The Roman Catholic Debate Over Sensus Plenior

Posted by on Sep 24, 2011 in Hermeneutics, Roman Catholicism | 3 Comments
By Brent Parker
One of the thorny issues regarding the task of hermeneutics and interpretation involves the problem of sensus plenior, the fuller sense. The topic has been debated among evangelicals during the past few decades, and before that the sensus plenior was controversial among Roman Catholics especially during the 1940s-60s. For this post we will focus on the Roman Catholic (RC) discussion, particularly concentrating on Catholic theologian Raymond Brown, and will return to how evangelicals have thought of the sensus plenior at a later time.

The most significant figure and proponent of the sensus plenior among Roman Catholics was Raymond E. Brown.[i] The RC debate during the 40s-60s is not surprising since the term itself was not coined until 1925 (by Catholic theologian Andrea Fernández who thought the sensus plenior was tied to prophecies which had a literal meaning for the Jews at the time but had a fuller meaning for Christians as the prophecies were fulfilled [Brown, CBQ 15, 142]). The new terminology sparked an interest in the area even though the concept was not entirely brand new. Evidence does suggest that even if the term was an innovation, the idea of sensus plenior had roots in ancient exegesis (SPSS, 137). Brown’s definition of sensus plenior is the one most often cited: “The sensus plenior is that additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text (or group of texts, or even a whole book) when they are studied in the light of further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation” (SPSS, 92).

Sensus Plenior and the Senses of Scripture

For Brown, the sensus plenior (SP) takes into account the words of a text but not the things written about in the text. Therefore, typology or the typical sense differs and is distinct from the SP (in the typical sense, the things that take on a deeper meaning are the typological persons, events, and institutions in Scripture). With the notion that the meaning was not intended by the human author, some RC proponents of SP also kept the SP distinct from the literal sense (where the literal sense involved the human author’s intention). Other RCs (e.g. Pierre Benoit) posited the SP as a subdivision of the literal sense since a broader understanding of the literal sense was affirmed: the sense conveyed by the words, whether or not that sense was intended by the human author. Brown opted for the former arguing that the human author must be fully conscious of what he wrote for it to be classified as the literal sense. Nevertheless, the SP was not a “second literal sense” but rather is a deepening – “an approfondissement” – of the one and only literal sense of the text (SPSS, 113). On the other hand, some RCs, such as Jean Daniélou, rejected the SP entirely since they associated the authorial intent with the literal sense, and then everything else beyond the literal sense was understood to be the spiritual or typical sense (Brown, CBQ 15, 153). Brown, in contrast, found the sensus plenior to be somewhere between the literal and typical senses, though more toward the literal.

This raises the question as to what extent the human author was aware or conscious of a fuller sense of his written words. Some RC proponents of SP (e.g. John O’Rourke) supposed the human author to have some vague awareness while other proponents thought the human author had no awareness of all. Brown went with the latter view as he thought that explaining what the vague awareness entailed and consisted in was too difficult to ascertain, though he did not rule out completely that the human author may at times have a marginal consciousness (Brown, CBQ 25, 263-69).


The Two Forms of Sensus Plenior

Brown discusses two forms of the SP. The first form considers portions of the Psalter and the Prophets which in past eras have been identified as prophecies whereby the human author foresaw the distant future. Revealing his commitments to historical critical methodology, Brown rejects this and asserts that “we recognize that the authors of the OT were concerned with their own times and not with the distant future, and the details of the future of God’s plan were hidden from them” (JBC, 616). The suffering servant of Isaiah, and passages such as Psalm 2 and 110, all had a contemporary reference with no intended reference to the distant future, but with the theory of SP, one can affirm something of the traditional argument of prophecy while acknowledging the limitations of the human author.

The second form of SP, called the General Sensus Plenior, pertains to the area of Biblical Theology as texts are read and seen to have a deeper meaning when read in the context of the whole book. Further, books of the Bible “have greater meaning when seen in the context of the whole Bible” such that a fuller meaning is uncovered when placed into the larger biblical context (JBC, 616-17, CBQ 25, 270-71).

Criteria for Identifying the Sensus Plenior

For finding the SP, Brown propounded two conditions. First, the most significant criterion is that the SP of the text must be “homogeneous” with the literal sense – “a real and organic connection must be demonstrated between the literal sense of a passage and its subsequent ‘fuller’ interpretation” (Matthew W. I. Dunn, “Raymond Brown and the Sensus Plenior Interpretation of the Bible, Studies in Religion 36.3-4 [2007]: 531-51, quote from 536; and see SPSS, 145; JBC, 617; CBQ 25, 274-75). Obviously, any distortion or contradiction of the obvious meaning could not be a fuller sense.

The second condition involves evidence of the SP from further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation. For determining whether God had intended a deeper import to a biblical text in a more-than-literal way, Brown’s control was based off of the interpretation of the NT authors, the church fathers, the magisterium (church’s teaching office), or Christian liturgy. “We need authority for seeing fuller meanings in the Bible; e. g., the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption may be contained in the fuller meaning of Bible texts, but to ascertain this we need the guidance of the Church and the Fathers. Without this authority we may suspect but never be sure” (SPSS, 146). In response to criticism by Protestant J. M. Robinson (“Scripture and Theological Method: A Protestant Study in Sensus Plenior, CBQ 27 [1965]: 6-27), Brown would later clarify that church authority is not “an agent of exegetical revelation; rather Church life, doctrine, and prayer supply a context in which Scripture is read, commented on, and allowed to ‘speak,’ so that meaning emerges which God wished to convey” (JBC, 617).

With these criteria established, Brown presented his most recurrent example of SP: Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23. He finds homogeneity as the SP reading of the Immanuel text is connected to Christ through the line of David theme, the expectation of a Davidic messiah, and the LXX rendering of the verse (CBQ 25, 276). Another example, besides that of Psalm 2 and 110 mentioned above, entails the church’s theological use of Gen 3:15 as a reference to Mary’s participation in Jesus’ victory over evil (JBC, 616).

The Problems and Arguments against the Sensus Plenior

Having examined how the SP is the deeper meaning intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, we turn now to some of the significant problems with the SP. These concerns and arguments leveled against the SP hermeneutic caused Brown to seriously question its validity; indeed, Brown concluded that “because of the scholastic and peculiarly Catholic origins and formulation of this theory, I think that it cannot in its present form meet the problems that confront it. It must be reformulated and become part of a wider hermeneutical movement if it is to be truly useful” (ELT 43, 469). There were three main problems that Brown acknowledged as posing considerable difficulties to the SP (JBC, 617-18; see also Dunn, “Raymond Brown and the SP,” 537).

One problem with the SP was delineated this way: it is the “contention that when a deeper meaning of a biblical text is recognizable only in light of further revelation, the meaning is not contained in the text itself but is acquired at the moment of further revelation” (JBC, 617). The presence of a SP seems to suggest that the exegete has a fuller understanding instead of the text having a fuller sense. In response, Brown argued that the NT authors’ concept of fulfilling the OT was closer to an idea of a fuller sense than to that of a fuller understanding. Appealing once again to the multiple senses of Scripture, he stated that the “literal sense is what leads to a fuller understanding; the SP is part of the organic growth of the literal sense, not a mere addition” (JBC, 618).

For Protestants and evangelicals, the notion of multiple senses proves problematic. As was discussed above, for most RCs, the SP was considered distinct from the literal sense even if it is the organic outgrowth of the literal sense. But evangelicals, like the protestant reformers, have “refused to take the Roman Catholic Church’s multiple-senses approach to biblical interpretation” (Gregg Allison, Historical Theology, [2011], 182). The Reformers and the reformed scholastics insisted on “a single, literal and grammatical meaning of the text of Scripture [and argued] that no extrapolated allegorical, tropological or anagogical sense of the text can ever be a firm basis for theological formulation – no matter how edifying or spiritually invigorating it may appear to be” (Richard A. Muller, Holy Scripture: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology, vol 2 of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 2nd ed, [2003], 474 and see the discussion of the sensus literalis in reformed thought on pages 469-82). The Reformed orthodox did not reduce the literal meaning to historical-grammatical exegesis, for surely the literal sense included figural aspects and the presence of figures of speech within the text. However, more work would need to be done to demonstrate how a SP hermeneutic would function within the literal sense or conversely, why a multiple sense approach is superior to the single literal sense which evangelicals and Protestants have traditionally adhered to.

A second problem that Brown encountered in his treatment of the SP is bound up to the issue of inspiration. “The theory of the SPlen is dependent on a scholastic, instrumental understanding of inspiration” (JBC, 618). By “scholastic,” Brown is referring to medieval scholastic philosophy primarily voiced through Thomas Aquinas and specifically the description of inspiration offered in Providentissimus Deus by Pope Leo XIII. “This doctrine distinguishes between God as the auctor primarius (or the causa principalis) and the biblical author as the auctor secundarius (the causa instrumentalis) of the text” (Henning G. Reventlow, Problems of Biblical Theology in the Twentieth Century, [1986], 42-43). The difficulties here is how the human author, as an instrument in the writing of God’s Word, could have a role of being consciously and responsibly involved in the production of the autographs with all of his intellectual capacities while at the same time not understanding the meaning of the text he composed. Brown did argue that God could have guided a biblical author to phrase a certain passage such that a deeper meaning may be included, unknown to the author but visible only at a later time, for God could elevate the “instrument to produce an additional effect outside the sphere of its proper activity (outside the cognition and intention of the [author])” (SPSS, 133). But Brown was deeply concerned that the SP could not be reconciled or co-exist with non-scholastic or non-Thomistic understandings of inspiration.

For Protestants and evangelicals, the issue of inspiration is a central concern as well. The concursive theory of inspiration – “God in his sovereignty so superintended the freely composed human writings we call the Scriptures that the result was nothing less than God’s words and, therefore, entirely truthful” (D. A. Carson, Collected Writings on Scripture, [2010], 105) – has had a central place in the evangelical view of Scripture. How a SP view could fit within this view of inspiration has been subject to debate.

The third and most significant problem of the SP approach is with regard to the usefulness of the theory. The SP was almost never appealed to and used by scholars who accepted it (ELT 43, 462). Brown himself would go on to state that the SP “is seldom verified and so is of little use in justifying or explaining NT, patristic, liturgical, or ecclesiastical exegesis. It is interesting to note that the proponents of the SPlen tend to confine their discussion of this sense to the theoretical plane, seldom appealing to it in their works of exegesis” (JBC, 618).

This last area is of utmost concern for proponents of the SP. Of the examples listed, other ways of understanding the texts have enjoyed more scholarly consensus. For example, Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 has been interpreted prophetically or along the lines of typology, all without an appeal to the SP. Similarly, Psalm 2 and 110 are generally understood to have typological aspects. Brown even submitted that “in the area of the NT exegesis of the OT . . . I have found relatively little usefulness for the theory of the SP” (ELT 43, 464).

Concluding Remarks

This brief study has sought to provide an overview of the sensus plenior and to present some of the key problems with positing a fuller sense to the texts of Scripture. Although Brown virtually dismissed the SP in 1967, about 10 years later it became a topic of much conversation among evangelical scholars. Some evangelicals would reject the SP, but others would affirm it, though with modifications to the SP theory approach of Brown.

[i]See especially his published dissertation, The ‘Sensus Plenior’ of Sacred Scripture, 1955; and his articles: “The History and Development of the Theory of a Sensus Plenior,” CBQ 15 (1953): 141-62; “The Sensus Plenior in the Last Ten Years,” CBQ 25 (1963): 262-85; “The Problems of the Sensus Plenior,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 43 (1967): 460-69; and see pages 615-18 of his article entitled “Hermeneutics,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1968.

Brent Parker is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of Clifton Baptist Church, Louisville, KY.
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3 Comments

  1. Bob Jones
    October 15, 2011

    If you had people debate whether the genre of riddle exists or not among people who had never seen nor solved a riddle, the debate and conclusions would look a lot like those concerning sensus plenior.

    Instead of debating, let’s just do sensus plenior:

    The birth of Christ in Gen 38

    Tamar and Mary were in a similar predicament. Tamar has been discovered to be with child and was going to be killed. (Gen 38:24) Mary was discovered with child and was going to be put away. (Matt 1:18-19) When the true father of each child was discovered, they both were honored. (Gen 38:26, Luke 1:42)) Such a coincidence.

    Each had wanted an assurance of a promise. Tamar had received three things from Judah (Gen 38:18) and Mary had received three saying from the Angel that announced her pregnancy. (Luke 1:35) Tamar received a staff, Mary was told that the power of the Highest would overshadow her. Tamar received a signet ring, Mary was told he would be called the Son of God. These are easy parallels to understand, but they are easy to dismiss as accidents of history.

    The appointment

    Tamar met Judah before Timnath which means the appointment. (Gen 38:14). I will suggest that Mary met God before the appointed time of Christ. Since “It is appointed unto man once to die…” (Heb 9:27) Christ’s appointment was with the cross, and Mary was available to God just before that time..

    The scapegoat

    Tamar was offered a goat by Judah. (Gen 38:17) And Mary was offered THE scapegoat, since the angel told her “He will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21) In the ritual of the scapegoat, two goats are presented. They represent Jesus before and after the cross. One is killed for a burnt offering. In the burnt offering, the priest do not get to eat any part of it since it is completely consumed by fire. It represents the Son’s total devotion to the Father which we cannot participate in, but only stand and watch in awe. The smell of the burnt offering is a sweet savor unto the Lord si nce there is not hint of sin involved in it. You can see the first instance of a burnt offering is when Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac AND Isaac was willing to be obedient to his father. (Ge 22:2 )

    The second goat is released into the wilderness to carry away the sins of the people. It represents Christ’s resurrection, which demonstrates that his sacrifice for us was accepted.

    Since Jesus is the fulfillment of the scapegoat images, Mary had also been promised a goat.

    The virgin birth

    Mary was told that she would conceive miraculously by the Holy Ghost. (Luke 1:35) And when Judah told Tamar he would send a goat, the word he used also means ‘sow’. Since Judah represents God in the imagery, and Tamar represents Mary, we have a parallel passage that God would sow the goat.

    The need for assurance
    Tamar wanted an assurance that she would receive the goat, (Gen 38:17) and Mary also asked for an assuring word of explanation. (Luke 1:34)

    Three assurances
    Tamar was given the staff or rod which represents the power of God in discipline. (Pr 22:15, Pr 23:13, Pr 29:15) and Mary was told the power of the Highest would overshadow her. (Luke 1:35) She was not being disciplined, but God’s discipline upon mankind as borne by His Son and her son, overshadowed her life.

    Tamar was given the signet ring. (Gen 38:18) And Mary was told that he would be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:35)

    Tamar was given bracelets. (Gen 38:18) In a very literal sense, bracelets were given to signify a marriage, much like we now give rings. But the real clue to the hidden meaning comes from the law of cleanliness:

    Numbers 19:15 And every open vessel, which hath no covering [bracelets] bound upon it, is unclean.

    Paul was called a chosen vessel (Acts 9:15) and in other images we find that we are vessels as well. Since Tamar was a vessel that had bracelets, she was not unclean. Likewise Mary was told that she was not unclean because although she was with child, it was by the Holy Ghost. (Luke 1:35)

    Twins
    Tamar bore twins (Gen 38:27) and Mary bore the dual-natured God-Man. (John 8:58)

    The names of the twins mean breaking forth and rising sun while Jesus was called Dayspring.
    (Lu 1:78)

    Usurping second son
    Have you ever wondered why so many second sons in the Bible got the inheritance rather than the first sons as tradition demands? It is a prophecy that Christ will be the second man, the second Adam. (1Co 15:47, 1Co 15:22)

    The image of Tamar’s twin sons would be incomplete if the second son did not get the inheritance, and sure enough, the wrestle in the womb, and the second son emerges first and receives pre-eminence. (Gen 38:28-29)

    And so it is with Jesus. In the flesh he died desolate. As God’s only begotten son, he did not succeed in being fruitful and multiplying. Only in his resurrection, as the mystery second son, did he receive the full blessing and inheritance given to Abraham. (Gen 12:2)

    Three chances to get it right

    God wants living children, not children dead in trespass and sin.

    Judah had three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Er represents Adam. Adam was alive until he ate the forbidden fruit and he died. (Gen 2:17) (Be careful… he died the day he ate the fruit or you call God a liar). Since he had children in his image and likeness, (Gen 5:3) all his children were also dead. (1Co 15:22, Ro 5:14)

    BUt in riddle Er means ‘awake’. Awake is the oppsosite of asleep… and if you are asleep, you are dead and in the dust… so Er was called “Alive from the dust” as was Adam.

    Adam blew it. And God killed Er because of sin. (Gen 38:7)

    Onan was mistakenly called ‘vigorous’. We say it was a mistake because he was named by his mother and all the females of the Bible represent those who do not see clearly (for Eve was deceived). It was a mistake to call him vigorous because he too was dead as was Israel, God’s son who was supposed to fulfill the Leverate law on behalf of Adam.

    God chose Israel through Abraham to bear living children (Jer 7:22-23) But Israel pursued the flesh and refused to do their duty to God in bearing living children, instead wasting their seed in the earth… (Deut 1:26, Deut 1:43, Deut 8:20, Jud 2:17, 2 Ki 17:14, 2 Chron 24:19, 2 Chron 33:10, Ne 9:29, Ps 81:11, Isa 28:12, Isa 30:15, Isa 42:24, Jer 13:11, Jer 29:1, Eze 20:8, Mt 23:37, Lu 13:34)

    …just as Onan did. (Gen 38:9)

    Israel blew it.

    Not given a chance

    The genealogy in Matthew tells us that Joseph, the husband of Mary, is the rightful heir to the throne of David. But he is not given the chance to bear living children. When it is his turn, God himself steps in to bear the first fruits of living children. (1Co 15:20) Likewise, Shelah is not given the chance to bear a son when the time was right. (Gen 38:11, 14)

    Smite the earth with a curse
    John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy of the returning Elijah. Elijah had made the rain stop until he spoke. (1Ki 17:1) Since water represents the word of God, there was no word of God for four hundred years until John spoke. His task in fulfilling the prophecy was to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and of the children to the fathers. (Lu 1:17)
    The consequence of failure was that the earth would be smited with a curse. (Mal 4:6)

    In the narrative of Tamar, Judah was going to Timnath. But why?

    Gen 38:12 … and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.

    The word for shear is cut off . Hirah means noble family and Adulamite means justice of the people. God was going to the appointed time to cut off his sheep.

    God threw Adam out of the garden, killed all but eight in a flood, killed a whole generation of Israel in the desert and now was going up to the appointed time to cut off the sheep. You may be looking forward to some future judgment, but the time of the cross was the time of the final judgment where God would have cut off all the sheep had it not been for Christ, the Lamb of God. When he bore all our sin on the cross what more could be judged?

    One thing you never want is justice. Always plead for mercy. God was ready to give men justice, and He did in Christ who reconciled grace and
    law.

    Desolate women

    Have you ever wondered why there were so many desolate, barren women mentioned in the Bible? It’s prophecy! The world was full of dead children, dead in trespass and sin. It was long waiting for the fulfillment of the prophecy given to Eve. (Gen 3:15) The time was right as Tamar removed her widows garments. (Gen 38:14) And the time was right as Mary was selected to be the mother of Jesus. (Luke 1:69-70)

    The clift of the rock
    When Moses was in the physical presence of God he was hidden in the clift of the rock. (Ex 33:22) Tamar hid herself with a veil. The word is pronounced tsaw-eef. Is it an accident that there is a word pronounced saw-eef that means clift?

    The rock is Christ. In sensus plenior, all the rocks are Christ and they are all one rock. In this reasoning, the rock that was split in the desert, (Ex 17:6) is the same rock that Moses was hidden in. It was split by being smitten by the rod (of discipline of God). The real horror of the cross was not the physical agony of death. God himself was split as the Father removed himself from His Son on the cross. When Moses was hidden in the clift of the rock, it represented trusting in the cross to preserve you in the face of God.

    As Tamar covered herself with the veil, it tells us that Mary was covered with the grace of the cross in the presence of God.

    The death of Christ

    Gen 38:19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.

    Mary would be a barren mother again before she would see the first fruits. Jesus had to die before he would be fruitful. (Joh 12:24)

    Did not possess the goat.
    Tamar did not take possession of the promised goat. (Gen 38:20) Just as Mary knew that Jesus had to be about his Father’s business. (Luke 2:49)

    God’s only begotten son

    Gen 38:26 And he knew her again no more.

    He bore our sin

    The two sons together represent Christ. The first son represents Jesus in the flesh who bore our sin. The narrative identifies the first son as the one who wore the scarlet thread. Many may debate it, but with all the evidence presented thus far, the scarlet thread represents our sin. (Isa 1:18) The resurrected Christ, the Son who was fruitful and multiplied, does not have the scarlet thread because Christ died once for our sin. (Heb 9:27, Heb 6:6)

    I hope this blesses you.

    Reply
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