Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 2)


In the previous article we looked at supposed pre-scientific statements which in fact turned out to be Old World Science.  I offered an approach, based upon Speech-Act Theory, that frees us from the necessity of finding modern science in an ancient book.  I have called the supposed existence of pre-scientific statements a kind of sensus plenior.  But what of sensus plenior as it is commonly used?  I now take on this hardest of the the three tasks I’ve set for myself in this series.  It is hardest because it is unique to myself.  By that I mean that I have never read another who explains it in the way that I will.  I am indebted to certain authors, as you will see, but they put their information to different use than I will here.  Further, though I have never read another who explains it in exactly the way that I will, I do not deny that such writers exist.  I have simply not yet found them (though I would be much comforted if I did).

My ultimate goal in this series is to say something about hermeneutics.  This discussion, however, cannot avoid overlapping with concerns about inspiration.  As a result, I feel it necessary to say a few things about it before I move on to hermeneutics.

It is immensely important that we rid ourselves of certain deistic tendencies in our thinking.  Though I have not met a Christian who puts it exactly this way I have met many whose comments assume the following system: If it can be explained without reference to God, God did not do it.  That is, if Man did it then God did not.  Conversely, if God did it then Man did not. This way of thinking keeps creature and Creator completely separate which is, I believe, a mistake.  Though I will not make the opposite mistake of conflating creature and Creator and falling into a sort of Pantheism, I do affirm that God often works from within creation.  For example, when Paul and his company were in Macedonia they became terribly troubled.  They suffered “disputes without and fears within” (2 Cor. 7:5).  Of this trouble Paul writes, “God … consoled us” (7:6).  If that were all that we read we might assume that God had miraculously offered them a sense of mystical comfort.  We might imagine an unexplainable warmth growing inside of Paul and his companions.  Perhaps we picture Paul and his company standing up straighter instilled with an indescribable confidence.  If this is how we imagine it then it is possible we are working out of the deism I mentioned, the sort which assumes that if God did it then Man did not.  If we continue reading, however, we find the means by which God offered comfort.  The Bible says, “But God, who consoles the downcast, consoled us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his coming, but also by the consolation with which he was consoled about you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more” (7:6, 7).  God worked from within his creation.  The very fact that Titus comforted Paul did not diminish in the slightest the fact that God had comforted Paul.  There is no reason to suppose that such human action is any less divine, especially when we have the witness of scripture that describes it so.

Another example to illustrate the point: when Hezekiah was sick Isaiah came to him by the word of the LORD and said, “Thus says the LORD: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover” (Isa. 38:1).  Hezekiah then begged God to extend his life and he received a promise that the LORD would do so for fifteen more years (38:5).  Now, if this were all the information that we were given we are likely to picture Hezekiah as being miraculously healed entirely apart from material means.  The truth, however, is that Isaiah instructed Hezekiah’s servants to “take a lump of figs, and apply it to the boil, so that he may recover” (38:21).  The fact that a poultice was applied does not diminish Hezekiah’s divine healing.  It is only the deistic conception which insists on separating God’s work from his creation.  The biblical conception of God’s work is able to hold them together quite comfortably.  This should be no less true for our conception of inspiration.

The word “inspiration” means quite different things to different people.  Some emphasize the divine side of inspiration to the detriment of the human side.  Maybe they imagine inspiration like Rembrandt’s portrait of St. Matthew, with an angel whispering the words of the Bible into his ear.1  Others emphasize the human side to the detriment of the divine.2 And despite involving us in inextricable mysteries, I believe that our concept of inspiration should have just the same combination of the divine and the human as the above examples, not because I think it “makes sense” (though it does), but because it is how the Bible pictures it.

First, consider the introduction to Luke’s gospel. “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (1:1-4).  I know no other way to understand this than to think that Luke used sources in the composition of his gospel.  This would seem quite unnecessary if the Holy Spirit was whispering in his ear.  How then do we explain it?  I will not pretend to understand it all, but I affirm by faith that somehow Luke’s own thoughts and mental effort were involved in writing his gospel.  He had to gather sources, sift through the accounts, and conceive a unity to the story before he put it on parchment.  This affirmation of the human side of the process does not deny the divine side.  Somehow God was involved in the very human action of Luke, directing it and monitoring it, to ensure that no errors were made.  We cannot, however, allow that truth to overshadow the human struggle and mental exertion necessary to Luke’s work.

Second, other places indicate that the writing of scripture was in some sense dependent upon the mental efforts of its human writers.  When Luke records Festus’ visit to Jerusalem and his subsequent return to Caesarea he writes, “After he had stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea” (Acts 25:6).  If the Holy Spirit were whispering in his ear it seems an odd thing for the Holy Spirit to say.  It seems more like Luke is dependent upon sources which informed him of a stay of eight days, or perhaps ten.  Or maybe even the source had given him the exact time but Luke had trouble recalling it.  Whatever the explanation, this is a very human thing to write.  I weary myself with saying this, but I feel it necessary to repeat that affirming the humanness of inspiration does not deny the divine at work, any more than affirming Paul’s comfort by Titus denies Paul’s comfort by God.

I offer one final example.  Third, when Paul writes to the Corinthians he laments that certain Corinthians were dividing themselves over who their favorite leader was, perhaps even who baptized them.  Paul responds by saying, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.  (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else)” (1 Cor. 1:14-16).  Again, this seems a strange thing for Paul to write unless he is somehow dependent upon his own mental effort.

To sum up, we do not deny that it is possible for God to grant men information that they could not have known on their own.  Certainly God could have reminded Paul exactly which people he had baptized; he could have told Luke exactly how many days Festus stayed in Jerusalem; and he could have removed the need for any of Luke’s sources.  But he didn’t.  I do not question what God is able to do, only what God has, in fact, done.  And it appears as if God quite often allows the words of the Bible to well up from the existing knowledge of the Bible writers.  I have no doubt that he superintended over the process so as to protect his word, but we cannot allow our affirmation of divinity to diminish its humanity.  Like Christ was able to become fully human without ceasing to be fully divine, so the word of God is able to comfortably combine both without confusion or mixture.  Just as we affirm that Jesus is “truly God and truly man”3, so we affirm that the Bible is truly human and truly divine.

Now we are able to move into a discussion about sensus plenior.  Often these “hidden” or “fuller meanings” are preceded by a fulfillment formula, i.e. “This was done so that it might be fulfilled …”  Whenever we read these statements we might immediately assume that the Bible writer is referring to a prophecy of the Old Testament.  Prophecy, we think, is the counterpart to “fulfillment.”  And there are certainly instances which have to do with prophecy (cf. Isa. 7:14; Mat. 1:22-23).  But one of the first things we will notice when we start looking at the sensus plenior in the New Testament is that very few of them are “fulfillments” of prophecy.  Hosea 11:1, fulfilled in Jesus descent/ascent from Egypt (Mat. 2:15), cannot be a prophecy as we commonly conceive it because it does not look forward at all.  It looks backward to an event, to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.  The command not to break the bones of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:46), fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion (Jn. 19:36), is also an event, not a promise or prophecy.4 Further, Rachel weeping for her children, which is fulfilled in the murder of the innocents by Herod (Mat. 2:17, 18), is not a prophecy.  It is an imaginative description of an event.  It is a story which gives pathos, depth, and meaning to the tragedy of the Israelite exile by Assyria and Babylon (Jer. 31:15).  This being the case, it seems we have to broaden our idea of “fulfillment.”  It seems that fulfillment is not only the counterpart of prophecy but it can also be the counterpart of events and imaginative descriptions of events.  Previous events can be pictured, or repictured, or–better still–reenacted and thus named “fulfillment.”  The important thing to note here is that recognizing an analog between the events is not dependent upon receiving special knowledge from beyond.  One is able upon reflection to recognize recurrent patterns and themes in events and stories.  It does not require that one be “clued in” on some fuller meaning by the Holy Spirit.  It requires astute hermeneutic skill or, more importantly, a disciplined imagination.

J.R.R. Tolkien is supposed to have said, “We tell stories because God is a story teller … We tell our stories with words; he tells his story with history.”5 G.K. Chesterton before him wrote, “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”6 This idea of history as the story God is telling is the reason that C.S. Lewis is able to speak of a “grammar of the universe.”7 God is a story teller and insofar as Christ is the Logos, the “Message” of God, he is what God has been trying to say.

The miracles of Jesus make this clear. Lewis writes,

“There is an activity of God displayed throughout creation, a wholesale activity let us say which men refuse to recognize. The miracles done by God incarnate, living as a man in Palestine, perform the very same things as this wholesale activity, but at a different speed and on a smaller scale. One of their chief purposes is that men, having seen a thing done by personal power on the small scale, may recognize, when they see the same thing done on the large scale, that the power behind it is also personal–is indeed the very same person who lived among us two thousand years ago. The miracles in fact are a retelling in small letters of the very story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”8

As a specific example he chooses Christ at Cana to show him doing small what God often does large.

“God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine. That, men fail to see. Either like Pagans they refer the process to some finite spirit, Bacchus or Dionysus: or else, like moderns, they attribute the real and ultimate causality to the chemical and other material phenomena which are all that our senses can discover in it. But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off. The miracle has only half its effect if it only convinces us that Christ is God: it will have its full effect if whenever we see a vineyard or drink a glass of wine we remember that here works He who sat at the wedding party in Cana.”9

Jesus reenacts the Story that God has been telling from the beginning of time. The drama of Cana is a miniature of the Drama of Nature.

Notice also that Lewis mentions Man’s habit of telling stories about nature. Wherever men have drunk wine they have told stories of Bacchus. If we see God as a story teller, and Man as “making by the law in which we’re made”, it makes wonderful sense not only of the act of story-telling, but also of the sorts of stories that we tell.

The stories we tell are based upon what we see in nature and history, which are the things God uses to tell his story. In this way our smaller local stories are reflections of God’s much larger and universal one. Therefore, it should not surprise us in the least to find similarities between the two. Our stories tell of the weak being saved by the strong, of the lower being dependent upon the descent and ascent of the higher, of the dying and rising gods like Balder and the Corn-Kings. “The similarity is not in the least unreal or accidental. For the Corn-King is derived (through human imagination) from the facts of Nature, and the facts of Nature from her Creator; the Death and Rebirth pattern is in her because it was first in Him.”10 So we find in Christ the reality of which all our myths were just shadows.

“It is He who sends rain into the furrows till the valleys stand so thick with corn that they laugh and sing. The trees of the wood rejoice before Him and His voice causes the wild deer to bring forth their young. He is the God of wheat and wine and oil. In that respect He is constantly doing all the things that Nature-Gods do: He is Bacchus, Venus, Ceres all rolled into one.”11

We could say, as Lewis does, that Jesus is Myth-Become-Fact.

“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens–at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”12

Now comes the important bridge. Remember, we pointed out earlier that “fulfillment” may be applied to events and descriptions of events (stories) as well as prophecy. It is appropriate, then, to speak of Christ as the “fulfillment” of nature as well as our stories about nature, our myths. Chesterton, making the same point as above, writes, “[T]he life of Jesus … was a fulfillment of the myths.”13 In regard to the incarnation he writes, “[T]he event had fulfilled not merely the mysticism but the materialism of mythology. Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation.”14 Note the language of “fulfillment” in Chesterton. Tolkien uses the same language. “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories … But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment [sic] of Creation.”15

The Christ event is in terse miniscule the very message which Nature has been telling in her long prolix uncial.  Therefore, if we did not spread his message abroad “even these stones would cry out” (cf. Luke 19:40).  And they do.  With every season and every sunrise Nature’s voice goes through all the earth, and her words to the end of the world (cf. Ps. 19:4).

If this is true about the Story of the World, and our stories about the world (which are often full of error), should we not expect it to be just as true about the Story of Israel?  Strikingly so.  For the Story of Israel is the Story of the World.  Only eleven chapters intervene between the story of creation and the story of Abraham.  This should indicate to us all that the fate of creation rests upon our distant father and his descendants.  The history of Israel is the hinge upon which the whole world turns.

The True Story of the World
Man has written many myths, but only one did he write with the aid of the original Myth-Maker.  More than that, Man not only recorded the Story but he found himself to be a central character.  This is truer of no people than it is of the people of Israel.

Ever since the Fall men have felt themselves as part of a story that was going somewhere.  Laboring under the curse, the birth of Noah brought hope to his parents.  They said of him, “This one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29).  All of creation groans and waits for its redemption (cf. Rom. 8:18-25).  Abraham is the one chosen to bring about that redemption.  God says to him, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).  It is this long Story which Christ is seen to fulfill.  Not an odd bit here or there, as if Jesus woke each morning with a list of prophecies and said, “Well, I’d better check that one off the list today.”  All of scripture finds its fulfillment in him.  The mysterious Story of Israel, and with her the whole Story of the world, finds its “Yes” in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 1:19-20).

This is the sense in which so many of the “fulfillments” are indeed fulfilled.  It is not that the Israelites descent/ascent from Egypt was a prophecy, at least not in the sense we usually imagine.  Neither the Passover nor the Exile of the Israelites.  Rather, there is a particular “style” to the way God tells his story, a “grammar of the universe.”  “All His acts are different, but they all rhyme or echo to one another.”16 Just as one fluent in Latin will note the Latin-icity of other languages17, so one who is steeped in the Story of God will notice the imprint of the divine upon his several works. So it is not that Isaiah prophesied of the Christ at the same time he prophesied of Mahershalalhashbaz. Rather, it is that Matthew, living and breathing the Story of Israel, is able to look back through the lens of the Christ event and see in Isaiah’s prophecy the shadow of which Christ is the substance. It is in this sense, the same sense in which Christ is the fulfillment of nature and of myth, that Christ is the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 and all the Story of Israel.  The Exodus, the giving of the Law, the wilderness wandering, the temple along with its priests and sacrifices, the king, and the exile are all fulfilled in Jesus.

Because there are no prophecies, indeed no history, without the word of God there can be none without Christ who is the Word of God. All are contained in him, and he in them. He is the Eternal Word. He is what God has been saying, and there was never a time when he was not saying it. All of Man’s triumphs as well as his sorrows find their “Yes” in him. The history of Israel, indeed the whole history of Man which rode on her back, is summed up in the Son of Man. This is why the psalmist may say “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and we are not surprised to find those words on the lips of our Lord. Not because they are “prophecy”, but because they are a part of Man and Christ is all that we are. Or, rather, he bears all that we are on the back of what were supposed to be, and carries that to the cross. Everything is bound up in him. “In him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16, 17).

Building Again What I Have Torn Down
Weeks ago when I set out to write this series I had in mind to tear down sensus plenior.  Even as I began writing this article I still intended to undo the idea.  In the midst of writing, however, I find that I have built again what I have torn down.  I have established sensus plenior rather than debunking it.  But I have not established it in the way that I often hear it used.  That use, which I consider a misuse, is something to which I still object.  In order to make my objections clear it will help to distinguish between the two.

First, the fuller meaning I have given here is universal whereas the misuse to which I object is particular.  The explanation I have offered gives more meaning to quite literally everything, not just odd bits of scripture here and there.  It sees meaning in the entire Story of scripture, not to mention nature itself.  I quote C.S. Lewis once more.

“It is not an accident that simple-minded people, however spiritual, should blend the ideas of God and Heaven and the blue sky. It is a fact, not a fiction, that light and life-giving heat do come down from the sky to the Earth. The analogy of the sky’s role to begetting and of the Earth’s role to bearing is sound as far as it goes. The huge dome of the sky is of all things sensuously perceived the most like infinity. And when God made space and worlds that move in space, and clothed our world with air, and gave us such eyes and such imaginations as those we have, He knew what the sky would mean to us. And since nothing in His work is accidental, if He knew, He intended. We cannot be certain that this was not indeed one of the chief purposes for which Nature was created.”18

This kind of sensus plenior infuses the whole world with meaning.  Every rock and tree and creature is part of God’s grammar.  It is his way of saying something about the way that the world is and the way that we are to relate to it and to him.  This is different from the use I consider misuse.  That sort of fuller meaning is not so full.  It only claims a fuller meaning for certain passages of scripture.  It is not a synthesis of the entire Story.  And because it cannot show itself to be within the “style” of the whole it often appears as an intruder.  The fuller meaning appears strange and out of place.  It exists as a curiosity.  It answers one question while it may raise others which it cannot satisfy.  That is quite different from the sort I have a described, a sort which always feels at home within the whole.

Second, the fuller meaning I have shared here is accessible by Man’s reason, whereas the misuse of sensus plenior requires a special revelation of the Holy Spirit.  This makes it appear as if the NT writers misused the OT by yanking scriptures out of context.  We are then required to make special allowances for these writers which we would never make for any one else.  As a friend once said to me, “They were allowed to use scripture out of context because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

The fuller meaning I have suggested provides a context wherein the NT use of the OT makes sense.  It has a suitability to it, an appropriateness.  The misuse of sensus plenior puts the NT writers in a place where they offer a context-less interpretation of a passage.  It appears as an interpretation wholly unsuitable to the context of the OT passage.

Rotting Limb or Golden Bough?
I have gone out on a limb to express a view unique to myself.19  Paradoxically, this limb seems to me more likely to break with its sole occupant than it would if it bore up a great cloud of witnesses.  I cannot help but feel, however, that the golden bough which sustains me is Truth. But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that the branch which I have made my home is not only rotten, but worse, is all together non-existent.  What solid limb will knot my head as I tumble towards more solid ground?  It is a view which is admittedly simpler, though not without its difficulties.

Perhaps it is not the case that the Bible writers, through prayerful struggle and meditation, as well as inspiration, saw Christ as the fulfillment of all scripture.  Perhaps it was not that Christ fulfilled the whole Story of Israel and with it the long Story of the World.  Maybe the Bible writers had no unified cosmic-historical vision.  Let us suppose, rather, that I am wrong and that Matthew (and others) did often use the OT “out of context.”  And let us suppose that they did so with divine permission.  Finally, let us suppose that no Bible writer could have concluded what they did on their own but needed to be “clued in” on the sensus plenior, the fuller meaning, by the Holy Spirit. What does that say about our hermeneutics?

I can only repeat here what was stated in the previous article. If another meaning exists which is not accessible to us by our reason, then it is by definition context-less and therefore only accessible by a special gift from the Holy Spirit.

It seems that there are only two available options left open to us.  If we believe there is a fuller meaning to a text we must be able to demonstrate its appropriateness within the Story of the World as revealed in scripture.  It must fit with God’s “grammar”, with his “style.”  There must be a suitability about it, as there is in the miracles of Jesus Christ and in his reenactment of the history of Israel.  It must “fit.”  Consider it like this:

“Let us suppose we possess parts of a novel or a symphony.  Someone now brings us a newly discovered piece of a manuscript and says, ‘This is the missing part of the work.  This is the chapter on which the whole plot of the novel really turned.  This is the main theme of the symphony.’  Our business would be to see whether the new passage, if admitted to the central place which the discoverer claimed for it, did actually illuminate all the parts we had already seen and ‘pull them together.’  Nor should we be likely to go very far wrong.  The new passage, if spurious, however attractive it looked at first glance, would become harder and harder to reconcile with the rest of the work the longer we considered the matter.  But if it were genuine then at every fresh hearing of the music or every fresh reading of the book, we should find it settling down, making itself more at home and eliciting significance from all sorts of details in the whole work which we had hitherto neglected.”20

If the meaning we assign to the text, its primary meaning or its fuller one, does not have this appropriateness we must reject it. If it is not suitable then we may only maintain our proposed fuller meaning by claiming some special revelation of the Spirit. Insofar as I know of no one claiming such a revelation, we are left with only one way. The Story must make sense as a whole and whatever interpretations we claim for it must do the same.21 These are the controls which are placed upon our use of the Bible. If we do not respect these limits we risk abusing the text as well as using the text to abuse others. Only by such strict adherence to the Bible do we find the way forward, through the fog, by the lamp which God has granted us. Only his word is “a lamp unto our feet and light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105).


©M. Benfield 2017


1. You can see the painting here: ; Accessed 29 March 2017.
2. A charge which my detractors will no doubt level against me.
3. This phrase comes from the Creed of Chalcedon, available here: ; Accessed 30 March 2017.
4. Some have suggested that John’s reference is to Ps. 34:20 instead of the Passover. This would seem odd. The promise in Psalms is deliverance from death. The reference to Passover, a description of death, is more fitting. Still, if the reference is to Psalms it supports the point that the “fulfillment” is not a fulfillment of an evident prophecy. It is a recapitulation of a promise.
5. I say “supposed to have said” because this quote comes from a recreation of a conversation between Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The recreation, however, is based upon evidence from Tolkien and Lewis themselves and ought to be considered fairly reliable. If he did not say these exact words he certainly said something like it for he has said similar things in other places. E.g. when discussing Man’s habit of telling stories and making myths he writes, “We still make by the law in which we’re made” (from his poem Philomythus to Misomythus or Mythopoeia). If our making stories is according to “the law in which we’re made” it necessarily follows that our lives and all of history is a kind of divine story making or, to use Tolkien’s own word, mytho-poeia.
6. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 93.
7. C.S. Lewis, “Miracles”, God in the Dock, in The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2004), 315.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid, 316.
10. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 186.
11. Ibid, 184.
12. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact”, God in the Dock, 343.
13. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 207.
14. Ibid, 176.
15. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”, in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, (London: HarperCollins 2006), 155-156.
16. Lewis, “Miracles”, God in the Dock, 316, 321.
17. Lewis, Miracles, 103.
18. Lewis, Miracles, 258.
19. It would be dishonest if I did not here mention N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011). His approach was always in the back of my mind while writing and his approach has influenced me a great deal. He seems to have done with the Story of Israel what Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis did with myth. He finds Jesus, rightly I believe, reenacting the Story of Israel as Lewis and the rest saw Jesus reenacting great myths. It is right to wonder whether Wright is also indebted to these men. I think it likely insofar as he regularly admits the influence of C.S. Lewis. If our approaches are so similar, why call it unique to myself? First, Wright has, to my knowledge, never made his case in quite the same way I have. As a result I cannot be absolutely certain that he would agree. Second, because I cannot be sure he would agree, or put it quite the way I have, I have left off associating him with a view which he might oppose. Regardless, I wish to give credit where it is due and acknowledge his influence as well as certain similarities between what I affirm and what he has written.
20. Lewis, Miracles, 175-176.
21. Wright models this for us in the two case studies which conclude Scripture and the Authority of God. Even with practices which many think are quite clear cut, like Sabbath and Monogamy (his two case-studies), Wright shows that it is not enough to simply quote a verse. We can only trust that our interpretation of a verse is correct if it shares the style of the True Story of the World.

Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 1)


The phrase sensus plenior is Latin for “fuller sense” or “fuller meaning.”  It is often used in biblical exegesis to refer to a “deeper” or “hidden” meaning of the text intended by God but not intended by its human author.  Classic examples of sensus plenior are 2 Samuel 7:12 which is supposed to contain a prophecy about Solomon as well as a prophecy about David’s “Greater Son”, Jesus the Christ, and Isaiah 7:14 which is thought to prophecy both the birth of Mahershalahashbaz by a “maiden” as well as the birth of Jesus by a “virgin” (the ambiguous Hebrew almah being later translated by the stricter Greek parthenos).

Though sensus plenior is not used to describe pre-scientific statements (as far as I know) the ideas are similar.  Just as sensus plenior says that there is another meaning latent in the text of which the human author is unaware, so Scientific Concordists believe that modern science is embedded in the text unbeknownst to the writers.  An example of this is Isaiah 40:22 where God is pictured as sitting upon the “circle” of the earth.  According to the Concordist, the Israelites may have considered this “circle” to be a disc (not a sphere) like the surrounding nations of the ancient world, but Isaiah was in fact indicating the earth’s spherical shape.  Another example is the psalmist’s mention of “the paths of the sea” in Psalm 8:8.  This was supposed to have revealed the existence of ocean currents.  Examples could be multiplied to include the Israelites establishment of quarantine, healthy diets, as well as the invention of a crude anti-bacterial soap, but these examples are sufficient enough to illustrate the idea.

Both sensus plenior and pre-scientific statements are by definition “context-less” because nothing in the context indicates the presence of the hidden meaning, or else it would not be considered hidden.  Is this a legitimate form of exegesis?  Certain “obvious” examples, like Isaiah 7:14, would seem to say so.  But is there another way to view supposed sensus plenior?  This article begins a series which will examine sensus plenior, “Old World Science”, and some other modern hermeneutical practices which share their context-less nature.

One important thing needs to be said before we launch into a discussion of inspiration and exegesis.  I do not question what God is able to do.  I only intend to raise questions about what God, in fact, has done.  God is able to fill my office with elves and fairies but he is not at present doing so (that I can tell).  It is important to keep these two questions separate and I only intend to address the one: what has God revealed in scripture?


Scientific Concordism
Regarding the “sensus plenior” of Old World Science, it is taken for granted that the Bible is not a science text book.  This means that its purpose is not to give us a science education.  Its purpose is to tell the Story of God’s mission to rescue creation from the mess that we’ve made.  Scripture is not for an education in physics but for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17).

The very definition of sensus plenior, however, is that God embedded a meaning which the human author did not intend and was possibly (probably?) unaware of.  A commitment to this idea, which is, unfortunately often bound to the inerrancy of scripture, has caused some to say that although the Bible is not a science text book it is always accurate whenever it remarks upon scientific matters.1 This view is called Scientific Concordism and is the default position of many (most?) evangelical Christians.

The view is often explained using the “Two Books” metaphor.  It is said that God wrote “two books”: one is written upon Nature in the precise language of math and science, the other is written upon the pages of the Bible in the more common, but also more ambiguous, language of men.   The metaphor itself is very old.  Galileo Galilei used this metaphor in his famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany (A.D. 1615), but even then he was quoting Tertullian’s much earlier work Adversus Marcionem (circa A.D. 208).  He writes,

“Perhaps this is what Tertullian meant by these words: ‘We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word.’  From this I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy scripture.  On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths.”2

The common belief that modern science completely accords with scripture has resulted in two different approaches. One, believing science to be the clearer revelation, interprets scripture in light of modern science. This has resulted in ideas like the Day-Age Theory, the Gap Theory, and so on. The other, believing that scripture is the more reliable (albeit less precise) revelation, either accepts or rejects science depending on whether or not it agrees with their interpretation of scripture. This has resulted in some rejecting Evolution, Global Warming, Heliocentrism, even the very existence of Dinosaurs. The root of these approaches is exactly the same. They both share the common belief that modern science must agree with scripture. The only difference is that one interprets scripture in light of science and the other interprets science in light of scripture.3

But is it possible that the Concordist approach is inherently flawed? Does our belief in scripture really depend upon its scientific accuracy, or vice versa?  Is it possible that there is a third way?  I believe that there is.  Before offering a third way, however, let’s first consider some of the difficulties inherent in Scientific Concordism.4


Difficulties with Scientific Concordism
One way of defending Scientific Concordism is to suggest that the scientific language of the Bible is sometimes intentionally ambiguous. This gets God out of the supposed dilemma of saying something false while at the same time allows him to accommodate the false beliefs of the original readers. 5 This raises the question: if the language of the Bible could be used by ancients to “prove” their science as well as by moderns, does it prove either one?  We must answer, no.  To be fair, this approach does not claim to end the discussion, only to keep it open.

Another bolder approach is to say that the scientific language of the Bible is not ambiguous at all, but quite specific.  It requires that each scripture which supposedly comments upon some scientific fact be precisely accurate.  The problem I find here is that science is constantly changing.  At every stage Christians have thought that the Bible supported the best science of their day.6  And each time science proved otherwise Christians were forced into a corner.  We had three decisions, and individuals have taken all three at different times: 1. Give up the Bible all together  2. Give up that particular interpretation of the Bible.  3. Question the science.

It seems to me that this constant battle with science is never ending.  Regardless of where you begin, either with science or scripture, there is only one way to settle the matter and that is to have all matters settled.  Christians will have to arrive unanimously at an immovable hermeneutic position and say, “This is precisely what the text means.”  So long as we are able to change our interpretations of scripture then science will never be able to “pin us down.”  Each time experts find science to contradict scripture we will either deny the science or change our interpretation.  Just the same, if Christians claim science as their support what will they do when the science changes?  Only when science has settled all matters which it is suited to settle, and only when the interpretation of scripture is finally concluded can we compare the “two books” and say whether they agree or not.

Whether we choose the former softer route, which can prove everything and therefore prove nothing, or the latter harder route, which constantly changes its answers so as to preclude any objective comparison, it seems that we cannot expect science to be an ally in proving the inerrancy of the Bible.

I want to suggest, however, that even though it is not an ally (at least not in the way that Concordists suppose) neither is it an enemy.  It is not an enemy because science and the Bible are saying two very different things.  As we said before, the Bible is not a science text book.  Therefore, we ought not judge the Bible by its scientific in/accuracy.  Immediately someone (perhaps you, the reader) will ask, “Does that mean that there are errors in the Bible?”  Well, yes.  And no.  It depends on how we judge errors.  A quick glimpse at Speech-Act Theory will help explain what I mean.7


Speech-Act Theory
Speech-Act Theory is a way of explaining what we do when we communicate with others.  It’s important to note, first of all, that much language involves accommodation.  We must assess where our audience is in their understanding and then choose the appropriate words to communicate with them, even if those words are imprecise and not the words we would normally use (consider how we often explain difficult concepts to children).  Speech-Act Theory helps us to understand this sort of accommodation.  The most important idea behind the theory is that when we speak we are not merely communicating but we are actually trying to accomplish something (hence, Speech-Act), for example, to promise, to bless, to instruct, to pacify, to apologize, to encourage, and so on.  Consequently, we also expect a particular sort of reaction from those with whom we communicate.  We expect them to obey, to understand, to accept a gift/blessing, to forgive, etc.

When we speak we use words, idioms, and tone (if spoken) or genre (if written).  This part of the communication, the first part, is called locution.  One of the most important things to grasp is that genre can be neither true nor false.  Insofar as it bears similarity to the tone of a spoken voice we might ask, can a person’s tone be true or false?  No, of course not.  It simply is.  It is an adornment of the locution, a characteristic of the words which are the vehicle of meaning.  It will change how we receive the message of the speaker/writer but it is not inherently true or false.8 This is also where accommodation happens. Accommodation, then, becomes a part of the genre and, therefore, cannot be true or false.

The next part of the Speech-Act is illocution, what we are trying to do through speech.  Are we trying to encourage, promise, describe, or instruct? Or perhaps something else?  And if we are trying to teach, what are we trying to teach?  If we are trying to describe, what are we trying to describe?  Consider one of Pablo Neruda’s Cien Sonetos de Amor (XXIII):


“The fire for light, a rancorous moon for bread, the jasmine smearing around its bruised secrets: then from a terrifying love, soft white hands poured peace into my eyes and sun into my senses.”9


If you were to ask Neruda if this were true I have no doubt that he would say, “Yes.”  We understand that we are not to imagine Matilde, his wife, pouring a bucket of sunshine.  Yet, it does communicate something true.  It is not a scientific truth, not a physical truth.  Rather, it is a romantic or a metaphysical truth.  The phrase “soft white hands poured peace into my eyes and sun into my senses” is the locution intended to describe (the illocution) an evening shared by him and his wife.  The locution, the words and genre he used, are not verifiable or falsifiable. It is the uniquely suited vehicle chosen to describe and praise (the illocution) his and his wife’s shared reality. It is the illocution that we must judge to be either true or false.  (That is assuming the illocution is verifiable.  A command, for example, can be neither true nor false, it merely is).  Only if Neruda and Matilde had hated one another and never spent a single amicable evening together could we would say the poem is false.  Notice, however, that we would not say it is false simply because it used fanciful language.  That is part of the genre (locution) and is therefore neither true nor false.  We would only say it is false if what it affirmed (the love for his wife) were shown to be false.  Authority is not vested in the locution (speech) independent of the illocution (act).

We are now in a position where we can deal with some of the “scientific” statements of the Bible.


Old World Science in the Bible
In Genesis 1 the sky is described as a “firmament” (1:6-8).  The “firmament” is the Hebrew word raqiya later translated by the Greek stereoma.  Though some have suggested that raqiya simply means “expanse”, instead of “beaten metal”, stereoma refers to anything firm or solid.  We have already noted that Augustine, Luther, and Calvin all believed in a solid dome (cf. footnote 6).  It was none the less true of the Ancients in Israel’s day.  Mesopotamians and Egyptians both believed that the sky was a solid dome which held back the waters above and allowed precipitation through gates in the firmament.10 There is no reason to believe that the Israelites believed anything different, especially considering that this was the common believe even as recently as John Calvin.

Does this mean that God made a mistake?  No.  Remember, the Bible is not a scientific text book.  That means it is not intended to relate scientific facts, that is not its illocution.  Rather, it is intended to talk about God’s mission in the world.  This means that he may (and has) used accommodative language (locution) in order to meet the Israelites where they are and communicate some truth about himself.  The story of Genesis 1 is not about material origins.  It is about God constructing a cosmic temple in which he intends to dwell with mankind.

Elsewhere God is pictured as sitting upon “the circle of the earth” (Isa. 40:22).  Again, Egypt and Mesopotamia appear to have believed that the earth was a flat disk.11  It makes sense for God to communicate to his people using their common language to make a further point.  The point of the passage is that the LORD is greater than idol gods, not to say something about the shape of the earth.

This sort of linguistic accommodation is to be expected.

“Why would we think that the human communicator would use the science of our day? In fact, that would be foolishness because a century from now we will undoubtedly have adopted some new scientific conclusions that differ from what we believe today. Science is always changing, and it is expected that continuous progress will be made. God chose human communicators associated with a particular time, language and culture and communicated through them into that world.”12

Over and over again examples of biblical “Old World Science” could be given.  This need not bother us, however, if we remember that the Bible is not intended to communicate such scientific truths.  Science and the Bible are saying two very different things.  Consequently, science can be neither biblical or non-biblical because the Bible does not take scientific positions, nor can the Bible be scientific or unscientific because it is not concerned with scientific questions.  The Bible and science are different instruments revealing different sorts of truths.  This allows the Bible writers to say what they want to say to us without trying to make them into proto-scientists.  This also allows science to be judged on its own merits.  If the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa it is not so because “the Bible says,” it is so because the science says so.  Further, if the earth is ten thousand years old or ten billion years old it will be found to be so because science says so, not because the Bible says so.  The Bible is not intended to answer such questions and it is a mistake, I believe, to require it to do so.

We have come a long way.  While some may think the chief importance of the above information has to do with whether or not the Bible is inspired, it extends further than that.  This way of understanding the Bible becomes very important to our hermeneutic approach in other places.

First, we have demonstrated briefly that nothing in the context of supposed scientific statements indicates that the purpose of those passages is to communicate scientific information.  The context always indicates that the writer had another goal in mind (his illocution).

Second, this means that if scientific information was intended to be transferred by God, unbeknownst to the human writer, then it is by definition context-less, because the context has indicated otherwise.

“If God had other meanings beyond what he gave through the human biblical communicator, we have no reliable way to get to them except through later authority figures.  We dare not imagine ourselves in that capacity lest the authority of the text end up residing in each individual reader.”13

Which leads to our next point.  Third, if we affirm that such information is embedded in the text we affirm the existence of a context-less message and thereby remove all possible controls upon interpretation.  It now becomes senseless to speak of something being taken “out of context.”  All a person needs to do is appeal to other context-less interpretations to legitimate his idea.  This is, I think, the greatest danger.  It allows the Bible to be abused as a witness to the whimsy of men and women who would support this policy or that, this war effort or that one, trendy diets, particular clothing styles, or invented household rules.  (Anyone who who has fallen prey to such interpretations will know that none of these examples is far fetched).  The possible existence of context-less interpretation not only abuses the Bible but is too often used to abuse people.  The only hope we have at saving others from such manipulation is the serious and prayerful struggle to understand scripture within its ancient context as it would have been understood by its original readers.  These are the controls, the limits, set upon us as students of the Bible which safeguard others from our own pride and selfishness.  God have mercy on us all as we dive deeper into the world of the Bible and the mission of God.



1. For example, Dr. Hugh Ross, writer for Reasons to Believe, says, “If the Bible is indeed God’s message to humanity, would He not inspire the human authors in such a manner that their writings would communicate truth, and nothing but truth, to all generations?” Internet; Available at: ; Also, Mike Willis for Truth Magazine writes, “Yet, the claim that the Bible is verbally inspired cannot be sustained if the passing comments which it makes regarding the universe are in conflict with the facts of science. Hence, in order for the Bible to be inspired of God, it must be a book which harmonizes with the known facts of science.”  Internet; Avaialble at: ; Accessed 17 March, 2017.
2. Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, lines 275-286. Internet; Available at: ; Accessed 11 March 2017.
3. John Soden PhD., “What is Concordism in Bible-Science Discussion?” Internet; Available at: ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
4. This is not intended to respond to every shade of Concordism. That would be a task much too large for this short article. I intend only to offer some general objections to common Concordist approaches.
5. James Patrick Holding, a writer for Answers in Genesis, takes this position in his response to Paul H. Seely. “Is the Raqiya’ (Firmament) a Solid Dome? Equivocal Language in the Cosmology of Genesis 1 and the Old Testament: a Response to Paul H. Seely.” Internet; Available at: ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
6. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all believed scripture supported the science they had but which we now know to be outdated. Internet; Available at: ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
7. In what follows I am almost entirely dependent upon John Walton and Brent Sandy’s book The Lost World of Scripture, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
8. Something like this idea may be behind the famous conversation where C.S. Lewis said to J.R.R. Tolkien, “But myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver. They are just beautiful lies. You can’t actually believe in fairy stories.” To which Tolkien responded, “Why not? I can. In fact, I do.” Are we then to believe that Tolkien believed in Zeus, Mars, or the Ragnorak? Of course not. He was a faithful Catholic. But he understood that the truth or falsity of myth was not in its genre but in what it attempted to do, and it attempted to speak truth. The conversation continues, “But this is preposterous. How can you seriously believe a lie?” said Lewis. Tolkien then explains, “Myths are not lies. In fact they are the opposite of a lie. They convey the essential truth, the primal reality, of life itself.” This dialogue is recreated from notes in their letters and from Tolkien’s poem which resulted from this conversation variously titled “Polymythus to Misomythus” or more simply “Mythopoeia.” A live action recreation of the conversation is available here: ; Internet; Accessed 18 March 2017. “Mythopoeia” is available here: ; Internet; Accessed 18 March 2017.
9. Pablo Neruda, Cien Sonetos de Amor, Trans. Stephen Tapscott (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 51.
10. John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 168-170.
11. Ibid, 171-172.
12. Walton, Lost World of Scripture, 52.
13. Ibid, 53.

Vulnerability: The Strength of Weakness

Aristotle wrote, “One … who [does not need others] … is either a beast or a god.”1  Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, writes, “Connection is why we’re here.  We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”2 The Bible, our greatest source of authority, describes Adam in full fellowship with God and animals.  Yet still God says “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  Even communion with God and creation left something lacking in Adam.  We are created for communion with other human beings.  Like Adam needed Eve for community so we need others.

But how do we create community?  In a word: vulnerability.  “Vulnerable” comes from a Latin word meaning “to wound” and is defined as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” 3  As scary as that sounds, it is necessary.  I want briefly to suggest two ways in which vulnerability helps to create community, both of which have a comparison to our relationship with God.


Give Up Control
First, in order to create community we must forfeit the attempt to control others.  We often try to control others by verbal manipulation and sometimes by force.  We do so in order to assure that things go our way, that any annoying habits or silly ideas others might have are quickly snuffed out so that we can go on enjoying our lives as we intend them.  Ultimately this is to create the world in our image, to coerce others to be like us.  This, however, assaults and offends the personhood of others and as a result will cause them to withdraw—the very opposite of community.

Should we expect anything different?  We only have communion with God when we allow him to be himself.  The biblical word for attempts to control God and fashion him in our image is “idolatry” (cf. Deu. 4:15-19), and idolatry precludes communion with God as he is.  On the other hand, if we allow God to be himself then we can have a relationship with him.  This requires vulnerability on our part.  There is no doubt that letting God work in our lives is, at times, uncomfortable, perhaps even involving mourning and weeping.  But when we relinquish control and “draw near to God” he will draw near to us (cf. James 4:8, 9).  That is communion.  And it begins in vulnerability.

The same vulnerability is necessary when dealing with people.  Allowing them to be gloriously “other” than us may involve some pain.  There may be quirks and habits that we do not like which cause discomfort when we invite them into our lives.  But only when we refuse to control them do we communicate our genuine love and respect for their personhood.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well: “Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he receives from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.”4 When we create others in our own image, requiring them to be and act just like us, we are making idols of ourselves.  We destroy the “other” in a person and replace it with an image of “us.” By a work of self-centered alchemy we transform their brilliant “Thou” into a banal “I.”  So long as another’s behavior is in accord with truth and goodness we must allow him to be himself and appreciate him as an individual, like us, created in the image of God (cf. James 3:9).

Give Up “Perfection”
Second, in order to create community we must be willing to share our faults.  One study concluded that all parties involved in relationship must be willing to share their true selves in order to produce feelings of closeness and intimacy.5  If we are not willing to share ourselves we cannot be surprised if we do not feel close to those around us.  Holding back for fear of “committing too soon” obstructs the creation of intimacy. The fear of getting hurt may be the very thing which hurts us by leaving us lonely and withholding the one thing which can connect us to others. The tendency to put on a “Sunday face” and maintain our ideal image in the face of others inhibits the generation of genuine community.  To hide our broken selves is to give up all hope for intimate connection.

Again this is true in our relationship with God.  So long as we put on a show for God we can have no genuine communion with him.  The Pharisee who wore his “goodness” on his sleeve was not justified (cf. Luke 18:9-14).  The Israelites who “played church” were condemned (cf. Isa. 58:1-5), because “God opposes the proud” (James 4:6a).

But, thank God, he “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6b).  When we genuinely share ourselves with God by confessing our imperfections He condescends to us and makes his home with us.  “Whoever conceals his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Pro. 28:13).  It is the “contrite in spirit” that God looks upon with favor (Isa. 66:2b).

It is the same in our relationships with others.  In my own experience with vulnerability I can attest to the sometimes physical response of those to whom I confess.  After sharing some fault or struggle of my own with a trusted friend there is often a release of tension in the shoulders, a visible sigh of relief when he realizes, “You struggle with that too?!”  Our vulnerability gives others the permission to be vulnerable and, most importantly, to experience God’s mercy and grace through us.  Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, “You can’t win; if you tell lies people will distrust you.  If you tell the truth people will dislike you.”  That is a lie that we (myself included) have often bought into.  If we hide our faults we can always justify the deception by telling ourselves, “I just want friends, and no one would like me if they knew the real me.”  In fact, it is only by taking the risk of sharing our(broken)selves with others that we offer them the opportunity to know and, finally, to love the “real us.”  Only then can we experience God’s love and forgiveness in the face of our brothers and sisters.  That is real community.

The church is a community created and sustained by nothing but the love of God (cf. Rom. 8:35-39).  Only when we “bear with one another in love” do we “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).  But this requires vulnerability for, as C.S. Lewis put it, “[t]o love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.”6  One might ask, “Isn’t that scary?”  The answer is: yes.  Absolutely.  It’s terrifying.  But there is no other way.  The call to love is a call to vulnerability.  We need courage to allow others to be themselves, and we need courage to be and to share ourselves.  That is the vulnerability necessary to create community.  And so, praise God that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  The strength of love springs from the weakness of vulnerability.


1. Aristotle, Politics, Trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), Book I.2.
2. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 8.
3. “Vulnerable.” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. 2010.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper One, 1954), 36.
5. Aron Arthu et al., “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings”, 364. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23.4 (1997): 363-377. SAGE Social Science Collections. Web. Accessed 16 December 2015.
6. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, The Four Loves: 2 Works, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 316.