Have you ever been subjected to a sermon that was vulgar, perverted, or just plain unbiblical? Chances are, it was an example of bad spiritualizing.
Today’s episode is about the chapter titled “On Spiritualizing” in Spurgeon’s book Lectures to My Students.
What is spiritualizing? It is applying a spiritual meaning to something – specifically for preachers, it is taking a story, verse, or a passage from the Bible and using them to in a sermon to illustrate or allegorize theological truth.
There are many areas of preaching that require balance – the avoiding of extremes – and this is one of them. There are two ditches on either side of this road: the one ditch belongs to men like the fastidious Adam Clarke who said: “Allegorical preaching debases the taste and fetters the understanding both of preacher and hearers.”
The opposite ditch on the other side of the road is preachers whose numbers are more prolific than we would want – who make sermons stranglers of scripture.
The balance here is the path that Spurgeon followed. He said, “Within limit, my brethren, be not afraid to spiritualize…I counsel thee to employ spiritualizing within certain limits and boundaries…do not drown yourselves because you are recommended to bathe.”
Let me share with you the 4 guidelines Spurgeon gives for responsible spiritualizing.
1. Do not violently strain a text by illegitimate spiritualizing. Want an example? Spurgeon references one from Rowland Hill, in his book Village Dialogues, wherein he describes a Mr. Slopdash who preached “I had three white baskets on my head,” from the dream of Pharaoh’s baker… Upon this the ‘thrice-anointed ninny-hammer,’ as a friend of mine would call him, discoursed upon the doctrine of the Trinity!”
If you don’t see the problem with preaching on the doctrine of the Trinity from the story of Pharaoh’s baker, then you probably should not be spiritualizing at all. It would be best for you to stick to the plain meaning of the text.
Spurgeon warns, “Ludicrous results sometimes arise from sheer stupidity inflated with conceit,” and later he adds, “Avoid that childish trifling and outrageous twisting of texts which make you a wise man among fools, but a fool among wise men.”
Later Spurgeon adds, “Never pervert Scripture to give it a novel and so-called spiritual meaning.” He then shares an example from William Huntingdon who infamously made “the seventh commandment to mean the Lord speaking to his Son and saying, ‘Thou shalt not covet the devil’s wife, i.e., the non-elect.” One can only say horrible!”
2. Never spiritualize upon indelicate subjects. Of course, we should always avoid being vulgar in the pulpit, but Spurgeon emphasizes it here because there is a tendency among preachers of the Slopdash variety to take adult-themed biblical passages and turn them into full-blown sermons that serve no purpose other than crimson the cheeks of modesty. These preachers mistake bawdiness for boldness and tawdry talk for plain preaching. Spurgeon warns of these types of preachers, saying, “There is a kind of beetle that breeds in filth, and this creature has its prototype among men.”
Some might accuse Spurgeon of being overly affected by Victorian sensibilities. His response to that charge is, “I am not squeamish, indeed, far from it, but explanations of the new birth by analogies suggested by a monthly nurse, expositions of the rite of circumcision, and minute descriptions of married life, would arose my temper and make me feel inclined to command with Jehu that the shameless one should be thrown down from the exalted position disgraced by such brazen-faced impudence.”
Spurgeon emphasized the preacher’s duty to keep his sermon appropriate by saying, “…no pure mind ought to be subjected to the slightest indelicacy from the pulpit…Gentlemen, the kissing and hugging which some preachers delight in is disgusting: Solomon’s Song had better be let alone than dragged in the mire as it often is.”
3. Never spiritualize for the sake of showing what an uncommonly clever fellow you are. The Word of God plainly preached is the food we should feed Christ’s lambs, but some preachers fall prey to the temptation to be novel and ingenious. Heed the words of Spurgeon, here: “Gentlemen, if you aspire to emulate Origen in wild, daring, interpretations, it may be as well to read his life and note attentively his follies into which even his marvelous mind was drawn by allowing a wild fancy to usurp the absolute authority over his judgment; and if you set yourselves to rival the vulgar declaimers of a past generation, let me remind you that the cap and bells do not now command the same patronage as fell to their share a few years ago.”
What Spurgeon means by that is that spiritualizing for the sake of appearing to be really clever is an easy way to make yourself look like a fool.
4. In no case allow your audience to forget that the narratives which you spiritualize are facts and not mere myths or parables. Spurgeon explains, “The first sense of the passage must never be drowned in the outflow of your imagination; it must be distinctly declared and allowed to hold the first rank; your accommodation of it must never thrust out the original and native meaning, or even push it into the background.”
Therein lies the problem with a lot of bad spiritualization: it completely divorces the sermon from the sense of the passage – there is no drawing of legitimate parallels, no suggestion of biblical types, nor is there any illustrating with credible anti-types – just really bad eisegesis.
For an example of this perversion of Scripture, I will recall a sermon I read in a popular Baptist periodical where the Canaanites were typified into different sins based on the meaning of the Canaanite name or some notable story about them. The most egregious of his points was when he made Jethro the Midianite a symbol of the temptation to slow down and to not work as hard. This is an absurd analogy because Jethro’s advice to Moses was wise, not sinful. You can’t turn the plain sense of the passage on its head because you need another point in your sermon. It is the Lord’s Word, not play-dough for you to mold into your imaginative notions of biblical morality.
Despite these manifold dangers, Spurgeon affirms that there is a legitimate range for spiritualizing. For example, the Bible is replete with types that are beautiful illustrations of the Savior’s redemptive work – the Temple and all its trappings is a treasure trove of such types.
Along with types, there are thousands of metaphors to be found in the Bible’s gold mine of truth. And there is also a multitude of scriptural allegories that are ready for service in the sermonizer’s arsenal. Spurgeon elaborates on this, saying, “When the apostle Paul finds a mystery in Melchisedek, and speaking of Hagar and Sarah, says, ‘Which things are an allegory,’ he gives us a precedent for discovering scriptural allegories in other places…Indeed, the historical books not only yield us here and there an allegory, but seem as a whole to be arranged with a view to symbolic teaching.”
For good examples of spiritualizing, Spurgeon recommends we read his devotional books Morning by Morning and Evening by Evening.
One final source of passages available for spiritualizing is the parables and the miracles of the Bible. Spurgeon said “There can be no doubt that the miracles of the acted sermon of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A word of caution here: when it comes to parables, be sure to stick to the main lesson of the parable. Almost all parables have one primary lesson to teach, so we would be wise to not read into every detail of a parable anything that detracts from the Savior’s intention.
There is so much more to share from this chapter, but instead, I will urge you to read it for yourself. Spurgeon shares many examples, of both good and bad spiritualization, and even of good sermons that would have been better had they not been founded upon the straining of a story to squeeze out of it a bit of spiritualizing. Be sure to give this chapter a read.
I close with Spurgeon’s closing words: “…guided by discretion and judgment, we may occasionally employ spiritualizing with good effect to our people; certainly, we shall interest them and keep them awake.”