The Problem of the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament and Sensus Plenior

One of the most debated questions in Biblical studies and theology is that of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. In the past decade we’ve seen some landmark new books that have treated the topic. One of the most significant being Baker’s own Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2007).

In the newly released volume from Eerdmans, The Enduring Authority of Scripture, Douglas Moo and Andy Naselli offer a rich treatment of the topic. (Note: the chapter is an updated version of an article originally appearing in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon edited by D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge, original Zondervan Academic, 1986; now available from Wipf and Stock.) There are many facets to the issue but I want to look at only one of those today. That issue is sensus plenior.

Sensus plenior simply means fuller sense. Moo and Naselli draw from Raymond Brown who they cite as the author who has written “the most important statement and defense of sensus plenior.” (p. 730) Brown defines sensus plenior as follows:

“that additional deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of the biblical text (or group of texts, or even a whole book) when they are studied in the light of further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation.” (p. 730; quoting The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture, St. Mary’s University, 1955, p. 92)

After drawing out five significant elements to Brown’s definition Moo and Naselli address three common objections.

  1. Sensus Plenior lacks objective controls and is easily abused.” Their response to this is that it breaks a logical principle: “difficulties that a theory creates are never sufficient to falsify a theory if it is established on other grounds. If sensus plenior is a viable concept, we must simply live with the difficulties, much as we live with the difficulties inherent in a teleological view of world history.” (p. 732)
  2. Sensus Plenior ruins the NT apologetic value.” That is to say this method would have had very little apologetic value to skeptical Jews. Here they say the “objection assumes that the NT’s audience was general and its purpose apologetic. But the design of much if not most of the NT’s use of the OT is to assure or convince Christians who already assumed that the OT is relevant for the church.” (p. 732)
  3. Sensus Plenior is inconsistent with inspiration.” This, according to Moo and Naselli, “is the most serious objection.” The doctrine of inspiration is closely tied to the meanings of the human authors. But if sensus plenior is true then “God would placing in Scripture meanings unknown to the human authors.” (p. 733) While they recognize that this objection has some validity they don’t think it is decisive. They cite the “prophecy” of Caiaphas (John 11:49-52) as suggestive. “[H]e communicated a message from God that goes beyond anything he consciously intended.” (p. 733)

Moo and Naselli conclude that the objections against sensus plenior “are not cogent, so there does not appear to be any compelling reason for rejecting the hypothesis.” They believe “a suitably nuanced sensus plenior describes at a fundamental level much of what is happening as the NT authors appropriate the OT.” (p. 734)

This is just one small example of the level of discussion that this volume is brimming with. Someone recently described a book which I think is appropriate here: this is muscular reading. But good theology should be. Take up and read. You won’t be disappointed.

 

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Problem of the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament and Sensus Plenior

  1. Dwight Gingrich says:

    It’s on my wish list… for when the price drops a bit. 🙂 Thanks for that really good excerpt/summary.

    Like

  2. Charles says:

    Great post, Louis. Note that there is a typo: The Enduing Authority of Scripture.

    Appreciate the blog.

    Charles

    ________________________________

    Like

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