Saturday, May 7, 2011

Creating Cross References

Cross-References are one of the oldest, most trusted and most effective Bible study tools, and while there are many complex and extensive cross-reference schemes, the fundamental principle behind cross-references is simple. Applying that principle can reach great depth.

One of the fundamental principles of Protestant biblical interpretation is that "Scripture is its own best interpreter." Luther expressed this principle with the words, Scriptura sui ipsius interpres ("Scripture is its own expositor"), and it was summed up by the authors of the Westminster Confession thus: "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture ... it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly." For this reason the most important feature of any edition of the Bible (aside from the quality of the translation itself) is the system of cross-references provided in the margin, which helps the reader to find out the meaning of any hard place by "comparing spiritual things with spiritual" (1 Cor 2:13). A good set of cross-references, when used diligently and with intelligence, will make much commentary unnecessary. does a phenomenal job of explaining the philosophy and method behind cross-references.
Cross-references follow a simple logic and can operate a number of ways. My Cambridge ESV features an explains the following types of cross-references featured in their edition

  1. References to Specific Words or Phrases.
  2. Comparative References. These references direct the reader to passages with the same theme.
  3. Less Direct References. These references generally provide additional information or insight about a specific theme.
  4. Quoted References. These references indicate the source for verses or phrases quoted from other places in the Bible.
References to specific words or phrases seem to be the most common. Similar language causes recognizable association. This means that cross-references will vary by translations in a similar way that concordances do. Comparative references and less direct references fall under the umbrella of topical references, which link verses by content, topic or theme rather than language or wording, though the two often converge.

One of the most common ways to take notes in your Bible is to create your own cross-references in the margins, linking verses that interpret and illuminate each other. Often the process and order of creating these cross references leads to new revelation as topics connect and diverge, one theme leads to another and the relationship between topics in the Word often brings light. The Word's relationship and association with itself is astounding as it confirms and empowers itself, while also creating tension within itself.

A brother in Christ and on the mission field here studies the Bible predominately through creating cross references. The margins of his Bible are filled with references and topical studies that often converge and morph into new topics and associations. As we struggle through difficult situations and conflicts in life and on the mission field, he often copies down references from his Bible into diagrams and gives them to me for study. Our conversations have led to the creation of many of these studies, and cross-references have become part of our fellowship and ongoing dialog in discerning the will and Word of God.

The above diagram tracks topics of freedom, authority, righteousness and the second coming.

This features a study on faith and works, living out a radical lifestyle that confirms our faith, a topic we are basing our high school camp around in August.

Cross-references have the potential to create a dialog within scripture itself, isolating the Word of God within itself to allow it to bring light to itself. Our goal should always be to find the best interpretation of scripture through scripture itself.

For more understanding of how to create cross-references and topical chains see this post from



  1. I loved this post, thank you for writing it! :-D
    Sarah c

  2. FYI, The last link is to a oneness site.

  3. Studies in Scripture is written by a oneness pentecostal, who I consider a friend and brother in the Lord, though I do not share his theology and consider some sects of oneness pentecostalism cultic.

  4. Excellent post...I use cross references extensively an could not agree more with your conclusions brother!

  5. Thanks for the encouragement Scott!