Outlining the Bible: Summaries and Titles

Over the years I have taught several composition and rhetoric classes, and one of my favorite skills to teach is that of outlining. Most writers whom I enjoy reading are easy to follow and understand because of a clear, helpful, and usually clever organization.

The Distinction

One way to describe different types of outlines is by distinguishing between what I call “title outlines” and “summary outlines.” A title outline provides titles or headings of the different sections of the writing that state what each section is going to be about. A summary outline provides actual summaries of what is written in the section. I used to call these “complete sentence outlines” because they should be phrased as complete thoughts, but then some of my students figured out that a title can be phrased as a complete sentence, as in “This section discusses…”

Learning From My Failures

The practical benefit of this distinction can be illustrated by early attempts at preaching contrasted with my current practice. (Let it be said now that the quality of one’s preaching has to do with much more than just outlining ability. I’m here making a veiled attempt to be realistic about my current abilities! I’m much more experienced in the classroom than in the pulpit.)

I preached my first sermon when I was in high school, and I didn’t have a whole lot of guidance in its preparation. The sermon was about the power of the tongue from James 3. In preparing, I spend a lot of time figuring out what I wanted to talk about. I made an outline of topic titles, thinking that sheer inspiration in the pulpit would lead me to what I would say.

Well, needless to say, my “sermon” ended up lasting little over 10 minutes because I didn’t really have a whole lot to say. I knew what I wanted to talk about but didn’t actually know what I would to say about it.

In contrast, the bulk of my sermon prep now is compiling what I actually want to say, and my outline is comprised of summarizing and organizing that into pithy statements. When entering a pulpit, I know not only what I want to talk about but also what I am also going to say about it. In fact, what I plan on saying controls the summaries and the organization. And though my sermons, on the rare occasion that I have in delivering them, are far from polished, at least now I have something to talk about for more than 10 minutes!

Summarizing the Bible

The Bible says a lot. It has lot of stories, laws, sermons, and songs. And becoming Biblically literate is a huge project, a project that I hope the tools of Four Volumes helps people attain.

The bulk of my work right now for the Four Volumes project is writing chapter content, and I have found the distinction I have just described to be very helpful. I hope that our aspiration is to know more than simply what the Bible talks about. I hope that we want to know what it actually says.

I am working through the Bible chapter by chapter, describing it at three levels of detail. The lowest level describes the contents of an entire chapter, and inevitably the descriptions end up being title-like. They presume that the student knows what is found in the chapter and act like triggers for the memory of the details. This is very helpful especially in the more familiar portions of the Bible.

As I delve into the more detailed descriptions (paragraph by paragraph and even, sometimes, sentence by sentence), I attempt to provide summaries of what is actually going on, rather than titles. As important as it is to know what the Bible talks about in each chapter, the ultimate goal is to know what actually happens, words that are actually used, ideas that are actually expressed. We cannot be satisfied simply with knowing about the Bible: knowing about it isn’t the same as knowing it.

Two Cases in Point

Let’s look at a couple of examples. First, think about Genesis 22. The most general description says, “Isaac is born, and Abraham drives out Hagar and Ishmael.” Though this is a summary of the events, it doesn’t include any details and serves essentially as a title: The Birth of Isaac and the Driving-out of Hagar and Ishmael.

But how did that all come about? The paragraphs in the chapter tell us. The description of one of the paragraphs, spanning verses 8-19, says, “Hagar and Ishmael are cast out and wander in the wilderness of Beersheba.” More detailed and helpful. But that paragraph is further divided into no less than five summary statements, including “At the feast of Isaac’s weaning, Ishmael laughs” (verses 8-9) and “Abraham is distressed for Ishmael, but God promises that Ishmael will become a great nation” (verses 11-13). These are important details that are preserved for us and are important for us to know in arriving at an understand of the full significance of the story.

The second example is what prompted this post because it includes the tedious work I am currently doing in the book of Leviticus. This book has been tough to summarize in with more than mere titles, and I am seeing that titles are what we’re most apt to be satisfied with in Leviticus. The details are just so tedious!

Look at chapter 13 of Leviticus. The chapter is about what has been called (erroneously) “leprosy,” what I am calling, in attempt to be more faithful to the actual wording, “touches of affliction.” The description of the entire chapter is “Yahweh instructs Moses about touches of affliction on the skin and on garments.” This is simply a title. It says that Yahweh instructed Moses but not what the instruction is.

The descriptions of the paragraphs do much the same thing. The description of first main paragraph, verses 1-8, says, “Yahweh instructs Moses about swelling, scabs, and spots on the skin that become a touch of affliction.” More detailed but still simply a description. It isn’t until we get to the highest level of detail that we see what the text actually says about the topics. And though laborious to summarize (and to learn!), I think they’re important—we can discover how and why later, but they have been preserved for our profit. Thus, we get tedious descriptions like “If the hair is white and the infection appears deeper than the skin of the flesh, it is a touch of affliction, and the priest must declare the person unclean” (verse 3) and “If the hair is not white and the infection does not appear deeper than the skin of the flesh, for the person to be declared clean, the priest must isolate him 7 days, then 7 more days; and then the priest declares him clean, and the person must wash his clothes” (verses 4-8). Now we get what the text actually says.

Paul tells Timothy that all Scripture is profitable. But it profits us only if we know what it actually says, not if we know merely what it talks about. Would not, for instance, our understanding of “flesh,” a topic that Paul discusses a lot, be greatly enhanced if we knew Leviticus 13 since it occurs there over and over? I insist that it would.

My point here is not to emphasize the importance of the details of Leviticus merely or to discuss their meaning and significance. Rather, it is to emphasize our need of knowing details, summary outlines, because we will never even explore their meaning or significance if we are ignorant of them. This is a project, and it’s hard work, but it’s well worth our efforts.

And don’t worry, I’m planning on working on Romans and John soon!