To ‘spiritualise’ is to assign a unwarranted spiritual meaning to a biblical text.
Graeme Goldsworthy gives, as one example, the following anecdote, in which a Christian teacher was attempting to expound 1 Samuel 17:40-51 (the story of David and Goliath):-
Goldsworthy points out that allegorical and spiritual interpretation of the Bible was common in the Middle Ages. For example, Stephen Langton (d 1228) thought that 2 Kings 1:2 (Ahaziah falling through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria and falling sick) signified a church prelate who rushes into the difficulties of his ministry and then falls into sin.
The process of spiritualising in the Middle Ages took place somewhat as follows:-
1. The OT literal meaning was spiritualised in order to bring it into line with NT teaching.
2. The NT literal meaning was itself spiritualised in order to bring it into line with Church dogma.
(Gospel and Kingdom, 14f)
The story is told of a past minister of City Temple, one Robert Bragg, who preached a series of sermons on the individual colours of Joseph’s coat, Gen 37:3. This prompted one of his congregation to sigh:-
Eternal Bragg, in never-ending strains
Unfolds the wonders Joseph’s coat contains.
Of every hue describes a different cause
and from each patch a solemn mystery draws.
John MacArthur reports seeing a charismatic TV programme, in which a guest was explaining the ‘biblical basis’ of his ministry of ‘possibility thinking’.
“My ministry is based entirely on my life verse, Mt 19:26, ‘With God all things are possible.’ God gave me that verse because I was born in 1926.” Intrigued, the talk show host grabbed a Bible and thumbed through it excitedly. “I was born in 1934,” he said. “What does Mt 19:34 say?” He found that Mt 19 has only thirty verses. Skipping Mk, which has only 16 chapters, he moved on to Luke 19:34, ‘And they said, The Lord hath need of him.’ Thrilled at this, he exclaimed, “Oh, the Lord has need of me! The Lord has need of me! What a wonderful life verse! I’ve never had a life verse before, but now the Lord has given me one! Thankyou, Jesus! Hallelujah!” The studio audience applauded. Then the talk show host’s wife said, “Wait a minute! You can’t use this. This verse is talking about a donkey!” (Charismatic Chaos, 102)
The procedure is, no doubt, motivated in part by a desire to treat the Bible as a holy book from which God speaks directly to the reader on every page. But, in fact, it demeans Holy Scripture by playing fast and loose with its ‘natural’ meaning, it flattens out the different genres that make up holy writ, and denies God the opportunity of acting and speaking through ordinary historical persons and events. And, as the last example shows, it is apt to be used to support one’s personal theological predilections.