Yesterday, I gave the first tip for healthy correlation. Here are the last two.
In former generations, it was all the rage in Bible circles to harmonize parallel passages. A teacher would take a story like the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, and John 6, and he’d “re-write” the story using details from all four accounts. Then he’d preach or comment on the harmonized text, and not on any one of the original texts.
If you like old commentaries, you know what I mean. John Calvin didn’t write any commentaries on Matthew, Mark, or Luke. He just wrote one commentary on the “Harmony of the Gospels” and another one on John.
Unfortunately, this approach misses the fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all had different points to make, even when recounting the same event. This goes for Samuel, Kings and Chronicles as well. And Kings and Isaiah. And Leviticus and Deuteronomy, for that matter (with respect to laws, not events).
Here’s what’s good, though: sometimes other passages can help to illuminate the passage under study. For example, Genesis 15:7-21 doesn’t make a lot of sense to modern readers without help from Jeremiah 34:18-20. Ancient readers were familiar with the ritual; we are not.
3. Don’t connect words; connect ideas
Word studies are even more popular than donuts and coffee when it comes to Bible study. With the advent of internet search engines it’s easier than ever to look up every instance of a particular word or phrase and string them together.
The problem is that a word’s meaning isn’t in the word itself but in its use in the sentence. For example, what does the word “mean” mean? Does it have to do with defining something? Or is it a person with a bad temper? Or is it the average of a set of numbers? Or a lack of some sort? Or is it just hip slang for “great,” as in “she cooks a mean casserole.”
We can know the answer only when we see the word in context.
I just Googled the phrase “run for the border.” In the top 7 hits I got a seedy hotel, a marathon, a 3.5-mile race, a “Mexican” fast-food restaurant, a hedgehog in a sweater, a country music album, and a book about immigration control. Now if I did a “word study” that combined all these uses into one unified meaning, I could probably make some big bucks off it.
Word-connections can be very helpful when it comes to people or place names (for example, if you’re reading Philippians, you might search for “Philippi” to get more background on it from Acts). But for general vocabulary? Not so good.
Here’s a better way forward. Study each passage in context and grasp its main point. Then look for other passages that address a similar topic or idea. Then connect them to get a full picture of the idea.
As you correlate, correlate well. And build your understanding of God’s Knowable Word. As you do, you’ll grow closer to the Lord himself, day after day after day, world without end, amen.