Q194 : Spiritualizing Old Testaments Passages

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Q194 : Spiritualizing Old Testaments Passages

I've recently come across your website while trying to research information for a personal Bible study. My study is about how to interpret the Old Testament correctly.

I have found your web page on different ways of interpretation such as historicism and futurisma; but I just can't find the information I'm looking for. I'm writing to ask if you could forward me any links, if possible, to other pages on your website which might shed more light on biblical interpretation.

In particular I am trying to understand whether any of the Old Testament promises which were given as literal and specific promises to the nation Israel, can also be spiritualized and applied to the Church. I have come across information which says that when God gave Abraham a promise of many children, its application for the Church is that the Church can expect God to give her many children, i.e. converts. Yet I can't understand how this works - where is the evidence in the New Testament allowing us to make this kind of transition from a literal promise for Israel to a spiritual promise for the Church?

Any help you are able to offer would be much appreciated. Thank you.

A194 : by Tony Garland

The idea you mention whereby promises to Abraham about having many physical offspring are understood to indicate the Church can expect God to give her many children is questionable at best. Let's take a closer look:

Now the LORD had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, From your family And from your father's house, To a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”1

This is an important passage which has many implications, but lets focus on two aspects in particular:

  1. I will make you a great nation.
  2. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
It is important to realize that when this promise was given it had a specific meaning to the individual God was speaking to: Abram, eventually to become Abraham. Thus, the words must have a literal meaning which was understandable to Abram—without relying on the New Testament (NT) which would only be written many hundreds of years later. It would be unfair — even misleading or perhaps even deceptive — for God to tell Abram something which didn't actually mean what the words convey at face value. Thus, God who created language to communicate with His creatures, is Himself bound by the meaning of the initial promise given to Abram as it would have normally be understood.

What would Abram have understood? Well, to focus on just the two aspects above, he would have understood: (1) that his physical descendants would become a great nation (numerous and possibly powerful or influential); (2) that in he and his descendants all the rest of the nations (families of the earth) would experience some sort of blessing (cf. Gen. 22:18; 26:4; 28:13-14). Elsewhere in scripture, we find that this line of promise extends from Abram (Abraham) through Isaac to Jacob — who is Israel (Gen. 17:19-21; 21:12; 24:36; 25:5,11,23; 26:4,24; 27:27-29; 28:3-4,13-14).

These two components equate to two different promises, both of which are literal. The first one concerning numerous physical offspring pertains specifically to Israel—the Jews. The other concerning a unique blessing for the nations pertains to both Jews and Gentiles—any who exercise faith in Abraham's ultimate offspring Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:7,29). Notice in all of this that we haven't “spiritualized” any text. The second promise, a literal promise, has a spiritual dimension (faith) but the promise itself is literal—understood in its plain sense. (The promise to bless the nations through Abraham is easily understood in the original setting—even without the New Testament—but the specifics of exactly what form that blessing will take is not stated here.)

Thus, I would say that the conclusion that Abraham would have many physical offspring (promise #1) has no bearing whatsoever on the number of people down through the ages who, by faith, participate in the second of the two promises (the people of faith, whom in our age constitute the Church). It is simply unhelpful to interpret the first promise as pertaining to the Church since it specifically relates to Abraham's physical descendants. The second promise is rich enough (and literal) that we have no need to make such an appeal.

You ask, “where is the evidence in the New Testament allowing us to make this kind of transition from a literal promise for Israel to a spiritual promise for the Church?” A careful consideration of the New Testament will show that there is no such evidence. Instead, we find that New Testament authors quote Old Testament (OT) passages for a variety of reasons, but none of them overthrow the original OT meaning or spiritualize it to mean something else entirely. Paul Henebury provides a helpful summary of the NT use of OT passages in his article, Hermeneutical Confusion and Hermeneutical Consistencya:

Here are ten guiding principles, taken from recent literature, which, we believe, give real help in this area. 1. Progressive revelation cannot annul unconditional promises. If once a promise is made unconditionally by the Lord (e.g. the Land promise to Abraham), it is not abrogated nor transformed further along the ladder. 2. If the NT does not explicitly or implicitly cancel something in the OT we are to presume it is still in force, or will be in the future. God does not have to constantly repeat Himself in order for His original pronouncement to be taken seriously. 3. We must be aware that there is no such thing as a consistent NT pattern of OT passages. “There are varieties of NT uses of the OT.” This is perhaps the issue between Dispensationalists and Covenant Theologians. Central to the argument is the issue of sensus plenior or new meaning. Dispensationalists guard a single meaning of the sacred text though with expanded applications. By allowing the NT to reinterpret the OT without reference to the original context, other systems like Covenant Theology play fast and loose with a literal hermeneutic whilst claiming unabashedly that they are still interpreting the sacred text literally. In other words, they believe that the spiritual applications of the apostolic writers give them carte blanche to ride roughshod over the plain prophecies of the OT. 4. No NT writer claims that his new understanding of the OT passage cancels the meaning of the OT passage in its own context, or that the new application is the only meaning of the OT passage.[30] This especially affects places such as Peter’s usage of Joel 2 in his first Acts speech (Acts 2), and James’s use of Amos 9 in Acts 15. 5. Typology does not cancel the meaning of the type in its setting, nor does it substitute the meaning of the antitype for it.” Type and antitype are never exactly alike. For one thing, the type is inferior to the antitype. 6. The NT cannot redefine or re-interpret the OT without hazarding the revelational aspect of the OT passage. God’s word in the OT was a word directed to a particular life-setting. Any predictive elements or future NT applications were not intended to usurp or transform the pristine revelation. 7. Though grammatico-historical hermeneutics tells us the sense of an OT prediction, we cannot always know the referent until the fulfillment. We are neither Apostles nor prophets. 8. Types and analogies must be handled differently than predictions and prophecies. They are too open to theological gerrymandering. 9. The Bible uses the term fulfillment and fulfilled in various ways. Interpreters must be sensitive to this phenomenon. 10. One must carefully distinguish how the NT writers are using the Old. Fruchtenbaum identifies 4 usages: Literal prophecy plus literal fulfillment; Literal plus typical; Literal plus application; and, Summation. While this is a useful classification, it is not identification. Better is Thomas’s view (borrowed from Walton) of “inspired sensus plenior application” (ISPA). What he means by this term is that the inspired authors of the New Testament could assign a new meaning to an Old Testament passage and apply it to something appropriate to the Church, even doctrinally.

The NT does not undermine the meaning of an OT passage within its original context. In particular, physical promises cannot be spiritualized to mean something else entirely. It could not be otherwise since God could be thereby charged as having mislead the original recipients. By His own character He is not at liberty to morph what He has said to mean something else hundreds of years later. He may extend what He said or provide additional information. This is simply ‘progressive revelation’ which always builds upon—without undermining—what came before. We would expect this to be the case or else it would be impossible to hold OT readers accountable for understanding what God said since they lacked access to the NT (which some claim we need in order to “redefine” or “reinterpret” what the OT states). Otherwise, this would be akin to the Mormon claim that Christians need to consider the Book of Mormon in order to properly interpret the New Testament.

Previous answers to questions on the subject of interpretationb and hermeneuticsc (the rules which govern interpretation) may also prove helpful.

When we encounter teaching which attempts to change the meaning of an OT passage and spiritualize it so as to assign it to the Church, we need to be especially wary. However, we don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater so as to miss the other important Biblical truth that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness . . . ” (2Ti. 3:16). Thus, we first seek to understand the meaning of OT passages in their original context and only then do we apply them to our lives today. Application is always fruitful. Spiritualization is not.


1.NKJV, Gen. 12:1-3

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