The Spiritualizing of Prophetic Interpretation

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The Spiritualizing of Prophetic Interpretation

Our origin as a Christian denomination, our current mission and message, our upcoming dangers and temptations, and our subsequent central role in the closing scenes of earth’s history—all of this is rooted in Biblical prophecy. The ramifications of prophecy are therefore very extensive—so extensive that a correct understanding of prophecy is not only crucial to our theology, it is vital to our salvation.

 

Now, I am not arguing that misunderstanding or being wrong on any particular prophetic detail condemns the soul. However, I am suggesting that a proper understanding of prophecy is much more important than we tend to realize. Therefore, we should strive to identify and remove all hindrances that impede prophetic interpretation. The need for this is great, considering that the advance of prophetic understanding in our Church has ground nearly to a halt.[1]

 

The Spiritualizing of Prophecy

In this article, I’d like to address one such hindrance: the growing trend within Adventism over the last century to spiritualize prophecy. Throughout the twentieth century, expositors such as Louis Were, Hans LaRondelle, and others advocated a more “spiritual” reading of prophecy—referred to in this article as “the spiritual school of prophetic interpretation.”

 

Their argument went as follows: Prophecy is about God and the salvation of His people, and thus emphasizes spiritual and not worldly history. An exaggerated focus on historical facts obscures this salvific purpose of prophecy. In fact, it can even mislead the expositor. A prophecy might be about spiritually important events, but the interpreter might attempt to align the prophecy with dates and battles that have nothing to do with it.

 

Some of the tenets of the spiritual school of prophetic interpretation are beneficial, such as the salvific focus of prophecy. However, I would argue that some of its other aspects are mistaken and need to be corrected:

 

1) The spiritual school of prophetic interpretation defines spirituality incorrectly

The word spiritual has many meanings, because spirit has many meanings. It can mean ‘relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.’ Things relating to “the human spirit” are broad. They include thoughts, feelings, psychology, and religion—to name a few.

 

Another meaning of spiritual confines it to one of these topics: ‘relating to religion.’[2] To complicate matters, for either of those meanings, spiritual can denote either the category or its quality. Let’s explore some examples:

 

  • Humans are not just biological organisms; they are spiritual beings, too, because they have thoughts and feelings (non-corporeal, category)
  • He’s so unspiritual; all he thinks about is sports (non-corporeal, quality)
  • The Pharisees were the spiritual leaders of the Jewish nation (religious, category)
  • The Pharisees were spiritually blind and hated Jesus (religious, quality)

 

As you can see, spiritual can refer to the inner life of the human soul, in the meaning of ‘psychological,’ ‘mental,’ or ‘emotional.’ It can be used to refer to some of the qualities of “the human spirit” in the meaning of ‘intellectual,’ ‘cultivated,’ ‘humane,’ or ‘noble.’ It can simply mean ‘religious.’ Alternatively, it can refer to the quality of religion, in the meaning of ‘pious,’ ‘sacred,’ or ‘divine.’ It can also be used to differentiate the inner life of the human soul or religion from physical realities, in the meaning of ‘incorporeal,’ ‘non-physical,’ or ‘abstract.’

 

Clearly, all these meanings are not synonymous. However, poor theology often puts equation marks between some of them, resulting in incorrect prophetic interpretation. Common non-Adventist examples would be the argument that the Second Coming symbolizes the union of the soul with Christ after death, and that the description of the New Earth (Revelation 21-22) is not factual, but a metaphor, since the afterlife is spiritual and thus doesn’t have trees and streets. An Adventist example would be the argument that the seven trumpets don’t symbolize actual warfare, but rather represent episodes of spiritual opposition to Christ—such as early heresies and post-enlightenment isms.

 

The corrective to this spiritualized understanding of prophecy can be exemplified by the words of Christ: “…is not life more than food?” “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word of . . . God” (Matthew 6:25; 4:4). Spirituality is not about something else. It’s about something more. We must know what ultimately gives us life. However, we must also continue to eat physical food. Similarly, prophecy is God’s demonstration of the fulfillment of His promises: the reign of sin will not last forever, and God’s kingdom will be established. Yet we still must trace prophecies through dates and wars. In both cases, purpose doesn’t do away with lesser means.

 

2) The spiritual school of prophetic interpretation reads prophecies as parables

If the eternal truths of salvation infer the decreased importance of worldly history, the inevitable result is that prophecy will be read more and more as a parable of salvation. Let me explain. The intention of parable is to teach a moral lesson. Most often this means that many of the parable’s details are given only to tell the story; they don’t actually have any direct application on their own.

 

For instance, one of Christ’s parables on prayer is about a man who went to his friend at midnight to ask for three loaves of bread. The details of this story are not important. The friend could have asked his uncle, or asked an hour after midnight, or asked for fruit, or for two loaves of bread. In all cases, the moral of the parable would have been exactly the same. However, this is not the case with prophecy.

 

Unlike general parables, prophecy is both time-sensitive and detail-sensitive. It is not applicable to many situations and occurrences. Prophecy is about certain events, at a certain time, at a certain place. The details in the prophecy help us to decipher what it is about, and to what we should apply it. If we dismiss “dates and battles” and “newspaper reading” as unspiritual, it becomes next to impossible to detect these details, and to apply them correctly.

 

Here are a couple Adventist examples: “We can’t figure out what time period is referred to by the ‘five months’ in Revelation 9, because they are just a detail in describing the locust threat.” “We shouldn’t worry too much about establishing the starting point of the 1,260 years. The main point of the symbolical 3½ years is that just as Elijah faced Ahab’s wrath for 3 ½ years, so God’s people were persecuted for a long time.”

 

This approach has carried with it a tendency to skim over key details. The natural result is that prophecy is treated as a parable: the details don’t matter that much, and are sometimes ignored altogether. While that approach is proper when reading a parable, it becomes disastrous when interpreting prophecy.

3) The spiritual school of prophetic interpretation weakens historicism

This argument follows from the two points above. Historicism teaches that prophecy follows the circumstances of God’s people through the rise and fall of worldly powers until the close of time. Historicism further teaches that the prophecies are clear enough for their meaning to be understood, and detailed enough for their fulfillment to be identified.

 

The growing “spiritualizing” trend has depreciated some of the major topics of prophecy, such as dates and wars, and dismissed key details as unimportant fillers. This has made prophecy harder to understand, and less interesting to study.

 

Conclusion

When it comes to prophetic interpretation, we need to learn the best aspects of the past and present schools of thought, while simultaneously avoiding their mistakes and errors. The spiritual-emphasis school was correct in pointing out the salvific purpose of prophecy. It is mistaken, however, when it argues that the history of power with its dates and wars, its blood and gore, is less important in prophecy.

 

I would suggest that this aspect is merely the other side of the coin. The history of God’s salvation must inevitably include what His people are being saved from. The history of God’s kingdom must trace the rise and fall of earthly powers until they crumble before the everlasting kingdom. When this is understood, the hindrance posed by the spiritual school of prophetic interpretation is removed. We can then resume our historicist task of studying predictions down to the detail, and establishing their fulfillment to the tee.

______

Notes.

[1] I know this may sound harsh to some. But if you compare the advances in prophetic understanding made during the Millerite movement and early Adventism to the discoveries made from the late nineteenth century onward, the comparison is not flattering.

[2] These definitions are taken from the Oxford Dictionary online. See https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/spiritual

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About the author

Jon Stefansson

Jón Hjörleifur Stefánsson is from Reykjavik, Iceland. After studying at Andrews University, he went to Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where he is currently writing his doctoral thesis in Dogmatics. His topic is Daniel 8 in the theology of Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, William Miller, and Ellen White.

  • Historicism is useful, but has become the standard for all orthodoxy now in the SDA Church.
    So basically, if you follow God’s words instead of Uriah Smith’s, you are outside of orthodoxy in the Church.

  • dwilli

    I appreciate and agree with the counsel you shared here, Brother Jon. There is, however, one point you made which I would like to expand on and clarify (I would have preferred to share this with you privately, but I didn’t see a way of doing so).
    You stated: “For instance, one of Christ’s parables on prayer is about a man who went to his friend at midnight to ask for three loaves of bread. The details of this story are not important. The friend could have asked his uncle, or asked an hour after midnight, or asked for fruit, or for two loaves of bread. In all cases, the moral of the parable would have been exactly the same.”
    I agree with the point you are making about reading a parable for it’s moral lesson. In such a case, there are certain details which could be changed without impacting the moral lesson that the parable is teaching. I’m sure you would agree that, as with prophecy, every portion of the Bible is definite in its inspiration; I mean that God was deliberate in every word that He used. And as William Miller’s first rule of Bible interpretation states (which rules Sister White states all who teach the third angel’s message are searching the Bible upon), every word of inspiration must be given its proper bearing. Scripture also identifies that man is to live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. My point is that every detail given through each and every word of Scripture is important, whether in prophecy or in a parable. In parables, this becomes important when we make a prophetic application of the parable. I will go further to say that we must observe this rule in all our interpretation of Scripture, not so much for understanding moral lessons, but for the prophetic truths which all Scripture teaches. Not only parables, but all of sacred history contains hidden treasure for the last days (the Bible and the Testimonies both identify that each of the prophets spoke more for the last days then for their own day) which can only be understood by making a prophetic application. I understand that the term ‘surface treasure’ identifies moral lessons taught in Scripture, whereas ‘hidden treasure’ identifies prophetic truths which require much more careful and prayerful searching. This methodology of Biblical interpretation is critical for us to experience the ‘increase of knowledge’ which Scripture identifies will be given to God’s people in these last days through the outpouring of God’s Spirit in the latter rain. Each parable, prophecy, and story is giving details to the final reform movement which God will accomplish in the church and in the world, during the time period of the 144,000 and the judgment of the living. This is what it means to study the Scripture ‘line upon line’ in its fullest sense.
    I could give several examples of the truthfulness of this methodology of prophetic application, but for the sake of time I will not, and it may be better for you and other readers that I leave you to test what I have said through your own consecrated study of God’s word.