Making And Using An Outline

By Donnie V. Rader

An Outline as a good preview and overview of a chapter before a detailed study is made. It likewise serves as a review and good way to summarize when the study is finished.

I am convinced that an outline of a text is half of the work of interpretation. That is, of course, if the outline harmonizes with the text. By now, most who hear me preach or read my material should know that I strongly believe that an outline is essential to a good study of any text or topic.

It will be helpful (particularly in the New Testament) if those who teach (and those who want to be effective students as well) learn how to outline a text. I promise you, if you learn to do this, your study of the text will be most enjoyable. Outlining a book or chapter is one of the most effective ways of getting the grasp of a book or text.

Organization is the key to almost anything we do. Thus, to get the great- est benefit from your Bible study it will help to know something about the principle of outlining. Those wanting to make their own outlines of a book or chapter may find this information about how to outline useful.

Let’s take a look at what an outline is, how to make one and how to use it.

What Is An Outline?

An outline is “a summary of a written work or speech, usually analyzed in headings and subheadings” (The American Heritage Dictionary Second College Edition 882). It is “a short summary of the main topics or principal ideas of a written work or speech” (World Book Encyclopedia,

1989, Vol. 14, 887).

Outlining is a way of organizing ideas or thoughts. A writer may make an outline (an organized collection of what he wants to say) from which he will write his article or book. This takes the ideas from an outline to a written document. This can also be done in reverse: taking the thoughts or idea from a written document to an outline. This is what we do when we outline the writings of the New Testament.

An outline shows the breakdown of the author’s thought patterns.

Types Of Outlines

There are informal and formal out- lines. An informal outline is merely a rough “skeletal” outline which may only have three or four points that are not developed in the outline.

A formal outline will contain more information and will organize the points showing the relationship of main topics to supporting ideas. In formal outlining there are topic and sentence outlines. (1) “A topic out- line presents information in parallel phrases or single words” (Harbrace College Handbook, 1984, 448). This method summarizes the chief points and sub-points in brief phrases. (2) A sentence outline uses complete sentences for each point. Most of the outlines that I do are topic outlines.

Now, let us consider various ways to outline a text of the Bible. One method is to make an expository out- line by listing some practical points from a section of Scripture. For ex- ample, one may take 1 Peter 2:8-9 and build a five or six point sermon outline on the duties of a Christian. This is a good sermon outline, but it does not tell us much about the flow of the chapter.

A second method is to make an expository outline by listing some practical lessons from an entire chap- ter. For example, Titus 2 could be used to list a number of qualities of the children of God. Again, this is a good study, but this method does not give the reader an analysis of the flow of the context.

A third method is to outline the points of the chapter and add explanations and passages that deal with the same subject. For example, as one would outline 2 Thessalonians 2 (concerning the apostasy that would occur before the second coming) he might add Acts 20:28-32 and 1

Timothy 4:1-3 in the outline. This type of outline might also have some explanation of the various idea of who the “man of sin” is.

A fourth method simply follows the flow of the context as it was intended for the original readers. This method seeks to fit every verse and thought in the chapter into the outline. This attempts to make an outline as if it were the outline from which Paul (or any other writer) wrote. This is the method that is generally followed in my outlines. Two things are done with this type of outline: (1) It shows how the writer’s thoughts develop. (2) It shows how the different parts of the chapter or book fit together.

The outlines that I use do not attempt to analyze each verse, but they give an overall preview of each chapter.

How To Outline

The following is a step by step procedure for making an outline of any chapter of the Bible. To say the least this is how I have gone about making the outlines that I have used. Let’s take 2 Thessalonians 1 as an example as we discuss each of these simple steps.

1. Read and reread the chapter —three or four times.

2. Watch for thought patterns to develop. Get a piece of paper and begin notation of these patterns. If it appears that verses 1-4 deal with one thought and 5-10 with another, write that down. Keep in mind that your first concept about the thought patterns may not even resemble your final outline.

In the case of 2 Thessalonians 1 it seems that verses 1-4 may be one thought (about thanksgiving to God) and verses 5-10 deal with another (about the judgment) and verses 11-12 deal with a prayer for the Thessalonians.

3. Check commentaries, introductions to the New Testament and Bible handbooks to see how others have out- lined the chapter. With some chapters you will find that nearly all outline it alike. With others, there are no two outlines similar. Not all commentaries give an outline of the chapter. Barnes Notes, the Gospel Advocate series, Benson and others will usually give a brief outline of each chapter. Also the New King James Version has a good system of paragraph divisions and section headings that are helpful.

In our model chapter (2 Thess. 1) Barnes suggest the following divisions: 1-2, 3-4, 5, 6-10, 11-12. Benson divides the chapter this way: 3-4, 5-10, 11-12. The GA commentary (Lips- comb) only has two divisions:  1-2, 3-12. After considering these and other outlines, we will compare them with each other and with our own notes that we made earlier seeing which one(s) best analyzes the chapter. Our final outline may borrow a little from each one of these or it may ignore most of them.

4. Find the major divisions of the chapter. Set them on a piece of paper using Roman numerals. Try to make sure that all major points are of equal importance. The same would be true for sub-points. That is, do not list as a sub-point a statement that does not have any bearing on the major point. When trying to fit every verse into an outline this is not always easy (or even possible in some cases) to do.

In our sample text (2 Thess. 1), I would put these major divisions down on my paper.

I. Greetings (vv. 1-2).

II. Thanks to God for the Thessalonians’ faithfulness and endurance (vv. 3-4).

III. Looking toward the judgment will help you endure (vv. 5-10).

IV. Prayer that the Thessalonians will continue to endure (vv. 11-12).

Obviously, the general theme of the chapter is enduring persecution. All of the major divisions (with exception of the greetings) have an equal bearing on the theme.

5. Reread each major section and watch for thought patterns within the major divisions. These will be your sub-points. Put these on your paper by indenting below your major point and use capital letters to identify your points. Then divide any sub-points by indenting and using Arabic numbers. Any divisions beyond that should used lower case letters and then Arabic numbers in parenthesis.

Back to our model text. As I reread verses 3-4 I see three things for which Paul was thankful. I list these as the sub-points.

A. Faith grows exceedingly (v. 3). B. Love abounds (v. 3).

C. Patient in persecution and tribulation (v. 4).

The same must be done for each major division.

The Value Of Outlining

An outline helps the reader to see the structure of the author’s argument or point. Consequently, it serves as a good preview and overview of a chapter before a detailed study is made. It likewise serves as a review and a good way to summarize when the study is finished.

Outlining serves as an aid to interpretation. The outline helps the reader to see the context in which the verse(s) set. If there is a difficult verse in the chapter, I can know that whatever it means it has something to do with the topic or theme of that particular section. One-half of the job of interpreting a passage is accomplished when you have completed your outline.

These outlines can serve as reminders of what each chap- ter is about. I have put each of these outlines in the margin of my Bible so that anytime I turn to a passage I can see the chapter title, key verse, and the divisions of the chapter at a glance. This is very helpful when I have to deal with a passage that I may not have studied for a while.