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The Great Controversy—A Diatopical Hermeneutics


Contrary to appearance, The Great Controversy is a book of diatopical hermeneutics. It defends the possibility of a plural biblical hermeneutics. Although it interprets the Bible from a particular, Adventist perspective, it also describes synoptically different possible hermeneutics that have emerged throughout the history of Christianity in different topoi (places). Especially from chapters 4 through 17, The Great Controversy deals with history. But beyond that, it describes the history of how the Bible and various hermeneutics were diffused into each of those European territories, linked by a common defense of the Word of God but differentiated by interpretive approaches that are not always complementary.

Central to this is chapter 10, entitled "Progress of Reform in Germany." This chapter focuses on Luther's hermeneutics and on Germany being the center of the Reformation. Consequently, it was also where various hermeneutics, and also their distortions, occurred.

In fact, at the height of the early sixteenth century Protestant ferment, Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam, while avowed promoters and defenders of the Bible, proceeded in different and not always compatible ways. Both were bound by a profound respect and admiration for the Bible. They made immeasurable efforts not only to produce a reliable biblical text but also to find ways in which to approach that text effectively. In doing so, they elaborated important hermeneutical principles.

Key to this relationship between humanist and theologian were the years 1524–1525, during which they had a close confrontation concerning free will. Erasmus published his De libero arbitrio in September 1524 and Luther replied with his De servo arbitrio a little over a year later, in December 1525. The theological gap between the two became irremediable regarding their understanding of freedom and human will. Luther strongly denied it, arguing for the total dependence of the human will on God. For Erasmus, denying free will meant denying the dignity and worth of man, a fundamental principle of Humanism at the root of his thought.

But De libero arbitrio and De servo arbitrio represent not only a close anthropological comparison but also a substantive difference in how the Bible is interpreted. And this hermeneutical confrontation actually spanned a decade from 1516 to 1525. Everyone, Erasmus affirmed, must be able to read and understand the Bible in their own way. In 1504, in Louvain, Erasmus had discovered a manuscript by Lorenzo Valla that led him to compare the original biblical Greek with the Latin Vulgate, the translation made by Jerome (4th–5th century) and adopted by the Catholic Church as its official version of the Scriptures. Thus began research that would lead to his critical edition of the New Testament, published in Basel in 1516. Erasmus highlights the distortions introduced by the Vulgate translation of the original text, on which many practices of the Catholic Church were based. For example, Jerome defined marriage as "sacrament," while the Greek text speaks of "mystery."

It was Erasmus, as Luther himself acknowledged, who articulated the theoretical premises of the Reformation, sustaining the need for radical renewal of Christian conscience through a return to the sources of Christianity. But above all, it is in Erasmus's most famous work, the biting satire In Praise of Folly, that we find all the themes of the Protestant polemic against Catholicism. Here Erasmus condemns—just as decisively as Luther—the corruption of both clergy and the papacy and a religiosity reduced to empty ritual formalisms.

Luther's stay in Warburg (1521-22), under the protection of Frederick "the Wise," Elector of Saxony, was part of this long-standing confrontation over the Bible. And in September 1522, Luther published his translation of the New Testament, which was based on the text of Erasmus and thus benefited from the humanist's textual work.

Although Erasmus and Luther shared some of the fundamental ideas that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation, a profound distance separated them. Erasmus was the lucid and calm intellectual, averse to all fanaticism and dogmatism, a convinced pacifist and advocate of tolerance. Luther was the intransigent preacher in his revolutionary impetuosity. Both called for a return to the original meaning of the Scriptures, but while Luther translated the Bible into German, Erasmus continued to use Latin, convinced that it was the universal language, rejecting national idioms that—in his eyes—separated rather than united.

But their greatest interpretive difference lay in Luther's belief that the Bible was a clear and transparent book. He is a defender of the univocity of the Bible while Erasmus defends the plurivocity of the biblical text. And in De servo arbitrio, Luther’s totalizing and reductive tendency is clearly visible. For him, the Bible has only one possible sense.

Unlike Luther, however, we know today that biblical hermeneutics is actually played out on various levels. On a first level: sources of reference for the faith, Luther with his sola scriptura is more convincing. Erasmus instead introduces into his hermeneutics a disputable structural relevance of the church. But on a second level: biblical language, Erasmus’s hermeneutical position appears much more pertinent for its safeguarding of the plurivocity of the biblical text. Luther, in contrast, is obsessed with interpretive reductionism in his all-out defense of biblical clarity.

These two hermeneutics then have had a consistent impact on the theology of their respective authors. A hermeneutic of clarity also produced, in part, Luther's tendency towards intolerance. Conversely, from a hermeneutic of plurivocity, Erasmus derived a profound conviction of the non-negotiable value of tolerance. In fact, Erasmus, while sharing many principles of the Reformation, never fully sided with Luther and his human and theological impetuosity, but also never sided with the Catholicism that condemned Luther.

This attitude of Erasmus was seen as a sign of weakness. By refusing to take sides, however, he confirmed with extreme consistency his radical rejection of dogmatism, violence, and the divisions born of intolerance and hatred. In a choice between Luther and the church, Erasmus decided to remain neutral. This “non-choice” begets an image of Erasmus as perpetually divided and uncertain about what path to follow, if not downright cowardly and ambiguous. But this is an unfair judgment. Erasmus's refusal to take sides testifies to the consistency of a thinker who never wanted to betray the ideals and principles that were the basis of his philosophy: freedom of judgment, peace and tolerance, and the dignity and value of man. As if he foresaw the bloody religious struggles that would devastate Europe in the following decades, Erasmus always countered violence and oppression with the weapon of "discursive reason," to use an expression of the contemporary philosopher Jürgen Habermas. That is, persuasion based on the civil confrontation of ideas and arguments.

The Great Controversy, chapter 10, introduces an important hermeneutical differentiation. It will not escape any reader, even a superficial one, that The Great Controversy represents a passionate defense of the Bible’s universal value. The entire first part of the book (chapters 1-21), the historical section, is a repeated and variegated description of how the Bible has survived, in various contexts and experiences, the numerous attacks intended to destroy it, and the fidelity of courageous and committed Christians to preserve it. But the most important message of The Great Controversy concerning the Bible does not lie in this. Its novelty is found in the fact that it attempts a sophisticated description of how these intentions to neutralize it historically occur in a differentiated and paradoxical way.

White writes:

Each of these opposing elements was in its own way setting aside the Holy Scriptures and exalting human wisdom as the source of religious truth and knowledge. RATIONALISM idolizes reason and makes this the criterion for religion. ROMANISM, claiming for her sovereign pontiff an inspiration descended in unbroken line from the apostles, and unchangeable through all time, gives ample opportunity for every species of extravagance and corruption to be concealed under the sanctity of the apostolic commission. The inspiration claimed by MÜNZER and his associates proceeded from no higher source than the vagaries of the imagination, and its influence was subversive of all authority, human or divine. True Christianity receives the word of God as the great treasure house of inspired truth and the test of all inspiration. (GC, p. 193)

There is not a unique method to fight against the Bible. The entire first part of The Great Controversy is a description of how this threefold mode of attack on the Bible is articulated in history. To identify the medieval Catholic mode as the only type of biblical attack, even in the present, is reductive and improper. The crude medieval Catholic tactic of taking the Bible from the people by force was in some ways less dangerous than the second way, which arose in the very bosom of Protestantism, and is described by White in the following quotation. It shows that White does not care about defending Protestants against Catholics, or Adventists against Protestants. She cares about describing the strategies deployed, in every age and by every religious group, to neutralize the Bible and its reach:

The opposition of the pope and the emperor had not caused him so great perplexity and distress as he now experienced. From the professed friends of the Reformation had risen its worst enemies. The very truths which had brought him so great joy and consolation were being employed to stir up strife and create confusion in the church. (GC, p. 187)

He (Thomas Münzer) declared that the Reformers, in substituting the authority of Scripture for that of the pope, were only establishing a different form of popery. He himself, he claimed, had been divinely commissioned to introduce the true reform. "He who possesses this spirit," said Münzer, "possesses the true faith, although he should never see the Scriptures in his life." The fanatical teachers gave themselves up to be governed by impressions, regarding every thought and impulse as the voice of God; consequently they went to great extremes. Some even burned their Bibles, exclaiming: "The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life." (GC, 191)

This simple description of a strategic change to neutralize the Bible highlights two important things. First, that neutralization of the Bible can, unfortunately, occur, not only by those who openly oppose it (medieval Catholicism) but also by those who recognize it as a criterion of faith but consider it insufficient as a guide for life (humanist and liberal Protestantism). Second, that no church is safe from an eventual deformation of the Bible, neither Catholics nor Protestants—Adventists included. Modern ways of neutralizing the Bible are not the medieval ones, and those of the future will not necessarily be those of the present or past. It is the task of every Christian and every Christian community today to analyze their own mechanisms that might distort biblical truth instead of focusing on the hermeneutical distortions of others. This is not what we Adventists usually do. Instead, we focus on other people’s hermeneutical anomalies as a way of not assessing our own. And unfortunately, we tend to do this with a misuse of this precious book, The Great Controversy.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Image Credit: Rich Hannon, Spectrum Magazine


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