The value of an outline

Three influences have come together in my thinking at the moment, so let me confess them at the start:

  1. A recent preaching workshop at our church where David Jackman (on video, I hasten to add, lest you receive the wrong impression) was talking about identifying each Gospel’s theme(s) (see Meeting Jesus in the Gospels, from Proclamation Trust)
  2. Reading Dale Ralph Davis The Word Became Fresh (see my review for further details and links to other reviews)
  3. Current studies in Numbers conducted by David Gooding

In each case, much was made of outlines of passages and books, not as ends in themselves, but as tools in understanding the themes and messages of the books. A little reflection on this led me to the conclusion that there are two types of such outlines.

The first is simply a table of contents that may be grouped into sections, but often these sections bear no real relation to the themes of the book. They can be superficial groups that may derive simply from chronology, geography or literary features of the text. This kind of outline is easy to construct, but is not without value. It tends to be the type given in most commentaries under the heading “Outline”. It is the first kind of outline to construct when one is trying to get a handle on a book. It helps to provide basic orientation of the content, but usually no more.

But the second kind of outline is the more valuable. It cannot be done without the former, or certainly not easily. If identifies sections thematically. It requires a lot of thought about how each passage is related to others in the book, particularly adjacent ones, but sometimes more distant ones. It comes from querying the text (a la Piper), or catechising the text, as many oder preachers called it. It is not a microscopic study, but a macroscopic one (a la Davis). It aims to get to the real reasons for the selection and arrangement of the book.

From this thoughtful, and often length process, we begin to identify larger sections, or movements as David Gooding calls them. It is this thoughtful outline that is really beneficial, more so than the superficial outline that can be produced by arranging the table of contents. It should never be imposed on the text, but arise from it, reflectively and meditatively.

In my experience, my reactions to the two types are, “Oh, that’s interesting” (superficial/table of contents), but “Wow! I never saw that before” (thoughtful). There is an instinctive recognition of the value of the thoughtful outline that brings the book alive, and will prove invaluable in getting to grips with the message in detail, and helping me retain it.

The maximum value of such an outline can only be received when it is accompanied by careful study of the book in question. It must be tested against the text, and sometimes it may need modification. It is an invaluable aid in the study of a Bible book, whether for preaching, teaching a Sunday School class, or for in depth personal Bible study.

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