The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 5

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 5: Do not contrast the plain-sense with a supposedly deeper “spiritual” sense. This implies God doesn’t mean what He says and is thus equivocal in His very nature; which in turn incurs heavy penalties philosophically.

If a person is going to claim that the revealing God intended to pass on a meaning to men which lies somewhere beneath the surface of the words He chose to communicate with, that person must understand that they are not just saying something about certain passages of Scripture.  They are saying something about the Giver of Scripture.

Once this belief is held, all of a sudden there is an imposing esotericism to the Bible.  “Truth”: that which God is imparting, now becomes, not something which is on the surface of the text, but something which must be discovered at another level of communication.

Such an admission proposes that God employs words which might easily be misunderstood.  Words normally refer to whatever can be rightly said to be conveyed by their surface meaning (viz. what is the surface meaning of “whoever believes in me has everlasting life” if it is not what the words themselves state?).  But this admission implies that if one is not very careful, one begins predicating something about God which would be unnerving: the fact that God leads people to believe one thing (a “surface meaning”) when He is really intending another (some deeper or higher “spiritual meaning”).  This makes God less than transparent in His communications, and leads to the questioning of everything that God has spoken so as to try to insure that we ourselves have not been led astray by the “surface meaning.”  I do not see any safety in this process.  Faith cannot rest in any other sense than the plain sense, and if that is abandoned there is no solid ground to build our theology upon.

I have already provided some examples of the shakiness and uncertainty created when this position is taken (e.g. link, link).  Here is another from Iain Duguid’s Commentary on Ezekiel (NIVAC).  He is speaking about the Temple vision in chapter 43:

Verses 10-12 sum up the rationale for the temple vision: Ezekiel is being shown these things so he can relay them to his own generation.  They must consider the design and “be ashamed of their [former] sins.”  The temple vision is not a building plan or a prediction of the future but rather a powerful symbol that addresses the people of Ezekiel’s day…They must consider in particular its “plan” (43:10), its “arrangement,” its “exits and entrances,” along with its “regulations and laws” (43:11).  In other words, the temple vision is a pedagogical tool…” 490.

Such is the detail supplied by the prophet that Duguid reproduces a Plan of Ezekiel’s Temple (473), and goes on to admit that “a competent architect could construct a building from Ezekiel’s description” if he were given more information regarding vertical dimensions and materials, and, of course, with the understanding that “the present temple site in Jerusalem would need to have its topography radically revised.” (479).

Duguid’s insistence that the temple vision, with all its particulars, “is not a building plan or a prediction of the future” means that he will have to look for a “deeper” meaning than the blueprint which Israel is to take care to comprehend.  But let us remind ourselves of the wording of the passage in question:

10  Son of man, describe the temple to the house of Israel, that
they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and let them measure the
pattern.
 11 “And if they are ashamed of all that they have done, make
known to them the design of the temple and its arrangement, its
exits and its entrances, its entire design and all its ordinances, all
its forms and all its laws. Write it down in their sight, so that they
may keep its whole design and all its ordinances, and perform them.
 12 “This is the law of the temple: The whole area surrounding the
mountaintop is most holy. Behold, this is the law of the temple.

The elaborate build up to this text, which according to Duguid provides “the rationale for the temple vision,” is marked by the most strict instruction to the prophet to “fix in your mind everything I will show you” and pay attention to detail (40:4).  This detail involves the return of the shekinah-glory of the LORD to the temple (43:1-7).  What is striking is that this glory had left a literal temple by the east gate in chapter 10; the prophet making a direct reference to that vision in 43:3!  I don’t think Duguid believes the glory of the Lord came into the second temple, so perhaps we are to think eschatologically here?  The chapters surrounding chapters 40-43 can, and should be seen as eschatological (i.e. chs. 34, 36-39), as are those after (i.e. chs. 47-48), so how Duguid can dogmatically declare that the vision was for “his own generation” is hard to understand.  The perplexity grows when one considers that Ezekiel’s generation were in captivity and so were hardly in any position to start planning such a structure.

Ah but, Duguid is ready with the interpretive key: “we should do what it seems to me the New Testament does [N.B. his interpretation of the NT drives his interpretation of Ezekiel] and see how the goal of Ezekiel’s temple finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.” (481).  Again, after a devotional foray; “Christ is the meaning for which Ezekiel’s vision exists.” (483).

With this in view let us return to our “Rule 5”: What Duguid is teaching is in line with a lot of Christian teaching down through the centuries.  But just as subordinationism and a widespread belief that Christians will one day be divine has and is held by some Christians (especially in the East), and must be challenged, so this teaching must be challenged by the clear statements of Scripture.  The fact is Duguid’s comments are not really expositions of the vision of Ezekiel, but rather expositions of his understanding of certain NT teachings about Jesus being the temple and those in Him being the temple read back into what the prophet was saying.

As it happens, what this approach does is represent God as the most prevaricating, superfluous, and hyperbolic communicator in the whole of literature!  And the fact that thousands of Jews for hundreds of years (mis)understood what God was saying because they simply believed what He was saying means they were deceived by the one Word they ought to have had every confidence in.  Thus, as we have had cause to say before, a god who communicates in this fashion is, let it be said, disingenuous, and, perforce, cannot be trusted when He says anything, since, 1). He very often means something very different than what he actually says, and, 2). Because what it seems he really meant may not be revealed until long after a person is dead and buried.

Now we know God can communicate Christ in the OT very powerfully and clearly when He wants to.  Read Isaiah 53!  So what would be the point of all this misleading rigmarole at the end of Ezekiel?  No!  Duguid’s view must be rejected as pious nonsense!  Especially when one considers the corroborating evidence of the other parts of Scripture.

For instance, in answer to the “problem” of the need for further information on vertical dimensions and materials, surely Zechariah 6:12-13 might be appealed to?

12 “Then speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts,
saying: “Behold, the Man whose name is the BRANCH! From His
place He shall branch out, And He shall build the temple of the
LORD;
 13 Yes, He shall build the temple of the LORD. He shall bear the
glory, And shall sit and rule on His throne; So He shall be a priest
on His throne, And the counsel of peace shall be between them
both.” ‘

Okay, so who will build the temple?  Can we agree that the Branch is a reference to Jesus?  If Jesus will build the temple then He can provide the necessary information can He not?  So there’s no problem with that issue, providing of course that one is not determined to find a “deeper meaning” there too!  I think I can safely say that that is precisely what Duguid would do with Zech. 6:12-13 , which explains why he does not call the attention of his readers to it.

What about Duguid’s issue with the topography?  Well, what about Zechariah 14:4?

And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, Which
faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split
in two, From east to west, Making a very large valley; Half of the
mountain shall move toward the north And half of it toward the south.

That should be the ticket!  But not for Duguid, who again neglects to cross-reference it.    Furthermore, Zechariah then tells us about a yearly pilgrimage of nations who had come against Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles and to worship the King, the LORD of hosts (14:16-17).  Moreover, there will be an altar (v.20), and sacrifices offered (14:21).  I presume they will be offered at a temple (Zech. 6:12-13?; Ezek. 40-48), called “My Sanctuary” in Ezekiel 37:26 and 28.  Why go in search of another meaning when the Bible interprets itself so plainly?

So this “Rule” will prevent us both from impugning the doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture by avoiding the esoteric hermeneutics of “deeper meanings,” thereby implying that the plain sense of Scripture does not make sense, and it avoids the awful philosophical implications of advocating faith in a god who equivocates at least half of the time and very possibly more.  On the other hand, it takes the interpretation of the Bible out of the hands of the scholars who cannot bring themselves to believe what the text is actually saying, and puts it within the reach of any person who will diligently explore the Word of God believing that God means what He says and the plain surface meaning can yield the answers to the questions which are raised when it is believed at face value.  The only outstanding question is, are we prepared to let God mean what He says?

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