If you have ever looked for a simple Bible study method to follow, you have probably come across the SOAP method. SOAP stands for:
At first glance, this looks like a complete Bible study method. You start with reading a portion of Scripture. Then you write down what you observe in the passage. What are the keywords? Who is doing what in the passage? Who is talking and who are they talking to? You write down the basic idea of the Bible passage.
Next comes application. What does this passage mean to me? How can I apply it to my life?
Then you wrap up the Bible study time with prayer.
Each of these elements is important to Bible study, however, there is one key ingredient missing.
What is interpretation?
Interpretation is asking: what does this Bible passage mean, particularly to the first audience? Although we can understand some of that by simply reading the passage, the correct interpretation won’t always come naturally.
Why doesn’t interpretation come naturally?
There are historical, cultural, and language barriers to us understanding what Bible passages meant to the first audience.
We are not experts in Jewish or Roman or Greek history or culture. We are also not experts in the Bible’s original languages: Hebrew and Greek. Because of our lack of knowledge that we have as readers, we need to spend time on interpretation to figure out what the words we read in the Bible actually mean.
How do we interpret?
First we can look at the immediate Bible passage context. The verses or chapters before or after may give us more understanding. The Bible book as a whole will, too. But there are times where we will simply not know enough to understand and interpret properly. Bible dictionaries, Bible encyclopedias, and commentaries are key to interpreting correctly. This does not mean “an article that you saw on Facebook,” but a studied, learned scholar of the languages and history.
We also need to interpret the Bible passages based on the type of literature that particular passage is from. The Bible is made up of poetry, letter, narratives, and more. Just like you don’t interpret Shakespeare’s poetry the same way you interpret an email from your husband, you aren’t going to interpret Psalms the same way you interpret Galatians. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is a great resource for understanding the particulars of interpreting each of these types of literature.
Why is interpretation so essential?
Interpretation helps us get “unstuck” when we read a hard part of Scripture.
If we are using the SOAP method on a hard part of Scripture, we might be able to read the passage, but if we don’t know what it means, how can we possibly apply it?
The interpretation ingredient guides our digging into what the passage means. Interpretation is the treasure hunt. It’s work, but, oh man, it is so worth it! There is nothing like being stumped on a Bible passage then taking the time to dig into Scripture and dig into commentaries and talk about it with your friends until you have arrived at what it means and what it means for you!
What is the danger if we leave out interpretation?
Without interpretation, we will apply the Scriptures incorrectly. For instance, take Deuteronomy 3:22,”Do not be afraid of them; the Lord your God himself will fight for you.”
I’ve seen this verse emblazoned on memes lately. The picture this verse paints in our minds when we go right from Observation to Application is a beautiful picture of God conquering our mental and emotional enemies in order to make us victorious. Other times I’ve seen it applied to trusting the Lord to fight through the obstacles in our career path. It leads Christian women to believe that God will clear the path to our dream job.
But God did not guarantee your dream job the same way that He planned out the fight that this verse is really talking about. The Deuteronomy 3:22 verse literally means God would fight for the Israelites in battles at war while they were conquering the land which was promised to them. God does not promise He will fight every obstacle on our way up the career ladder. Jumping right from observation to application in the SOAP method of this verse sets up Christian women for disappointment.
I do, however, see from other Scriptures that we should trust the Lord’s plan for our lives. It does not always coincide with our ambitions in the here and now, but it is always the best thing.
If you are using the SOAP method and it’s working for you, please do not abandon it! But add in the missing ingredient of interpretation. I know. SOIAP does sound as cute, but I guarantee your Bible study will be much cleaner!
Let me know. Have you used the SOAP Bible study method? What difference does interpretation make in your Bible study?