The Scholar and the Word of God

The Scholar and the Word of God

The responsibility of scholars extends beyond what many professionals see as their role

Tom Shepherd

The Scriptures are at the center of who we are as a people and as a body of scholars. In handling the Word of God, we are faced with choices that seem to pull us in two directions. On the one hand, faith and conviction call for expressions and actions that are loyal to trusted beliefs and traditions. On the other hand, scholarly methodologies demand objective impartiality and unbiased investigation leading to results that may challenge long-held positions. A thoughtful look at 2 Peter 1:16 to 21 shines light on this topic. This passage presents three steps of relationship to the Word of God.


The Setting and the Text

First and Second Peter were written in a time of severe trial for the early Christian Church. In contrast to 1 Peter, where the problem is persecution from the outside world and the not-too-subtle lure of the old way of life, in 2 Peter the threat is internal. False teachers have infiltrated the church and threaten to rip it apart.

First Peter is like an incredible cathedral of amazing theology spiraling ever upward, resolving challenging problems of how to relate to the outside world, how to interact with one another in the household of God, and how to be conscious of God in daily life. Second Peter, on the other hand, is straight and direct, facing the challenge of false teachers in the church. Its outline is simple: chapter 1, how to stay in the faith; chapter 2, where the false teachers have gone wrong; chapter 3, answers to the false teachers’ positions.

The passage of for study in this articledeals with the interrelationship between the Word of God and personal experience:

“We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16-21).1


We Were Eyewitnesses

Peter begins in a rather interesting way: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 16). It would be like someone coming home and saying, “I was not driving fast when I came down Main Street.” You know that there has to be a story he will tell with some drama involved and that he wants to give his explanation of what happened. This seems to be the same pattern in 2 Peter 1:16. Peter was obviously being accused of doing the very thing he affirms he and his colleagues were not doing. Thus, the words that follow will give his defense against the accusations of the false teachers while, at the same time, present his teaching.

Peter is apparently being accused of disseminating “cleverly devised myths.” The Greek term is translated “myth” along with the verb, which means “to make wise, to devise craftily.” In the ancient world, myth could simply mean a story or narrative as contrasted with reason or argument.2 It is clear in the context of 2 Peter 1, however, that the term is being used to describe something that is not true, but not only that. Peter’s opponents are making an accusation that he is deceptive. It is not just made-up stories he is telling; it is made-up stories that were carefully crafted—tall tales slyly woven (in a “made wise” way—we might say “slick”) and fashioned to catch the gullible. The false teachers are accusing Peter and his associates of telling lies to trick people.

Peter’s response to this attack is to insist on the eyewitness character of his and his fellow apostles’ experience. He speaks of making known to the readers “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:16). The use of the liturgical phraseology (“our Lord Jesus Christ”) suggests the catechetical nature of the instruction, which runs throughout the Epistle. The subject of the apostles’ teaching was the power and coming of Jesus. In the context of the book, this clearly points to the Second Coming.

But how could Peter be referring to the Second Coming when he depicts his experience as an “eyewitness” account? What he goes on to describe is the Transfiguration. It is worthwhile noting that each of the Synoptic Gospel accounts of this event is preceded by a reference in some form to “‘some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power’” (Mark 9:1). Interpreters have taken these words of Jesus in a variety of ways, but the way that seems to make the most sense (and parallels 2 Peter 1:16 to 21) is that Jesus is referring to His transfiguration as the event where “some standing here” will see the kingdom of God come in power, and that the Transfiguration itself is a foretaste of the final consummation of the kingdom when Christ returns the second time.

What Peter stresses in his account is the very sensory and personal nature of the apostles’ experience. They were eyewitnesses (2 Peter 1:16). They saw His glory (vs. 17). They heard God’s voice say, “‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (vs. 17). The voice came from heaven while they were with Jesus on the holy mountain (vs. 18). It was their eyes that saw this, their ears that heard it. They were together with Him on the mountain. It was not the dream of one person or some rapture of personal hallucination, particularly because it was “we” who saw, heard, and experienced it. All this is the personal and sensory experience of the apostles, the “we” of this passage.

Peter extends the “we” section into verse 19, and here we meet a pivotal interpretation of the passage. It is valuable to compare the translation of the first part of the verse in several versions to see the three different ways the verse is taken:

● “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed” (ESV).

● “We have also a more sure word of prophecy” (KJV).

● “In addition, we have a most reliable prophetic word” (CEB).

The ESV translation suggests that the personal experience of the Transfiguration in some way makes the prophetic writings more secure. The KJV translation suggests that the prophetic writings themselves are more secure than the personal experience of the Transfiguration. The CEB translation suggests that the prophetic writings and the Transfiguration stand side by side as the bulwarks of Peter’s message.

Which is correct? Three factors must be taken into consideration in making the choice—the meaning of the adjective “more sure/more secure” in this context, the predicate position of the adjective, and the presence ofand at the beginning of the sentence in verse 19. Let us look at each factor briefly in turn.

The adjective translated “firm, strong, secure” would mean “morefirm, stronger, more secure.” Richard Bauckham points out, however, that this adjective used with the verb have typically means “to have a firm hold on something.”3 The other concept to be added here is that Koine Greek sometimes used a comparative adjective as a superlative. (“More secure” could be used to mean “most secure.”) If that were the case here, the meaning would be “to have very firm hold on something” or “to place very firm reliance on something.”

The predicate position of the adjective would normally require a predicate translation, similar to that of the ESV (“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed”) and contrary to that of the KJV (“We have also a more sure word of prophecy”), which clearly has an attributive position translation. However, the fact that secure is combined with more leads to the translation, as Bauckham has suggested, “to have very firm hold on something.

Also of note is that verse 19 begins with and. This is significant because usually this word implies simply that an additional thought is added on to the previous discourse. It does not typically introduce a conclusion or a contrast. The word translated “and” is used 63 times in 2 Peter with the most common usage being transitional or continuative. In this category, we find what appears to be the apostle’s favorite usage of the word where he combines two like objects or concepts—grace andpeace (1:2), calling and election (vs. 10), condemnation and destruction (2:3), holiness and godliness (3:11), etc. There are many fewer examples of the adjunctive usage translated “also” and the emphatic usage (“even,” “in fact”). There is no adversative usage (“and yet, but”) or result usagae (“and so, and then”) unless it is at the beginning of 1:19. This makes it much less likely that 1:19 has a result usage, but it is not impossible.

There is another characteristic of the passage that militates against a result usage in 2 Peter 1:19. The apostle has been stressing the importance of his eyewitness experience in 1:16‑18. If the “and” at the beginning of verse 19 presents a result, it means that the Transfiguration experience is more important than the prophetic Scriptures in confirmatory authority. Then the opening line of verse 19 should be translated “And so we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed.”

After this first phrase of verse 19, however, Peter immediately turns around and tells his readers to pay special attention to the prophetic Word (“to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place”). If Peter is telling his readers that personal experience trumps the words of Scripture at the beginning of verse 19, why then tell them to pay special attention to Scripture in the last half of verse 19? Why not instead tell them to focus on personal experience?

For these reasons, it seems more logical to take the CEB type of translation as the likely meaning of verse 19: “In addition, we have a most reliable prophetic word.” That is to say, the apostles’ personal experience of the Transfiguration and the prophetic words of the prophets in the Old Testament support each other in bringing security and guidance to the believers.

The event of the Transfiguration, particularly seen from a post‑Resurrection vantage point, gave Peter a new outlook on the message and meaning of the Old Testament prophets. Now the words of the ancient prophecies were enlightened by the glory of Jesus Christ. They shone with a new luster and power. That power was already there in the prophetic messages (1 Peter 1:10‑12). But the experience of the Transfiguration along with that of the Cross and the Resurrection let the inherent light shine forth more brightly. The light of the Old Testament prophecies shone from the past and together with the experience of the Transfiguration enlightened the spiritual life and vision of the apostles’ present so that they could look forward in hope to the complete fulfillment of that glory at the future Second Coming.


You Should Pay Attention

Peter then transmits this assurance to those he is writing to and teaching. Here in verse 19b is where the “you” references begin. “In addition, we have a most reliable prophetic word, and you would do well to pay attention to it, just as you would to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (vs. 19, CEB, italics supplied). The readers are called on to take special notice of the Scriptures. The verb has the connotation of being concerned with something, devoting oneself to it. Peter desires an extension of the apostles’ experience to the community of believers. As the Transfiguration imbued the apostles’ experience of the Old Testament prophecies with renewed vigor, so the connection of the believers with the apostles’ experience is to bring them to a living experience of the Scriptures as well.

Peter affirms the importance of the prophecies, describing them as a lamp shining in a dark place. He bids the readers to give heed to the light of these prophetic sayings until the day dawns and the morning star arises in their hearts (2 Peter 1:19). Here we have three lights—the lamp, the dawn, and the morning star. Peter has already identified the lamp as the prophetic Scriptures. The dawn of day, or “The Day,” is used throughout the New Testament as a reference to the Second Coming of Christ. But to what does the morning star refer, and why is it said to arise in your hearts?

The Greek word translated as “morning star” referred in the ancient world to the planet Venus when it shone brightly in the morning sky before sunrise. It was the harbinger of the coming dawn. Terrance Callan suggests that the morning star might be just another way of talking about the second coming by expressing one idea through two terms (the coming of the Day and the Day Star).4

But one would hardly speak of the Second Coming as something occurring in the believer’s heart, some type of spiritual enlightenment, if you will. Second Peter 3 disavows any concept like that. Instead, the morning star, as harbinger of the dawn, more likely represents the believer’s hope and trust in that great day, the return of our Lord. The three lights work together. The prophetic lamp of the Scriptures shines into our hearts and creates the morning star hope for the coming great and glorious day of our Lord’s return.

The Second Coming is a real event just around the corner, but if it is only an event in the future and not one in my life, then the morning star hope has not arisen in my heart. Peter’s words suggest a personal experience of the coming dawn of Jesus’ return, not unlike the Transfiguration experience that changed the apostle’s own understanding. It is striking to note how both experiences (the Transfiguration and the hope of the Second Coming) are interlinked by Peter with the prophetic Scriptures.


They Spoke From God

The apostle does not end his discourse in 2 Peter 1 by talking either about his own experience or that of his readers. Instead he describes the experience of the prophets who received the message from God. The apostle begins with the emphatic “knowing this first of all,” which returns to the Christian teaching language of instruction. The teaching the readers had received before is underscored.

What the readers are to focus on is the message God has sent in Scripture: “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). The key phrase for understanding verse 20 is “someone’s own interpretation.” Two fairly divergent explanations of these words predominate in scholarship. The minority view is that the reference is to the ruling out of personal interpretation, that interpretation of Scripture is a function of the community of faith. The majority view is that “someone’s own” refers to the prophet himself and makes reference in particular to the type of explanation of visions and dreams given by angels in books like Daniel, Amos, and Zechariah. According to this viewpoint, both the revelation of the dream/vision and the interpretation of it are from God. Thus there are no logical seams or cracks through which the false teachers’ deceptions can gain ground.

What makes the majority view more likely is the literary configuration of verses 20 and 21. They form a pair of overlapping structures, the first a chiasm and the second a case of antithetical parallelism. My own rather literal translation that maintains the basic Greek word order illustrates this:

                   A                                     B

20b Because every prophecy of Scripture is not of one’s own interpretation,

             B´                            A´

21 For not by human will was the prophecy carried formerly

                 A                              B

21 For not by human will was the prophecy carried formerly

             A          B

But by the Holy Spirit carried, people spoke from God.

The chiastic structure of the first pair illustrates how “not of one’s own interpretation” parallels “not by human will.” This parallelism is consistent with Bauckham’s argumentation that the reference to “one’s own interpretation” refers to the prophet’s interpretation of the vision he has received. That is to say, both the vision and the interpretation of that vision in the prophet’s writings come from God, not from the prophet himself.

However, the antithetical parallelism of verse 21 takes a step further. It indicates how the prophet functions even when an angel is not present to provide the interpretation. The emphasis is on God’s activity via the Holy Spirit and the functional word is carried. The Greek verb is translated “to bear, carry,” which is used four times in the passage. Besides the two uses in verse 21, it also appears in verse 17 (“For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’”) and verse 18 (“And this voice we heard from heaven carried while with him in the holy mountain” [my own more literal translation to illustrate the use of the verb carry]). In all four uses in the passage the verb is in the passive voice, suggesting the activity of God—He is the One doing the “carrying.”

There are, then, three locations where God was active in bringing the message. One location was the experience of the apostles at the Transfiguration. The voice of God carried the message of honor (2 Peter 1:17, 18). Another location was the giving of the vision and interpretation to the Old Testament prophet. The vision and interpretation were not the prophet’s invention; they came from God (vs. 20). And finally, the third location was the inspiration of the prophet to speak the message. The Holy Spirit carried the people, that is, the prophets, when they spoke from God (vs. 21).

The first was a personal revelation of Christ’s glory, the second was a revelation of the vision and message of Scripture, and the third was the inspiration of the prophets to be able to write the message in a reliable manner to express the will of God. This third step is an expression of the incarnational character of Scripture—people spoke from God. Humans did the speaking, but the message and its inspiration were from God. The Word of God “became flesh” in the human words of the prophets.


Lessons for the Scholar Today

How is the scholar to balance the tension between faith commitment and scholarly objectivity? It is clear that 2 Peter 1:16 to 21 teaches the tight interconnection between the apostles’ experience of the Transfiguration and the prophetic Scriptures, as well as the revelatory and inspired nature of those writings. For those who have accepted the Scriptures as the Word of God, these statements in 2 Peter 1 teach that this holy Word must be handled carefully, thoughtfully, always with its divine origin in mind. This does not mean covering over questions or data that are challenging, just that all these queries are placed within a framework of hope and trust.

But there are more lessons for scholarly life. The “we,” “you” and “they” pattern of discourse suggests that even this pattern and the argumentation that goes with it provide instruction for scholarly life. Reviewing the pattern in its original setting, for Peter the “we” was the grounded personal experience of the apostles that connected with the Old Testament prophecies as reliable testimony. This “we” saw and heard and touched the Word of Life (1 John 1:1‑4) and recognized the way in which the Old Testament prophecies were also a “most reliable prophetic word” (2 Peter 1:19, CEB). The “you” was Peter’s appeal to his readers to experience the rising of the Day Star, coming to experience the power of the hope of the Second Coming in the Word of God and the salvation of which it speaks. And the “they” was the reliable and interlocked reception and expression of revelation and inspiration.

For those in scholarly life and research, the concept of “we” comes in three steps. First is our own background and personal experience in character development, ethical, and spiritual life—the integrity of who we have become as we approach research. This step parallels Peter’s insistence that he and his fellow apostles were not deceptive in their teaching (vs. 16). Objectivity in scholarship requires ethical standards of honesty and reliability in carrying out and reporting research findings.

The second step in the “we” is personal observation—seeing, hearing, touching, if you will, the truths encountered; the data of studies; the pottery fragments, tablets, and inscriptions uncovered. These are our eyewitness experiences. Just as the Transfiguration modified how the apostles understood the ministry of Jesus and the prophecies of the Old Testament, so research opens new vistas, new ways of seeing old truths. It is a new way of looking at the world, a new set of questions.

This change in who we are and how we understand, so tied to our experience, impacts how we do research. There may be complete agreement on a particular methodological approach to a passage, yet arrival at different results in research. This does not prove the methodology false. More often it illustrates the way in which differing personal backgrounds affect use of the methodology. Interesting and helpful complementary understandings of the data can arise from such research and interaction.

The third step of the “we” is the sense of community, already implied in the previous paragraph. It is a “we” and not simply an “I.” Scholars form a body of believers, a community that has experienced the power and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was not one disciple who saw the Transfiguration but three, a group who pondered and discussed its significance and eventually shared its reality with others (Mark 9:9, 10). Scholars typically publish individually in their respective type of research, but they read and think of the meaning of that research together as a community and critique one another’s work. Without that sense of community, without that check of what is said, the research loses its context and hence a great deal of its power to transform. Although the Adventist Church thankfully does not have a teaching Magisterium, it is not just a group of individuals who happen to be going in the same direction. We are a body of believers accountable and responsible to one another in the body of Christ and in this denomination called Seventh-day Adventist.

But there is never just a “we.” There is always a “you” whom the scholar faces and relates to, even as Peter addressed the “you” of his second letter. These are those not of our guild who are impacted by our research. It is here that the “we” and the “you” intersect. Personal experience of research in these sacred truths must inspire with their power and joy.

But the responsibility of biblical and theological scholars extends beyond what many professionals see as their role. They relate not only to their students but also must face their Lord for what they say. Jesus said, “‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea’” (Matt. 18:6). Biblical and theological scholars must uncover new insights that challenge the status quo, while at the same time recognizing the life situation and faith journey of the emerging adults and more mature students in their classrooms.

Finally, the “they” for scholars, as for Peter, are the prophets and apostles and their writings, the text of Scripture, which always stands apart from us and critiques our lives. According to Peter it is these writings that are the incarnated and reliable Word of God. In this light, it is not so much that scholars critique the Bible but that it is the evaluator of the scholar’s experience and practice. In the community of faith scholars place themselves under its molding influence.

“We,” “you,” and “they.” Scholars seek to understand the Bible’s message and prophetic voice through the varied methods of scholarship in which they have been trained. They must share what they find with those they serve, not covering things over or making the evidence fit preconceived ideas (from either the right or the left). The goal is not some sterile, stand-apart, away-from-the-life-of-the-church sort of investigation. It must be remembered that scholars, along with all Christians, are the experiment upon which the Word in its power works—which means really believing and tasting that the Lord is good, knowing on a personal level the reality of the ancient truths. It is then that these scholars are, in the truest sense, scholars of the Seventh‑day Adventist Church.


Tom Shepherd, Ph.D., Dr.P.H., is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Seventh‑day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, where he is also the Director of the Ph.D. in Religion and Th.D. programs.



1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
2. Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude: The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006), p. 200.
3. Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1983), vol. 50, p. 223.
4. Terrance Callan, “A Note on 2 Peter 1:19, 20,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125:1 (Spring 2006):147.