The Bible is the most important book that has ever been or will ever be published, and the most consequential artifact mankind will ever possess. Because it is the Word of God and God is its main subject, the Bible is also the most important work we’ll every study.
Yet despite its significance, our approach to learning the Bible is often haphazard and disorganized. We may have picked up some Bible stories during childhood or made an effort to study particular doctrines as adults. But for the most part, we don’t know many of the basic details about the Bible and are unsure how the themes of Scripture fit together.
Fortunately, learning the Bible doesn’t require quitting our jobs and attending Bible college or seminary for a remedial education. We can learn how to learn the Bible by applying an ancient method that is popular in the classical Christian education movement: the Trivium method.
Biblical Pattern of the Trivium
The Trivium consists of three stages—grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric—that can be applied to learning almost any subject. The grammar stage entails the art of learning the terms and facts associated with a subject. The dialectic stage is the art of contemplating and understanding ideas within and across subjects. The rhetoric stage is the art of clearly communicating (and sometimes applying) the knowledge learned about the subject in the grammar and dialectic stages.
The three paths of the Trivium mirror the biblical pattern of learning expressed by Proverbs 24:3-4: knowledge (the grammar) fills the metaphorical house of the soul with treasures; understanding (the dialectic) holds the house together, giving it integrity; and wisdom (the rhetoric) builds it, providing it with its final purpose.
Because every individual Christian is at a different level of knowledge, understanding, and application, I won’t attempt to flesh out an entire program based on the Trivium Method. Instead, I want to provide a broad outline of how the three stages are applied to the Bible so that you can consider for yourself the best approach for implementation.
Three Stages of the Trivium
Knowledge (Grammar) — This first stage is concerned with accumulation of facts about the Bible and its contents. Too often, serious students of the Bible assume the know more of this information than we really do. Because we consider ourselves to be “advanced” Bible readers we tend to deride books we titles like “101 Things to Know About the Old Testament,” assuming they have little to teach us. But it’s just the sort of basic facts and knowledge found in novice-oriented resources that lays the foundation for deeper understanding and engagement of Scripture.
Along with basic facts you should learn the general overview of the biblical story. You may not be able to recite every Bible story from memory, but you should be able to fill in the general details of the “Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration” story arc. You should, in time, also know the basic theme of each book of Scripture. After that, begin adding more advanced facts by studying maps (to learn where events occurred), identifying key players in the drama (e.g., know who the Philistines are and why they matter), and learning the meanings of key theological terms found in Scripture.
This is also the stage where you will want to memorize Scripture in order to make use of it for the latter states.
Understanding (Dialectic) — This stage is concerned with understanding how the particular parts and themes of Scripture relate to each other. In this stage you’ll want to choose a method of formal study (such as inductive Bible study), learn how to read the various types of biblical genres (prophecy, epistles, poetry, and so on.), and be able to discuss with others how God’s Word applies to our lives.
Generally speaking, our ability to progress in this stage is often hindered by a lack of preparation in the grammar stage. Because we lack a fact-based framework of our own, we rely too heavily on otherwise helpful resources (such as commentaries and Biblical handbooks) to serve as surrogates to our own understanding.
We also fail to make progress because we don’t spend enough time simply thinking about what we’ve read. We won’t advance our understanding if we quickly close our Bibles after reading a chapter a day. We need to read large swaths of Scripture and spending the necessary time to ponder its context and meaning.
Additionally, this is the stage where you will want to spend time meditating on Scripture in order to fully appreciate God’s message to us.
Wisdom (Rhetoric) — This stage is concerned with the ability to clearly express what we have learned from the Bible so that we may communicate it to others and live in obedience to Christ. We use what we’ve learned in previous stages in our efforts at evangelism, obedience, character formation, and other areas of spiritual formation.
Two Final Suggestions
In applying this method, there are two important suggestions to keep in mind:
1. Start where you are — For a young child or a new believer completely unfamiliar with Scripture, starting at the knowledge stage may be the most suitable option. But most of us, have some experience in each of the three stages. Our task is to go back and fill in the gaps of our knowledge or understanding so that we may grow in wisdom. You’ll be surprised to find how adding basic facts about Scripture will help stock your mental framework, refresh your scriptural imagination, and hone your ability to make thematic connections.
2. Set aside your pride — You may have been reading the Bible for 50 years or have a PhD in systematic theology. But if you can’t explain the theme of Leviticus, don’t know if the Babylonian exile happened before or after the reign of David, and can’t name the Ten Commandments from memory (all areas from the knowledge/grammar stage), you still have a lot to learn. Don’t let pride get in the way of becoming the best student of the Bible you can be.
The Trivium Method of learning may seem obvious—and it mostly is! Yet our study of the Bible is often hindered because we don’t take a systematic approach to learning by incorporating all three parts. You don’t need to make the process complex. By simply taking a few minutes to think through how your own study fits into this framework and spending a few more in planning and preparation, you can turn the Trivium method into powerful tool that can transform your spiritual formation.
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from Joe Carter’s new work, the NIV Lifehacks Bible: Practical Tools for Successful Spiritual Habits (Zondervan, 2016).