Hermeneutics,  Scripture

The Cross Reference Curse: A Warning on How We Wrongly Use the Cross Reference

We cross reference all the time when we study the Bible. A cross reference is simply using one text of Scripture to help understand another text. But is it always good to cross reference? While it can be very helpful, the idea of cross referencing also can also lead us to mistakes in our biblical interpretation.

photo of intersections illustrating cross referencing bible texts

Consider the following situation.

Let’s say a friend or neighbor comes up to you and says, “The Bible is clear that baptism is necessary for salvation.”

Now, you may be immediately put off by such a suggestion, but what if he goes on to quote Acts 2:38?

Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

How would you respond to such a statement?

Perhaps you would respond by saying, “We know that baptism is not necessary for salvation because of Ephesians 2:8-9, which says salvation is by grace through faith.” This is not necessarily incorrect, and there is a time and a place for this, certainly! But I want to point out that if we default to that kind of standard, we run into some significant dangers.

The Danger of Cross Referencing

Although common, one should recognize the dangers of a cross reference. On the one hand, it does seem to follow the hermeneutical rule, “Let the Bible interpret the Bible.” Or, put differently, “Let the clear passages interpret the unclear.” However, the potential problem with this application of the cross reference is in deciding which passages are clear and which are not. Who gets to decide which passages are the “clear passages”?

Take the above example. Why do we think we are correct in saying Acts 2:38 cannot mean salvation through baptism on the basis of a cross reference in Ephesians 2:8-9? Wouldn’t it be just as plausible that Ephesians 2:8-9 should be read in light of Acts 2:38? Hence, Ephesians 2:8-9 might be teaching us that salvation is not of works (with the exception of baptism). In other words, the cross reference could be read either way (hypothetically).

With our cross reference strategy, we are saying this: Ephesians 2:8-9 is the lens to interpret Acts 2:38.

But, admittedly, our friend could argue the reverse: Acts 2:38 is the lens to interpret Ephesians 2:8-9.

How do we decide which text gets the priority? Both are relatively straightforward in how they read. Perhaps we could count passages. Maybe there are more passages to cross reference that agree with Ephesians 2:8-9 than with Acts 2:38. However, this is a bad approach to the cross reference strategy. First, there are lots of passages which link baptism and salvation to some degree (Acts 2:38; Rom 6:4; Eph 4:5; Col 2:12; 1 Pet 3:21). Second, it is not appropriate to determine the meaning of a passage based on whichever view has more passages to support it. Theology is not formed on the basis of counting passages. Or put another way, theology is not determined by majority rule.

This leads to the following observation about using a cross reference. There seems to be a problem with simply saying Scripture must interpret Scripture. This statement must be qualified.

Context is King in Biblical Interpretation

We are often preoccupied in finding a relevant cross reference. And I’m not denying that it can be helpful (especially if texts are written by the same human author). But in every case, our goal should be to understand the context of the passage at hand first. The biblical author is writing with a specific audience in mind and is relying on a specific background that the readers have.

We will miss some of the most important elements of Romans 13:1-7 if we are trying to understand it in light of a cross reference to 1 Peter 2:13-17. Although both passages deal with submission to the government, they are both written for different purposes, and thus provide different nuances to the same subject. They should be compared, but we cannot assume they are saying the same thing in the same context.

I would like to suggest that the proper approach of interpretation is not to read texts over other texts but to read the passage as the author intended us to read it. It is important to cross reference, yes! But the first step (and most important) is to fit the text in its own context.

I do believe that the Bible will never contradict itself. But the first step is to interpret it in its context. When each passage is interpreted correctly in its context, there will never be a contradiction between any text.

For your information, I do not believe baptism is necessary for salvation. However, what I want to stress is that the proper way of interpreting passages is not to only cross reference (allegedly) clear passages. We believe that all of God’s word is clear (meaning that it was written to be understood). It may require hard work to understand the meaning of a passage, but nobody said it would be easy to understand the Bible. Thus, we must work hard at reading with the author’s intent in mind.

Here are a few questions to keep in mind when reading the Bible passage which will help in interpreting those difficult passages.

1) Who is the author and what is his purpose in this book?

How does this passage fit into this author’s overall purpose? What argument is he making, and how does this text contribute to that?

2) Who is the audience and what issues are they going through?

How does this passage answer any questions the audience has? How does this passage confront, encourage, rebuke, or comfort the audience? A cross reference to other books written to or about this audience can be helpful at this point too.

3) How would a first century Gentile (or Jew) have understood what the author is saying?

This is where a cross reference can be most helpful. What Old Testament text is the author referring to? Is he quoting something? Alluding to it? If a quotation of Scripture is at hand, a cross reference is ideal to understand the context there. Perhaps he is alluding to a Jewish/Gentile custom.

4) Are any of my preconceived ideas (cultural, theological, etc.) hindering my understanding of this passage?    

It is a common for some people to argue that one’s theology SHOULD guide their exegesis. I think that is a terrible idea. Our theology should not drive our exegesis, rather, our theology is derived from exegesis. Are my preconceived notions of family, work, slavery, lordship standing in the way of the first century meaning? How are my cultural values different than the target audience of this passage? How is my theological expectation different than the target audience?

These questions are not exhaustive, but they target the real issue. There is definitely a place for using the cross reference in Bible study. But, the starting place is to understand the text in light of the authorial intent of the human and divine author, not our cultural experience or theological preferences. We interpret a text in context, because it has a meaning and a purpose where God has placed it.

Photo: Envato Elements

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.


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