Esotericism and Biblical Interpretation
by Ron Rhodes
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?”
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?”
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?”
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.
LEGITIMATE 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.” 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.”
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).
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. 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. 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.”
SEEKING THE AUTHOR’S INTENDED MEANING
The objective interpreter of Scripture seeks to discover the author’s intended meaning (the only true meaning). We must recognize that what a passage means is fixed by the author and is not subject to alteration by readers. Meaning is determined by the author; it is discovered by readers.
Our goal must be exegesis (drawing the meaning out of the text) and not eisogesis (superimposing a meaning onto the text). By using eisogesis instead of exegesis, a Marxist interpreter could, for example, so skew the meaning of the U.S. Constitution that it comes out sounding like it supported socialism. Esotericists have done the same type of thing with God’s Word. They approach Scripture with a particular mystical preunderstanding and so skew the meaning of the biblical text that it comes out saying something entirely different than what was intended by the author.
Certainly an esoteric interpreter would object if an orthodox Christian interpreted Eastern mystical texts in such a way that they came out sounding like they support orthodox Christianity. The Christian would be guilty of reading something into the Eastern text that simply is not there, and would be rightly reprimanded by the esotericist. Groothuis thus suggests that the Golden Rule applies here: ‘Interpret others’ texts as you would have them interpret your own.”
Context. In seeking the biblical author’s intended meaning, it is critical to interpret Bible statements in context. Every word in the Bible is part of a sentence; every sentence is part of a paragraph; every paragraph is part of a book; and every book is part of the whole of Scripture. There is thus both an immediate and a broader context of a given verse.
The immediate context of a statement is the paragraph (or paragraphs) of the biblical book in question. No text of Scripture is independent from the statements around it. Interpreting a text apart from its immediate context is like trying to make sense of a Rembrandt painting by looking at only a single square inch of the painting, or like trying to analyze Handel’s “Messiah” by listening to a few short notes. The immediate context is absolutely critical to a proper understanding of individual Scripture texts.
The broader context of any given text is the whole of Scripture. We must ever bear in mind that the interpretation of a specific passage must not contradict the total teaching of Scripture on a point. Individual texts do not exist as isolated fragments, but as parts of a whole. The exposition of these texts must therefore involve exhibiting them in right relation both to the whole and to each other. This principle is grounded in the fact that each of the biblical writers wrote within the larger context of previous biblical teaching. And they all assumed that all of Scripture — though communicated through human instruments — had one Author (God) who didn’t contradict Himself (2 Pet. 1:21).
History. Historical considerations are especially important as a backdrop in ascertaining the author’s intended meaning. Christianity is based on historical fact. More specifically, Christianity rests on the foundation of the historical Jesus of Nazareth whose very life represents God’s full and objective self-communication to humankind (John 1:18). In the empirical (experiential) world of ordinary sense perceptions, Jesus was seen and heard by human beings as God’s ultimate revelation (1 John 1:1-3). This is why He could claim, “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well” (John 14:7).
The apostle Paul warned the religious men of Athens of the objective reality of the future judgment of all humanity on the basis of the objective, historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:16f.). This evidence is recorded for us in propositional statements (i.e., affirmations of specific truths) in the New Testament Gospels, documents that are based on eyewitness testimony and written very close in time to the events on which they report. Based on how people respond to God’s objective, historical revelation contained in Scripture, they will spend eternity in a real heaven or a real hell. Esoteric manipulation of truth will not be possible on the day of judgment.
ILLUMINATION BY THE HOLY SPIRIT
Esotericists rely on their own inner “illumination” to determine the hidden meaning of Scripture verses. Orthodox Christians, by contrast, rely on the Holy Spirit’s illumination to gain insights into the plain meaning and application of Scripture (John 16:12-15; 1 Cor. 2:9-11). The Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of truth” (John 16:13) guides us so that “we may understand what God has freely given us” (1 Cor. 2:12). This is quite logical: full comprehension of the Word of God is impossible without prayerful dependence on the Spirit of God, for He who inspired the Word (2 Pet. 1:21) is also its supreme interpreter.
It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a full discussion of the Holy Spirit’s ministry of illumination. Other good sources are available for this. However, I do want to emphasize that this aspect of the Holy Spirit’s ministry operates within the sphere of man’s rational capacity, which God Himself gave man (cf. Gen. 2-3). James Sire comments that “illumination comes to the ‘minds’ of God’s people — not to some nonrational faculty like our ‘emotions’ or our ‘feelings.’ To know God’s revelation means to use our minds. This makes knowledge something we can share with others, something we can talk about. God’s Word is in words with ordinary rational content.”
Related to this, theologian Roy B. Zuck reminds us that the ministry of the Holy Spirit in interpretation does not mean interpreters can ignore common sense and logic. Since the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13), “He would not teach concepts that failed to meet the tests of truth. The Holy Spirit does not guide into interpretations that contradict each other or fail to have logical, internal consistency.”
It must also be kept in mind that the function of the Holy Spirit is not to communicate to the minds of people any doctrine or meaning of Scripture that is not contained already in Scripture itself. The Holy Spirit makes men “wise up to what is written, not beyond it.” Indeed, “the function of the Spirit is not to communicate new truth or to instruct in matters unknown, but to illuminate what is revealed in Scripture.”
One further point bears mentioning. Though esotericists claim to depend on their own “inner illumination,” they are utterly blind to the possibility, as Sire has noted, that the unholy spirit — Satan, the Father of lies — may be behind their “illumination.” that Satan is a crafty misinterpreter of God’s Word. Indeed, in his attempt to bring about Christ’s downfall, he quoted two passages out of context (Matt. 4:1-11). Christ responded by quoting the Word of God in context, thus defeating Satan’s purposes. However, though Satan lost in this encounter with Jesus, he is still promoting the misinterpretation of Scripture through esotericism.
THE EXAMPLE OF JESUS CHRIST
Esotericists would do well to consider the example set by Jesus Christ in how to properly interpret Scripture. Jesus never sought a hidden or secondary meaning when interpreting the Old Testament Scriptures. On the contrary, He consistently interpreted the Old Testament quite literally, including the Creation account of Adam and Eve (Matt. 13:35; 25:34; Mark 10:6), Noah’s Ark and the Flood (Matt. 24:38-39; Luke 17:26-27), Jonah and the whale (Matt. 12:39-41), Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:15), and the account of Lot and his wife (Luke 17:28-29). In his book The Savior and the Scriptures, theologian Robert P. Lightner notes — following an exhaustive study — that Jesus’ interpretation of Scripture “was always in accord with the grammatical and historical meaning. He understood and appreciated the meaning intended by the writers according to the laws of grammar and rhetoric.”
Jesus affirmed the Bible’s divine inspiration (Matt. 22:43), its indestructibility (Matt. 5:17-18), its infallibility (John 10:35), its final authority (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10), its historicity (Matt. 12:40; 24:37), its factual inerrancy (Matt. 22:29-32), and its spiritual clarity (Luke 24:25). Moreover, He emphasized the importance of each word of Scripture (Luke 16:17). Indeed, He sometimes based His argumentation on a single expression of the biblical text (Matt. 22:32, 43-45; John 10:34).
Unlike esotericists — who say there is a hidden, spiritual meaning in Bible verses discernible only by esoteric “initiates” — Jesus taught openly and with clarity. Recall that following His arrest, Jesus was questioned by the High Priest about His disciples and His teaching. Jesus responded: “I have spoken openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said” (John 18:20, emphases added). Since Jesus had said nothing in secret, those who heard Him would be able to clearly enunciate what He had openly communicated. There were no hidden meanings beneath His words.
That Jesus taught openly and with clarity is attested by the doctrinal influence He had on His followers. Several scholars have noted that if Jesus had intended to teach esoteric Christianity, He was a failure as a teacher, for His words led those who followed Him in the precise opposite direction than He would have intended. For example, instead of becoming pantheists (pantheism — the belief that God and all things are one — is a common belief among esotericists), Jesus’ followers were theists who believed in a personal Creator God who is distinct from His creation. Jesus’ followers took Him at His word, interpreting what He said plainly, just as He interpreted the Old Testament Scriptures plainly.
ESOTERICISM AND MATTHEW 13
Some esotericists may appeal to Matthew 13 in an attempt to refute the idea that Jesus taught openly and with clarity. In this chapter, Jesus is portrayed as being in front of a mixed multitude comprised of both believers and unbelievers. He did not attempt to separate the believers from the unbelievers and then instruct only the believers. Rather, He constructed His teaching in such a way that believers would understand what He said but unbelievers would not — and He did this by using parables.
After teaching one such parable, a disciple asked Jesus: “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (Matt. 13:10). Jesus answered: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you [believers], but not to them [unbelievers]” (v. 11, inserts mine). What did Jesus mean by the word secrets in this verse? Was He lending support to esotericism?
By no means! The Greek word for secret simply means mystery, and is even translated this way in the New American Standard Bible. A mystery in the biblical sense is a truth that cannot be discerned simply by human investigation, but requires special revelation from God. Generally speaking, this word refers to a truth that was unknown to people living in Old Testament times, but is now revealed to humankind by God (see Matt. 13:17 and Col. 1:26). In Matthew 13, Jesus provides information to believers about the kingdom of heaven that has never been revealed before.
Some have wondered why Jesus engineered His parabolic teaching so that believers could understand His teaching but unbelievers could not. The backdrop to this is that the disciples, having responded favorably to Jesus’ teaching and placed their faith in Him, already knew much truth about the Messiah. Careful reflection on Jesus’ parables would enlighten them even further. However, hardened unbelievers who had willfully and persistently refused Jesus’ previous teachings — such as those set forth in the Sermon on the Mount — were prevented from understanding the parables. Jesus was apparently observing an injunction He provided earlier in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matt. 7:6). Yet there is grace even here. For, as many scholars have noted, it is possible that Jesus may have prevented unbelievers from understanding the parables because He did not want to add more responsibility to them by imparting new truth for which they would be held accountable.
That Jesus wanted His parables to be clear to those who were receptive is evident in the fact that He carefully interpreted two of them for the disciples — the parables of the Sower (Matt. 13:3-9) and the Tares (13:24-30). He did this not only so there would be no uncertainty as to their meaning, but to guide believers as to the proper method to use in interpreting the other parables. The fact that Christ did not interpret His subsequent parables indicates that He fully expected believers to understand what He taught by following the methodology He illustrated for them. Clearly, then, Matthew 13 does not support but rather argues against esotericism.
A CLOSING CHALLENGE
Jesus said His words lead to eternal life (John 6:63). But for us to receive eternal life through His words, they must be taken as He intended them to be taken. An esoteric reinterpretation of Scripture that yields another Jesus and another gospel (2 Cor. 11:3-4; Gal. 1:6-9) will yield only eternal death. Jesus’ life-giving invitation is plainly open to all: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).
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.
10 Geisler, 7.
11 Tal Brooke, When the World Will Be as One (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1989), 118.
12 I am indebted to Douglas Groothuis for this observation; 89-90.
14 E.g., Roy B. Zuck, “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics,” Bibliotheca Sacra 141 (April-June 1984):120-30.
15 Sire, 17.
16 Zuck, 126.
17 Cited in Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), 14.
18 Ibid., 18.
19 Robert P. Lightner, The Savior and the Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966), 30.
20 Groothuis, 89; and Peter Kreeft, “The Most Important Argument,” in The Intellectuals Speak Out about God, ed. Roy Abraham Varghese (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1984), 251.