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. Therefore, 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.
The notion is often bandied about that the Bible should be interpreted just like any other book. It is surprising that so many evangelicals have parroted such an idea since at the heart of evangelical faith is a commitment that the Bible is God’s inerrant word, not like any other book. How could an evangelical approach the Bible with anti-supernaturalist assumptions for interpretation (like any other book) aid faithful interpretation? Enlightenment rationalism and interpretive naturalism rooted in historical-critical assumptions are no friend of faithful interpretation and application. Neither is a focus on a single meaning of the human author to the exclusion of the divine Author. We do not have infallible access to the mind of a dead (sometimes anonymous) biblical author. What we do have is the biblical text.
The Scriptures claim to be God-breathed (1 Tim 3:16). Jesus’ teaching affirms the divine origin and authority of the written Scriptures. Jesus never cites the human author’s intention as the locus of authority. Ultimately, arguments about meaning must be rooted in the biblical text itself. Because God, who never lies, is in a direct sense the author of the Scripture, unity is a key interpretative principle. Any view that fails to recognize one divine mind behind the text of Scripture is not simply an alternative hermeneutical position; it is a pointed assault on the authority of Scripture.
The inherent divine, organic unity of the Bible demands that faithful interpreters of the Scriptures recognize the theological coherence of the entire biblical canon. This recognition will lead to an acknowledgment 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 (fuller sense). For our purposes, we will use the phrase canonical (the Bible as a whole) sensus plenior, which focuses on the role of Christ-centered canonical development and context in recognizing fuller meaning. The sensus plenior is not the product of the interpreter’s imagination; it is constrained by the Christ-centered and Christotelic (Christ-focused end) biblical canon. This view recognizes the biblical text’s intention posed a greater depth and clarity as the canon expanded.
Christ-centered canonical sensus plenior demands that while affirming the human authorship of the text and stressing the importance of seeking to understand, as best we can, 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. Every text resides in a God-given canonical context that must be taken into account for any interpretation and application to be biblically adequate. There is a theological shape to the Bible as a whole, and we neglect to our peril.
It is precisely a consideration of the canonical context that will drive the interpreter to understand every text in light of Jesus Christ. Faithful interpreters read Jesus out of the text, not into it. 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 Jesus makes it clear that apart from him the Scriptures are not life-giving. All of the Scriptures point away from themselves to Jesus. May we follow their lead.
This article first appeared at David’s website and is posted here with his permission.
David E. Prince is the Pastor of Preaching and Vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church (Lexington, KY) and a professor of Christian preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY). He holds degrees from Huntingdon College (B.A.), Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). He played baseball in high school and college and coached high school baseball and football after college. Additionally, he and his wife, Judi, have eight children that they have worked diligently to disciple toward faith and maturity in Jesus Christ through the context of athletic competition.