Skip to content

Scripture’s History, Interpretation, and Future


Particularly for Protestant theological scholars, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s actions in Wittenberg calls for reflection on Scripture, its role in Luther’s life, and the development of the church that came after him. So it was that the presidents of the two Seventh-day Adventist theological societies turned to aspects of Sola Scriptura for their addresses at the annual dinner that the societies co-hosted in Boston on November 17.

Carl P. Cosaert, professor of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University, who at different times has served as president of both societies, currently is president of the Adventist Theological Society. He focused on an event that occurred in 1516 that he said was instrumental in Luther’s actions a year later. That event was the publication of the Greek New Testament (NT) by the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus. “It is in the pages of the Greek NT that Luther discovered the truth of the gospel and found the strength to stand against the secular and religious powers that opposed him,” Cosaert said.

With the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, the race was on to publish a Greek New Testament. The Spanish cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros led in an effort to publish a multivolume Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and Greek beginning in 1502. However, because it was decided not to publish any of the volumes until all were completed and approved by the pope, it was not until twenty years later in 1522 that the work finally came off the press.

Meanwhile, Johann Froben, a publisher in Basel, wanted to move more quickly. He finally convinced Erasmus to tackle the project in 1515. “Working nearly night and day, Erasmus produced his edition of the NT within the span of a mere six months,” Cosaert said, setting up his story of the Erasmus Greek text that became the basis upon which later editions continued to be produced well into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Later scholars began comparing Erasmus’ text with other Greek manuscripts and found many discrepancies. “The real challenge came in 1707 when John Mill published the results of his comparison. . . . The results revealed over 1,000 differences. This news shocked the faith of many.”

Unlike Erasmus, who lacked sufficient manuscripts upon which to base his text, today’s scholars have the opposite problem with 6,000 copies of the NT in Greek alone plus an additional 2,400 if Greek Lectionaries are included. Now the problem is the inability to accurately number, evaluate, and classify the thousands of manuscripts that are available, complicated by the fact that no two manuscripts agree with each other in their entirety.

But Cosaert assured his audience that while some manuscripts were copied more carefully than others, “this does not mean that due to scribal mistakes along the way that we are unable to have a reliable idea about the contents of a form of the text of the NT that is close to the original.” He said that a comparison of two main text types “reveals that 90 percent of the text points us in the same direction. We might be unsure about the inclusion of an article, conjunction, particle, tense of a verb, or even a word itself, but that does not undermine the message of the text itself—and in the end, that is what matters most.”

Ellen White spoke about the possibility of mistakes in the Bible, and, in 1888, admitted that it was probable, adding, “The mind that is so narrow that it will hesitate and stumble over this possibility or probability would be just as ready to stumble over the mysteries of the Inspired Word, because their feeble minds cannot see through the purposes of God. . . . All the mistakes will not cause trouble to one soul, or cause any feet to stumble, that would not manufacture difficulties from the plainest revealed truth.”

Cosaert noted that while NT textual criticism is far from over, “We can be confident that the NT Scriptures are a faithful representation of the original authors.”

Olive J. Hemmings, president of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies and a professor of religion at Washington Adventist University, looked to the future of Bible interpretation in her address. She said her purpose was “to examine the Reformation ideal of sola scriptura in its advocacy for Christ—the logos, the Truth, and the telos of Scripture. She began by making the point that sola scriptura is not a concern for method but a quest for logos. “Allowing scripture to interpret scripture is not proof text interpretation,” she said. “There can be no consistent outcome to the Scripture with this approach because it allows the interpreter to harvest the religious/cultural power of the text towards particular beliefs, interests, and ideologies, and the authority exerted is not of the Scripture, but of the interpreter. This eclipses the reconciling power of the Bible’s own interpreter, namely the logos, and transforms Scripture into a weapon of control.”

As she continued her clarification of just what sola scriptura is, she asked, “what is truth?” Her answer was that it “is not a dogma, but an ethical demand to love, based on the affirmation of oneness in Being demonstrated in the incarnation of the logos.” She pointed out five implications for Biblical interpretation from a logos hermeneutic:

1. “The inspiration of Scriptures lies in its witness to the logos, not in the means or nature of that witness which in many places may seem flawed. . . . The Scripture is what it is, a (flawed?) human vehicle of Divine revelation and that in and of itself is a witness to the miracle of the incarnation.”

2. “Any interpretive outcome that violates the fundamental principle of love/justice violates the Spirit of Scripture.” Her example of this point involved headship theology which she rejected because “a hermeneutic that justifies even a semblance of domination and subjugation violates the authority of Scripture.”

3. “To accept scientific or historical findings that may run contrary to what appears in Scripture does not necessarily disavow the authority of Scripture,” she said because “to accept the logos as the radically present Being of God is to affirm all knowledge and understanding of the creation and human affairs as divine revelation.”

4. “The Bible claims no other discipline outside of its own discipline,” she said. “Scripture testifies that Divine revelation fills up time and space—God is present—I am. It seems to be an exercise in futility for scientists to measure the authenticity of Scripture with scientific data, or for theologians to use Scripture to measure the accuracy of Science.”

5. “Human responsibility and the Church’s responsibility increases proportionally to the increase of knowledge. . . . To behold Christ in Scripture is to embrace what God continues to reveal toward the healing of a culture of alienation.”

She concluded that “the logos incarnation is the truth calling fallen humanity back into that fellowship of life—remembering.” And she added that it is forgetfulness of “Being in God” that creates fear of difference in others. “If the church can salvage the noble Reformation goal of sola scriptura by which in Scripture we encounter none but the logos—the truth of who we are, then we can enter a dialectic of beholding and becoming into the image of God from when we have fallen.”


Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.
Image Credit: /

If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.