Eight Benefits of Greek New Testament Sentence Diagramming

by Randy Leedy

For Starters

Let’s make sure at the outset that I’m clear about what I mean by “sentence diagramming.” Of the variety of forms of mapping out sentences visually, by “sentence diagramming,” I mean a method that at least roughly approximates the one developed by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg and published in the 1870s, hence known as the Reed-Kellogg method. Here is an example, from Matthew 1:21. The running text reads, τέξεται δὲ υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν· αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν (And she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins).

Really?

Some students and teachers of NT Greek immediately recognize value in Reed-Kellogg diagramming; others do not. “Really? Go back to 8th-grade English class for a Greek exegesis tool?” Who is right? I am quite sure that the critics and the supporters are both correct but are talking past one another by not being clear about the goal in reading, or the aspect of reading, that diagramming supports. Obviously, a sentence diagram does not tell you everything about the meaning of a sentence, nor does drawing a diagram force you to think about everything relevant to the sentence’s meaning. It indicates nothing about word meanings. It provides no background context to clarify the exact referents intended for the various words and larger units of text. Whether it contributes anything to the development of reading fluency seems doubtful (but see the Conclusion section below). Certainly it makes no immediate contribution toward fluency, as it only slows the processing of the text—and greatly so. It may hint at discourse features of a text, but it certainly doesn’t display them in any helpful detail, and it can even be downright misleading for discourse analysis. For example, what the diagram shows as the grammatical subject is often decidedly not the real discourse topic of the sentence. So is sentence diagramming really any good?

Yes, Really!

Sentence diagramming comes into its own as a tool that maximizes the exegete’s harvest of information about the aspects of a text’s meaning that are mediated through grammatical structure. Though establishing grammatical structure is only a narrow slice of the total exegetical task, it is of such importance that any analytical device facilitating it deserves attention and frequent use. To locate that claim within the philosophical and methodological context of the exegete’s goal and presuppositions requires more space than is available here. A longer version of this discussion including such material, as well as addressing objections to sentence diagramming, is available at my website: www.NTGreekGuy.com/Resources.

Sentence Diagramming for Exegesis

On the simple and seemingly safe assumptions that establishing grammatical structure is an important exegetical task and that sentence diagramming is a valid method of portraying that structure, some basic benefits of sentence diagramming become obvious and require little elaboration. The objections listed above evaporate on the recognition that the fact that sentence diagramming contributes little if anything to some exegetical tasks does nothing to negate its value for determining and displaying grammatical structure.

Slowing Down. Among the most important benefits of diagramming is that it forces the exegete to slow down and consider all the grammatical connections within a sentence. And though it does not force him to think deeply (one can hurry even through a laborious task!), it does encourage him to do so. A practitioner who values thoroughness does not simply diagram the first construction that comes to mind (e.g., connecting a modifier with the word immediately preceding it). He examines the context carefully to see whether other possibilities present themselves, and if so, he evaluates all the options for best semantic coherence within the various levels of context.

Thinking about Syntax. The diagramming process also encourages the exegete, as a step toward validating each grammatical connection his diagram shows, to consider the exact syntactical usage for each possible construction he considers: if he’s considering the possibility that a participle might be adverbial, does it express the cause of its governing verb? The means? The result? A simple accompanying action? One of the adverbial uses of the participle must be viable in order for this construction to be correct. Even an obvious construction, such as an adnominal genitive modifying its head word, presents an invitation to think about its usage. Is the genitive subjective? Objective? Possession? Source? As another example, dealing with a long coordinate series invites consideration of possible subgroupings within the overall series. Additional examples could of course be multiplied.

Visualization. One of the most obvious benefits of sentence diagramming is its visual nature, which can be a highly effective aid for grasping overall structure that is much more difficult to comprehend in the abstract.

In addition to these rather obvious benefits of sentence diagramming are some benefits that might not be so immediately apparent.

Efficient Communication. Diagrams can efficiently communicate one’s understanding of a passage’s grammar to others, whether in a classroom setting or by some form of publication. Again, the visual element contributes strongly. We all recognize the helpfulness of commentaries, both when we find ourselves at a loss for clear meaning and when we are confident in our understanding but wish to check our work against the findings of others or to explore for additional insights. Diagrams can function similarly with regard to details of grammatical structure, and with great space efficiency.

Mutual Profit. An outgrowth of the previous point is that diagrams can serve as a means by which fellow students of scripture compare their work for mutual profit. Imagine, for example, two or more pastor friends who agree to preach through a particular New Testament epistle to their respective congregations over the same period of time. I can well envision the benefit that each pastor’s work would be to the other(s) as they compare their diagrams and discuss their differences.

Word Study. One important aspect of exegesis to which one might suppose that diagramming contributes nothing (as in fact the opening of this article suggests) is word study. What profit can a sentence diagram bring to the pursuit of precise word meaning? The fact is, though, that a word’s various senses sometimes entail differing grammatical constructions. Since a correct understanding of grammatical constructions sometimes constrains our understanding of word meaning, diagramming contributes value even on the lexical side of exegesis.

Pedagogy. Diagramming can also play at least two powerful pedagogical roles. It can aid the teacher in explaining grammatical concepts, as it provides a visual method of showing grammatical structure. It can also help teachers assess their students’ understanding of grammar. For the teacher who wants students not only to be able to translate accurately but also to clearly understand the grammatical mechanics of the language, diagramming assignments can reveal conceptual gaps that must be filled in, at an individual or a class-wide level.

Homiletics. Diagramming can also contribute helpfully to expository sermon development, especially in didactic passages (as opposed to narrative). Many expositors have found great help in charting such passages by methods resembling in varying degrees the one recommended in Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology and many other works since, designated by such terms as “propositional display” and “thought-flow charting.” The basic unit of text manipulated in such charts is the clause: the briefest grammatical unit that communicates a complete thought consisting of subject and predicate. The first step in such a charting method is to divide the passage into its constituent clauses. Sometimes these divisions are straightforward and obvious; sometimes they are not. If one draws sentence diagrams before beginning the propositional display, those diagrams can become an invaluable aid for determining how to segment the text for the display.

Consulting Sentence Diagrams Drawn by Others

Some who embrace sentence diagramming for its exegetical benefits discount the value of examining diagrams drawn by others. “The value is in the process, not the product, so why bother with someone else’s product that only short-circuits my own process?” Several of the values listed above entail the viewing of diagrams drawn by others, so I have partially responded to this viewpoint already. Further development, though, is appropriate.

Such thinking seems commendable on first encounter. It is the thinking of the diligent exegete who wants to earn his understanding of the text by his own labor, for his maximum profit, rather than avail himself another’s expertise in a way that might inhibit the development of his own. This reasoning, though, to be consistent, would have to reject pretty much all professional instruction in any field. Would this person want as his physician one who had depended entirely on his own resources for the development of his medical expertise? Probably not for long! This person almost certainly acquired his own ability to diagram from someone else, whether in a classroom or by reading, so he’s already dependent on another to that extent. Why not go ahead and compare one’s work with that of another—especially one whose expertise and competence is widely recognized? The wise concern about inhibiting one’s own development is adequately addressed by insisting on doing one’s own work before consulting another; to go the next step and do one’s own work without consulting another’s, when it is readily available, moves away from wisdom toward folly.

Conclusion

An observation by C.H. Spurgeon is germane. A passage in Lectures to my Students commends the careful reading of Greek and Latin (translating once rapidly and then going back carefully to correct errors), not as a matter of exegetical accuracy but as a matter of learning how language works for the sake of improving one’s use of his own native language in preaching, particularly when little time is available for preparation.

Learn, gentlemen, to put together, and unscrew all the machinery of language; mark every cog, and wheel, and bolt, and rod, and you will feel the more free to drive the engine, even at express speed should emergencies demand it. (Lecture X, “The Faculty of Impromptu Speech”)

The value Spurgeon saw in the mastery of grammar for the sake of preaching applies equally to the task of exegesis. Spurgeon’s homiletical method was not thoroughly expository; his mark on church history is not as an exegete. But the exegete profits equally with the preacher from the grammatical labor that Spurgeon commends. As a tool to enhance the success of that grammatical labor, good old sentence diagramming is hard to improve upon.

© 2020 Randy Leedy, all rights reserved.


Randy Leedy is the author of the widely acclaimed Greek NT sentence diagrams published in BibleWorks. The diagrams and their annotations are now available in PDF form at www.NTGreekGuy.com, along with additional resources for learning to diagram. Also, pre-publication orders for a Logos version of the diagrams are being taken at https://www.logos.com/product/189626/greek-new-testament-sentence-diagrams.

3381 reads

There are 11 Comments

T Howard's picture

Having done my fair share of Greek sentence diagramming for an Accordance project that diagrammed the entire Gospel of Mark, I'd agree that sentence diagramming makes one slow down and think about syntax. It is also very useful for pedagogy.

As a weekly practice for every sermon you preach, I'm not convinced the juice is worth the squeeze.

Instead, pastors should follow Spurgeon's advice and translate the passage and then consult Greek / Hebrew grammars to tighten and refine their translation. The translation process itself makes the pastor slow down and understand verb tense-form, syntax, and words that need additional study. Further, once the translation is complete, pastors should complete a structural analysis of the passage under consideration (preferably using the original language). This is where you tie Greek sentences together using syntactical markers and subordinate clauses based on participles, conjunctions, etc. This structural analysis is then the basis of your exegetical outline that then should inform your homiletical outline.

This process has been very helpful and fruitful to me as I've preached various passages of Scripture (OT Law, OT prophecy, Psalms, NT narratives, NT epistles). This process has also allowed me to spot and think about many of the issues most exegetical commentaries discuss before I open a single commentary. Further, this process has brought to light some exegetical issues that most commentaries fail to address. This is when things get fun. Smile

ad fontes, Brothers.

MissionaryA.Berry's picture

"What profit can a sentence diagram bring to the pursuit of precise word meaning? The fact is, though, that a word’s various senses sometimes entail differing grammatical constructions. Since a correct understanding of grammatical constructions sometimes constrains our understanding of word meaning, diagramming contributes value even on the lexical side of exegesis."

Acts 2:38

I have tried for years to get someone to do diagram that particular sentence in English - can anyone?

But the discussion is about Geek. Can you do it in Greek?

Either way, the diagram of the sentence will have an impact on the understanding of the sentence. And that might depend on where the prepositional phrase goes "for the remission of sins..."

The diagram will depend on how you define the word now - "in order to do", or "because you have done". Isamo Bin Laden wanted FOR terrorism. Is that BECAUSE he did terrorism, or in order to do more?

The common usage of FOR in Acts 2:38 won't work in John 3:16 (which also maybe needs diagramming!)

Can anybody take a few minutes and diagram Acts 2:38 to help me out here? Seriously.

Sentence diagramming was not a strong point when I was in school, about a lifetime ago!

In Christ,

Alan Berry

Missionary

 

 

Romaklok

MissionaryA.Berry's picture

Fourth paragraph of my comment - the word should be FOR not the word now!

The diagram will depend on how you define the word now - - please omit NOW  and put FOR - that is an important word in this sentence. Thanks.

 

In Christ,

Alan Berry

Romaklok

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I grew up doing Kellogg diagramming and loved it. I haven't done it often with Greek, more often going for clause-based layouts, but I do think attention to the relationships (grammatical structure) between objects, modifiers, clauses and phrases is huge for understanding sentences. And though you can (and often have to, in real ministry settings) depend on someone else's analysis, doing it yourself occasionally is, as Randy says, a great way to get deep into the text and intensify your awareness of all the possibilities. 

And it's also really good for your brain.

Waiting for the grant-funded research on this, but I'll bet people who Kellogg diagram frequently in middle age are less likely to be afflicted with Altzheimer's disease.

To Alan,

I haven't done the homework on it, but offhand I'd say you have a compound verb, "repent" and "be baptized" ... Well, I can't draw a Reed Kellogg for you right now, but I can do it like this...

Actually, somebody has done it. I'm not sure I agree with where they put the "for the remission" clause. Off hand, I'm inclined to think it modifies the entire compound clause, repent and be baptized.(Which is more theologically difficult, but there is plenty of context to help with that.)

But anyway, Alan, here's one go at it: https://www.pinterest.es/pin/270778996324581012/

 

 

 

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Nord Zootman's picture

My seminary training laid a major stress on diagramming in both Hebrew and Greek. I still have Prof. Kantenwein's syllabus on diagrammatical analysis (available as a book). I still find it to be a valuable tool to use in understanding the grammar of a passage and an aid to aligning my sermon outline with the pattern that I see there.

As a pastor over the years, I have certainly not done that consistently. Narrative literature gains little by diagramming and often I just don't have the time. (Not to mention my ability in Hebrew is certainly not great). When I haven't had time to do it myself, I have still benefited from checking Randy's NT diagrams through Bible Works.

Even though I don't consistently use it, I think having done so over the years has increased my ability to see grammatical constructions as I read. I think it is a valuable part of Biblical education.

Randy Leedy's picture

Thanks for interacting with this article, "T Howard." As far as I can see, my article pretty well acknowledges nearly everything you mention. I don't claim that diagramming is essential as an "every-sermon" sort of exercise. In grading student work on "structural analysis" projects, I have often found errors that could have been corrected by careful attention to diagramming as a first stage of analysis. I would certainly agree that thought-flow charting as you describe leads much more directly into a sermon outline than a sentence diagram does. But the information that sentence diagramming deals with is crucial to accurate thought-flow charting, and drawing the diagram leads naturally to that next phase of the exegesis. To refer again to Spurgeon's quote about grammatical analysis, how better to "mark every cog, and wheel, and bolt, and rod" than with a Reed-Kellogg diagram? Thought-flow charting does not descend to that level of detail, and yet that level of detail is sometimes crucial for getting the thought flow as accurate as possible.

When "the juice isn't worth the squeeze," sometimes the problem is that the juice just isn't there. Not every passage has its treasures hidden in the kinds of grammatical issues that sentence diagramming deals with. At other times, though, the problem is that the squeeze was inadequate.  The value is there but the exegete didn't take the time to dig it out.

I think the claim that I'd want to make is that, while sentence diagramming will not always repay the effort, taking a little time to THINK about the passage in diagramming terms is always worth doing simply as a matter of doing exegesis at a responsible level of thoroughness. When you know that a treasure of scripture wisdom is often found lurking in a particular location that is not all that difficult to take a close look at--let's say behind a door that is not all that difficult to open--it seems at least somewhat irresponsible not to bother at least opening that door and turning on that room's light as a matter of routine exegetical exercise. And once a person gets pretty good at diagramming, that simple check can be made without taking the time to actually draw out a highly refined diagram. As I see it, the more time a person spends drawing diagrams, the less time he or she needs to spend continuing to do so.

I suspect that this is your experience: the diagramming you've done allows you to experience the fruit of diagramming as your mind runs along those tracks rather naturally and unconsciously while you're drawing your thought-flow charts. That's a whole different situation than the person drawing thought-flow charts without the benefit of well developed grammatical skills. This person's inability to draw accurate diagrams is very different from your not needing to do so, and that lack of ability is likely to impair the quality of the thought-flow work and the resulting overall exegesis.

Randy Leedy's picture

Alan, you bring up a very interesting passage! I had to wrestle hard with it when drawing the BibleWorks sentence diagrams. In my circles, it is common to interpret "for" as meaning "as a result of" or "because of," as in Matthew 12:41, where the Ninevites repented εἰς the preaching of Jonah. That works great in the context of Acts 2:38, as long as you construe the phrase "for the forgiveness of sins" only with "be baptized" and not also with "repent." To repent because your sins have been forgiven is clearly foreign to the nature of the gospel.

As I understand Peter's intention in this passage, he is coupling repentance and baptism so closely that it is best not to try to separate them so that "for the forgiveness of sins" modifies only one and not the other. [It does seem to me that the first prepositional phrase after "be baptized," "in the name of Jesus the Messiah," modifies only "be baptized," in keeping with the wording of the Great Commission.] Forgiveness of sins is the big goal that Peter's sermon drives toward, so it seems to me best to take the two verbs as, together, presenting the path to that goal.

This doesn't mean, of course, that I believe in baptismal regeneration. The role of baptism, as I would understand it, is not a ceremony that produces life in the heart of the repentant believer but rather simply the outward manifestation of the genuineness of that repentance and embrace of Christ's death and resurrection as one's own.

Of course the nature of my reasoning here is decidedly NOT grammatical! Grammar goes as far as to say that the prepositional phrase could be taken as modifying the second verb or as modifying the two verbs as a unified series. I don't see any grammatical basis on which to decide the case in favor of the one rather than the other.

At this point, a reader with access to my BibleWorks sentence diagrams might well become curious enough to check to see how I drew my diagram for BibleWorks. If he does so, he may charge me with inconsistency: "You didn't diagram the construction that you say here that you prefer!" Such defense as I can offer would come in two parts. First, don't neglect the note that I wrote on the passage, indicating that the phrase could alternatively be construed as modifying both verbs. So I did acknowledge the other possibility. Why did I diagram the construction that here I characterize as inferior? Whether or not it was the correct decision, I wanted identify with those who resist the use of this verse for baptismal regeneration by interpreting εἰς as meaning "because of." One problem with this approach is that, apart from an explanatory note, it may also seem that I identify with those who embrace baptismal regeneration--though I imagine that most of them would construe the phrase with both verbs.

Here and there in my diagramming work, I opted to reflect a view that I did not necessarily think was best. So, for example, where the English versions display a strong consensus about how to read the grammar, I did not want to impose my own understanding that might be idiosyncratic. In Acts 2:38, though, the issue is not idiosyncrasy. I probably would have done better, in hindsight, to construe the phrase as modifying both verbs and just lengthen my note about the alternative enough to make my theology clear.

So, to end with a comment that directly addresses your question, you can draw the diagram either way, to match your understanding of the passage. There are no grammatical constraints forcing us to draw the diagram one way or another.

T Howard's picture

Randy Leedy wrote:
I suspect that this is your experience: the diagramming you've done allows you to experience the fruit of diagramming as your mind runs along those tracks rather naturally and unconsciously while you're drawing your thought-flow charts. That's a whole different situation than the person drawing thought-flow charts without the benefit of well developed grammatical skills. This person's inability to draw accurate diagrams is very different from your not needing to do so, and that lack of ability is likely to impair the quality of the thought-flow work and the resulting overall exegesis.

Randy, this is a fair point. My undergrad was in English, and I had a lot of exposure to grammatical concepts and sentence diagrams before going to seminary. Many guys in seminary were clueless when it came to grammar, either English or Greek. Consequently, when it came to learning Greek grammar / syntax, it was a rough road for them.

 

BTW, i just pre-ordered your diagrams on Logos. Looking forward to seeing your work.

Bert Perry's picture

Unlike Aaron, I never really liked diagramming sentences, so (smile) I guess I'm doomed to dementia.  Maybe I'm there already.  That noted, I can see the value of anything that forces us to slow down and break things into little bits we can understand.

Regarding Acts 2:38, I tend to view "repent and be baptized" as a compound verb.  You could divide it, I guess, but I'm at a loss as to how a Kellogg diagram would tell us which choice is more appropriate.  I'd tend to view it (and do) in light of the greater context of Scripture.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Randy Leedy's picture

T Howard wrote:

BTW, i just pre-ordered your diagrams on Logos. Looking forward to seeing your work.

Thanks, Tom. I hope the diagrams will serve you well. I see from your profile that you're in or near Columbus. My wife grew up in Westerville; I'm from Mansfield. So Ohio is my second favorite state. Maybe my first favorite from April through October. Smile

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.