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
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,
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 Saviour 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
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
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
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
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,
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,
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 Saviour 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.
About the Author
Ron Rhodes is the author of The Counterfeit Christ of the New Age Movement
(Baker Book House, 1990). He can be reached at RonRhodes@aol.com
From the Christian Research Journal, Winter 1992, page 28. The Editor-in Chief of the Christian
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