Monday, March 17, 2008

Arcing and Tracing

UPDATE (6/9/2008): I have recorded and produced a 50+ minute video (powerpoint with audio) to teach about "Tracing an Argument in the Epistles":

Arcing and tracing are great ways to analyze the flow of an argument in a passage, especially discourse (such as the epistles; it is more difficult to use for narratives). John Piper has found it helpful. I know of several who say it revolutionized their Bible study. Thanks to help from Dr. Brian Vickers (SBTS), Dr. Jim Hamilton (SWBTS), Matthew Wireman (Ph.D. student at SBTS), and my friend John Beeler, I have been learning this and hope to share it with others. Here are some online resources to help you learn about and use this excellent method, which is well worth the time and effort it takes to begin to learn.

Note: Arcing and Tracing have the same goal. Arcing uses curves (arcs) whereas tracing uses brackets (usually easier to read). One can easily translate an arc diagram into a traced one or vice versa, depending on one's preferences. Arcing in the Piper booklet below is presented as on a horizontal plane, utilizing only verse/proposition numbers without the text. The method on the BibleArc website uses text and arcs it vertically. Tracing uses the text with brackets instead of curves. Now that I've confused you, be sure to check out the resources below for clarification. has to be one of the most innovative and helpful websites I've seen. It allows you to arc a passage of Scripture, save as a .pdf, and share with others. It has all the tools for dividing the verses into propositions and labeling them with their relationships to each other. It even allows you to save your own arcs on the web at the site to go back and edit or download again. (HT: Matthew Wireman)

• For more on "arcing," see John Piper, Biblical Exegesis: Discovering the Meaning of Scriptural Texts (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God Ministries, 1999), 48pp. booklet with chart. Order from at <> or download for free at <> (booklet only; chart not included in online version).

• For more on "arcing" and "tracing," see Thomas R. Schreiner, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1990), 77-126. These two chapters are available online for free from links at his faculty webpage <>:

"Diagramming and Conducting a Grammatical Analysis," in Interpreting the Pauline Epistles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 77-96. Non-exclusive, one-time permission is granted to use this chapter, excluding any permission of a third source. The permission applies to this usage only. Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 1990. <>

"Tracing the Argument," in Interpreting the Pauline Epistles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 97-126. Non-exclusive, one-time permission is granted to use this chapter, excluding any permission of a third source. The permission applies to this usage only. Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 1990. <>

Here are some additional tips to make use of these methods.

1. Pray. Ask the Lord to open your eyes to see Him in His Word (cf. Ps. 119:18).

2. Choose a literal translation. The New American Standard is probably the best choice for its accurate rendering of prepositions. (Other options: ESV, NKJV)

3. Choose a passage. Try to find a unit in the length of a paragraph. Start with shorter units while learning tracing.

4. Divide the verses into propositions.

5. Read the passage and highlight key words that will serve as indicators of the relationships between propositions.

6. Find the relationships within each verse itself first. Then find relationships with neighboring verses. Then begin to link to other verses/relationships in the text.

7. Use your findings to structure the passage (outline it).

8. Summarize the argument of the passage and identify the exegetical idea/main point.

9. Now you are ready to do further study (observing repeated/contrasted words and concepts, looking up meanings of individual words, noting the verbs, relating the passage to the rest of the book and the whole Bible, finding application, etc.).

Note: If you are a serious student, I would be glad to share another resource or two with you that I have permission to share via email, but not to post on the web. Please email me with "arcing/tracing helps" in the subject line if you need further help.


Dan Sudfeld said...

Found this from Challies' A La Carte section. Props to him for linking to your site.

I've been hoping something would get out on the web re: Piper's Bible study method ever since I heard him talk about it one time. Thanks for the links and the tips. Looking forward to digging in for the purpose of "accurately handling the word of truth."

luskwater said...

I'll have to look at this. It sounds like Professor Vern Poythress' Propositional Relations from my courses with him in the mid-80's. (See "Propositional Relations," in The New Testament Student and His Field. Vol. 5 of The New Testament Student. Ed. John H. Skilton and Curtiss A. Ladley. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1982. Pp. 159-212.) Umm, from looking at this, I see all the references to Daniel Fuller, but none to Poythress... OK, I also see in Schreiner's chapter 6 a footnote acknowledging Beekman's work in 1974, which I believe Poythress mentioned as well.

In any case, this one piece of our hermeneutics (and discourse analysis) courses. It's interesting to see it gain wider recognition 25 years later.

Frank Martens said...

I remember sitting with my friend when he was coming up with the idea for hah... two months later I asked him it was going he said along the lines of... "I just spent 8 hours working on that site and got none of my papers written... It's an addicting project and now I'm in trouble."

Glad to see the place is getting recognition, it was definitely a great idea and helpful. And good job and pulling together a list of resources.

Frank Martens said...

Also... I highly encourage anyone who's going to use the site to donate a few dollars (i.e. $10-$15-$20) to help Him out. If enough people donate just $10 it'd more then help out and really it's not that much for a great tool. Peace.

Doug Smith said...

Thanks, guys for your encouragement and comments.

I totally agree about donating. I would gladly have paid for a program that does this after my attempts at drawing it with my poor penmanship and all.

I am so grateful this brother has shared this tool with us.