Sensus Plenior: Legitimate or Smoke and Mirrors?

Rev. Steve Kindle

Sensus plenior has long been used to explain why the Bible’s “facts” have changed over the course of its written lifetime. The esteemed Roman Catholic scholar, Raymond E. Brown, defines sensus plenior as

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.

In other words, Brown wants us to believe that the fuller (plenior) meaning of Scripture was teased out by God over the millennia until its fullness finally emerged. So the understanding that the universe was a three-tiered phenomenon, that Satan is an ally of God, that there is no afterlife, (build your own list) were once God’s desired understanding for humans. But, over time, God revealed the hidden or deeper meanings, culminating in the New Testament’s serious overhauling of the Old. We are now to consider certain former understandings as historically delimited and no longer of factual value. What a nice way of saying the Bible didn’t get it wrong, just incomplete in the interim. But does this stack up?

A few questions and comments:
1. Why would God want people of a certain time to believe that when they die, they are no more?
For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise? Psalm 6:5  Or that Satan is no longer a factor in their lives (if he is)?
2. How can the Bible be true and not true at the same time? 
3. The idea that God “accommodated” the people of a certain time by dealing in terms they could understand overlooks the fact that God would be leading them to untrue outcomes. Does this make sense?
4. Sensus plenior is intimately tied to theories of inspiration. By fiat, the New Testament articulation of a new meaning (Isaiah 7:14, e.g., refers to the virgin birth of Jesus), is God fleshing out its hidden meaning. Why can’t it just be proof-texting?

A good example of why sensus plenior fails occurred over two generations in the New Testament. There are several opinions as to when Jesus became the Son of God. The earliest is Paul’s position in Romans 1:2 which declares that Jesus became the Son of God through the power of the resurrection. Next (chronologically) is Mark who has Jesus declared to be the Son of God at his baptism. Later, Matthew and Luke set Jesus’ as God’s literal Son at his conception, and finally, John has Jesus present with God and perhaps equal to God at the creation. Sensus plenior cannot explain this as merely revealed clarity over time. One is forced to choose among them. 

A much more likely answer to why these and other teachings of the Bible that have been replaced with updated or fuller understandings is due to how humans, not God, saw their world. And over time, through exposure to other religions, and life experience (see Ecclesiastes), they revised their thinking. 

Sensus plenior, ironically, is a human effort to correct the divine, not the opposite. Progressive Christianity (from where I sit) understands the unevenness of the Bible as a human adventure, with its ups and downs, hits and misses, as tentative discoveries along the way. God continues to pull us into a fullness of knowledge that will always be limited because we are finite, incapable of receiving infinite truth. This isn’t sensus plenior; it is what it’s always been–humans touching the hem of God’s garment. We err when we think we’ve grasped the whole of it.

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