Herman Bavinck and the parameters of sensus plenior
by David Schrock
In volume 1 of Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck reflects on the multiple ways in which the New Testament authors use and apply the Old Testament. In the discussions that swirl today on this subject, it is noteworthy that he writes in favor of sensus plenior. He says,
In the case of Jesus and the apostles, this exegesis of the OT in the NT assumes the understanding that a word or sentence can have a much deeper meaning and a much farther reaching thrust than the original author suspected or put into it. This is often the case in classical authors as well. No one will think that Goethe, in writing down his classical poetry, consciously had before his mind the things that are now found in it. “Surely that person has not gotten far in poetry / In whose verses there is nothing more than what he had [consciously] written into them.”
In Scripture this is even much more strongly the case since, in the conviction of Jesus and the apostles, it has the Holy Spirit as its primary author and bears a teleological character. Not only in the few verses cited above [verses from the NT that employ the OT is various fashions] but in its entire view and interpretation of the OT, the NT is undergirded by the thought that the Israelitish dispensation had its fulfillment in the Christian. The whole economy of the old covenant, with all its statutes and ordinances and throughout its history, points forward to the dispensation of the new covenant. Not Talmudism [i.e. Judaism] but Christianity is the rightful heir of the treasures of salvation promised to Abraham and his seed (Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003], 396-97).
Two things should be noted from his statement. (1) While Bavinck supports a view allowing for the expansion of meaning in the text as that ‘word or sentence’ is read in the light of later revelation, namely in the coming of Christ; his own theological method does not overdo this proposition. He is rigorous, even ‘scientific’ (a term he uses positively), in his attention to the original meaning of the text in his doctrinal formulation. Thus, it seems that in comparison with his own method interpretation, his sensus plenior is controlled by further biblical revelation (i.e. the canonical horizon) and not by spurious philosophies or extra-biblical ideas. In fact, large sections of volume 1 are devoted to ardently rejecting theological methods that depend on such eisegesis.
(2) Bavinck’s appeal to Goethe does appear, at least today, to support a postmodern hermeneutic, namely that the reader can and should bring their own meaning to the text. However, in Bavinck’s defense, it must be remembered that he is writing decades before the influence of postmodern literary theory with its influnence on theology. And again, the proof is in the pudding: Does Bavinck himself believe, encourage, or legitimate a reader-centered hermeneutic? I don’t think so.
In short, Bavinck’s quotation is helpful to reveal his own method of interpretation and to remind us of the organic unity and eschatological nature of the OT which finds its telos in Jesus Christ. Likewise, this statement shows why the Reformed Dogmatics are so good; Bavinck recognized the progressive nature of revelation and undergirds his dogmatics with a biblical-theological framework that collects the sparks of doctrine of in the Old Testament and sets them ablaze as he moves into the New. (A great example see his section on the Trinity.)
David Schrock is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church (Seymour, IN). David blogs at Via Emmaus. He is married to Wendy and is the father of Titus and Silas.