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roman catholic debate over sensus plenior

The Roman Catholic Debate Over Sensus Plenior

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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