Perusing Ruth Anne Reese's exceptional commentary on 2 Peter & Jude for an upcoming lecture, I noticed this helpful commen on thematic study.
Themes, like dances, are recognizable patterns that serve as identifying markers for a text and help the reader make sense out of the whole of a given work. Themes may start from a particular point and work out variations on that point just as a folk dance may start with one series of steps and then reorder them to form a different pattern that still consists of the same steps. Themes are usually emphasized more than once in the whole of a work and often constitute a large part of the work. Like the variation of steps in a particular dance, themes give a text a unique shape even when the themes are common to other works, whether canonical or non-canonical.The task of identifying themes asks the reader to work with the whole of the text and to draw connections that run through the length of it. This can be a quite different task from traditional exegesis, which often focuses on individual verses, sentences, phrases, and words and the history behind these. A thematic approach is concerned with the unity of an individual text and sees issues such as sources as secondary to the goal of identifying themes. Often the reader who is interested in thematic exploration can start with the main points of the introductory material and then attempt to see whether and/or how those points are supported in the rest of the text. However, even this beginning point is worth revisiting. Small points that may have been overlooked in the first reading of the introductory material can gain new significance in light of the middle or end of the book. Pursuing the themes of a particular work is one step in the theological task (exegesis in its more traditional form is another) as it pushes the reader to look for broad structures, and this can later be pressed and varied further into the canonical and then practical theological dance. Ruth Anne Reese, 2 Peter & Jude. THNTC. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 75.
My students will be working with the letter of James this week, trying to discern the various themes that emerge from that stunning piece. It's amazing how often the opening chapter of a work will allude to if not directly state many central themes in a work.