions Jesus asked people, left-handed people, laughter, inheritances, or feasts. You can even pick modern day topics like tatoos, alcoholism, or divorce.

The less abstract your topic is the easier it will be to study, therefore start with something more concrete like studying a specific person or something tangible like city gates. Also, don’t overwhelm yourself with a huge topic like salvation or the Holy Spirit, otherwise you may end up studying the entire Bible for one topic. Instead choose something specific like the gifts of the Spirit. For now, since we are just starting, pick a topic that is only one word, such as joy, or offering. Also, make sure this word is actually in the Bible. If your topic is dating, you will have a difficult time finding things about it.

Step 2: Find the Passages

Here is where you need your concordance. If you have a Strong’s you can use that. But even if you just have a concordance in the back of your Bible, you can use that as well. Either way, you need a list of the passages that your word occurs in. If you have a more abstract concept and your topic is in a passage but not specifically stated write down those passages as well. For instance, you may have the topic of forgiveness and realize that John 8 relates to the topic but doesn’t specifically say “forgiveness”. Write it down.

We have not talked about cross-referencing, but this is a great way to find passages that relate to your topic without actually using the terminology. If you have a study Bible, it will hopefully have some cross referencing tools. Usually, there will be a number or letter in the passage you are reading that will be keyed to a verse in the margin. This verse will be somehow related to what you were reading. Check these references out and see if they actually are related to your topic and if so, write them down.

If you have a lot of verses, you may want to restrict your study to only one book of the Bible or a few books. This will not give you as thorough a picture of the topic, but it will give you a start and hopefully you will still learn some things.

Step 3: Study the Passages

At the very least you should read the paragraph of each verse you have written down. If it seems like one verse is particularly important then read the whole chapter, just so that you can get a better feel for what it is saying. For each reference that you have, make some observations on what it saying in relation to your topic. If your topic is joy, and you get to Phil. 4:4, you may want to note that it is right before a call to not be anxious. You may also see that Paul thinks it is important enough to say it twice. Or you might notice that this is a command and as such is not some emotional feeling based on their circumstances. It is something they can actually do, despite what is going on around them.

On a practical note, you should write a small section of each verse you are studying along with the reference, so that you will remember what the verse was actually about. I also like to summarize the context to get a better feel for the verse.

Step 4: Organize and Summarize

After you have studied out all your verses and passages you should see some similarities. Go through all your findings and try and bring together similar ideas. Find some categories to help you organize these ideas. If you were studying a person you could organize their life by stages such as Moses’ Birth, Time in the Wilderness, Leader of Israel. Or you could organize it another way like Moses’ Relationship with God, With Pharoah, With Israel, With Israel’s Leaders. Just find something that makes sense and incorporates everything you have found.

Once everything is organized then you can summarize your findings and try and draw some conclusions. You should try and come up with a definition of your topic or some sentence that describes it well. At this point you should have a pretty good idea of your topic. If you have access to a Bible Dictionary you can look it up and see how their description compares with yours.

Reflection

What is a topic from the Bible that you are interested in learning more about?

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