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 1:4 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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  1. Personal note:
    People who use ‘sensus plenior’ as an excuse for changing doctrine don’t understand it at all. Jesus taught that all the scripture spoke of him. It does so as an analogy to how God works in the world. God is like the stream to fish who are busily going where they will as they are nudged where he will. The literal history tells of the actions of the fish. the sensus plenior tells of the actions of God behind the scenes.

    Luke teaches it in Acts 12. Though the literal is about Peter getting out of prison, the SP is about Christ. Herod had vexed Christ. He was arrested the week before Passover, placed between two, poked in the side, the light shown in his tomb, 3 barriers to get out, the stone opened itself, he saw Mary, the woman ran to tell the disciples and was told she was crazy.

    There is a detailed picture of the birth of Christ in Gen 38 in the same manner. God worked behind the scenes to produce the hidden pictures of Christ, the cross, and the church. The core of SP is hidden in the attributes of Hebrew known as notarikon where the meaning of words are derived from the meaning of the letters within. Adam came from the ground ‘adamah’ and has blood ‘dam’ and spirit ‘ah’. The blood is the commandment fulfilled by the son.

    I would be happy to teach how to unpack SP in a reproducible and verifiable way, eliminating free-for-all allegory. Then when you review SP who will have some accurate information upon which to build your judgements.

    1. Thank you, Bob, for engaging this post with a serious reply. I appreciate where you start with your exegetical method; finding Jesus in every scripture. However, how we each read the Bible is so different that I doubt that we will ever see things even close to the same. You seem to appreciate scripture because you find Jesus throughout. I appreciate it because I see God and myself throughout. Can we both be thankful that the Bible remains a source of wisdom for our lives?

  2. I’m not sure you can believe the Bible is the Word of God yet state that the NT authors erred in their “hermeneutic.” Is that your proposition? I understand that viewpoint coming from a Jew. Forgive me if I’ve missed your point.

    If you are of the Jewish faith, I’m curious as to how you would explain intertextuality in the Old Testament?

    1. I don’t know how you can spend the time you have on this website and wonder if I’m Jewish. Although I admire Judaism and count early Jesus followers as attempting to understand the Jesus movement not as a departure from Judaism but a revitalized form of it, I am a progressive Christian.

      Questioning whether one “can believe the Bible is the Word of God,” because of disagreements about its content, gets us nowhere. Most come at this issue with a particular view of what the Bible as the Word of God means. Any departure from that is one who, therefore, doesn’t “believe the Bible is the Word of God.” All we end up doing is anathematizing one another instead of trying to understand one another. I prefer the latter.

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