Saturday, October 27, 2012

Understanding James using a Center-Out Outline

In the previous post (dated October 21, 2012) I discussed the outline of James.  After studying conflicting outlines from several different scholars, my conclusion was that the letter from James uses a Center-Out approach instead of the traditional Left-to-Right flow.  The difference may be difficult to understand since this writing style is so unique.

To help you adjust, let me give a good example based on James’ instruction to those in humble circumstances as found in James 1:9-10a (NASB).  “But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation…”  The rest of this instruction, in verses 10 and 11, continue to talk about the rich man.  There is no further discussion of the poor. 

Based on Verse 9 we know that the poor, often considered in a low position, should take glory in their high position.  However, James doesn’t provide any reason or cause for this unusual attitude.  He does continue to discuss the rich, but not another word about the poor.

In a traditional Left-to-Right outline we would expect James to give more detail about this attitude change in the following verses.  However, since this is a non-traditional outline, James leaves the subject without giving a full explanation.

But wait, in Chapter 2 we find another discussion about the rich and the poor.  This time, in Verse 5, James gives a very convincing reason for the poor to glory in their high position.  “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5, NASB)

Why should the lowly glory in their high position?  They should rejoice because God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith.  And, they should remember that those who love Him are heirs of God’s kingdom.

This is a great example of James’ writing style.  His letter doesn’t flow from topic-to-topic in sequential order.  Instead, he set down an anchor point, “various trials,” in the second verse.  From this anchor he moves through many different challenging situations.  Very often he skips from topic to topic with no warning.  You will have a much, much better understanding of this important letter, once you appreciate and apply the Center-Out, or Hub-and-Spoke outline format.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Outline for James

If you search the Internet for an outline of the epistle of James you will find a wide variety of interpretations.  In my searches I have found some who suggest the outline of James consists of two or three main points.  At the other end of the spectrum, I found outlines with up to 13 main points.

Why is there such a discrepancy in creating an outline for a short letter with only five chapters?

There are several reasons why James is a difficult book to describe.  First, James had a unique writing style.  His style was very different from Paul.  Since Paul wrote many of the letters included in the New Testament many people try to impose Paul’s style on the letter from James.  Second, in our Western society we are trained from an early age to use a topic outline starting with Roman numerals.  In this outline form you have the main topic, then the sub-topic, followed by sub-sub-topics.  The letter from James simply does not follow this pattern.  Depending on which outline you follow, there are either many main topics, or many sub-topics.  In either case, the writing style of James does not follow a traditional Western outline style.

The main reason the letter from James is difficult to outline is that his writing does not flow from left to right.  When Paul wrote a letter he began with foundational truth and then he progressed to instruction based on those truths.  The letter from James is filled with instruction, but the teaching is not based on some previously explained doctrine.  Instead, James gives instruction combined with foundational truth.

Simply put, James does not follow a Left-to-Right writing style.  The way I describe James’ writing is Center-Out.  You can picture this outline as a wheel with a hub and many spokes.

The center, or hub, of James letter is found in the second verse:  “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.”  From that starting point James writes about many potential obstacles which the readers may face.  These various trials become the spokes in the wheel.  As you read this letter, at the beginning of each new topic remember the main theme, various trials.

To help you visualize this hub and spoke type of writing style, I have created a diagram which shows six major topics found in the book of James.  You can find that diagram here:

A second diagram which shows the main topics and the specific verses related to each topic can be found here:

Once you understand James’ writing style the entire letter makes much more sense.  This is the approach we took to our new study guide, “Every Lap A Victory Lap.”  This guide covers every verse in the letter from James, but it takes a Center-Out format, rather than a Left-to-Right approach.  You can order this new study guide at