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Bible Commentary: “Why Did it Succeed?”

Part four on the Bible Commentary, excerpted from Raymond Cottrell’s 1985 Spectrum article, “The Untold Story of the Bible Commentary.” You can also read the intro and earlier posts. Comments will be open on the final post.

The ultimate measure of the Commentary’s success is the extent to which it illumines the Bible for those who aspire to a better understanding of Scripture. This cannot be measured directly, of course, but there are a number of indirect means including, chiefly, the response of the church in purchasing it and how often it is quoted in other church publications such as the Sabbath school Lesson Quarterly.

From the publisher’s point of view the best estimate of success is the sales report. It was originally hoped that 5,000 sets could be sold within three years of the time the last volume was off the press, and with that in view the original printing order for Volume 1 was 5,160. But even before Volume 7 was ready 23,000 sets had been purchased at the prepublication price of $55.65 for the seven volumes. By the close of 1984 more than 83,000 complete sets had been sold, the current price being $174.50. Were J.D. Snider alive he would have good reason to be jubilant.

Although the Commentary was not intended for reading like an ordinary book, a surprising number of people have told me of reading every word of it from beginning to end!

One of Elder Nichol’s important goals was to make the Commentary acceptable to the church. Thirty years without complaint about its consensus understanding of the Bible is strong evidence that the church feels comfortable with the Commentary. This is not to suggest that everyone agrees with it at every point or that the Commentary is without flaw; even the editors did not personally approve of every concept it expresses. It does mean, however, that the church accepts it and identifies with it. The fact that the Commentary respects differences of opinion is doubtless an important factor in its acceptance. That Adventist Bible scholars, who realize that the traditional Adventist understanding of the Bible has not always been strictly biblical, also feel reasonably comfortable with the Commentary and find it useful, is another measure of its success. Six key factors were responsible for this success:

1. J.D. Snider’s vision — his awareness of the need for an Adventist Bible commentary, together with his belief that the church was ready for it, that Adventist Bible scholars could and would write it, and that the Review and Herald could publish and market it at a price sufficient to cover the cost of production. “J.D.” was the only person at the time who had the vision and was in the position to implement it, and his vision proved to be correct at every point.

2. F.D. Nichol’s editorial expertise. He was probably one of the very few persons in the church at the time who combined all of the qualities essential to planning and executing the project: editorial experience, a concept of what the Commentary should be, sensitive awareness of the thinking and the mood of the church and its leaders, open-mindedness and willingness to respect points of view with which he differed, appreciation of scholarship and a penetrating analysis of other people’s reasoning, the high esteem in which he was held by the entire church, including its leaders and the contributors, an almost fanatical penchant for accuracy, and a passionate drive to carry the project through to completion within a relatively brief period of time.

3. The willingness of the publisher to venture a quarter of a million dollars, which eventually became half a million “initial expense” (the cost before the presses begin to turn), and the dedication of Review and Herald personnel to the project.

4. The content — the labors of the contributors and the editors to make the Commentary faithful to the Bible and to the Adventist understanding of Scripture.

5. The dedication of the church at large to the Bible and the value its members place on a better understanding of it.

6. The openness of the church at the time the Commentary was written and published. During the 1950s and 1960s the theological climate in the church was favorable to the honest way in which the Commentary editors, in their dedication first to the Bible and then to the church, sought to deal with the Bible and with the teachings of the church in relation to the Bible.

The Commentary was strictly a publishing-house project with the blessing of the General Conference. The Review and Herald Publishing Association accepted both financial and theological responsibility. In other words, the project was unofficial, with credit for success or blame for failure going to the publisher and not to the General Conference. This arrangement protected the General Conference from criticism in case the Commentary posed either a financial or theological problem. had the project been sponsored and controlled by the General Conference, the Commentary would inevitably have taken a dogmatic, apologetic position on points of exegesis and interpretation where differences of opinion existed; this would have alienated the respect of many and limited the Commentary value and usefulness. Without training and expertise in biblical and theological matters, administrators would have found themselves in the embarrassing position of having to make decisions they were not competent to make. The fact that the publisher, with it’s Bible-scholar editors, made these decisions and accepted responsibility for them protected the General Conference in case errors of judgment were made, errors for which it could then disavow responsibility.

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