Indenting as an Aid for Bible Study

Update: January 26th, 2011

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 ” 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. (; | ; | )


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.



9:1 I am speak­ing the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my con­science bears me wit­ness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sor­row and unceas­ing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my broth­ers, my kins­men accord­ing to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adop­tion, the glory, the covenants, the giv­ing of the law, the wor­ship, and the promises. To them belong the patri­archs, and from their race, accord­ing to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed for­ever. Amen.

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are chil­dren of Abra­ham because they are his off­spring, but “Through Isaac shall your off­spring be named.” This means that it is not the chil­dren of the flesh who are the chil­dren of God, but the chil­dren of the promise are counted as off­spring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had con­ceived chil­dren by one man, our fore­fa­ther Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done noth­ing either good or bad—in order that God’s pur­pose of elec­tion might con­tinue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is writ­ten, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

14 What shall we say then? Is there injus­tice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have com­pas­sion on whom I have com­pas­sion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exer­tion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scrip­ture says to Pharaoh, “For this very pur­pose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be pro­claimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hard­ens whomever he wills.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the pot­ter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one ves­sel for hon­or­able use and another for dis­hon­or­able use? 22 What if God, desir­ing to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience ves­sels of wrath pre­pared for destruc­tion, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for ves­sels of mercy, which he has pre­pared before­hand for glory— (ESV)


13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own author­ity, but what­ever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (ESV)


14 The nat­ural per­son does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to under­stand them because they are spir­i­tu­ally dis­cerned. (ESV)


27 But the anoint­ing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any­one should teach you. But as his anoint­ing teaches you about every­thing, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him. (ESV)

  1. Sharon
    November 21st, 2011 at 01:40
    Reply | Quote | #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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