The Importance of Canonical Sensus Plenior for Expository Preaching

  • Canonical Sensus Plenior

Canonical Sensus Plenior

The Scripture is the Word of God (Luke 11:28, Heb 4:12). This simple declaration implies the Bible is not only a collection of sixty-six distinct books but also is, in a very real sense, one book, the Word of God. God superintended the human authors so that they wrote just what he intended them to say. The Holy Spirit did not destroy their personality or individuality as they wrote to particular people in particular places and situations, but rather worked through them, such that “men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:21). What they wrote is aptly described as “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). Any pursuit of the intended meaning of the author must consider not only the human author in his historical setting but also God, the divine author, in the canonical setting that he has provided.

Phillip Barton Payne notes,

It is the written text, the graphe, which the Scriptures claim to be God-breathed (1 Tim 3:16). Throughout the teaching of Jesus there is recognition of the divine origin and authority of the written Scriptures, but he never cites as authority the human author’s intention. Ultimately all argument about meaning or the author’s intention must be rooted in the text if it is to be objective (“The Fallacy of Equating Meaning with Human Author’s Intention,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?, 79). 

Darrell Bock writes,

The reason this writer rejects a ‘total’ identification between the divine intent and the human author’s intent is that in certain psalms, as well as in other Old Testament passages, theological revelation had not yet developed to the point where the full thrust of God’s intention was capable of being understood by the human author” (“Evangelicals and the Use of the Old Testament in the New,” Bib Sac 142

[1985]: 307).

Peter F. Jensen explains regarding the canonical unity of the Bible,

This arises, of course, from the belief that the God who never lies speaks self-consistently and without contradiction, and that he is in a direct sense the author of the Scripture. Unity has been, then, a key interpretative principle. Bible-reading presupposes one divine mind behind the text, and the basic strategy is to compare one part with another. (The Revelation of God, 183).

Leland Ryken explains the unity of the Bible this way:

I would ask you to picture the pages of a Bible with cross-references listed in the margin. I would note first that the Bible is the only book I know where this format regularly appears. Even after we have eliminated the somewhat arbitrary listing of passages that express similar ideas or simply use identical words, we are left with an anthology of diverse writings that are unified by an interlocking and unified system of theological ideas, images, and motifs. Together the diverse elements make up a single composite story and worldview known as salvation history” (The Word of God in English, 149).

The inherent divine, organic unity of the Bible demands that faithful interpreters of the Scriptures recognize the theological coherence of the entire canon. As Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen explain,

The Bible narrates the story of God’s journey on that long road of redemption. It is a unified and progressively unfolding drama of God’s action in history for the salvation of the whole world. The Bible is not a mere jumble of history, poetry, lessons in morality and theology, comforting promises, guiding principles and commands; instead, it is fundamentally coherent. Every part of the Bible-each event, book, character, command, prophecy, and poem-must be understood in the context of one story line. Many of us have read the Bible as if it were merely a mosaic of little bits-theological bits, moral bits, historical-critical bits, sermon bits, devotional bits. But when we read the Bible in such a fragmented way, we ignore its divine author’s intention to shape our lives through its story (The Drama of Scripture, 12).

This recognition will lead to an acknowledgement that later revelation will often help the interpreter to understand the fuller meaning of an earlier text. Such a view has traditionally been called sensus plenior. I suggest the phrase canonical sensus plenior, which focuses on the role of Christocentric canonical development and context in recognizing fuller meaning. Canonical sensus plenior constitutes the fuller meaning intended by God, ascertained by understanding the meaning of the text in light of the Scriptures Christocentric canonical context. Such a fuller meaning would not have been evident to the original human author but represents the real meaning of the text.

Bruce Waltke proposes a similar approach that he calls a canonical process approach. He describes it as the recognition that the text’s intention became deeper and clearer as the parameters of the canon were expanded. Just as redemption itself has a progressive history, so also older texts in the canon underwent a correlative progressive perception of meaning as they became part of a growing canonical literature. (“A Canonical Process Approach to the Psalms,” in Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg, 7).

Along these lines, David S. Dockery writes,

We must affirm the real possibility that the entire biblical text in its canonical context contains a theological meaning that is not unlike what has traditionally been called sensus plenior. The term indicates a fuller meaning in the Scripture than what was possibly intended or known by the original human author. The more significant the text, the more this is the case. Because of the canonical shape and divine nature of the biblical text, a passage may have a surplus of meaning or a full depth of meaning, which by its very nature can never be exhausted. It is with humility that we approach the text, recognizing that the meaning of a text may actually exceed the conscious intention of the original authors or the understanding of the original readers (Christian Scripture, 160).

Canonical sensus plenior demands that while affirming the human authorship of the text and stressing the importance of seeking the original intended meaning of the human author, we must also stress that, ultimately, the biblical text itself is the place where meaning is concentrated. The interpreter must acknowledge that every text resides in a God-given canonical context that must be taken into account for any interpretation to be adequate. This is the case because there is a theological shape to the Bible as a whole.

William VanGemeren provides a helpful analogy of the relationship between a given text and its canonical context:

Interpretation not only involves the analysis of the text but also includes a synthesis, or integration of the text within it literary setting, the canonical situation (i.e., the Word of God as addressed to God’s people in a particular historical context and received as canon), and redemptive-historical developments. The interpretation of a text is like a snapshot, whereas the hermeneutic of redemptive-history may be likened to a movie. The latter relates the individual pictures to each other and continues to alter the perceived relationships so as to permit the Bible to tell its own story of God’s redemptive involvement in the history of Israel and the church (The Progress of Redemption, 38).

It is precisely a consideration of the canonical context that will drive the interpreter to understand every text in light of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself commends the application of this sort of interpretive canonical sensus plenior when he declares to the Jewish crowds who desired to kill him, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” (John 5:18, 39). The men to whom Jesus was speaking were diligent students who painstakingly explored Scripture; but, as D. A. Carson contends, “Jesus insists that there is nothing intrinsically life-giving about studying the Scriptures, if one fails to discern their true content and purpose” (The Gospel According to John, 263). His words called them to reexamine the Scripture in light of the revelation of God that has been manifested in his appearing (John 1:14, 18). He holds himself up as the key to understanding the Scripture (John 5:46).

As D.A. Carson says,

These are the Scriptures, Jesus says, that testify about me. . . . What is at stake is a comprehensive hermeneutical key. By predictive prophecy, by type, by revelatory event and by anticipatory statute, what we call the Old Testament is understood to point to Christ, his ministry, his teaching, his death and resurrection . . . Like John the Baptist (vv. 33-35), the Scriptures, rightly understood, point away from themselves to Jesus. If therefore some of the Jews refuse to come to Jesus for life, that refusal constitutes evidence that they are not reading their Scriptures as they are meant to be read (The Gospel According to John, 263-264).

In his influential Toward an Exegetical Theology, Kaiser devotes a chapter to contextual analysis. (Toward an Exegetical Theology, 69-85). In this section, Kaiser praises Brevard Childs for calling the interpreter to focus on the biblical canon in final form. But Kaiser also criticizes Childs and others for arguing that the whole canon should be used as the broadest context for every passage in biblical interpretation:

But in our chapter in theological analysis we will argue that the Church at large (since the time of the Reformers especially) is in error when she uses the analogy of faith (analogia fidei) as an exegetical device for extricating meaning from or importing meaning to texts that appeared earlier than the passage where the teaching is set forth most clearly or perhaps even for the first time. It is a mark of eisegesis, not exegesis, to borrow freight that appears chronologically later in the text and to transport it back and unload it on an earlier passage simply because both or all of the passages involved share the same canon . . . There is one place where canonical concern must be introduced, however. After we have finished our exegetical work . . . canonical context must only appear as part of our summation and not as part of our exegesis (Toward an Exegetical Theology, 80-83).

For Kaiser, canonical synthesis provides the interpreter with only the proper application of the passage or passages and not the meaning. But can exegesis stop short of theological analysis and integration? Why divide canonical contextual analysis from exegesis? This seems to be an odd position since Kaiser considers others forms of contextual analysis a part of the exegetical process. Kaiser is not justified in suggesting that using the analogy of faith in interpretation inexorably leads to eisegesis. His assertion amounts to a rejection of apostolic procedure. Exegesis itself requires canonical consideration; it is not simply a part of post-exegetical application. The fuller sense discerned from canonical sensus plenior is the fruit of exegesis and represents the correct interpretation of an original author’s text.

It is important to note that the recognition of a fuller sense in a given text, discerned in light of canonical context, does not represent an arbitrary or dehistoricized invention of the interpreter. The appropriate use of canonical sensus plenior rules out anachronistic or allegorical interpretations in favor of recognition of intrinsic canonical connections and eschatological realization. The fuller meaning of a text ascertained in light of the canonical whole of redemptive revelation must not ignore the place and significance of the text in its particular location in redemptive history.

For the interpreter and the preacher, Kaiser’s analogy of antecedent Scripture demands the impossible, namely, that the reader should interpret a chronologically prior text as if he were ignorant of the rest of the narrative. Kaiser asks, “what is it that the whole or unity of Scripture teaches that is not also in the individual books or in the grammar and syntax of individual passages?” (Toward and Exegetical Theology, 109). The answer to Kaiser’s question is clear: it is the divine author’s ultimate intention in the totality of his canonical revelation.


By |September 25th, 2014|Categories: Blog|Tags: , , |

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About the Author:

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today