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Indenting as an Aid for Bible Study

A few years ago, I stumbled upon an article that demonstrated a technique of understanding scripture called Block Diagramming. The original article still exist, and I would like to extend my personal thanks to Steve Brandon, a pastor at Rockford Christian High School, for this information. This study technique has become such a rich and powerful tool for grasping the complex sentence structures of the New Testament, I naturally found myself wonderfully excited about it. It’s very easy … and I intend to demonstrate just how easy it is in this article.

Before I began … I would like to preach to the choir so to speak, (i.e. myself included) concerning how to respectfully approach the study of God’s Word. It is not an ordinary book … it is not to be studied like an ordinary book. It is living and powerful, it discerns the intents of our heart … it declares God to us. Since we will be looking at a method to analyze scripture, let me share something I was reading a bit ago that stuck in my mind. It seems highly appropriate to mention it here. I was reading an article by Justin Taylor, reviewing John Piper’s results of “burying himself in Romans 9:1–23″ for eight months in order to write a book: The Justification of God. During that writing sabbatical, Piper employed the arcing method of analyzing scripture. But night after night, his “analysis emerged into worship”. After all that analysis, Piper was overwhelmed with feelings and passions for desiring peoples lives to be transformed. He was filled with awe for God’s glory. It was as if was as if God were saying:

I will not simply be analyzed; I will be adored.
I will not simply be pondered; I will be proclaimed.
My sovereignty is not simply to be scrutinized; it is to be heralded.

So, these statements serve us well in reminding us that Christianity is a matter of the heart, not a matter of intellect, or a collection of knowledge. This method does help a seeking heart to have a richer experience in reading the Bible, but ultimately it is the Holy Spirit that guides our minds in spiritual understanding. (Jn 16:13; | 1 Cor 2:14; | 1 Jn 2:27)


Let’s get started! Consider the first sentence of Romans.

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Step One: Place “minimal word groups” on a separate line.

I’ve found this is easy to do on a computer in an editor. Just copy and paste a passage of interest into notepad, or some other favorite editor. ( I love UltraEdit, which has some unique features.)

Their really is no set rule for deciding what a “minimal-word-group” is. The fact that you have to slow down and decide for yourself forces greater understanding of the passage. Starting out, here are some basic guidelines:

  • conjunctions — and, or, nor, therefore, so, but, but also,
  • prepositions — for the gospel, through the prophets, beloved of God,
  • verbs

Here’s what I came up with from NASB version. Even if you’re using the same version, your list may be different; that’s quite alright, it’s the mental exercise of doing this that adds to your understanding of the passage. There is lots of freedom in this method.
Paul,
a bond-servant
of Christ Jesus,
called
as an apostle,
set apart
for the gospel
of God,
which
He promised beforehand
through His prophets
in the holy Scriptures,
concerning His Son,
who
was born
of a descendant
of David
according to the flesh,
who
was declared
the Son of God
with power
by the resurrection
from the dead,
according to the Spirit
of holiness,
Jesus Christ
our Lord,
through whom
we
have received
grace and apostleship
to bring about
the obedience
of faith
among all the Gentiles
for His name’s sake,
among whom
you
also
are the called
of Jesus Christ;
to all
who are beloved
of God
in Rome,
called as saints:
Grace
to you
and peace
from God our Father
and
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Once you’re happy separating your “minimal-word-phrases”, you’re ready for the next step.


Step Two: Indent each line to fall beneath the line it adds to.

When we say ” adds to”, we mean: what it modifies, — what it describes, i.e. what it’s about. It will become more apparent as we go along, let’s get started …


Lets look at the first few lines of our list. The first line, Paul, will be our base; it will remain fixed. We need to consider where to indent the next line: a bond-servant.

Ask questions like:

  • Who does a bond-servant describe?
  • Who is a bond-servant about?
  • What does a bond-servant modify?
Paul,
a bond-servant
of Christ Jesus,
called
as an apostle,
set apart
for the gospel
of God,
which
.
.
.

The answer to these questions is the first line, Paul; so, we need to indent a bond-servant to align with the end of the first line, Paul.

Paul,
    a bond-servant
of Christ Jesus,
called
as an apostle,
set apart
for the gospel
of God,
which
.
.
.

The next line is, of Christ Jesus. We now have a few choices about where to indent this line.

  • Does of Christ Jesus describe Paul?
  • Does of Christ Jesus describe a bond-servant?
  • Is it Paul that’s of Christ Jesus or is it a bond-servant that’s of Christ Jesus?
Paul,
    a bond-servant
of Christ Jesus,
called
as an apostle,
set apart
for the gospel
of God,
which
.
.
.

At first, it may seem like of Jesus Christ could be describing Paul. But is it really Paul that’s of Jesus Christ? No, not really … The phrase, of Jesus Christ, really tells what kind of bond-servant we are talking about. I.e. What kind of a bond servant are we talking about? One that’s of Jesus Christ! We need to indent this line to align with the end of a bond-servant.


Paul,
    a bond-servant
                 of Christ Jesus,
called
as an apostle,
set apart
for the gospel
of God,
which
.
.
.

Next, we consider the word called. Who is the phrase called about?

  • Is of Christ Jesus called?
  • Is a bond-servant called?
  • Is Paul called?

Paul,
    a bond-servant
                 of Christ Jesus,
called
as an apostle,
set apart
for the gospel
of God,
which
.
.
.

We can see that it’s Paul who is called. So, we need to indent called just past the word Paul from line one.


Paul,
    a bond-servant
                 of Christ Jesus,
    called
as an apostle,
set apart
for the gospel
of God,
which
.
.
.

Next, we consider the phrase as an apostle.

  • What does as an apostle modify?
  • What does as an apostle add to?
  • What does as an apostle describe?

Paul,
    a bond-servant
                 of Christ Jesus,
    called
as an apostle,
set apart
for the gospel
of God,
which
.
.
.

The phrase as an apostle adds more detail to called. It tells us how Paul was called. He was called as an apostle. Indent it to align with the end of “called”.


Paul,
    a bond-servant
                 of Christ Jesus,
    called
         as an apostle,
set apart
for the gospel
of God,
which
.
.
.

By now, I’m sure you’re starting to catch on to what we’re doing; hopefully, you’re also understanding the value of this study aid. Can see how we’re slowing ourselves down to understand what is being said? If we are not taking our time when reading the Word of God in some way or another, (this method being one example), then we are not really able to follow along with what is being said in the paragraph, — we are not able to follow the flow-of-thought. At best, we are probably latching on to the meaning of a single scripture at a time — this is dangerous as the meaning of a single scripture without being placed into the context can lead us to a wrong beliefs.

This exercise has more advantages as well. I would like to demonstrate another on the next page.


Below is our completion of this study method applied to the first sentence of Romans. We are fighting room here, it may help to maximize your browser to full size, and the scroll bars may help as well.

Paul,
    a servant
            of Christ Jesus,
    called to be
               an apostle,
    set apart
            for the gospel of God                        
                         which
                             he promised
                                        beforehand
                                        through his prophets
                                        in the holy Scriptures,
                         concerning
                                  his Son,
                                        who
                                          was
                                            descended
                                                     from David
                                                              according to the flesh
                                          and
                                          was
                                            declared
                                                   to be
                                                       the Son of God
                                                                    in power
                                                                    according to the Spirit
                                                                                          of holiness
                                                                           by his resurrection
                                                                                             from the dead,
                                          Jesus Christ
                                                     our Lord,
                                                     through whom
                                                                we have received
                                                                               grace
                                                                               and
                                                                               apostleship
                                                                                          to bring about
                                                                                                       the obedience
                                                                                                                   of faith
                                                                                                                          for the sake of his name
                                                                                                                          among all the nations,
                                                                                                                                              including you
                                                                                                                                                          who
                                                                                                                                                             are called
                                                                                                                                                                      to belong to Jesus Christ,
                                                     
To all those
           in Rome
                 who are
                       loved
                           by God                      
                       and
                       
                       called
                            to be saints:

                 Grace
                     to you
                 and

                 peace
                     from
                        God
                          our Father
                        and                        
                        the Lord Jesus Christ.

Some Final Helps

Using this technique, it is useful to think about how we are organizing these minimal-word phrases. Base phrases are at the left, and details are added as we proceed to the right. One of the great things about this, is that we can isolate loaded sentences into simpler sentences and slowly add more and more details until we build back up to the original sentence. If a sentence becomes overwhelmingly complex, our outline provides an excellent means of finding the core of the sentence. We can find simpler sentences by tracing a single path from the left to some particular location to the right.

Here’s an example, where I am trying to get the main point of this first sentence:

{From} Paul, set apart for the gospel of God concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

To see how this sentence was formed, look at our diagram, and trace the path from the base phrase, Paul, to the end right-most detail of our Lord. We followed this one path, and skipped everything else:

Paul, 
   set apart 
           for the gospel of God
                        concerning 
                                  his Son, 
                                         Jesus Christ 
                                                    our Lord.

Another path we could trace would form this sentence:

{From} Paul, set apart for the gospel of God concerning his Son, Jesus Christ through whom we have received apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name.

These sentences are easier to understand, and forming these sentences can help us identify the main points of the sentence. Then we can see how the main points are supported by adding back the details, until we build back up to the completed sentence. Going through this exercise helps keep scriptures in context, helps us follow the flow-of-thought of the passage, and therefore develops a richer understanding. If you have any comments regarding this article, I would love to hear from you.


One Comment

  1. I was introduced to this method several years ago, but never really grasped the concept of doing it. Thanks a lot for the step-by-step illustration, making it really easy to understand :)

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