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.

Conclusion
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: http://www.reasons.org/articles/defending-concordism-response-to-the-lost-world-of-genesis-one ; 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: http://www.truthmagazine.com/archives/volume21/TM021270.html ; Accessed 17 March, 2017.
2. Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, lines 275-286. Internet; Available at: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~kimler/hi322/Galileo-Letter.pdf ; Accessed 11 March 2017.
3. John Soden PhD., “What is Concordism in Bible-Science Discussion?” Internet; Available at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2017/03/07/concordism-bible-science-discussion/ ; 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: https://answersingenesis.org/astronomy/cosmology/is-the-raqiya-firmament-a-solid-dome/ ; 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: http://www.thegospelandevolution.com/is-scientific-concordism-really-a-feature-of-the-bible/ ; 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzBT39gx-TE ; Internet; Accessed 18 March 2017. “Mythopoeia” is available here: http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm ; 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.

One thought on “Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 1)”

  1. This is a good read. It always made sense to me that the Bible was never meant to be a scientific textbook. Yet, I believe some begin with the idea of science vs the Bible, which isn’t the issue but evolution vs the Bible. This assumes they fundamentally oppose each other. Evolutionists (who are commonly associated with science) and creationists (who are commonly associated with the Bible and Christians) don’t argue about facts, but how they are Interpreted. They both study the same facts, rocks, evidence, and observations but interpret them based on their worldviews.
    I bring this up to say that people try to interpret the Bible as a scientific text because macro-evolution, which has been seeded as “science” , foundationally cannot mix with Christianity. The Bible portrays the true story of the world as being perfect, the way it’s supposed to be, before being corrupted. In the Bible, death is not present in that perfection, but is a direct result of sin and comes after the fall of creation. Evolution however, is completely based upon death. It states that change in life overtime comes through mutation and death. In order for the first humans to appear, even if directed by God, there has had to be millions of preceding years of death. If death is not a result of or connected to sin, then Jesus’ death has no meaning or power over sin.

    This is why people commonly believe that there is a battle of the Bible vs. Science when in actuality, it is the Bible vs Evolution.
    This would naturally create a problem if there were evidence for evolution. There however seems to be counter-examples out there.

    In summary, the reason I bring this up is because even though the Bible was never meant to be a scientific textbook, we still have to be carefull when we just shrug our shoulders and accept whatever we are told by “the experts”. Btw keep up the work on this blog, good reads!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *