Monday, March 16, 2009

Studying the Bible - Cross Refs & Commentaries

Now that you have applied the principles of interpretation to your passage and arrived at a tentative understanding of the passage, it is time to check yourself. First, write out in your own words your interpretation of the passage. It doesn’t have to be lengthy, but you basically want to answer all the questions that arose during your observation of the passage.

There are a couple of ways that we should always check our interpretations. The first is to look at cross-references – other parallel passages in the Bible that deal with the same subject matter as your passage. The object is to see if your interpretation contradicts what Scripture teaches elsewhere. Since most of us do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, we need tools to point us to other passages that relate to the one we are studying.

A great, simple online tool to use to find cross-references is found on the sidebar of this blog, The Online Parallel Bible. All you have to do is plug your Scripture reference into the search box, click “search”, and the page will load your passage, shown in a number of different translations with cross-references in the sidebar. Basically, you just want to go through those verses, methodically looking for anything that would contradict your interpretation of your passage. If you click on the cross-reference tab at the top of the page, you will be taken to a page that shows all of the same cross-references listed in the main body of the screen, with the sidebar now offering keywords from your passage. You can click on any of the keywords to find a list of passages that refer to that word or concept. You can’t be too thorough with this. I regret to say that there have been a good number of times that I have shared my interpretation of a passage with great conviction, only to find that my interpretation flatly contradicted what Scripture teaches elsewhere.

Another way to find cross-references is to use a topical bible. Most online bible study sites will have a tab that allows you to search one or two different topical bibles. Bible Gateway is one that is very simple to use. Just click on “Topical Index” on the left-hand sidebar. There you can choose from two different topical bibles (Nave’s Topical Bible or Torrey’s New Topical Textbook) from a pull-down menu. Pick one, then search for a topic that your passage deals with. Our text from last Sunday’s message was Ephesians 5:18, so I could search “drunkenness” and find a plethora of cross-references that deal with that subject. Again, you just want to check all the cross-references you can to make sure you haven’t arrived at an interpretation that is contradicted by other passages.

What if you did arrive at a contradictory interpretation? Don’t be discouraged – this is a good thing. You have just ruled out an erroneous interpretation. Just take the knowledge you gleaned from the cross-references and go back to your passage with fresh eyes. Apply your interpretive principles again, using Scripture to interpret Scripture. When you have worked through it again, write our your amended interpretation. You may want to take another walk through your cross-references to double-check yourself.

One word of warning – there may be some truths in Scripture that appear to contradict each other but are both clearly taught in the Word. The biggest one is God’s absolute sovereignty over all things versus man’s responsibility. These are not contradictory – we just can’t fully understand them. Don’t kill yourself trying to make it work in your mind. Scripture teaches both so we must believe both.

Once you have looked at your cross-references you can then look at systematic theologies and commentaries. The point of this exercise is not to find out what is the absolute right interpretation, but to point out any blind spots we may have and to see if we are all alone in our interpretation of the passage. If I am the only person in history to hold a certain interpretation, I have to ask myself the question, “In the 2,000 year history of the church, what are the odds that I’m the first person to get this right?” The answer is, “slim to none.” We should hold our interpretations humbly and loosely. Pride will try to convince us that we are the first to get it right, but that is a very silly place to stand.

A good systematic theology will help you to see if your interpretation fits well theologically with the Bible as a whole. Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem is a very sound tool written by a scholar in language that the average layperson can understand. If I could recommend only five books to every person in our church, one of them would be Grudem’s book. Everyone should have it. There is a Scripture Index in the back. Just look up your passage in that index and you’ll find on what pages that passage is referenced. Look up those pages and see if you find anything that might contradict your interpretation. Grudem is not the Holy Spirit and Systematic Theology is not the Bible, but it may raise some legitimate questions in your mind as to whether you’ve nailed your passage or not.

Then you can look at some commentaries. Each of the sites listed under “Bible Study Tools” on the right hand side of this blog have free online commentaries. It’s a good idea to look at several. Most of these will not be super deep, but they are free. Monergism.com also has free online commentaries. If you are interested in buying some deeper commentaries, let me know what book you are studying and I will make some recommendations.

Again, we’re just checking our interpretation against those of others who have studied the same passage. You may find that your interpretation is commonly held. You may find that you are all alone in the world. A teachable mind and a humble heart are the greatest tools in your Bible study arsenal and will both be crucial if you find that no one agrees with your interpretation. Weigh the arguments and determine which one best explains the passage in its context. Then amend your interpretation as necessary.

Next time, we’ll start to talk about the part that most of us overlook from time to time – application.

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