Profile: Kay Arthur

From the 2010 E-Block

Initially this article had been planned as a sort of profile piece of the sort we have been doing lately, and the first in a series on Bible Study teachers, the subject being the materials of Kay Arthur, in particular the New Inductive Study (NIS) series. To a goodly extent, it remains that. However, it has also become occasion for commentary on a much more widely used teaching method.

The Bible my wife brings to church with her belonged to her mother before she passed away. The cover says that it is an “Inductive Study Bible”. When I first saw this, I had no idea what this meant; "induction" to me was a type of cooking method (one that involves using magnetism to heat cooking vessels). I leafed through the pages trying to figure it out. I saw nothing but a few footnotes (of the sort found in any study Bible) and pages for writing notes. This led me to wonder what I was missing – or whether the “Inductive Study Bible” accidentally left the “study” out.

I have since discovered that “inductive” is rather a coded way of saying, essentially, “You read it and figure it out yourself.” This is confirmed by the introductory material found in each of the three Kay Arthur NIS books we secured for this survey, which consisted of lessons on Galatians/Ephesians, Matthew, and 1-3 John/James/Philemon. According to each of these books, the purpose of the NIS is “to teach you how to discern truth for yourselves...” NIS also recommends an inductive study Bible that “does not contain any commentary on the text.”

Veteran readers will immediately guess that I have certain unease about this methodology, but for those newer to Tekton, I will lay out my misgivings in detail.

The main problem is that this inductive method presumes a rather high degree of perspicuity (that is, accessibility and understandability) in the Biblical text – and to some extent, this is the case. The Bible in many places is very easy to understand, by anyone; in yet other places it is not, even though it may seem to be. This is because, like any text authored in another time and culture, and especially in a culture like the Bible’s, the authors of the text took a great deal for granted in terms of what their audience would understand. (Veteran readers will recall this sort of phenomenon to be called a “high context” setting.)

Unfortunately, our own culture in the modern West is a “low context” setting – meaning, we spell everything out even if it is not necessary to do so. The inductive method of study, in turn, is attuned to low context readers and writers – and thus makes the common error of thinking the Biblical text is low context as well. Put in a nutshell, inductive methods take for granted that everything in the text is “out in plain sight” when it is not always the case.

There are also serious reasons to be concerned about “study” questions like, “What [in this text] spoke to your heart the most?” or “How has this ministered to you?” Thankfully, these are rare in NIS; most of the study questions are helpful, and will do well to teach people how to apply specific Biblical principles in their daily lives. Nevertheless, these few other questions make the text a “self-centered” experience that implicitly indicates that God is somehow personally communicating to each person’s specific situation through a text written towards an entirely different context. In essence, this is the same disastrous exegetical epistemology that accompanies the Mormon doctrine of the internal witness (that is, the “burning in the bosom”).

Indeed, the Matthew NIS says, “Ask your heavenly Father how you should live in light of the truths you just studied.” [9] We are also told: “Don’t forget to begin your study time with prayer. Remember, you have access to the Author, and He truly wants you to know, understand, and live by every word that comes from His mouth.” Isn’t this what Joseph Smith thought too?

Further comments, such as describing Bible reading in terms of “increas[ing] your intimacy with the Word of God and the God of the Word,” compound the problem by adding layers of personal familiarity that are unjustified -- a subject we have discussed in the past Popular Pastors series, and need not rehash here. (To make this even worse, we are told in the Matthew NIS that any time we read the Bible, we “enter into more intensive warfare with the devil”. [6] Serious study of the text will not be aided by supposing that the devil himself – apparently a micro-manager like God – is sitting on one’s shoulder during devotionals, looking to lead you the wrong way. Presumably, the devil isn’t the one who recommends commentaries to help interpret the text, as opposed to “inductive” study Bibles.)

The use of the inductive method is all the more puzzling in light of the Matthew NIS’ advice as follows [10, emphasis in original]:

Always examine your insights by carefully observing the text to see what it says. Then, before you decide what the passage of Scripture means, make sure that you interpret it in the light of its context.

And as well, the NIS on 1 John et al as follows [32]:

One of the goals of inductive study is to learn everything you can about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

How can one fully and satisfactorily “interpret it in the light of its context” and “learn everything you can” with an inductive study Bible and no commentaries? This may happen with much of the text, it is true, if the message is a simple one; but it will not do with more complex issues. Apparently it has been assumed that the text provides all of the context needed – a form of “radical perspicuity” doctrine. A comment in the 1 John et al NIS says as much [37]:

We know this sounds simple, but too many times Christians reach for a book about the Bible when they could open the Word itself instead.

They could? Sometimes, yes. But even the simplest-seeming texts can bear a load of unknown meaning. “Thou shalt not kill” seems simple enough – until you try to work out how it can be reconciled with God’s orders to kill people. At that point, the Bible itself will not offer the modern reader the contextual solution because the original readers would have been able to take it for granted. A modern reader trying to proceed “inductively” will likely arrive at a contrived and unsatisfactory solution.

The above said, what of the NIS as a Bible Study? I suppose it could be recommended – for “infants in Christ”. I found its methods for memorizing and accessing texts somewhat bizarre: e.g., the reader is told to signify references to the devil by marking over such references with a red pitchforks, or references to “love” with red hearts, and so on, a virtual rainbow schematic of references. But I admit that may be a personal distaste. No doubt it does make referencing easier for those who do not prefer the use of something like a concordance. Additionally, one cannot find fault with the admonitions to read texts repeatedly.

I also found very few serious errors in teaching – although this seems to be because there was so little in the way of serious teaching to begin with. The inductive method apparently has something to do with this – a tad ironic, given that at the start of the Galatians NIS, a desire for quick answers that don’t go too deep [13] is regarded as a sign of the sinful human nature. It would seem to me that the so-called “inductive method” is ripe for just that kind of epistemic shortcutting.

Can this do more harm than good? Arguably so. Here’s an example from the Galatians NIS [25]:

Read through Galatians 1:11-17 again. Then read Acts 9:1-25 and note how the verses in Acts complement your understanding of Paul’s conversion.

That’s all the reader is told. And yet, as we know from studies here, the matter of alleged contradictions between Paul’s two conversion stories in Galatians and Acts (to say nothing of those in Acts alone) is considered one of the more intractable NT problems by Skeptics. It is of course not intractable, but it is also not something easily resolved merely by reading the plain text and trying to mesh the stories together. The NIS here sets a virtual epistemic time bomb for the low context reader, encouraging implicitly a way of thinking that will ultimately do more harm than good: All you have to do to resolve seemingly contradictory texts is assume they are complementary.

Other than that, as noted, there were few factual errors; so few indeed that I won’t do my usual schtick of listing a few. The far more serious problem with Arthur’s material here is a problem shared by other study materials. Arthur’s ministry does offer what is said to be more in depth materials; I’ll see if I can get hold of some of those for the next article. However, my final word for now is this: Be cautious about the "inductive" method of study, because like the inductive method of cooking, you may think you can't get burned, and easily end up getting burned.

In our last issue, I noted that I would seek out some of Kay Arthur’s more advanced Precepts material to see if perhaps it kicked up the educational aspects a notch. I have to say that they do, but just barely.

Since this material is often expensive and/or hard to get, I only picked up a copy of the Philippians “Precept Upon Precept” (PUP) guide. Ordinarily, a single sample may not be enough, but I think in this case it will be: The functions of the PUP series are much the same as the NIS series. Induction is the method, but at least this time we’re told to get some study materials, including some commentaries.

Unfortunately, even considering that the Philippians PUP was written in 1988, the collection of commentaries recommended is fairly thin. Most are over 30 years old (meaning, they’d be over 60 years old now). Others are by popular authors like Wiersbe and Walvoord. But I suppose that can be fair. As with NIS, this is probably a decent learning tool for infants in Christ. By the time you’re done, you’ll know where everything in a book like Philippians is – even if you’re barely understanding, in some cases, the importance of what has been written.

What else? There are a lot more questions for readers to answer in PUP, but they’re all pretty much of the same variety as in NIS – “What do you think of this?” or “How can you apply this?” or “What does this text say about X?” In other words, merely inductive study. There are also a few curiosities here and there. Paul talks about circumcision in Philippians, but rather than explain what that is, PUP tells the reader to “look it up in a dictionary.” [73] Huh? One can only guess what a PUP on the Song of Solomon would look like.

Then, on page 95, Arthur says that she realizes that this study of Philippians can be a “little heavy” and she hopes she will not “overload you.” Really? This is stuff that would have been kindergarten material in the first century, but Arthur is worried that it is too hard?

And, there are a handful of unsatisfactory “leave ‘em hanging” comments. On page 102, Arthur points out that “evil” in Is. 45:7 should be translated “adversity”. That’s true, but no explanation is given as to why. The reader is left wondering what the answer is and why some English translations say “evil”.

In close, I suppose I should comment on Arthur’s qualifications to be a Bible teacher. I can find none. The Precepts ministry apparently began as a home Bible study group, and Arthur has no relevant training in Biblical exegesis or exposition. It would be nice if our “stars” of Bible study came with somewhat deeper qualifications than this, but we really have no one but ourselves to blame for making them stars.

Maybe if Ben Witherington called everyone “Beloved,” he’d get a larger audience?