Spurgeon’s Allegorizing

  Charles Spurgeon mentioned to his students that within certain limits it was OK to “spiritualize” a text.  He spent some time explaining this point in Lectures to My Students.  It’s not exactly easy to get a precise definition of what it means to “spiritualize” a text; it has to do with the interpretation of Scripture, which is a huge topic in itself.  However one defines it, there is an overlap between spiritualizing and allegorizing.  In fact, I would argue that Spurgeon’s sermons sometimes contain allegory.

One example is his sermon on Genesis 7:15 which is called “The Parable of the Ark.”  I recently read this sermon in my studies on Genesis 6-9.   While Spurgeon says in the introduction he’s going to give a “parable” on the ark, it’s really an allegory.  Here’s Spurgeon’s allegorical interpretation of the “one window in the ark”:

I have often wondered how all the creatures could see through one window; but I have not wondered what was meant by it, for I think it is easy to point the moral. There is only one window whereby Christians ever get their light. All who come to Christ, and receive salvation by him, are illuminated in one way. That one window of the ark may fitly represent to us the ministry of the Holy Ghost. There is only one light which lighteneth every man who cometh into the world if he be lightened at all. Christ is the light, and it is the Holy Spirit of truth by whom Christ is revealed.

…There was only one window to the ark; and though there were first, second, and third stories to the ark, all saw out of one window; and the little saint, who is in the first story, gets light through the one window of the Spirit; and the saint, who has been brought up to the second story, gets light through the same window; and he, who has been promoted to the loftiest story, has to get light through the same window too. There is no other means of our seeing except through the one window made to the ark, the window of the Holy Spirit. Have we looked through that? Have we seen the clear blue sky above us?

While it is true that the Holy Spirit gives illumination, it is certainly not the meaning of the ark’s window.  The window in the ark was just a window in the ark, not a veiled reference to the Holy Spirit.  In fact, there could have been more than one opening in the ark depending on how one translates the very difficult phrase in Gen. 6:16a.  Some scholars say there may have been an 18 inch (a cubit) opening all around the top.  Whatever the case, Spurgeon clearly missed the meaning of the text.

I’m not saying Spurgeon was a terrible preacher.  He was human and made many mistakes like the rest of us.  And some of his sermons were better than others. I just wanted to point this out to help us avoid the error of allegorizing a text like this.  Αnd it is helpful to remember that even our favorite preachers err and it’s healthy for us to admit that.  This will keep us from emulating their error.  It will also keep us from idolizing our favorite preachers.  And it reminds us that God can [thankfully!] accomplish his purposes through fallible preachers and imperfect sermons.

The above quote by Spurgeon is found in Spurgeon, C. H. The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons. Vol. 53. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1907, p. 270.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Over-Interpretation and Redemptive History

In many ways, Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings is a helpful resource.  I’m glad I own it and will keep using it as I work through the Solomon narrative for a sermon series on which I’m working.

However, I’ve run across a few “red flags” that have made me question Leithart’s interpretive methods.  Time and again, his interpretation of different parts of these stories struck me as fanciful and far-fetched.  Here are a few examples of this over-interpretation from Leithart’s comments on the early Solomon stories.

First, concerning Solomon riding on a mule for his coronation (1 Kings 1:44):

“Mules are mixed-breed animals, and this perhaps points to Solomon’s kingdom including Jews and Gentiles.  As mixed-breed animals, further, mules are cherubic, reflecting the composite character of those creatures that draw the chariot of Yahweh (cherubim have four faces: ox, lion, eagle, human; Ezek. 1).  Adonijah attempted to capture the high ground by presenting himself as the “son of Yahweh,” traveling in a glory-chariot, but in the end David designates Solomon as son of Yahweh, riding on a cherubic animal just as his divine father does” (p. 32).

My response: the problem here is that the text neither states nor hints that Adonijah or David had these things in mind.  Further, I’m very hesitant to jump from a mule to a cherubim without clear textual warrant.  It is quite a stretch to view Solomon’s coronation parade as a son of Yahweh riding a cherubic animal.

Next, Leithart comments on David’s speech to Solomon and Solomon’s executions (1 Ki. 2):

“Solomon is a ‘New Joshua,’ who spends the early part of his reign wiping out the ‘Canaanites’ that remain in David’s kingdom, bringing ‘rest’ to the land, and building a sanctuary for Yahweh, recapitulating the sequence of events in Joshua. …Solomon’s execution of Joab is a cleansing sacrifices that saves Solomon from the consequences of Joab’s sins” (p. 36).

My response: The narrator does not commend Solomon for executing the enemies of the throne in 1 Kings 2.  In fact, there are clear textual notes that make the reader seriously wonder if Solomon did the right thing in executing these men (i.e. Joab may have been holding the horns of the altar when he was executed, and Shimei was executed even though he didn’t cross the brook Kidron as he promised not to do).  It’s not for nothing that some commentators say that Solomon was ruthless and callous in these executions.  I simply do not see textual warrant for comparing Solomon to Joshua in this way.  It sounds cool, but it’s not very accurate.

Another comment that makes me wary of Leithart’s interpretive method is the section on the court case of the two prostitutes and the living child (1 Ki. 3).  This is the famous case where Solomon wisely suggests cutting the child in two in order to determine which woman is the child’s true mother.  Here is one thing Leithart says about the story:

“[It] has an eerie resemblance to Passover.  The exchange of sons takes place at night, as does Passover (Exod. 12:29), and as at Passover one male child dies while another is delivered.  This suggests that the false mother is Egypt, a Pharaoh-like woman who smothers her own child and then seeks to toss Israelite children into the Nile.  Endowed with Yahweh’s wisdom, the king comes with a sword to kill, as the angel of Yahweh frees the sons of the Israelites, under threat from Pharaoh. …Through this test, Solomon discerns which woman is the true Israelite, the true daughter of Abraham, who, like Abraham gives up her child in faith to save him.”

My response: This is far too fanciful.  There are no hints in the text that the one prostitute had a Pharaoh-complex, nor is there any indication that Solomon is trying to find out which woman is the true Israelite.  What is more, we have no idea what kind of faith the one woman had; we only knew that she really loved her child (1 Ki. 3:26).  Again, it sounds cool, but it is speculative.

There are many more examples like this in Leithart’s commentary.  I wouldn’t call this a redemptive-historical commentary as some have called it – it is sort of redemptive-historical, but not really.  I hate to use the term allegorical, but that word did come to mind when I was working through these parts of this commentary.  For the record, I’m not saying one should avoid this commentary, but buyer beware of fanciful over-interpretation.  It is helpful in some ways, but I don’t highly recommend it.  Right now, I like these two commentaries better (which I’ll discuss here some other time): 1 & 2 Kings by I. Provan and 1 Kings by J. T. Walsh.

shane lems

Prester John, Ferdinand Magellan, and Superstition

In the early part of the 12th century, some European monks wrote an imaginative and allegorical account of the faith (sort of like a medieval Pilgrim’s Progress).  The fictious account was about a Christian man named Prester John  (“Prester” is an ancient way to say “presbyter” or “priest”) who ruled over a vast golden earthly kingdom with treasures innumerable.  Prester John’s kingdom was a peaceful realm of wealth, food, and bliss – without the normal dangers of human life.  Also, this realm had satyrs, griffins, a phoenix, and other such creatures.  (To be sure, later editors/redactors greatly embellished the original allegory.)

This account of Prester John was hugely known even hundreds of years later.  Laurence Bergreen says “so great was its appeal that it became one of the most widely circulated and discussed documents of the Middle Ages, translated into French, German, Russian, Hebrew, English, among other languages, and with the introduction of movable type, it was reprinted in countless editions.”  The legend of Prester John was so much part of European thought that people would go in search for this kingdom – so they could find gold and Christian peace.  In fact, Pope Alexander III wrote a letter to Prester John, whom he called “the illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies and a beloved son of Christ.”  Marco Polo (13th C) even claimed to have met the illustrious Prester John.  I wonder if (or how much) Columbus, Magellan, and the other explorers thought of this account as they braved the seas.  No doubt many of the sailors were familiar with Polo’s journeys, which did mention Prester John.

I note this account simply because it is a fascinating piece of (church) history.  I don’t have time to go into it, but this book (Bergreen’s Over the Edge) vividly shows all the religious superstitions and rumors in the late Medieval era (including the Prester John allegory) – which Luther, Calvin, and others had to struggle against.  The book is a great read because of the scope and importance of Magellan’s voyage but also because of the deeply religious aspect of the era, which will interest students of the Reformation.  In other words, this is awesome (fun) background reading for Reformation studies.  If you read it (and I recommend it!), be sure to look into St. Elmo’s fire or the Roman Catholic manner of baptizing “converts” that Magellan “converted.”

The account of Prester John is found on pages 76-81 of Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

For Your Christian Imagination

I enjoy C.S. Lewis, but have read only about 40% of the stuff he’s written.  I do remember him and others like him emphasizing the importance of reading and the imagination in the Christian life.  Actually, I either read somewhere or heard someone say that all preachers should either read the Narnia series or the Lord of the Rings as a way to hone preaching skills.  I agree, and would add that the hearers of sermons can benefit from these books as well to hone the art of listening!  This post is about such a book: one that will massage your right brain by way of imagery, allegory, and word-picture.

The Wordsmith, the Kid, and the Electrolux (Waterford: Capstone Fiction, 2008) by Cliff Leigh is a dance through a new world where things first don’t make sense, then they finally start making sense by words and pictures.  The book is about a young boy (around 10-13 years old give or take) who gets stuck in the “kingdom of his own happiness:” his desires trap him in a downward spiral of folly (p. 3).  Leigh gives us a great window into the mind of this boy (Corian Griffin).  For example, when Corian would steal to fill his desires, “a faint tingling…began to grow just beneath the surface” of his clothing.  He “shifted his body and flexed his muscles to alleviate the sensation but to no avail” (p. 28).  Basically, this is his conscience bothering him; though he wouldn’t call it that, he would call it a terribly uncomfortable sensation.

I don’t want to ruin the story, but Corian travels through a world where he meets all kinds of fascinating characters: army guys, other children with fascinating personalities, adults with odd traits, a life-or-death type of children’s game, a journey, and all sorts of other things which teach Corian about himself and about reality.  Here’s a little “sample.”  After a battle-that-wasn’t-really-a-battle in this new world, “the cheering of the silver city thundered like the ocean, harmonized by the gasp and epithets of the city of copper at the sight of their fallen hero.  The vast sea of humanity rolled and splashed with excitement and misery.  And now, as in the story of the boy who slew the giant, I expected the silver city to attack the coppers, but instead, the strangest thing occurred next (p. 52).”  You’ll have to read it to see what strange thing did happen.

To conclude, the book is a sort of allegory that highlights the main themes of Scripture.  Some allegories sort of jam the Bible into the reader, but this one is not that way.  The biblical references, for the most part, are neither forced nor brought to the front to make the story “cheesy” (for lack of better terms).  In the end, it does come together pretty clearly and an average reader won’t miss the biblical allusions.  (Side note: for you apologists out there in the presuppositionalist camp – you’ll especially enjoy the last part of the story).

There are a few illustrations throughout; they are spectacular.  It is clear that Leigh is an artist through and through.  The few illustrations in the book make the reader wish for a whole lot more.  I was longing for pictures of some things that Leigh took great pains to write about, though perhaps that would have taken away from the great word-pictures.  Either way, the illustrations are great and you’ll really want to see more.  One more thing: the book isn’t really for younger kids.  The content is kid friendly for the most part, but the writing style is at the level of high school and above.  This is not a critique, but an observation (in case you were wondering).

Anyway, long story short: if you like Lewis and Tolkien, you’ll enjoy this.

Cliff Leigh The Wordsmith, the Kid, and the Electrolux (Waterford: Capstone Fiction), 2008.

shane lems

sunnyside wa