By Peter Krol
Have you never read …?
With surgical precision, Jesus wields this question against those who fail to perceive the implications of sacred Scripture but should know better. On no less than six occasions (Matt 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31), his incredulity resounds toward those who have forgotten the prophetic text, misconstrued its meaning, or rejected its implications on the matter at hand. Jesus assumes a number of things we ought not miss:
The authors of Scripture had a message for their audience.
It is possible to understand that message, even centuries later.
Properly understood, that message will influence the lives of God’s people in any generation.
The OIA method of Bible study gives us one simple way to establish a process of carefully hearing, understanding, and living out what our God has spoken through his prophets and apostles. What is this OIA method of Bible study? Why should you try it? And what challenges accompany it?
The OIA Method
OIA is an acronym that stands for Observe, Interpret, and Apply. You’ve employed this method all your life, though you’ve likely not thought of it as a method. You and I are both practicing it right now.
Observe—What does it say?
Interpret—What does it mean?
Apply—How should I respond?
That’s it. Your infant niece follows this approach when she observes her mother smile and coo, she interprets the expressions as containing comfort, and she applies the interaction by calming down and perhaps smiling back. A medieval knight did it when he observed the thrown gauntlet, he interpreted the challenge to his honor, and he applied the invitation by suiting up and riding to the jousting field. Adam’s wife did it when she saw the fruit was desirable, believed it would make her wise, and reached out her hand to eat (Gen 3:6).
Humans have been using OIA to communicate as long as humans have been communicating. In the realm of Bible study, we can subdivide the process into concrete steps.
When we observe, we gaze obsessively at the text, noting all we can about its genre, words, grammar, structure, and mood. We take note of literary devices such as repeated words, logical connectors, names or titles, and comparisons or contrasts. We reject superficial assumptions and refuse to relinquish the text until we have seen and heard it inside and out.
When we interpret, we curiously analyze our observations. First we interrogate those observations, relentlessly asking what the nature of a connection is, why those words or phrases are repeated, and what implications the structure (or other observation) has for the author’s argument. Then we answer only those questions whose answer is either assumed or addressed in the text. We exercise patience and discipline to let the remaining questions go so we won’t get distracted from the message of the text at hand. We assimilate those answers into a coherent whole, following the author’s train of thought. We reach the peak of interpretation when we can succinctly state our best guess at the author’s main point. With the author’s main point in hand, we then reflect on how that main point looks either forward or backward to the person and work of Jesus Christ (John 5:39-–40).
When we apply, we put that main point—and its accompanying gospel connections—into practice by looking both inward (at our own lives) and outward (at our opportunities to influence others). We consider not only what we ought to do, but also what we ought to believe and value.
The OIA method enables us to see and understand the original author’s message, so we can put it to good use today.
The Benefits of the OIA Method
First, the OIA method enables us to receive God’s communication to us because it accounts for how all communication works. If you fail to observe, interpret, or apply, communication is not effective. Just think of a comatose loved one who is unable to perceive (observe) your efforts to communicate, a student with a learning disability who cannot comprehend (interpret) a new concept, or a rebellious young person who refuses to obey (apply) the rules. Remove any of the pieces, and communication breaks down.
Second, the OIA method works for anyone of any age in any culture at any time in history. Because OIA is based on how communication takes place, it will work wherever people are communicating with each other. Or more precisely, it will work wherever God wants to communicate with people—which is everywhere, at all times. This is why I could illustrate the OIA method above with your infant niece and your jousting ancestor.
Third, the OIA method works on any genre of literature. Though different genres of writing work in different ways, the basic principles of the OIA method transcend genre. The fundamentals of observing, interpreting, and applying work on poetry just as well as they work on narrative, letter, or apocalyptic literature. We must, however, observe the genre and answer our interpretive questions in keeping with the original audience’s expectations of the genre.
Fourth, the OIA method can be taught in five minutes and perfected over a lifetime. It interests postdoctoral students, preschoolers, and everyone in between. In my church, we don’t purchase a Sunday school curriculum for children ages 11 and up. Instead, we train them, week after week after week, to simply open their Bibles, observe what’s on the page, interpret the author’s main point, and apply it to their lives. We believe this practice—more than anything else we could teach—will do more to equip them to face the world’s rapidly mutating deception.
Fifth, the OIA method trains us in critical thinking and clear communication. I’ve seen college students perform better in their classes when they use the OIA method to understand their professors and course material. I’ve had elderly widows tell me learning the OIA method of Bible study made them feel, sometimes for the first time, that they could connect with their God and Savior personally, instead of living vicariously through their family or pastor. I’ve seen immigrants and internationals learn the OIA method of Bible study and employ it to introduce family members across the globe to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Challenges of the OIA Method
At first, the OIA method can be terrifying. It tends to feel like off-roading without seatbelts or skydiving without parachutes, because it removes the sense of security gained by beelining to commentaries for answers. When I teach the OIA method of Bible study, I don’t allow people to bring study Bibles or commentaries. I want them to learn how to observe the plain text themselves, ask interpretive questions, find interpretive answers, and take a guess at the author’s main point. Then and only then do I permit them to consult study notes or commentaries. They must learn that commentaries make great conversation partners but poor instructors. And the OIA method requires people to take the wheel and refuse to allow a commentator to do their driving for them.
The OIA method also can be challenging because it goes against our natural inclinations. We’ve acquired so much familiarity with the Bible that we fail to observe what it really says. Case in point: Who was the first person to eat the forbidden fruit in the garden? If you say “Eve,” you’ve been deceived by your familiarity with the story, and you need to go back and observe it more carefully so you don’t miss the author’s point. We’re so used to the presumption of our preferred theology or ethics that we’re not typically curious enough to ask and answer interpretive questions. And our Christian lives are subject to enough inertia that it’s quite difficult to apply the Scriptures—either to get moving, or to alter direction when the text demands it of us.
Hearing God’s Voice
We have set our hope in a God who speaks, and in his Son, the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. As we labor to overcome the challenges of Bible study (including the ones I just mentioned), the OIA method enables us to hear our master’s voice through the authors of Scripture so we can meet Jesus and walk with him in sweet fellowship. By observing, interpreting, and applying, we hear the message of his Holy Spirit, who carried men along to testify to the person and work of this Messiah, Jesus.
May it not be asked of us: “Have you never read ...?”
For an example of the author’s OIA study method, click the button below.