Theology Thursday: Outlines

Now that we have looked at the Inductive Method of bible study, here are some helpful guides to outlining the various forms of scripture. First of course, as always, is to ask why outline a book or a passage?

The purpose of an outline is to organize the facts of a text to make observation and interpretation easier. The idea is to break the text down into its basic components or ideas. We need to isolate, define, and articulate each idea to understand it more clearly. There are two forms of outlining to be used. One is a “universal” outline that can be used for any form of scripture. The other is unique to the epistles and other “instructional” portions of scripture like the sermon on the mount.

The Universal Outline: This is applicable to any scripture passage and is simpler than the outline used for the epistles. You just go through the text and list the ideas being presented and try to find the main theme. List the facts observed (who, what, when, where) and break them down into their particulars (don’t forget to include the audience).

Tips for outlining story forms:

First, Gather the facts and list them (who, what, when, where).

Next, retell the event in your own words, being careful to include all the facts you have gathered.

Next, discover and describe the relationships between characters.

Then finally, put yourself in each character’s shoes: What do you –

1.) See?

2.) Feel?

3.) Think?

Outlining an Epistle (or instructional passage): Most epistles follow the same sequence, so outlining takes the same form with all the epistles:

A.) Introduction – The first few verses of the book will be an introduction and greeting. Lots of who, what, where, and when info is available right in the opening verses.

B.) Summarizing Statement – Most often you can find, in one to three verses, a statement of the purpose of the writing. This will always come after the introduction, greeting, and thanksgiving statements. Look carefully for the purpose of the letter. Why was it written?

C.) Main Teaching – The heart of the epistle is here. You will find different ideas being developed through several verses. You can outline them as topics and list them.

D.) Closing – The text will always conclude with some closing verses. Sometimes you hear them used as benedictions in our worship services.

Tips for outlining Exhortaive Forms (epistles):

Follow and outline the development of each idea.

Note repeated words and phrases.

Look for: Comparisons, Contrasts, and Transition words such as:

Therefore, In order that, Because, For, Since, and But

Tips for outlining Poetic, Prophetic, Revelational forms and Parables:

A.) Hebrew poets used a lot of parallelism – one idea said two different ways.

B.) A proverb is a story where human or divine behavior is compared to something in nature.

C.) A parable is an art form. Jesus used it deliberately to hide the truth from those who didn’t want to hear it.

D.) Revelational and prophetic literature most often makes liberal use of symbolism and imagery.

E.) Look into history. Most of the prophecies had either a contemporary or near-future (to the author) fulfillment, but also had or have a type-and-shadow fulfilment in far-future history or spiritual reality. For example, Daniel’s prophecy of Daniel 11:31 was literally fulfilled by Antiochus Epiphanes before Christ’s time, yet Christ uses the same scripture to describe an event future to His audience, the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans (Matthew 24:15) and possibly something yet future beyond that. Paul refers to Isaiah’s prophecy of foreign invaders (28:11 and following) and applies it to the use of one of the charismatic sign gifts of the first century church in 1st Corinthians 14 (verses 21-22). As you find these, note this important rule of hermeneutics: New Testament authors were inspired interpreters of the Old Testament! If Christ of His Apostles have put a meaning to an Old Testament passage of scripture, then theirs is at least one valid meaning of the passage.

This will conclude the “How to Study the Bible” series on Theology Thursdays. Stay tuned for more fun in the next exciting episode!


2 Replies to “Theology Thursday: Outlines”

  1. If only more people would follow that one rule regarding Old Testament interpretation (New Testament authors were inspired interpreters of the Old Testament!) there would be greater understanding regarding the texts.


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