Block Diagramming is one of my favorite tools for thinking through a passage of scripture. It allows you to think through the statements of Scripture phrase by phrase and consider how one part relates to those around it. It was originally used in the grammar classrooms of long ago, but it is worth resurrecting to help us as Bible students.
What is block diagramming? It is a way of visibly displaying the relationships between phrases of a passage using indentation. That may sound confusing but I promise you the tool is as easy to learn as it is useful (and it is really useful).
The job is simple:
- Select a passage to work with and lay it out cleanly
- Separate the phrases each onto their own line
- Indent each phrase to show how it relates to the phrases above it.
Let’s work through Romans 1:1-4 together. We begin by laying out the passage we are working with. (I like to work in a word processor, but this can be adapted to paper and pencil of you prefer) In the picture below you can see that I have laid it out as a paragraph and removed all the verse numbers (you can leave them in, but I find they get in the way).
Next we want to break the passage into phrases and put each phrase on its own line. We generally want to break anywhere we hit a preposition (in, by, through, etc.) a conjunction (and, or, but, etc.) or a comma. These rules are not 100% rigid. Sometimes I will skip a break because I can tell that it won’t yield up any information, but that comes with practice. I would also recommend that if you hit an “and” or an “or” that you give it its own line, you’ll see why below. When you are done your passage should look like the picture below. Read it over and see how natural the breaks are.
The last step is the longest and most important. We now work our way through each phrase indenting to show which earlier phrase it modifies. Notice that line one just says “Paul”. He is our subject. Our second phrase modifies Paul, it tells us something about him: that he is a servant. Since it modifies Paul we indent. What about the next phrase “of Christ Jesus”? Does that modify Paul? No, it actually modifies “servant” so we want to indent it twice; far enough to show that it gives added details about Paul’s servanthood. What we do from here on is simply continue the process. Asking what each phrase modifies above and indenting accordingly. IF IT DOESN’T SEEM TO MODIFY ANYTHING THEN YOU HAVE FOUND A FRESH SUBJECT AND SHOULD LEAVE IT UN-INDENTED, ALL THE WAY TO THE LEFT. When you finish verse 1 (of God), it should look like the picture below. Go ahead and look it over and notice how each indent explains how a given phrase relates to other phrases.
When you get to the phrase it begins with the phrase, “which he promised beforehand”. What was promised beforehand? Paul? His apostleship? No, here he is clearly talking about “the gospel” so we are going to indent all the way over under that heading, as Paul starts to talk about his message, which he will continue to describe all the way until the first phrase of verse 3, “concerning his son”. Here’s how it would lay out:
The last section here Paul tells us about the Son, so everything is going to fall under that heading. Here we hit our first “and” which we left on its own line. It is up to you, but with “And” I like to leave it out a little in front of the two things it connects, so that the structure is clear but the word is not forgotten. When you finish vs. 4 the whole thing should look like this. Notice what we have learned in this exercise: three things about Paul, three things about the Gospel, and three things about the main subject of that Gospel: God’s son.
The value of block diagramming is two-fold. First it helps you to think through these relationships and make sure you know what the author is saying. Sometimes you will even hit ambiguous sections where you don’t know if a phrase modifies one thing or another. Even this is a good thing as you have just unearthed a question you never knew you had. The second value of block diagramming is that it taps you into the structure of a passage. In fact, you can very easily turn a block diagram into a descriptive outline of the passage, where the indentation reflects the Main points and sub points. I have even used the structure I’ve unearthed with this tool to build my sermon outline.
I encourage you to incorporate block diagramming into your Bible Study tool kit and to practice it until it becomes well worn, useful and loved.