Hermeneutics

The Prophecy of Caiaphus and Sensus Plenior

Sensus plenior is Latin for “fuller sense.”  It is the belief that there is at least a partial disconnect between the human author and the divine author of Scripture. In other words, what the human author means in his historical context may not be the full intent of the meaning of Scripture. Those who believe in sensus plenior say that God can have a “fuller” intention behind the words that He inspires, and this “fuller sense” may not be understood until later on.

I believe the best understanding of how Scripture is written is best described by what is called confluence. Confluence is the belief that God works through the understanding and the words of the human author so that God’s words and meaning are supernaturally the same words and meaning of the human author. This belief is largely based passages such as 2 Peter 1:20-21 which states:

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Here Peter stresses that Scripture ultimately comes from God, yet the means by which this happens is the guiding (carrying along) of the human author. Thus, men speak from God, and they do so out of their own experiences and their own vocabularies in a supernatural inspiration from the Holy Spirit.

Those who think that there should be more of a disconnect between the meaning of the human author and divine author appeal to John 11:49-52 as an example of sensus plenior, where a human agent speaks but does not understand the full impact of what he is saying.

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

 

Does John 11:49-52 support Scripture having a “fuller sense” which is unknown to the human author?

1. This example does not include a Spirit-filled believer, nor does it deal with writing inspired Scripture.

Those who use this example to attempt to prove sensus plenior are comparing apples and oranges. This is a story about an unbelieving individual who was not inspired to write Scripture. It was John’s inspired commentary on the situation that relates to us what was happening. If John did not record this event under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then it would have passed by completely unnoticed.

2. John includes this example because of the irony involved.

John says that Caiaphas prophesied, but the word “prophesied” should be in quotation marks, because John is stressing the irony involved in the situation.

Caiaphas was trying to be wise and told his fellow compatriots that it is better for Jesus to take the blame for all the trouble in Jerusalem instead of the whole nation having to perish. Caiaphas’ intentions and meaning were clear. John, on the other hand, points out the irony that Caiaphas was right, but in the wrong way. Later, John describes this situation in John 18:14, “Now Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people.” Thus John stresses in two places the wicked intent of Caiaphas, and how that ironically would accomplish the Lord’s purposes.

In sum, the authors of Scripture wrote in complete congruence with the mind and will of God. There is no divergence in meaning from one to the other. Thus, when interpreting the Bible, the key to understanding the meaning of God in Scripture is to rely on the Grammatical Historical Method of interpretation. That is, understanding what the author meant in the original context. This will enable a believer to understand what the human author meant, which is to understand what God meant–because there is one unified meaning of Scripture.

 

 

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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