The subject with which we are dealing relates not only to the study of the Bible, but as an approach to the serious contemplation of any scripture. We cannot cast aside our notions accumulated through our experience, our intellectual/cultural/theological formation, or emotional impressions, and other factors which color the “pure” (if it could ever be so) consideration of the writing at hand. Others have weighed in on this, and I have included three passages from John Price Love’s How to Read the Bible:
“Worse than that [the reader making casual and fleeting use of the scripture] such a reader often misleads himself, for he will take a verse from the Psalms and then turn over to Paul, putting two things together that have no immediate connection. Some striking similarity may lead him to think he sees a relationship, but he tends to combine two quite different subjects. Before long he may be off on a tangent. Many of the sects and isms that beset American Christianity have come about in just this way. The principle that ‘scripture is to be interpreted by scripture’ is no more than a blanket rule to apply to all thinking about the Bible than it would be to interpret a sentence from the editorial column of the morning newspaper by an account on the sports page.”
“There is no explanation in the book [the Bible] of how it came to be. Any other book on the churchman’s table will contain the author’s preface, explanatory of why it was written, and of the order of its contents….The common answer has been ‘the Holy Spirit guided the Church in this work, both in the selection and the order of the books, and the Holy Spirit will interpret them to you.’ This is true, but it is no excuse for keeping present-day Christians in ignorance of the reasons which the church of an earlier day had for believing they were guided by the Spirit, nor does it excuse idleness on the part of the church in interpreting the Bible today. The complacent doctrine of the guidance of the Spirit may become Protestantism’s tool for keeping people in ignorance as much as Catholicism’s dictum of the Church’s word that must be taken without reason.”
“You leaf here and there through the Bible, and read whatever you happen to open to, or whatever strikes your fancy. and sometimes you get a good thought that way. You are in a certain mood, and the message of a Bible passage strikes you directly. You catch a thought as it soars on the wing, and it is ever more memorable in connection with the occasion on which you read it.”
All of the above three passages are insightful, useful, and instructive. They cause us to think about our approach to holy scripture in a larger context, and to question our personal methodology, which is bound to have flaws and to be subject to revision (either by us on a later study, or by others who may critique our work). All, even the most scholarly, must at some point acknowledge their limitations. We need only witness what was viewed as solid interpretation to be overwritten by the findings of future researchers. This is as it should be: those who crave certainty will be sadly disappointed. All are called to reflect on their own humility, and to acknowledge that “the thoughts of God are not the thoughts of men [people].”
My view that “words mean things” has directed an approach. This may take the form of a word search to examine the contexts in which a key word appears, and by an idea/motif search where chain references are used to trace and compare links to related passages. Both will yield fruitful and promising results. There is a clarity, and honesty, an objectivity in this process, without it being driven by a theological agenda. In the course of investigation, certain themes will suggest themselves to each one who engages in such study. This will help to organize and direct the work. There will be overlap in themes which share similar passages, but this is to be expected and welcomed. There will of course be a diversity among individual researchers, depending on one’s individual outlook and experience. Indeed, passages will at time contradict one another. I cannot claim to be objective but this does not mean that I cannot strive to be open and thorough. For years I have been captivated by the reference systems of various Bible versions. Some, like that of James Gilchrist Lawson, have their foundation in major themes, which are developed into sub-topics in the manner of an outline. The classic “chain reference” system is that of the Thompson Chain Reference Bible (also used in the J.G. Lawson edition). The chain references of the Jerusalem Bible rely upon the findings of the contributing scholars, including references to church tradition and earlier manuscripts and versions, especially the Vulgate. In addition, the Jerusalem Bible and the Oxford New Revised Standard Version include the apocryphal books with their valuable references. To limit ourselves to the canonical 66 books unnecessarily narrows our view and the fruit we may obtain from our search.
A chain reference search was the original hyperlink. In fact, it may be approximated by several online Bible reference sites, but is never equivalent to the possibilities to range and depth which can be developed in its labor-filled, demanding, manual form.
How does the work proceed? With increased reading and familiarity, themes will suggest themselves. This will allow their development into a useful form. In so doing, the “chain” is followed to its thematic conclusion. One must rely upon judgment to determine which references to include, and when to conclude the search. It is possible to either stop too early, failing to uncover the full range of passages which relate to the key verse or verses which strike the researcher as a major theme for development of supporting verses. Likewise, the search may extend beyond the organic limitation of the topic such that the cited verses begin to no longer resemble the parameters of the original search. The latter dilutes the value of the references, with a loss of focus. It may then be necessary to divide the search into more limited topics. It is not unusual for the same scripture passage to serve as a reference in more than one theme. An honest and complete study will necessarily contain passages which are not in complete concordance, or even in conflict. How could this not be so (that is, unless we subscribe to the proposition that all Biblical scripture is inerrant)? Finally, not all verses have equal weight. In any given chain reference, there are passages which will be considered to be key (such as, most likely, the phrase which triggered the chain reference) and others which will have a supplementary role. I enter the chapter and verse citation for each reference into my database under the chosen topic and highlight in bold (in the computer database) or underline in red (on a reference card) if I consider it to be primary. Finally, reference cards and note tabs may begin a manual search, which may be transferred to a database later on—it is the researcher’s choice.
As the search takes place, I check each reference for relevance, noting it in the database. At times, the supporting reference ends there and I can return to the prior reference. At other times, additional chain references are suggested. In this case, a marker with chapter and verse written onto it is placed in that location, ready for a later search once the possibilities of the first reference are exhausted. Pieces of scratch paper are inserted in the Bible for markers, and are only removed when the references on the marked page have been exhausted. Many times and number of markers will be generated by only one passage. The work is demanding, yet at the same time exhilarating and enlightening. The placement of markers will lead to an organized search and prevent the researcher from overlooking anything of value.
And the result? Taken together, the verses in a theme support each other and provide a clearer view. They provide a richer, more meaningful, more illuminating dimension. Finally, they provide a better defined context than would the individual verses themselves. This may even include passages which are at odds with each other. If a conflict exists, it should be acknowledged and not disregarded, with an eye toward resolution. Is it a case of an earlier or later historical or theological development? It is a view of an individual writer which is at variance with others? Is it a figurative versus a literal interpretation? Critical thinking is often demanded, and chain references aid the reader in doing that.
Back to the words: In the late 1920’s Robert Ernest Hume, a Christian theologian, developed an expansive translation of the Upanishads, whose influence is still being felt today. Beyond the footnotes which reveal important background and interconnection of passages, Hume provides an index of parallels and recurrences by which the contents of texts by many authors and many schools of thought over many years may be compared. As previously stated, this is a solid basis for the study of any scripture, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, or otherwise (as well as all of them together to see the relations there). Those passages which parallel each other, those phrases and words which recur, should stand out because of the frequency of their occurrence. In studying the Bible, my concordance is near at hand. This is useful as specific words may support a single theme but most likely will cross multiple themes, adding additional depth and insight to the search.
The role of scripture (excluding certain obviously bogus and spurious creations) springs from the same motivation: to understand the deep structure of the scriptures, and that of human and divine nature. And all interpretation of scripture can benefit from this approach if it is dutifully and meticulously applied. “Search ye the scriptures!” I commend it to any sincere seeker who wishes to uncover the height, depth, and breadth of the scriptural record. The rewards are many.