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“The Untold Story of the Bible Commentary”

Raymond Cottrell spent 15,000 hours studying every verse of the Bible. This was his job — as an associate editor of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, which was published in the 1950s. And with it, Cottrell suggests, Adventist Bible study "came of age."

About halfway through the compilation process, editor Francis Nichol figured that the editorial process alone required 77,175 work hours for the seven volumes and that if one person did all the writing and editing, it would take almost 100 years! Fortunately, there were 37 writers, three full-time and six part-time editors, copyeditors, and over 100 non-editorial readers.

In August of 1985, Cottrell's 13-page "The Untold Story of the Bible Commentary" was printed in Spectrum. In this article, Cottrell reflects on and explains the various aspects of the project. He tells the stories of project commander-in-chief J.D. Snider and editor Nichol. He recounts how rigorous guidelines for writers requested that manuscripts be first and foremost "exegetical" and that, where appropriate, they could also be "homiletical." Nichol insisted that the Commentary was not "to crystallize once and of all a dogmatic interpretation" nor to "give sanctuary or support to the pet theories of any individual." It was, Cottrell writes, "to be written for ministers, Bible instructors, Sabbath school teachers, local elders, missionary-minded lay persons and those who 'have a special love for the Bible and who wish to study it with greater thoroughness.'"

Cottrell explains how the team had to integrate the Commentary's reflection of Adventist teaching with faithful exegesis.

"Inasmuch as this was to be a Seventh-day Adventist Bible commentary, we considered it appropriate, always, to take note of historic Adventist interpretations of a passage. Where two or more interpretations have been held by a significant number of responsible persons within the church, it was our purpose to represent all of them fairly, but to favor an interpretation on which an informed consensus had crystallized… In instances where our collective judgment could not conscientiously support a particular traditionally held interpretation, we sought in an inoffensive way to present the evidence and give the reader an opportunity to make up his or her own mind. At times the expression 'Seventh-day Adventists have taught that…' or it equivalent was our ironic way of expressing collective editorial judgment that the interpretation so characterized is not exegetically valid. Accurate exegesis was our primary concern."

A theologian, missionary, teacher, writer, editor, Cottrell was a significant figure in Adventism; and one of his areas of contributing dialogue in the church would spring from one of these editorial challenges he faced working on the Commentaries.

In a thorough paper called "The 'sanctuary doctrine' — Asset or liability?" presented at a meeting of the San Diego, California, chapter of the Association of Adventist Forums in 2002, Cottrell addressed a topic sparked by his work with the Commentaries. "I first encountered problems with the traditional interpretation of Daniel 8:14, professionally, in the spring of 1955 during the process of editing comment on the Book of Daniel for volume 4 of the SDA Bible Commentary," Cottrell wrote. "As a work intended to meet the most exacting scholarly standards, we intended our comment to reflect the meaning obviously intended by the Bible writers. As an Adventist commentary it must also reflect, as accurately as possible, what Adventists believe and teach. But in Daniel 8 and 9 we found it hopelessly impossible to comply with both of these requirements."

Cottrell conducted a poll of Adventist Bible scholars regarding the topic and was appointed by the General Conference president to the Committee on Problems in the Book of Daniel (which adjourned after five years without consensus). He embarked on his own "unhurried, in-depth, spare-time, comprehensive study of Daniel 7 to 12 that continued without interruption for seventeen years (1955-1972), in quest of a conclusive solution to the sanctuary problem," he wrote in his "Asset or Liability" paper. But he decided not to publish "until an appropriate time" his resulting 1100-page manuscript, which he edited down to 725 pages.

In this, as in his many other projects, Cottrell's aim was to contribute constructively. "My objective was to be fully prepared with definitive, objective, biblical information the next time the question should arise during the course of my ministry for the church," he wrote regarding his study of Daniel.

In a series of posts here in the Book Reviews section, we will present four sections from Cottrell's '85 article on the Bible Commentary. You can also read Cottrell's full article (and the ensuing four pages of index materials) in the Spectrum archives.

We will save the comments and discussion to follow the final posting.

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