Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dangers of the Parallel Passage Approach

The observation and utilization of cross-references in the Bible is a valid and necessary principle of biblical interpretation. Some cross-references may be verbal, others conceptual, and still others because of extended parallel accounts. When used correctly, cross-references can properly inform one another.

There can be a danger, however, in turning the use of cross-references or parallel-passages into its own interpretive approach, or at least in exaggerating it.

Consider these possible dangers of turning this principle into an entire approach.

(1) It is often assumed that this is a biblical method even though the Bible itself never speaks of it.

(2) It can overlook other important interpretive principles that are more primary, such as observing context or grammar.

(3) There is a danger of reading into a text an interpretation drawn from another text. It may even tend to foist some preconceived interpretation from one passage upon another.

(4) It forgets that every passage makes its own contribution first, before it can be correlated with other passages.

(5) It falls prey to the fallacy that similarities must be parallels (Ocam's razor). Interpreters must not assume that because two or more things look similar that they are parallel, or identical.

(6) It wrongly presupposes that the natural reading of a passage is the one that fits best with other passages. It is more correct to conclude that the natural reading of a passage is what fits best with its own context.

(7) It seems to compel interpreters to force scriptural details to fit together rather than to allow each passage to make its own contribution. The systematizing of biblical truth must not be the imposition of a system over the Bible in order to make things fit. Systematic Theology must have large enough categories to allow passages to teach their own truth. This requires new categories to be considered in the compilation of Systematic Theology (for example, "Gentile-ology" and "Israelology" in addition to "Ecclesiology").


  1. i was challenged with this recently when preaching the back half of matthew 8. i was in matthew 8 because we are preaching through matthew, but find the dialogue (and other details) from mark 5 quite compelling. i was VERY tempted to preach mark 5, using matthew 8 as a springboard.

    however, it was a great joy to me (though perhaps not to the listeners!!!) to instead stay in matthew 8 and ask myself the question, "why WOULDN'T matthew include that portion?" i believe it helped me stick to the main point for why matthew included the narrative in the first place.

    recently, i've been challenged that i probably "over cross-reference," something i did not think was possible at one time, but it can distract from the initial text.

  2. Keith, I'd like to know: is that what you meant? That we should, using Danny's example, not inform our understanding (and preach that understanding) of the demon-possessed men of Matthew 8 with the incident recorded in Mark 5?

  3. While I am happy for Danny's application of this article, his application is not exactly what I meant. Matthew 8 and Mark 5 are legitimate parallels that can and should inform each other. It is good that we observe why Matthew did it the way he did it, and Mark the way he did it, as Danny pointed out. But I would allow Danny a little more latitude than he has allowed himself. My point goes a little deeper, I think, seeking to make us ask whether some things that look parallel are in fact parallel. As I tried to say at the start of the article, legitimate cross-references do and should inform one another. But, not every passage that looks like a parallel is one. There must be some stronger textual reason for concluding that passages are parallel than similarity alone.

  4. I appreciate the clarification because, as Danny said, I face the same challenge of over-cross-referencing. Which is, of course, the reason for your article - it's a challenge we all face and need to be cautious about.