In previous posts we have considered the importance of breaking a passage or book down into the basic unit of literature; the paragraph. What should be done next? The tendency may be to then seek to study each one in isolation; to change the lens on our interpretive microscope from 10x to 100x and zoom in. The hope being to better understand each individual paragraph and then add up our findings to better understand the whole. Although that is our ultimate goal in interpretation, its best to take what may seem like a step backwards first, to do just the opposite and broaden our view instead of focusing it. What we need is an aerial view.
How would the game of chess be affected if you had to choose a single piece and play the game from its perspective? What if chess was played from a “first person perspective”? Choose whichever piece you like, from the lowly pawn to the far-reaching queen and you would still be severely limited. Your view of what was happening on other parts of the board would be obscured and it would be hard to strategize, not having a clear understanding of pieces all over the board. Chess, being a game of strategy, more for generals than soldiers, is based upon an aerial view. It’s not enough to understand the possible moves of any given piece, you need to utilize the pieces in tandem and understand the game in the big picture.
When we are seeking to understand a passage of scripture, whether it is a stand-alone section like God testing Abraham in Genesis 22, or a whole book like Philippians, we need to get that same aerial view. When we study paragraphs in isolation, we suffer from a natural obstruction of perspective and can miss the bigger picture; Not see the proverbial forest through the trees. We need a vantage point where we can see it all at once. The best tool for this is a book chart.
A book chart is a simple diagram that graphically displays the whole map of a passage of scripture. It helps us to not only see the individual paragraphs, but also the larger sections made up of multiple paragraphs (think of how a play is made up of scenes, but the scenes are grouped into larger sections called acts). A book chart does more than organize the paragraphs, it can also help us to see logical flow, notice main themes, spot out-of-place paragraphs that will take thought to figure out what place they play in the whole, and notice contrasts that highlight the author’s point.
To make your own book chart, follow these simple steps.
- Divide a piece of paper into equal sized columns, one for each paragraph
- Create a small row at the top and label each column by its verse reference (i.e. 2:1-4, 2:5-9, etc.)
- Create a second row and give each paragraph a simple summary description
- Create a third row that organizes paragraphs into larger sections where possible, and label each one accordingly
- Create as many rows as necessary to describe commonalities in sections of the passage (For example most epistles start with a doctrinal half and the other half is primarily application), pay attention to shifts in tense, changes in characters or location, audiences of address.
Like many things, a book chart is easier to demonstrate than explain. Below is an example book chart of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7.
A book chart will give you a feel for the big picture of what an author is doing, whether it is the whole story he is telling, or the full argument he is making. Once you have an understanding of the whole, you can then view each paragraph individually in relationship to the whole. Like chess, interpretation requires strategy and is best done with an aerial view.
In a previous post we discovered discerning the individual paragraphs of a passage of Scripture helps us to understand the passage better than the provided chapter and verse divisions. By way of reminder, this is simply because paragraphs are the basic units of literature. But how do we tell where paragraphs begin and end? Can we really avoid drawing arbitrary boundaries and causing the same confusion as chapter divisions? With a little help, you definitely can.
First lets clear up a potential misunderstanding. We break a passage or book of the Bible into paragraphs to help us understand the whole, not to isolate an idea and remove it from its context. Context is the most vital aspect of all meaning and to cut a paragraph away from the passage is as damaging as removing an organ from the body. All we are trying to do is label the individual organs of a passage so we can see what they do on their own, and how they work with the rest of the parts, and both of those questions are best asked while still attached.
A good place to begin is in looking for evidence of the seams between paragraphs. Like stiches around quilting squares, many breaks between paragraphs have visible markings. What follows is not an exhaustive list, but it should get you thinking in the right direction:
- Change in Vocative Address (Men, women, my beloved etc.)
- Change in Time, Location or Setting
- Heading Statements that introduce a new topic (see 1 Corinthians 7:1, 25)
- Rhetorical Questions (see Romans 6:1,15)
- Transitional Conjunctions and adverbs (Therefore, Meanwhile, So then)
- Repeated phrases throughout a passage that begin or end paragraphs (Like the “thus says the Lord God” in Ezekiel 25:8,12,15)
None of these always shows the presence of a seam, but they are a good place to trace with your finger and see if the seam presents itself.
Another approach is to look for the inherent unity within paragraphs. Because a paragraph is unified around a single idea, there is often a visible cohesiveness to any given paragraph. Going back to our quilt metaphor, you don’t always have to see the stiches between squares because each square is its own color and texture. Like the seams above, paragraphs often manifest their unity in visible clues. The easiest one to spot is repeated key words or phrases. (Recently I broke Romans chapters one through eight into paragraphs almost exclusively by underlining key words.) Of course, side-by-side paragraphs can be seen because although they are internally cohesive they differ from one another.
Any time I have shared this information with friends and students they have always been intimidated and overwhelmed. However once I have forced them to attempt to paragraph a passage of scripture, they are amazed to find that they all come up with very similar breakdowns. The truth is, we all have bathed in literature since we were very young. You have a much more developed eye for paragraphs than you realize; the process is intuitive and instinctual. Practice will not only help you grow in the skill but grow in confidence that you can do this.
Once you have found the divisions between paragraphs you will be better equipped to study them individually and explore how they relate to one another. Next post we’ll explore a tool that can help you begin that process: the book chart.
Driving down any American highway you are liable to see mileage markers. Outside of checking the accuracy of your speedometer, they act as points of reference and are useful in giving directions and determining how much of your journey remains. There are however, many things mileage markers cannot do: they don’t tell you about where you are or where you’re going, they don’t tell you what city or state you are in, or how fast you should be traveling. If you rely on mileage markers for things they weren’t made for you will be confused and lost.
The chapter and verse numbers in our bible are much like mileage markers. They provide helpful points of reference that we can share with others and chart our progress. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to turn in your bible to a passage that was being preached from without them? What about if you wanted to encourage your friend with a verse that had spoken to you recently? Where the numbers can confuse you is in interpretation. If you are trying to do more than share or read through the bible, chapter and verse can actually hinder your understanding. They sometimes fail to rightly divide between one story and the next and force us to ignore the primary unit of thought used throughout literature. Before I explain a better way, lets ask a basic question; where did these biblical mileage markers come from?
Chapter and verse numbers are not divinely inspired, they were not penned by the authors of scripture, and are far from infallible. They were actually added by editors much later in history. In the 13th Century Chapter divisions were created, and it wasn’t until the 14th Century that bibles began to be printed with verse divisions. We owe much to the creators of these modern bible mileage markers but we must learn to look beyond these points of reference in studying the bible.
What we need is not a new system of reference laid over the top of the Bible we need instead to recognize the more natural form of organization within the Bible itself; the paragraph. A paragraph is defined as a unit of literature unified around a single theme or idea. If you sit down to write today, whether it’s a novel or an essay, you as the author will organize your thoughts into paragraphs. Just as you learned in science that the basic unit of all matter is the atom, the basic unit of all literature is the paragraph. To be clear, most of the manuscripts we have for the bible in its original language don’t have indentations or line breaks to reflect this division. It’s also worth noting that although most modern bibles are paragraphed, each an every indentation is an interpretation provided by the translator. More importantly, even if your paragraphs end up being exactly the same as your preferred translation, now you will know more than where the divisions are, you will know why the divisions are. That’s why in the next post I’ll teach you how to determine the boundaries of paragraphs. We may not have the visual indicators of a paragraph, but we can still discover the natural organization of an author’s thoughts around one idea or theme.
Depending on the genre of Scripture that your working in, paragraphs take on different forms and operate by different rules. Don’t let this scare you as most of these are already familiar to us; in narratives we look for scenes, in poetry we look for stanzas, in prophecy we look for individual oracles. No matter where they are found, the goal is to find the seams between one idea and the next. Doing this will help you to approach the text as it is meant to be understood: one idea at a time.
In seeking to understand a passage of scripture we need to be familiar with the 5 levels of Bible Study. These levels are not linear as if you need to start at level 1 and work through to level 5, instead they are like layers of context that all need to be considered in the process.
One way to think of this is as higher magnification on a laboratory microscope. To the naked eye we have the Bible made up of 66 books. When we move to 10x magnification we see that each book is made up of passages and paragraphs. At the 100x we discover each paragraph is made up of sentences. And finally, at 1000x we see the building blocks of all sentences; words. Of course we could drill down further and recognize that the words are made up of letters but for our purpose of studying the Bible that is unnecessary.
It is important to notice that these are not unrelated things at variable size, but related things: The Bible is made up of books which are made up of paragraphs which are made up of sentences which are made up of words. It is thread of relationship that requires us to study at all the levels to make sure we understand what is really being said. When you look at the 5 layers as a whole, or when you look at the image of the top of the page, you get a good feel for the whole of Bible study.
- The Word Level: Here we consider things like word definitions, the language used (and the corresponding rules of grammar), metaphorical language and cultural idiom, not to mention the immediate context of the word, the sentence its found in.
- The Sentence Level: The things of importance at this layer are the basic rules of grammar, function of speech and the relationship between words according to prepositions.
- The Passage Level: At this level we need to look at the thought processes and logical argument as well as consider the main ideas (usually paragraphs are based around a single unifying idea), and how the structure informs meaning.
- The Book Level: Here we consider the main concerns of the author, his purpose for writing, the audience and concerns the book addresses, and the type of literature (genre).
- The Whole Bible Level: This is where we consider the passages relationship to all of Scripture and Jesus as the center of the Bible. We also fit the passage into God’s progressive revelation and see how the truths of this passage grow with more of the story being told.
Notice that many pieces of understanding flow through every level. Imagery applies at the word and sentence level. Cultural and Contextual understanding is necessary at all 5 levels.
The 5 levels, and the corresponding image are not meant to be overwhelming. You can only do one of these at a time, and hopefully you can find the tools and teaching to do so throughout this website. The goal here was just to help you see the big picture of all that goes into studying the Bible. Instead of seeing the task as crushingly large, use these levels to ask what you have yet to consider in studying a passage of the Bible. Don’t know where to begin? I recommend starting at the Paragraph level and working down through sentences to words. After that widen out to the book and Bible layer.
The 5 Levels of Bible Study allow you to see a passage in its parts and in its context. It will help you to value and consider the relationship of what you are studying to the whole of scripture. I encourage you to commit them to memory and learn to ask, “What level have I not considered yet?”