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Hermeneutics: On Being “More Spiritual Than God”

January 21, 2013

Recently in the comments at Fred Butler’s blog, an amillennialist expressed many thoughts including this one:

if the passages that speak of Israel in a kingdom in which they dwell in a land in which everyone “sits under a fig tree” for example is the real meaning of the Bible then I see that as a problem. If bearing fruit that glorifies Christ is reduced to having a fruit garden then I have missed the gist of the Bible. Far better for such passages to be illustrating the fruitful spiritual kingdom of the Spirit filled age in which through Christ we have been enabled to bear real fruit then to see the culmination of the ages as living over in Palestine.

The phrase referenced here is found in Micah 4:4, with a similar thought in Zechariah 3:10.  The first thing to note here, of course, is that we already have many scriptures that talk about our bearing spiritual fruit for God, as for instance Galatians 5:22, Ephesians 5, Colossians 1, and Philippians 1:10-11.

The Old Testament as well addresses this subject, especially in the book of Proverbs (in numerous places in that book alone), but even in places such as 2 Kings 19:30.  So the suggestion that a literal interpretation of Micah 4:4 and related Old Testament passages requires that “bearing fruit that glorifies Christ is reduced to having a fruit garden” is foolish.  Of course we recognize the truth revealed in the scripture, all of the scriptures including the importance and greatness of bearing spiritual fruit that glorifies Christ. A literal interpretation of “sits under a fig tree” in NO WAY takes away from that truth, but gives us additional revelation about another topic (since spiritual fruit-bearing has already been addressed in numerous other scriptures).  Our hermeneutics are not driven by an either/or but a Both/And — both the bearing fruit that glorifies Christ, and Israel having their kingdom and literal peace.  A further question to ask would be: what is the purpose of even having those Old Testament prophecies with descriptions about a wonderful time of peace, if all they have to tell us is the same thing we’ve already been told, in unmistakably clear language in many texts elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments?

Such a comment reminds me of Dan Phillips’ classic post (25 Stupid Reasons for Dissing Dispensationalism), reason #9: “It isn’t a spiritual hermeneutic.”  When God said Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), He knew it meant “house of bread” — but He meant the city anyway.  

Dan gives an example of what a spiritualizing hermeneutic would have done to the prophecies regarding Christ’s First Coming – and indeed we have the advantage of looking back, that we realize that all of the prophecies concerning Christ’s First Coming were fulfilled literally. (So why should anyone think that the prophecies of the Second Coming will NOT be fulfilled literally?) Christ really was born in Bethlehem, and He really did ride on a donkey, etc.  But to take the same symbolic hermeneutic applied to the Second Coming prophecies, to the First Coming prophecies, would come up with something like Dan well described: “What God is really saying would have been perfectly clear to the Jews. It was symbolic. Messiah would come from ‘the house for bread,’ from the storehouse of God’s spiritual nourishment, and He would give life, as bread does. Those wooden literalists who look for fulfillment in an actual city are perverting the Word to their carnal imaginations.’”

Why does God’s word include so many passages that seem to us very “unspiritual” (and even boring), such as the many sections in the Old Testament (and a few in the gospels) with nothing but genealogies and lists of names?  Could it be that God is actually interested in us human beings, even in our “carnal” lives, and He thinks these things are important and part of His revealed word to us?  Of course the Bible does not include only that which is strictly “spiritual” and non-physical, and we are not to twist the literal meaning of God’s word simply because we think a certain passage is too “carnal” and ordinary, insisting that that passage must have some greater, deeper, “spiritual” meaning instead.  Trying to be more spiritual than God is indeed a foolish thing to do.

  1. Elaine Bittencourt
    January 21, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    “Trying to be more spiritual than God is indeed a foolish thing to do.”

    Agreed, thanks Lynda!

  2. Robyn W.
    January 21, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    It seems that the literal promises just seem to fantastical to be true, and perhaps just not lofty enough for some. I must admit, that I see it just the opposite.

  3. January 21, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks, Elaine and Robyn. Yes, some think the literal promises not “spiritual” enough and thus they disdain these great and very true promises.

    • Ron Smith
      January 21, 2013 at 3:55 pm

      Every time I read something or hear someone say that there can’t be a milennial kingdom because the kingdom is spiritual and not carnal, it reminds me of something I heard slj say quoting Alva J. McClain:

      “Well, since that time there’s been a great deal of criticism of the millennial kingdom based upon that very idea; that the idea of a kingdom of God upon the earth is a carnal hope. The Jews, it is said, had that hope. But Christians don’t have that kind of hope, because we believe that a kingdom ought to be spiritual. In fact, occasionally in the criticism some will say, citing Paul’s word in Romans chapter 14, that the kingdom of God is in joy and in the Holy Spirit. Well, they fail to realize that a person may spiritually live on the earth without necessarily being unspiritual because he is concerned with material things. I think the classic answer to this question is the one that Alva McClain gave in a sermon or a lecture that I heard him deliver on the spirituality of the millennial kingdom. I know you’ve heard me give it before, but I’m giving it for those who are going to be listening to these basic Bible doctrines, too.”

      “Dr. McClain, who is now with the Lord, is trying to illustrate the fact that it’s possible to be spiritual, and yet be engaged in material activities at the same time. The fact that the kingdom is an earthily kingdom doesn’t mean it’s not spiritual. He said; let me illustrate this with a parable. During a church banquet, a group of preachers were discussing the nature of the kingdom of God. One expressed his adherence to the premillennial view of a literal kingdom established on earth among men. To this a rather belligerent two hundred pound preacher snorted, “Ridiculous, such an idea is nothing but materialism.” When asked to state his own view he said, “The kingdom of God is a spiritual matter. The kingdom of God has already been established and is within you. Don’t you know the kingdom is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost?” And then this preacher, Dr. McClain said, hungrily reached across the table and speared another enormous piece of fried chicken. [Laughter] Nobody tried to answer him. As a matter of fact, no answer was necessary. He had answered his own argument. As the French would say, “He was hoist with his own petard.” If the kingdom of can exist now on earth in a two hundred pound preacher full of fried chicken, without any reprehensible materialistic connotations, perhaps it could also exist in eating and drinking under more perfect conditions in a future millennial kingdom. “Personally,” Dr. McClain said, he was a little man with a wonderful sense of humor. He said, “Personally, I’ve always had a very high opinion of the value of fried chicken. But this was the first time I had ever seen its apologetical value as an argument against the inconsistencies of that view of the kingdom, based on a platonic notion of spirituality.”


      • January 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm

        Yes, that is a great story. I’ve heard SLJ tell that story from Alva McClain, and it makes such a great point.

  4. Pauline Yates
    January 21, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    I feel also that a lot of unbelief in a literal millennial kingdom is Pride. They want all the blessings for themselves they see themselves as spiritual Jews. The church gets it all . Israel is finished. There is a certain amount of arrogance and pride in this theology . Or am I barking up the wrong tree ? .

    • January 21, 2013 at 7:41 pm

      You’re right on target on that point, Pauline — a great deal of pride in those who especially tout the spiritual-only kingdom, nothing for Israel. Case in point, this individual cited above (from the quote about spiritual fruit, etc.) and the arrogance displayed throughout all his comments at Fred’s blog post.

  5. Pam S.
    January 22, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    I just wonder how amills. can be on the same page. If they can spiritualize the things they can’t explain, then who determines who is right. My explanation of a passage would be different than someone else’s. Who determines whose hermeneutic is correct.
    I’m just sayin’………


    • January 23, 2013 at 9:30 am

      Yes, Pam, and well stated. That is exactly the problem with the spiritual/allegorical hermeneutic.

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