Sep 10, 2012

Esotericism and Biblical Interpretation (Part 1)

Ron RhodesBy Dr. Ron Rhodes
Reasoning from the Scriptures Ministries

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When Jesus said, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Matt. 6:33, NIV), was He teaching His disciples, as New Ager David Spangler argues, to seek "the state of identification with one's true individuality, the source within, the Divine center, that I AM THAT I AM?" [1]

When Jesus said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me" (Matt. 11:29), was He teaching His disciples, as Church Universal and Triumphant leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet argues, to "take my consciousness of my sacred labor, my Christhood bearing the burden of world karma and learn of my Guru, the Ancient of Days?" [2]

When Moses composed the creation account in Genesis, was it really his intention to communicate, as Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy argues, that the name Adam represents a dam (as in the dam at Niagara Falls) that "stands for obstruction, error, even the supposed separation of man from God?" [3]

The common link joining each of these Bible interpreters is that they all utilize an esoteric system of interpreting Scripture—that is, each seeks hidden, secret, or inner spiritual meanings of Bible verses, especially the teachings of Jesus. If these and other esotericists are correct in their approach to Scripture, then orthodox Christians have woefully misrepresented the true meaning of Scripture for almost two full millennia. We must therefore address the question, Is the esoteric method of interpreting Scripture a legitimate method?

In answering this question, we begin with the observation that right from the first book in the Bible, there is virtually no indication that Scripture was intended to be taken esoterically. Rather, a plain (nonesoteric) reading of the text seems to be assumed throughout. A plain reading of Genesis indicates that when God created Adam in His own rational image, He gave Adam the gift of intelligible speech, thus enabling him to communicate objectively with his creator (and with other human beings) via sharable linguistic symbols called words (Gen. 1:26). Indeed, God sovereignly chose to use human language as a medium of revelational communication.

If the primary purpose of God's originating of language was to make it possible for Him to communicate with human beings, as well as to enable human beings to communicate with each other, then it must follow that He would generally use language and expect man to use it in its literal, normal, and plain sense. This view of language is a prerequisite to understanding not only God's spoken word but His written word (Scripture) as well.

Esotericists must be made to see that the Bible as a body of literature exists because human beings need to know certain spiritual truths to which they cannot attain by themselves. Thus these truths must come to them from without—that is, via objective, special revelation from God (Deut. 29:29). And this revelation can only be understood if one interprets the words of Scripture according to God's original design for language—that is, according to the ordinary, plain, literal sense of each word.

Now, in contrasting esotericism with a "literal" approach to Scripture, I am not suggesting a "wooden literalism" that interprets biblical figures of speech literally. But what is understood to be a figure of speech and what is taken literally should be based on the biblical text itself—such as when Jesus used obviously figurative parables to communicate spiritual truth.

A literal approach to Scripture also recognizes that the Bible contains a variety of literary genres, each of which have certain peculiar characteristics that must be recognized in order to interpret the text properly. Biblical genres include the historical (e.g., Acts), the dramatic epic (e.g., Job), poetry (e.g., Psalms), wise sayings (e.g., Proverbs), and apocalyptic writings (e.g., Revelation). Obviously, an incorrect genre judgment will lead one far astray in interpreting Scripture. A parable should not be treated as history, nor should poetry or apocalyptic literature (both of which contain many symbols) be treated as straightforward narrative. The wise interpreter allows his (or her) knowledge of genres to control how he approaches each individual biblical text. In this way, he can accurately determine what the biblical author was intending to communicate to the reader.

Now, even though the Bible contains a variety of literary genres and many figures of speech, the biblical authors most often employed literal statements to convey their ideas. And where they use a literal means to express their ideas, the Bible expositor must employ a corresponding means to explain these ideas—namely, a literal approach. A literal method of interpreting Scripture gives to each word in the text the same basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary, customary usage—whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. Without such a method, communication between God and man is impossible.


Ligitimate and Illegitimate Interpretations

In keeping with a literal approach to Scripture, we must emphasize that each biblical text has only one legitimate meaning and therefore only one legitimate interpretation. In 1983 the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) published a small commentary on "The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics," in which Article VII states: "We affirm that the meaning in each biblical text is single, definite, and fixed." [4] The commentary explains that "the affirmation here is directed at those who claim a 'double' or 'deeper' meaning of Scripture than that expressed by the authors. It stresses the unity and fixity of meaning as opposed to those who find multiple and pliable meanings." [5]

Esotericists may respond to this statement by saying that their interpretation of Scripture is just as legitimate as anyone else's. Certainly, in a sense, everyone is entitled to his or her own interpretation of the Bible. At the same time, however, we must insist that not all interpretations are equally correct. New Age analyst Douglas Groothuis comments:

You may, in fact, "interpret" the bright, large orb that irradiates the solar system as being a remarkably durable and powerful satellite constructed by Peruvian peasants in A.D. 300. You have a "right," so to speak, to interpret things that way; but that in no way makes your view correct. Your interpretation is either true or false; you are either right or wrong. Having "your own interpretation" about the Bible does not, in itself, legitimate that interpretation as truth any more than "your interpretation" of your IRS return legitimates itself before the penetrating eyes of an income-tax auditor. He goes by "the book," not your book. The it's-my-interpretation cop-out may land you a big fine or even time behind bars (which no amount of creative interpretation will dissolve). [6]

In the it's-my-interpretation approach of esotericism, the basic authority in interpretation ceases to be Scripture, but is rather the mind of the individual interpreter. And because of this, esoteric interpreters offer us irreconcilable contradictions in their interpretations of specific Bible verses.

New Ager Benjamin Creme, for example, believes that references to the second coming of Christ in the New Testament point to the coming of a single individual known as Maitreya. [7] Other New Agers, such as David Spangler, believe these same references point to an incarnation of the cosmic Christ in all of humanity, and are not fulfilled in a single individual. [8] Contradictions such as these are inevitable when the mind of the interpreter is made the authority instead of Scripture.

A plain reading of Scripture indicates that Christ Himself will physically and visibly come again in cataclysmic fashion to judge the living and the dead (Matt. 24; Rev. 19). Indeed, just as Jesus literally fulfilled hundreds of biblical prophecies dealing with His first coming—including where He would be born (Mic. 5:2), the time of His ministry (Dan. 9:24-27), His miracles (Isa. 35:5-6), His parables (Ps. 78:2), His death (Isa. 53; Ps. 22) and resurrection (Ps. 16:10)—so He will personally return in literal fulfillment of the remaining prophecies regarding the Second Coming.

Now, having said this, I do not mean to imply that orthodox Bible interpreters unanimously agree on all the finer points of theology, for they clearly do not. However, their differences of opinion on relatively minor details (the nonessentials) must be seen in the broader context of their unanimous agreement on the major details (the essentials) of Christianity. This impressive widespread agreement on the essentials of Christianity stems from an objective methodology that takes the words of Scripture in their ordinary, plain sense—just as God intended.

Unlike objective methodology, in which interpretations (of both the major and minor details in Scripture) can be rationally evaluated and tested by comparing Scripture with Scripture and by objectively weighing historical and grammatical considerations, there is no objective way to test esoteric interpretations of Scripture. By nature, esotericism is subjective and nonverifiable. There is no way to prove that a given interpretation is right or wrong since "proof" presupposes rationality and objectivity. A New Ager relying on an esoteric approach cannot know for sure, then, whether Creme or Spangler is correct (or whether either is correct) regarding the Second Coming. Addressing esotericism's nonverifiability, James Sire says that "there is no way to tell if the system that derives from esotericism is really so or merely a figment of the esotericist's imagination—or worse—a direct plant by the Father of Lies." [9]


[1] David Spangler, The Laws of Manifestation (Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Publications, 1983), 23-24.

[2] Mark L. Prophet and Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Lost Teachings of Jesus 3: Masters and Disciples on the Path (Livingston, MT: Summit University Press, 1988), 273-74.

[3] Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1971), 338.

[4] Norman L. Geisler, Explaining Hermeneutics: A Commentary (Oakland, CA: International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1983), 6.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Douglas Groothuis, Confronting the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 85.

[7] Benjamin Creme, The Reappearance of the Christ and the Masters of Wisdom (Los Angeles: Tara Press, 1980), 48, 55.

[8] David Spangler, Reflections on the Christ (Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Publications, 1981), 86.

[9] James W. Sire, Scripture Twisting (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 113.