Have you ever tried singing unaccompanied hymns with a group of tone-deaf people? It presents a unique challenge: Can we hold the tune? Will we end in the same key in which we began? Is the melody recognizable, or would an eavesdropper assume we’re trying one of those new-fangled old-hymn-with-new-music arrangements (and one that wasn’t done very well)?
With such a group, you’ve accomplished something special if you’ve gotten the group to sing in unison. Usually, you get harmony whether you want it or not. But the harmony is unpleasant if the original tune isn’t clear.
I just finished a series of Bible studies on the feeding of the 5,000. My goal has been to show that the Gospels recount the same event, but each with a different point. Last week, I summarized the unique intentions of each Gospel’s account.
In this final post, I’ll step back from the study’s content to reflect on the methodology behind it. In particular, I’d like to make explicit what was implicit all along: the dangers of harmonization.
Harmonization is the process of taking multiple accounts of the same event and combining them into a unified whole. So, we harmonize when we teach a lesson on “The Feeding of the 5,000” without looking at a specific passage.
Harmonization is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s very helpful when we’re reconstructing a historical event or building general biblical literacy. For example, most children’s Bibles won’t have a separate chapter for each of the four feeding accounts. They combine the accounts into a single chapter to help children become familiar with the event itself.
But harmonization can be unhelpful when it clouds the text’s message.
While harmonization is not always bad, here are some dangers of not doing it carefully:
1. Divorcing the event from the text.
We’ll think of the event as a historical abstraction, which can lead to the second danger.
2. Assigning our own meaning to the event.
In the absence of a particular text (with a particular main point), we might assign any point we want to the event. Such abstraction can lead people to use the Bible to prove anything they want to prove. This approach is not submissive to either the text handed down to us or the divine Author who handed it down .
3. Dulling observation
We think of the little boy’s lunch as being central to any discussion of the feeding. We fail to notice that only John mentions this boy. Similarly, only Luke mentions the disciples’ concern with not only food but lodging for the multitude.
4. Hindering interpretation
Why does only John mention the little boy’s lunch? Why does only Luke mention the disciples’ concern to find the people not only food but lodging? Such questions simply don’t matter if we harmonize the accounts.
5. Flattening application
If I harmonize the feeding accounts, I might always land on the same application (probably something about giving up what little I have and trusting Jesus to multiply it). I’ll lose the rich variety of applications that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John make to different audiences.
A Way Forward
Let’s hear the text—each text within its context. Once there’s a clear tune, we can see how it fits together with others.
The key is to learn to sing before you try to harmonize.