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I realize there are similar questions posted but not seeking an exact explanation where it can be shown rationally that three or more independent people, not talking to each other, can come out with the same result, according to these 'scholastic' rules.

I am honestly skeptical, I only ask because this method which seems to me border line 'crazy', was used by someone to answer this question, with very compelling results that I actually learned something from. I can't help but associate the method with the seeming superstitious mysticism found in Jewish Kaballah, but yet am interested because of this instance.

Is there really a rational technique, with a strict set of rules, used in sensus plenior or is it just faith-filled intuition making use of what claims to be a rational system?

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I started a room here chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/3959/sensus-plenior so we don't have to sort through other conversations. –  Bob Jones Jul 2 '12 at 15:49

2 Answers 2

After reading a book called ‘the sensus plenior’ by Raymond E Brown, I was disappointed to find that the word sensus plenior is nothing new, contrary to the hype associated with words. The book simply just tries to defend the obvious fact that there is meaning in scripture that goes beyond the understanding of the author. Why anyone would doubt that there is a sensus plenior in this basic sense, I have no idea. The idea may be more realistically stated in terms of a specific example, the Law. There is in the Bible a hidden layer of deeper spiritual truth not directly contained in the tablets of stone that the Holy Spirit manifests to every believer. This hidden layer often rises beyond the comprehension of the original author. This hidden layer can be made known directly to any believer by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Also by the assistance of other scriptures, that help to extract the wider meaning, does the Holy Spirit manifest the deeper things of God’s word to every believer. As I have never imagined anyone to think otherwise, as though there was not any ‘deeper or hidden meaning’ I was surprised that people actually debate the subject. I realize that heretics, or generally dishonest theologians can twist scripture using excessive allegory to contradict with the literal meaning, but I see no reason to mix this problem up with the legitimate deeper meaning that every scripture has.

To provide an alternate answer to this question I am at a loss because in my view there is no method to the sensus plenior let alone any strict methods other than the standard and common methods that have always been used to understand God’s word. What sensus plenior implies is simply what all good theologians have always assumed. As I say this I am biased by my view of good theologians as those generally famous ones during the reformation and in that tradition down the ages. Therefore to propose an answer I would say there is no strict method in the sensus plenior, other than those common methods used by theologians throughout the centuries. Although some may place more restrictions upon their own selves previous theologians have not limited themselves in any special way. To simply prove that this has always been within the thinking of the reformers and those who followed that tradition I will provide quotes from three men spanning three hundred years: Luther (1500s), John Owen (1600s), and Jonathan Edwards (1700s).

Note: In arguing for the basic concept of a 'deeper meaning' of scripture that goes beyond the human author’s understanding, the following quotes are not intended to indicate any kind of a layers approach that was common during the Middle Ages and not altogether rejected by Raymond E Brown as he was a Catholic after all.

Luther’s use of sensus plenior

An introduction to his work:

“Avoiding both the rigid partition of the fourfold interpretation of Scripture practiced by the scholastics (historical, allegorical, tropological, anagogical) and the literal historical interpretation of Nicholas of Lyra, Luther worked his way toward a historical-Christological interpretation that was to be the core and center not only of his teaching but also of his preaching and living. A prophetic preview as it were of the whole series of lectures on Romans is sounded in the marginal gloss to de filio suo in Rom. 1:3: “Here the door is thrown open wide for the understanding of Holy Scripture, that is, that everything must be understood in relation to Christ.” (Luther’s Works Volume 25.11)

“Every psalm, all Scripture, calls to grace, extols grace, searches for Christ, and praises only God’s work” (Luther’s Works Volume 14, P196)

John Owen’s use of the sensus plenior

“So ought we to do in our study of the Scripture, to find out the revelation of the glory of Christ which is made therein, as did the prophets of old, as unto what they themselves received by immediate inspiration. They “searched diligently what the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow,” 1 Peter 1:11. “ (Owens Works Volume 1, P525)

Owen repeatedly infers that the prophets did not fully understand what they wrote but searched into the meaning themselves wonder more about the details and whether any further light might be obtained by a diligent inquiry.

And this Peter tells us was done by the prophets of old, 1 Peter 1:10, 11. They “searched diligently” into the revelation made in them by the Spirit of the person, suffering, and grace of Christ, with the glory that ensued thereon...Without this aim in our reading, hearing, searching the word, we labor in vain, and contend uncertainly, as men beating the air. Unto him, and the knowledge of him, is all our study of the Scripture to be referred. And the reason why some, in the perusal of it, have no more light, profit, or advantage, is, because they have not more respect unto Christ in their inquiry. If he be once out of our eye in searching the Scripture, we know not what we do, nor whither we go, no more than doth the mariner at sea without regard to the pole-star. Truths to be believed are like believers themselves. All their life, power, and order, consist in their relation unto Christ; separated from him, they are dead and useless. Owens Works Volume 19, Page 638)

Jonathan Edward’s use of the sensus plenior

The whole book, both Old Testament and New, is filled up with the Gospel; only with this difference, that the Old Testament contains the gospel under a veil, but the New contains it unveiled, so that we may see the glory of the Lord with open face...Those parts of the Old Testament which are commonly looked upon as containing the least divine instruction, are mines and treasures of gospel knowledge; and the reason why they are thought to contain so little is, because persons do but superficially read them. The treasures which are hid underneath are not observed. They only look on the top of the ground, and suddenly pass a judgment that there is nothing there. But they never dig into the mine: if they did, they would find it richly stored with what is more valuable than silver and gold, and would be abundantly requited for their pains. (Jonathan Edwards, History of the Work of Redemption, Page 285)

Typical by Jonathan Edwards of the sensus plenior used to interpret hidden meaning of sample scripture texts:

Eve made from Adams Rib:

Thus God's making Eve of Adam's rib, was to typify the near relation and strict union of husband and wife, and the respect that is due, in persons in that relation, from one to the other. (Jonathan Edwards, Volume 9, Page 12)

Moses's rod's:

Moses's rod's swallowing up the magicians' rods, Exod.vii. 12, is evidently given of God as a sign and type of the superiority of God's power above the power of their gods, and that his power should prevail and swallow up theirs. (Jonathan Edwards, Volume 9, Page 13)

Historical Events:

”the historical events of the Old Testament in the whole series of them, from the beginning of God's great works for Israel in order to their redemption out of Egypt, even to their full possession of the promised land in the days of David, and the building of the temple in the days of Solomon, were typical things, and that under the whole history was hid in a mystery or parable, a glorious system of divine truth concerning greater things than these, that a plain summary, rehearsal or narration, of them is called a parable and dark saying or enigma. Psalm Ixxviii. 2. It is evident that here by a parable is not meant merely a set discourse of things, appertaining to divine wisdom, as the word parable is sometimes used; but properly a mystical enigmatical speech signifying spiritual and divine things, and figurative and typical representations; because it is called both a parable and dark sayings.

Conclusion:

As many founders of the protestant church used sensus plenior without ever knowing the word, or bothering to defend the use of the practice, it seems that there is no need to make issues around it or look for additional strict rules to govern it, other than common sense and a desire for exegetical honesty. Such use and honesty is always proven in ‘the results’ that are brought to bear upon a particular commentary on a given passage and good results usually present an anointed persuasion that find spiritual resonance in other believers as well. Good results also tend to produce a loving and holy life in those who believe them.

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How to interpret scripture using the rules of Sensus Plenior

Self examination

Jer 17:9 The heart [is] deceitful above all [things], and desperately wicked: who can know it?

Our assumptions about scripture and the rules we use to guide our interpretation effect the ultimate meaning that we get from scripture. It is important to evaluate those assumptions and rules to ensure that they permit the scriptures to speak for themselves rather than permitting us to impose our own meaning upon them.

My assumptions and convictions are these:

  • The Bible is the word of God which has been protected for us in such a manner that it is considered infallible in every jot and tittle. By using the proper methods of interpretation, as taught by the apostles, errant manuscripts may be discerned.
  • The meaning of the Bible is contained in multiple layers as described by the church from the earliest days, as a literal and a spiritual layer. These layers are in complete agreement with each other in every way.
  • The hidden spiritual layer is discerned using methods taught by the apostles in the New Testament. It is called the meat of the gospel, whereas the literal meaning is called the milk of the gospel. The milk is sufficient for salvation. The meat provides the spiritual nourishment to enable a mature faith and walk.

The rules are discerned using the same methods as discerning SP, so it should be expected that those practicing literal methods may disagree with how the rules are determined. That doesn't matter. SP needs to be evaluated to see if it is self-consistent as well as if it produces verifiable orthodox results.

These are the principles (strict rules) which I use to determine the meaning of scripture:

Humility

Since God has said that not a jot or tittle will pass away, until one knows why each jot and tittle is there, a complete understanding has not been derived. (This keeps us humble)

Such humility is exemplified by one who listens to others’ opinions and based on scripture, tests all things and holds fast to those things which are good. Such humility is missing in one who insists that only his opinion is correct, and uses phrases like “The Bible says so” while pulling passages out of context and displaying an attitude of unwillingness to discuss the meaning or context of those passages.

Complete

Since man shall live “by every word”, a doctrine is not sound until it sums up and includes all that God has said about it. (This keeps us searching)

This attitude of searching recognizes that the Bible is full of meaning, and that perhaps one person in his own studies has not yet identified or considered all the applicable passages. This attitude is missing when a few verses are used as a shotgun to force a discussion to a preconceived conclusion.

Rigorous

Since every word must be established by two or three witnesses, every shadow must have at least two supporting scripture witnesses. This means we cannot define a shadow with a single verse. (This keeps us rigorous in methodology)

A shadow is a hidden meaning which is not contained in the literal meaning (Rom 10.1). Shadows are not the product of a wild imagination and are therefore verifiable by the scriptures. When a shadow has two or three witnesses, it should be regarded as a tentative meaning. This rule specifically forbids a single verse from becoming definitive.

Divine meaning

Since God’s word is established forever, a shadow means the same thing everywhere is it used. So, since a donkey is a shadow of a prophet, everywhere there is a donkey, it is a shadow of a prophet. This rule alone makes the shadows humanly impossible to fabricate as it requires the interlocking of a double entendre found in all the scriptures. (This keeps us in awe)

Free-for-all allegory has been properly criticized because allegorical or metaphoric meanings have no way to be verified, and we are persuaded by the loudest proponent of a meaning. This rule dis-allows free-for-all allegory by setting an impossible standard for the use of allegory. Every donkey is a prophet, every garment is a work, etc. such that every scripture participates in a hidden picture of Christ. Such a phenomenon is impossible for men to produce and therefore when we observe it occurring, we can have confidence that it is God’s intended meaning.

Christocentric

The riddle of Samson tells us Christ is the answer to all the riddles. If the shadow doesn’t look like Christ, it isn’t a good shadow. (This keeps us focused)

Jesus told the disciples on the road to Emmaus that all the scriptures spoke of him, and chastised the scribes and Pharisees for searching the scriptures to seek life, but rejecting him, since they spoke of him. If we don’t see Christ in the scriptures, we have missed the primary purpose of the scriptures. And if Christ is not central to a proposed SP interpretation, it is to be rejected. This rule alone separates SP from Gnosticism, Kabbalah and Midrash.

Self-contained And since we are to “let everyman be a liar and God be true”, outside references are not required to solve the riddles and see the shadows. (This keeps us devoted)

Not only are we not going to bring in extra-biblical books to determine the meaning of scripture, but we will not make apostles out of historians by elevating their writings as to the meaning of scripture. We will not make apostles out of document critics. Errors to documents spoil the hidden narrative and so once the hidden narrative is known, the proper document can be discerned. Nor will we accept what God has shown you personally, unless He has shown it to you through the scriptures.

Scoring Because of the rules, a formal scoring may be used.

If it proposed that 'leaven' means 'sin' we count how many times it is used:

Seor is used 5 times Chametz is used 11 times

We must understand each word individually. Give a point when a proposal fits in each case, and -1000000 points if it does not fit. To say that a proposed meaning absolutely is true, Seor must get 5/5 and Chametz must get 11.

To 'fit' it must sensible participate in the local narrative and be theologically significant as well as non-contradictory to the literal.


Response to Mike's answer

Although Brown popularized the term sensus plenior in time for modern debates, he never was able to actually unpack it, saying that he had never used it in preaching. One should not have expected Brown to have defined 'strict rules'.

The quotes from Luther and Owen only show that they believed that sensus plenior existed. They are nice quotes that help establish the belief in the fact, not the practice.

Johnathan Edwards

Though Jonathan Edwards strove to see Christ in all the scriptures, he could only see the hints and filled in the gaps with instinct and allegory. He often did well, but this is not SP.

Thus God's making Eve of Adam's rib, was to typify the near relation and strict union of husband and wife, and the respect that is due, in persons in that relation, from one to the other. (Jonathan Edwards, Volume 9, Page 12)

Edwards ignored Paul's statement that marriage spoke of Christ and the church. The ante-type target of Edwards in this passage is marriage, falling short of the SP target of Christ.

Let's examine the SP interpretation so that the difference between allegory and SP is clear.

21 ¶ And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

Each word has multiple meanings in Hebrew sleep also means death *Adam* also means man and he is a type of Christ rib means limping and side, etc.

When the double entendre is read it says:

And God caused the man to die and he died; and he married a certain limping side and delivered mankind.

This is the riddle which points to Christ. He married the church with his limping side (the flesh). Drash ties in the bruised heel of the woman, and Jacob's withered thigh to show us pictures of Gethsemane where his flesh was made to 'limp' in order to be obedient to the Father.

Edwards practiced free-for-all allegory.

If one skims through the rules without comprehending them, or like Naaman hears the instruction but is insulted at their apparent simplicity, SP will look like nothing but the free-for-all allegory of others. It should not be expected that using the Syrian waters of free-for-all allegory should produce a result any different than before; free-for-all allegory with none of the verifiability of SP.

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I use the term 'orthodox' loosely. There is such disagreement on so many points that it is impossible for it to agree with everyone's interpretation. But it should be shown that the fundamentals are orthodox, and secondary issues do not place it outside of normative Christianity. –  Bob Jones Jul 2 '12 at 20:48
    
(+1) If you don't mind I plan to post an answer from an opposing 'label' that shows 'acceptance' of many of the ideas imbedded in your answer. But I have to wait till I properly understand more about SP, in a month or two. Thanks for sharing some of the orthodox results you have obtained. I find the figurative, though far less certain to me, often warms my heart more. My mind allows my heart a little more freedom than some, but I think personality also plays into exegesis and we must learn to accept different parts of the body gifted with different gifts. –  Mike Jul 3 '12 at 0:57
    
I posted an answer as well just because I do not see myself as ascribing to sensus plenior, at least I have no attachment to the term, but prefer to view it differently as a non-issue subject. I may be blind to modern views on the subject because I rarely read a theological book written before 1800s. My 'need to read' book list is so long that I have rarely ventured into buying a modern book. When I do I am usually overcome by boredom, finding nothing of interest to note. 'the sensus plenior' I just read had me interested for the first couple chapters, but the painful end came many yawns later –  Mike Jul 10 '12 at 11:54
    
It is apparent that I have been unable to communicate the importance of the rules, since several people have asked me to explain SP without putting an emphasis on them. That cannot be done. The rules separate free-for-all allegory from SP. –  Bob Jones Jul 25 '12 at 13:07
    
Several have attempted to criticize SP by using FFA as though SP is responsible for the failure of FFA, when their own supposed practice of SP produces FFA because they have not followed the rules. If anything, their attempts should demonstrate the necessity of the rules to produce verifiable results. –  Bob Jones Jul 25 '12 at 13:09

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