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
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
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
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