Spiritualizing Scripture

DATE OF PUBLICATION: ................ 2002

A friend phoned this morning and asked for help. Someone has arrived at their church, who claims to have a new, hidden knowledge about the meaning of Scripture.

Because this type of fanaticism is extremely dangerous and can easily captivate minds and spread, I am immediately preparing a study on it. Here it is.


The Inspired Writings (the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy) are to be taken literally, unless an obvious symbol is employed.

If an obvious symbol is present, then a secondary meaning may be sought. This is especially so when the literal use of the words lacks adequate meaning by themselves. But that figurative meaning will clearly be given elsewhere in Scripture

Symbolic language is primarily found in:

1 - Dreams: When Joseph dreamed that the sun, moon, and stars would bow before him (Gen 37:9), it is obvious that symbols were employed. The literal sun, moon, and eleven stars were not going to bow before him, so a secondary meaning would need to be found. Since he was a child at the time, his parents and brothers were obviously represented by the symbols, and they immediately recognized it (vrs. 10). Two other examples of the use of symbols in dreams would include those of the butler and baker (Gen 40:8-22), and Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the great image (Daniel 2).

But not all dreams had symbols; sometimes they consisted of information or commands. When the wise men were told in a dream not to return to Herod and Joseph was told to flee to Egypt, no symbols were needed (Matt 2:12-13). In a dream, Paul was told by a man in Macedonia to come and help his people. The meaning was obvious (Acts 16:9).

2 - Prophecy: The use of symbols in prophecy is also obvious, when the literal meaning would not be true.  The woman riding the beast in Revelation 17:1-6 clearly needs an interpretation.

We are told that the dragon of Revelation 12:3-4 (GC 438), and the leopard-like beast of Revelation 13:1-10 (GC 439) are symbols. The four winds are symbolized as meaning strife (GC 440).

Some of the prophetic books have many symbols. These include the prophecies of Daniel (PK 485), Ezekiel (PK 448, 535), and Zechariah (PK 580).

3 - The Sanctuary service: The Passover purification by sprinkling with blood on a hyssop was symbolic (PP 277). The Sanctuary service included secondary symbolic meanings (Ed 35; PP 523, 584)

4 - Symbols which point to Christ: There are a variety of symbols which point to Christ. These include the brazen serpent (SD 222), the cities of refuge (PP 516), the smitten rock (PP 411, 418), the sacrificial blood (PP 353), and the wine in the marriage feast (DA 148-149).

5 - Parables: Christ's parables symbolized truths (3T 426). The vine and its branches have special meanings. But it would be an error to imagine that they had many meanings. As a general rule, when the correct interpretation of the symbol has been found, we need not keep searching for additional meanings.


Spiritualizing away Scripture occurs when literal, historical events are spiritualized away by applying secondary meanings to them. Every noun and many verbs are said to have hidden meanings, which the discerning will be able to figure out. You will be told that it takes great wisdom to be able to do this. Believers are taken in by this, imagining that the person telling them this is smarter or closer to God than they are.

So, like Eve at an earlier tree of pretended knowledge, they linger and listen.

But, in reality, the hidden meanings which are offered are, for two reasons, always flawed: First, various meanings can be applied out of thin air to each word. Second, most of the meanings are either not Scripturally founded at all, or not even relevant.

This spiritualizing of words is also called the allegorical method.

What we are dealing with here are changed definitions of words describing actual events. This produces confusion. It also provides the false sense of mystery and hidden knowledge. The hearers sense that the whole thing is incoherent. Some reject it outright and leave. Others, worried that it only appears incomprehensible because they are not smart enough to grasp it, go ahead and accept it.


This spiritualizing away, changing actual information into some kind of secret code, comes from the pagan Greeks. Philosophers used it to convince their countrymen that they were very intelligent, and able to delve into the secrets of the universe.

Greek philosophy made its nearest approach to Christianity in Plato (427-347 B.C.). He elaborated the concepts of Socrates and wrote them down. Later, the teachings of Plato greatly influenced liberal Jewish and Christian writers. They were deeply impressed by his grasp of what men called esoteric (hidden) knowledge.

Plato taught that divine ideas were only imperfectly contained in human words, and that we must seek out the secret truth in them. His teachings were fundamentally pantheistic. God was in everything, and we could find hidden things in everything about us. He gleaned a variety of pagan ideas during his travels to the pagan oracles of Greece, Asia, Egypt, and Rome.

Origen (c. A.D. 185-c. 254) was the first to extensively bring Platonic error into early Christianity. The Neo-Platonic philosophy was just coming into prominence under the leadership of Ammonius Saccas. Origen studied his methods carefully. Soon his reputation was widespread, and heathen and Gnostics in large numbers were attending his lectures. Because he taught a mixture of Christianity and Platonism, many heathen were converted to his worldly brand of Christianity.

Origen mastered the Hebrew language, traveled to Rome, Arabia, Palestine and Greece for further enlightenment, and then wrote extensively.

Because Origen was willing to dabble in Platonistic and Gnostic learning, Satan used it to capture him. Origen was the first to reduce the allegorical method of Scripture interpretation to a organized system.

In accordance with Platonism, he stated that every passage of the Bible has three meanings: literal, moral, and spiritual.

The literal meaning (what you read when you open the Bible), he said was unimportant, for it was earthly, sensual, carnal, and Jewish. In fact, he said it was not always true.

The deeper sense, which was celestial, symbolic, mystical, and secret, was divided into the moral and spiritual sense. The moral sense relates to the religious life, and the spiritual sense to the heavenly life, the world to come.

Origen's method of Scriptural interpretation became widely accepted by Christian philosophers throughout the Dark Ages.

It is an intriguing fact that almost all the great doctrinal controversies of the fourth and following centuries centered around points on which Origen had speculated most boldly.

Origen stood with Augustine as the other of the two most influential theologians of the ancient church. Both taught many errors.

The spiritualizing, or allegorical, method frees a person to be able to read into a passage anything he wants it to say! The Bible no longer is a message from God, but a collection of assumptions and theories devised by people.


A variant of this method was used by the Jews who wrote comments in the margins of the Bible, which we today call the Talmud. It is an immense jumble of assorted and conflicting ideas. Some of it is based on allegorical changes of word meanings, while other parts are simply comments which add to or explain away from what the Scriptures plainly teach. The Aramaic paraphrases of the books of the Bible, known as the Targum, were also of Pharisaic origin.

Because the Rabbis had so thoroughly twisted the meaning of Scripture, Christ did not study in their schools:

In the days of Christ the town or city that did not provide for the religious instruction of the young was regarded as under the curse of God. Yet the teaching had become formal. Tradition had in a great degree supplanted the Scriptures. True education would lead the youth to "seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him." Acts 17:27. But the Jewish teachers gave their attention to matters of ceremony. The mind was crowded with material that was worthless to the learner, and that would not be recognized in the higher school of the courts above . . The principles of the law were obscured. That which was regarded as superior education was the greatest hindrance to real development. Under the training of the rabbis the powers of the youth were repressed. Their minds became cramped and narrow.

The child Jesus did not receive instruction in the synagogue schools. His mother was His first human teacher. From her lips and from the scrolls of the prophets, He learned of heavenly things. The very words which He Himself had spoken to Moses for Israel He was now taught at His mother's knee. As He advanced from childhood to youth, He did not seek the schools of the rabbis. He needed not the education to be obtained from such sources; for God was His instructor. Desire of Ages, 69-70.

From its earliest years the Jewish child was surrounded with the requirements of the rabbis. Rigid rules were prescribed for every act, down to the smallest details of life. Under the synagogue teachers the youth were instructed in the countless regulations which as orthodox Israelites they were expected to observe. But Jesus did not interest Himself in these matters. From childhood He acted independently of the rabbinical laws. The Scriptures of the Old Testament were His constant study, and the words, "Thus saith the Lord," were ever upon His lips.  {DA 84.1}

As the condition of the people began to open to His mind, He saw that the requirements of society and the requirements of God were in constant collision. Men were departing from the word of God, and exalting theories of their own invention. They were observing traditional rites that possessed no virtue. Their service was a mere round of ceremonies; the sacred truths it was designed to teach were hidden from the worshipers. He saw that in their faithless services they found no peace. They did not know the freedom of spirit that would come to them by serving God in truth. Jesus had come to teach the meaning of the worship of God, and He could not sanction the mingling of human requirements with the divine precepts. He did not attack the precepts or practices of the learned teachers; but when reproved for His own simple habits, He presented the word of God in justification of His conduct.  {DA 84.2}

In every gentle and submissive way, Jesus tried to please those with whom He came in contact. Because He was so gentle and unobtrusive, the scribes and elders supposed that He would be easily influenced by their teaching. They urged Him to receive the maxims and traditions that had been handed down from the ancient rabbis, but He asked for their authority in Holy Writ. He would hear every word that proceeds from the mouth of God; but He could not obey the inventions of men. Jesus seemed to know the Scriptures from beginning to end, and He presented them in their true import. The rabbis were ashamed to be instructed by a child. They claimed that it was their office to explain the Scriptures, and that it was His place to accept their interpretation. They were indignant that He should stand in opposition to their word.  {DA 85.1}

They knew that no authority could be found in Scripture for their traditions. They realized that in spiritual understanding Jesus was far in advance of them. Yet they were angry because He did not obey their dictates . . His brothers, as the sons of Joseph were called, sided with the rabbis. They insisted that the traditions must be heeded, as if they were the requirements of God. They even regarded the precepts of men more highly than the Word of God, and they were greatly annoyed at the clear penetration of Jesus in distinguishing between the false and the true. His strict obedience to the law of God they condemned as stubbornness. Desire of Ages, 84-86.


The thinking that all Scripture can be turned into one vast set of symbols with strange, hidden meanings, is a species of fanaticism. Persons of excitable temperament are most easily led into fanaticism (2SM 43). Satan leads overzealous, unbalanced, and unsanctified minds into fanaticism (AA 348). It will manifest itself again in different ways (2SM 44). Fearful waves of will come (2SM 47). Every phase of fanaticism will press in among believers and unbelievers (MM 114). All the reformers had to meet fanaticism (GC 396).

The fanaticism which Satan brought on the German Church in the sixteenth century, nearly destroyed it.

A few men, deeply affected by the excitement in the religious world, imagined themselves to have received special revelations from Heaven, and claimed to have been divinely commissioned to carry forward to its completion the Reformation which, they declared, had been but feebly begun by Luther. In truth, they were undoing the very work which he had accomplished. They rejected the great principle which was the very foundation of the Reformation--that the word of God is the all-sufficient rule of faith and practice; and for that unerring guide they substituted the changeable, uncertain standard of their own feelings and impressions. By this act of setting aside the great detector of error and falsehood the way was opened for Satan to control minds as best pleased himself. Great Controversy, 186.

Luther had no desire to encounter the fanatics whose course had been productive of so great evil. He knew them to be men of unsound judgment and undisciplined passions, who, while claiming to be specially illuminated from heaven, would not endure the slightest contradiction or even the kindest reproof or counsel. Arrogating to themselves supreme authority, they required everyone, without a question, to acknowledge their claims. Great Controversy, 190.


In his study of the Scriptures, William Miller compared each word in a passage with others elsewhere, but he was working with actual meanings; not with hypothesized spiritual meanings.

Endeavoring to lay aside all preconceived opinions, and dispensing with commentaries, he compared scripture with scripture by the aid of the marginal references and the concordance. He pursued his study in a regular and methodical manner; beginning with Genesis, and reading verse by verse, he proceeded no faster than the meaning of the several passages so unfolded as to leave him free from all embarrassment. When he found anything obscure, it was his custom to compare it with every other text which seemed to have any reference to the matter under consideration. Every word was permitted to have its proper bearing upon the subject of the text, and if his view of it harmonized with every collateral passage, it ceased to be a difficulty. Thus whenever he met with a passage hard to be understood he found an explanation in some other portion of the Scriptures. As he studied with earnest prayer for divine enlightenment, that which had before appeared dark to his understanding was made clear. He experienced the truth of the psalmist's words: The entrance of Thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple. Psalm 119:130. Great Controversy, 320.

Young Ellen White had to deal with fanaticism and spiritualizing away of Scripture.

Our meetings in this place were cheering to the few who loved the truth. We rejoiced that the Lord in His providence had directed us that way. We enjoyed the presence of God together, and were comforted to find a few who had stood firm all through the scattering time, holding fast the messages of truth through the mist and fog of spiritualizing and fanaticism. This dear family helped us on our way after a godly sort. Life Sketches, 115.

Wolff, the well-known missionary to the Near East, called this fanaticism, which symbolizes away the meaning of the words of Scripture, phantomizing:

Concerning the popular system of interpreting, or misinterpreting, the Scriptures, Wolff wrote: The greater part of the Christian church have swerved from the plain sense of Scripture, and have turned to the phantomizing system of the Buddhists, who believe that the future happiness of mankind will consist in moving about in the air, and suppose that when they are reading Jews they must understand Gentiles; and when they read Jerusalem, they must understand the church; and if it is said earth, it means sky; and for coming of the Lord they must understand the progress of the missionary societies; and going up to the mountain of the Lord's house, signifies a grand class meeting of Methodists. (Journal of Joseph Wolff, page 96).Great Controversy, 360.


Phantomizing Scripture is not something in the past. It is still being done today.


How should you safeguard yourself and your loved ones:

First, everything is to be interpreted literally, unless an obvious symbol is employed; such as you would find in parables or Bible prophecy.

Second, if you want to know the deeper, more detailed meaning of a Bible passage, read what the Spirit of Prophecy says about that passage. You will then have a fully-inspired explanation of it.

Third, when someone comes to you, claiming to have new light; most of the time the new light is keyed to changes in meaning of Scriptural words. Stick with the obvious, plain meanings given in the Bible, as explained in the Spirit of Prophecy.

Fourth, have nothing to do with people who ignore, sidestep, belittle, or set aside the Spirit of Prophecy. They well know that it is able to overthrow their errors.

Fifth, as soon as you recognize what is taking place in a meeting, warn others, and then get out of there and take your loved ones with you.