Tolbert Fanning’s Seven Rules for Studying the Bible

Tolbert Fanning: Study upon the Proper Plan

Most religiously-minded people will affirm that reading the Bible is vital. Many of these would also say that studying the Scriptures is important. Yet among those who read and study the Bible, there is usually a wide range of beliefs and practices that often conflict with and contradict one another. Is this to be expected and accepted? Or is that a sign that we should re-evaluate our approach in studying the Bible?

Tolbert Fanning (1810-1874) was a preacher from Tennessee who had a strong influence among brethren in the South. In his book The True Method of Searching the Scriptures, he outlined seven rules for studying the Bible. As we consider these rules, we will see that these are not just one man’s opinion; instead, these are some basic principles we need to apply if we are to understand God’s word in the way He intended us to understand it.

So let us briefly consider these seven rules for studying the Bible.

Rule #1 – God Intended It for Us

We must be satisfied, before we can read the Scriptures understandingly or profitably, that our kind Father intended them for his erring children of earth.

There are many who believe that we cannot understand the Bible. If we have this concept of the Scriptures, we are already set up for failure when it comes to benefitting from the word of God. Fanning used the illustration of how disappointed parents would be if they learned their children’s schoolteacher convinced the students that their books were incomprehensible. They would be discouraged from even trying! The same is true for our study of the word of God. If we believe we cannot understand it, what motivation is there to take the time and effort to read and study. Yet God, as our creator, is capable of revealing His will in a way that the ones created in His image can understand it. This is why the apostle Paul told the brethren in Ephesus, “When you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4). In studying the Bible, we have to begin with the recognition that it contains God’s revealed will for man and that we are able to understand it.

Rule #2 – Define Words Properly

In reading the Bible, the study of words is not to be disregarded.

Each word has a proper definition. Sometimes definitions can vary based upon the context in which the word is used, but each word has a particular definition in the context in which it is found. Fanning cited the words church and baptize as examples of words that, if not properly defined, can result in one drawing a faulty conclusion. Jesus showed the importance of understanding the meaning of words by arguing for His deity and the proof of the resurrection based on verb tenses – “Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58); “But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32). Paul said that “all Scriptures is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). That means each word was intentionally put there by the Holy Spirit. We need to be sure we understand what these words mean that have been left for us.

Rule #3 – Seek to Learn the Truth

We should read, not to prove a system, but to learn the truth.

When we have a preconceived notion about what we think should be right, or we have certain beliefs and religious practices that we have held on to for a long time, it is tempting to search the Scriptures simply to “prove” that what we have always thought, taught, or practiced is right. However, this is not the correct way to approach the Scriptures. Paul wrote, “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar” (Romans 3:4). This means that when our ideas conflict with what is taught in the word of God, we are wrong, not God. This explains why the Bereans were commended for their noble-mindedness. When Paul came there preaching, they did not use (or misuse) the Scriptures in order to defend their previously-held beliefs against the new ideas introduced by Paul. Instead, they were “examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). They wanted to know if Paul’s message was true. The only way to determine that was to look to the source of truth – the word of God (cf. Psalm 119:160).

Rule #4 – Let God Explain Himself

We should read the Bible with the idea that God is his own interpreter, and he has made it plain.

Fanning pointed out that throughout history, many have believed that they had the right of “private judgment” – the liberty to interpret the word of God as they saw fit. However, the fact that these interpretations are wildly different and contradictory with one another proves that not all are correct. Before His death, Jesus prayed to the Father, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us” (John 17:20-21). We can know the mind of God through what has been revealed in the word of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:10-16). Unity is possible as we follow the word that has been handed down from above. Therefore, we are not to go “too far and…not abide in the teaching of Christ” (2 John 9) by following the words of fallible man.

Rule #5 – Consult Related Passages

The different portions of the Scriptures should be read with direct reference to their legitimate connections.

Different passages are not to be isolated from one another and read without understanding what else God has said on a particular topic. Fanning pointed out, “Ofttimes, by looking at a single passage without regarding the connection, we are liable to be deceived and thrown into dangerous errors. …we [should] look narrowly at the context of everything that strikes us as being difficult; and we should not hasten to conclusions before we have finished the connection.” Since the Bible is from God and He revealed it to man so that we could read and understand it, we need to use God’s own words to help us understand what some of the more difficult passages mean. Jesus said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). In other words, one passage is not going to contradict another passage. Instead, various passages complement one another and help us get a clearer picture of the will of God.

Rule #6 – Consider the Audience

In reading, attention should be given to the character of the persons addressed.

Some passages may seem difficult or contradictory if we do not consider who is being addressed in them. To illustrate this, Fanning cited three examples from the book of Acts in which people inquired about the way of salvation. The Philippian jailer was told to believe (Acts 16:31). Peter told the crowd at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38). Paul was told, “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). Why were different instructions given? As we noted in the previous point, these passages do not contradict one another; they complement one another. Why was the jailer told to believe? He had not yet heard of Jesus in order to believe in Him. He needed to do that first before he could do anything else. Why were the ones at Pentecost not told to believe? They already had believed. Upon learning that Jesus was “both Lord and Christ,” they were “pierced to the heart” and asked what they needed to do (Acts 2:36-37); so they were told to repent and be baptized. Why was Paul not told to believe and repent? He already did both of those. Calling Jesus “Lord” indicated his belief and his time in prayer and fasting was evidence of his repentance (Acts 9:5, 9, 11), so he was told to be baptized to wash his sins away. There is no contradiction in these explanations of the way of salvation. The difference is the result of people being at different points along the way.

Rule #7 – Understand the Different Parts

The proper division of the Bible should be constantly before the mind of the reader.

All Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16-17), yet we must also learn to “rightly [divide] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV). The Old Testament focuses on the law of God given to the nation of Israel. The New Testament contains the law of Christ for His church and those who would be His disciples. Fanning cited an anecdote of a woman who was discouraged because she could not “get religion”; yet she was reading the books of Job, Psalms, and Proverbs to try to learn how to become a Christian. Those books are there “for our learning” (Romans 15:4, KJV), but they do not show how to become a Christian because they were written before Jesus died on the cross, was raised from the dead, and established His church. We have to go to the book of Acts to learn that [see the examples in the previous point]. We need to recognize what each division of the Bible is about if we are to properly understand and apply the word of God.


As we have gone through these seven rules, it should be apparent that Fanning did not come up with these rules on his own. Each one of these rules is firmly rooted in what we find in the word of God.

As we read and study from the Scriptures today, let us seek to study the proper way so that we can understand the word of God as He intended us to understand it. As Fanning wrote at the conclusion of his book, “Could the world be induced to study the sacred Scriptures, upon the proper plan, we see no reason why all the pious should not rejoice in the same great cardinal principles of the Christian institution.”

Peace with God is found in Christ and unity with His people is found through following His word. Let us seek to handle the Scriptures accurately in order to maintain this peace and unity.

Check out Tolbert Fanning’s book – The True Method of Searching the Scriptures

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