The Protestant Church of Christ (CofC) refers to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 as a proof for sola Scriptura. The proof-text reads:
All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
I know. You, my CofC reader, have been waiting for this! This passage, you think, is the silver bullet, the cleanup hitter, the biblical proof of all proofs! You interpret the passage as, “All Scripture is the Bible (not “The Bible is Scripture”), and the Bible alone contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness.” You do not allow the “Bible only” to communicate what the passage means, you interpret it, and then present that interpretation as what the Bible communicates. And as your most often-used proof for sola Scriptura or “Bible-only” Christianity, I will give it more attention than your others, but if you are at all familiar with my writing style you already know what I ask of you: a reasonable approach to the passage and its context. Therefore, let us begin by addressing the full passage beginning from verse 14 through verse 17.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
To properly understand the passage, you will need to sedate your Protestant individualism, and try to tolerate precisely what I have demonstrated throughout this blog: Jesus built an authoritative, institutional Church as guardians and expounders of the Christian Faith. Legitimate clerical positions are given, not grabbed; all men are of a royal priesthood, but there is still a legitimate ministerial priesthood. So please try to think “Catholic-ly” and not “private-ly”, contextually and not proof-textually, with an open mind and not a closed heart. The passage (vs. 14-17), not the proof-text that your group focuses on (vs. 16-17), is a literary unit that is comprised of seven Parts. I will review each Part of the passage, show how its very structure presupposes Catholic ecclesiastical order, show how the subject of the passage is not about Scripture but salvation in Christ Jesus, and how it in no way supports sola Scriptura or “Bible-only” Christianity. I will then bring all of the passage’s Parts back together and hope that you are able to understand St. Paul’s beautiful piece of writing for the beauty that it truly is, and for the beauty that it truly reflects; that together, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition act in concert for the salvation of souls. And to best illustrate the passage, I will assign to each Part a symbol (A through AA), which will expose the passage’s chiastic (symmetrical) structure of St. Paul’s words to St. Timothy, and which I think is a useful way to illustrate the elements and the apex of the passage.
Part 1)But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed …
A B C D CC BB AA
The first Part of the passage is important. St. Paul is not addressing the rank and file disciple; his first four words But as for you are a reminder that St. Paul was writing to St. Timothy. Of course, all Christians can benefit from reading St. Timothy’s mail, which is what you are doing at this moment, but it is important to remember that all Christians are not St. Paul’s primary audience.
St. Paul was grooming St. Timothy as an apostolic successor, St. Timothy was a priest (an elder), and he was a legitimate recipient of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. When Protestants read the New Testament, they often read themselves into every audience, and it causes problems. In this case, you believe that St. Paul was not describing the good work (v. 17b) of the pastor (v. 17a; the man of God), but the work of the ordinary life of every believer; which is a model that tears down the separation of legitimate elders with their flocks. The Scriptures offer no reason why a person, by himself, who is not a legitimate priest should or could assume the role of pastor, yet this passage is presented as a proof for sola Scriptura, and it is presented as such because you enter into the passage with a pre-accepted, anti-institutional, preference. We know that the passage is directed firstly to St. Timothy and then to priests in general because it was addressed to St. Timothy, and the content of St. Paul’s exhortation was in regards to the work of the pastor, not the laity.
Please consider how in 1836, a lecture by Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman illustrated the clear context of the passage at hand:
… it is manifest that St. Paul is speaking of the Scriptures here used, not as it has to be read and used for the individual instruction and edification of all the faithful, but as it is to be observed by pastors—for observe what he says; he says, expressly, it is profitable for those purposes which are the exclusive function of the ministry, and not of others, for the learners, for the subjects of the Church of Christ.1
Part 2)… knowing from whom you learned it …
A B C D CC BB AA
St. Paul did not accidentally remind his successor of the importance of recognizing the apostolic conduit. St. Timothy did not learn the Faith from the not-yet existing Christian “Bible alone”. Nor did he learn the Faith from the existing Scriptures (the Old Testament/sacred writings). He knows from whom he learned it. As carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21 NIV), the passage is a product of Sacred Tradition and reminds its readers that the element of Sacred Tradition, not the Scriptures alone, is an agent that taught St. Timothy the Christian Faith. In other words, the passage, contrary to your group’s expectation, cannot support sola Scriptura or “Bible-only” Christianity because the passage itself alludes to an extra-scriptural authority; but it can, and does, support the Catholic model, which includes Sacred Tradition within its understanding of what, specifically, is the Christian Rule of Faith.
Part 3) … and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct …
A B C D CC BB AA
The sacred writings that St. Timothy had been acquainted with from childhood were, again, the Old Testament. This passage does not refer to itself as Scripture, it does not call any writing that is now found within the New Testament Scripture, and it does not suggest that the Old Testament provides the sole material for a Rule of Faith. But your tradition forces a leap, eagerly assigns the sacred writings that St. Paul was referring to as not the Old Testament, but as any now-recognized Protestant canon of Scripture (abridged Old Testament and full Catholic New Testament), and then presents them as not only able to instruct, but also act as the source for all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness. Cardinal Wiseman described the historical understanding of the extent of the Old Testament’s usefulness:
It was thus that Scriptures were able to make the men of those times wise, so far as to come into the faith of Christ. The knowledge of Scripture, consequently, here spoken of, is a knowledge preparatory to coming to Christianity; it is the knowledge which had to bring the Jews into an acquaintance with the divinity, and with the doctrines of Christ.2
The passage reveals an elder (St. Paul) exhorting his successor, an elder (St. Timothy), to utilize the Old Testament Scriptures within his ministry. The sacred writings provide prophecies and typologies that prepare people to accept the message that the Church would preach. The Scriptures were able to instruct (if interpreted properly), but they were by no means sufficient for the doctrines of Christ; it was His Church that formulated such doctrines (and properly interprets).
Part 4)… for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. …
A B C D CC BB AA
This Part is the center of St. Paul’s passage. Salvation through faith in Christ Jesus is the apex of all St. Timothy’s work, is the defining goal of every pastor’s call, and is the culminating result of the elements that he had just described: the pastor/apostolic authority, Sacred Tradition (oral teachings), and Sacred Scripture.
All elements are intrinsically tied to their goal: salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. The climax, however, is unnoticed by your group when it abrogates St. Paul’s crescendo with an emphasis on only his decontextualized following words and an unrelated assumption that he was not speaking of a pastor’s work, but rather, forming the Protestant Rule of Faith.
Part 5)All Scripture is inspired by God …
A B C D CC BB AA
In Part 4, St. Paul reached the apex, the point, the most important focus of what he was communicating to St. Timothy. And in this fifth Part of the passage, he begins to retrace the elements that he had just described. Recall that just before he described the result of the pastor’s work (salvation through faith in Christ Jesus), he referred to the sacred writings. He described those sacred writings as able to instruct, and now, he refers to those same sacred writings as inspired by God.
Of course, the New Testament is inspired as well, but St. Paul was not referring to the New Testament because we know he was referring to the Scriptures that St. Timothy had known from childhood. So even if St. Paul were establishing a Protestant Rule of Faith or endorsing sola Scriptura in any way, then the very fact that Christians today acknowledge the New Testament as inspired invalidates your theory that the nascent Church accepted any concept of sola Scriptura. In other words, if St. Paul were endorsing sola Scriptura, then you must also reject this very verse that you use to support it; sola Scriptura invalidates itself.
Part 6) … and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, …
A B C D CC BB AA
Part 6 is not a perfect parallel to Part 2, because Part 2 was about the apostolic conduit, which is the proper conduit for the teaching office of the Church. Part 6 is about the Scriptures specifically. Though the two elements are different, they are also the same in a sense; they are both presented as authoritative catechetical conduits that work towards the pastor’s goal of saving souls, as you would, hopefully, agree.
The sacred writings are profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, absolutely; but it is not only the sacred writings that provide the teachings … and training, because those functions do not exist without a ministerial (human) office—ministry requires ministers. In other words, Part 6 specifically addresses the usefulness of Sacred Scripture, but the language includes the needed and pre-supposed element of Sacred Tradition for the message (meaning) of the passage to affect the Church in any real, non-theoretical way (remember St. Philip the Evangelist and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8). Again, consider Cardinal Wiseman:
… for he [St. Paul] says, it [the Old Testament] is “profitable for doctrine,” that is as the word means in its proper native sense, “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Therefore, he is to hold fast the doctrines which St. Paul taught, remembering upon whose authority he received them—that is, the authority of the Apostles. … And then he is to know besides, that this Scripture is profitable for the practice of ministry, for correcting, for reproving, for instructing. These are points not for individual improvement, not for each one’s edification; but they are essentially acts for the ministry of the priesthood, for those who have to teach others; and, consequently, if this text prove anything regarding Scripture, it only goes to prove that the pastors of the church should be familiar with it, and make use of it for the purpose of correcting, and edifying the flocks.3
The function of pastor is wedded to and with the function of sacred writings; the function of Tradition is wedded to and with the function of Scripture—a one kind of flesh. As such, the chiastic structure of the full passage becomes more apparent, and thus, directs us to its apex, which is the goal of the Church:the salvation of souls through faith in Christ Jesus; not a distracting proof for the Protestant Rule of Faith.
Part 7) … that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
A B C D CC BB AA
Part 7 ends where Part 1 began, with the man of God, and it also refers to the work of the priest (every good work = teachings … and training).
In Part 1 (A), St. Paul was addressing St. Timothy, a priest (an elder), and he was a legitimate recipient of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. St. Paul referred to apostolic succession (knowing from whom you learned it), which affirmed St. Timothy’s apostolic pedigree; and he referred to the Old Testament as profitable for St. Timothy’s ministry. The full passage pointed to its climax: salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, which is the goal of the elements that St. Paul had referred to, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and which act in concert with each other, not one trumping the other, but as a harmonious, yet single, voice of God. And is this precisely Catholic model not what the Ethiopian eunuch needed and recognized in order for him to be baptized in Acts 8? And is this precisely Catholic model not collinear with the traditions (teachings) that St. Paul wrote of in 2 Thessalonians 2:15? And is this precisely Catholic model not the reality that the noble Bereans recognized in Acts 17?
As St. Paul descended from the apex of his central message, he paralleled the purpose and function of both forms of the word of God so that the man of God may becomplete. Your group, however, conflates various parts of the passage, puts them in a disorganized order to support its pre-determined theory, and presents them, essentially, as “the Bible makes all people complete.”
Neal Pollard, a popular Protestant Church of Christ preacher and instructor at the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Denver presented the indicative Protestant Church of Christ’s treatment of the passage in February of 2014. He wrote a blog article about his preference for sola Scriptura over any model that consists of, as he worded it, a “substitute or rival to the Bible.”4 His only utilized scriptural reference was 2 Timothy 3:16-17. But he did not quote the scripture; he wrote his own version of the passage and presented it as the word of God. He wrote, “Scripture is God-breathed, making one spiritually complete (2 Tim. 3:16-17).” He did not refer to the passage by inserting “cf.” (compare/confer), he did not present the actual text, nor did he acknowledge to whom St. Paul was writing. He simply reworded your group’s proof-text into a form that presents truth as your group hopes it is, not as it is reflected in the passage. After he presented his version of the passage, he asked a rhetorical question: “If Scripture is sufficient, what need is there for anything beyond it?” Of course, nothing from the biblical text suggests any sufficiency of Scripture for Christian living; it suggests the profitability of the Old Testament Scriptures for the work of ministry—”sufficiency” and “profitability” are very different things.
Your group’s confusion is a result of a forced passage, a forced theory, and a forced hope. And so I beg you to acknowledge the reality of the passage and not the fiction of Pollard’s or any other self-ordained man’s presentation. St. Paul’s letter reveals no authorial intent to present any notion of sola Scriptura or “Bible-only” Christianity, because he was writing to a fellow priest about the good work of priestly duties: teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. St. Paul was not referring to the New Testament Scriptures (which, for the most part, did not exist), but to the Greek Old Testament (the Catholic, not Protestant, Old Testament). St. Paul wrote that Scripture is profitable; he did not teach that Scripture is Christianity’s sole authority or that Scripture is sufficient for spiritual completeness (as Pollard’s version reads); but rather, he taught St. Timothy that his use of the Old Testament Scriptures are useful for the ministry—for the saving of souls. He likened the purpose and function of the Scriptures with Tradition as partnering, yet singular, voices of God in communicating His message; and St. Paul began and ended his lesson by making certain that theman of God is not the rank-and-file believer, but the priest. After all, he was addressing a priest, he spoke of priestly duties, and he concluded the passage with the word work; the work assigned by a hierarchical superior.
But before I conclude this rational analysis of the passage that your group uses to argue for sola Scriptura, please review the following chiastic outlines of the full passage, and notice that the apex of priestly duties is the salvation of souls, that the passage’s intent was not one of establishing any “Bible-only” system, and that the words every good work, profitable, and complete, have nothing to do with your purported all-sufficiency of Scripture.
A)But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed,
B)knowing from whom you learned it
C)and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you
D)for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
CC)All scripture is inspired by God
BB)and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
AA)that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
A) Timothy, continue your learning and belief (perpetuate)
B) Knowing from whom (learning / authority of Tradition)
C) Acquainted with the Scriptures (function = teaching; status = authoritative)
D) Salvation through faith in Christ Jesus
CC) All Scripture is God-breathed (function = teaching; status = authoritative)
BB) Teach and train (teaching / function of Tradition / ministry)
AA) Man of God, Timothy (perpetuate the Church / Tradition, work / ministry)
D ) (Culmination) Salvation of souls
C, CC ) (Word of God) Sacred Scripture
B, BB ) (Word of God) Sacred Tradition
A, AA ) (Conduit of the message of God) The minister, the “man of God”
Wrapped within the context of St. Timothy (v. 14) as theman of God (v. 17), the passage’s end goal, the salvation of souls, is presented as intrinsically linked to the work of the priest. So, either the Catholic understanding, which incorporates a recognition of St. Paul’s audience and structure, or your understanding, which assumes that the passage is written for individual edification, is correct. The Catholic understanding is reasonable; yours is not, and an analysis of what, precisely, the man of God actual is, should tip your scale.
Most biblical uses of the phrase man of Godare found in the Old Testament. The only other New Testament occurrence of the phrase is found in 1 Timothy: But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim in righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness(6:11). St. Paul, again, was writing to St. Timothy and specifically called him, not the rank and file believer, man of God.
Each Old Testament use of the phrase was consistent with St. Paul’s use, or rather; St. Paul was consistent with the already-established phraseology. The Old Testament’s use of the phrase is used to describe a man with a special status or mission from God (cf. Deuteronomy 33:1; Joshua 14:6; 1 Samuel 9:6-10; 2:27; 1 Kings 13; 17:18,24; 2 Kings 1:9-13; 4:7, 27, 42: 5:8-15; 1 Chronicles 23:14; 2 Chronicles 25:7,9; 2 Chronicles 30:1; Ezra 3:2; Nehemiah 12:24,36; Psalms 40:1; Jeremiah 35:4). It is clear, then, that St. Paul was primarily referring to St. Timothy, and secondarily to other priests (men of God) of like eminence in both 1 Timothy 6:11 and 2 Timothy 3:14-17. As such, the subject that Scripture makes complete (the priests’ work), keeps a proper Christian conduit of delivery: legitimately ordained priests.
And now let me recap the Protestant Church of Christ’s understanding of the passage and compare it to what I have just illustrated. Pollard’s indicative understanding of the passage fairly represents your position, which is, as I previously quoted, “Scripture is God-breathed, making one spiritually complete (2 Timothy 3:16-17).” In the same article, Pollard wrote:
The alternative [to sola Scriptura] is to suggest that Scripture alone is insufficient or inadequate, that is [sic] not the sole authority on matters of truth and right. Some would even call the idea of following only Scripture as [sic] destructive heresy. Yet, the alternative to Scripture alone is Scripture along with something else, whether a man, group, council, church, or governing body. … Let us accept no substitute or [sic] rival to the Bible!
The passage that Pollard re-wrote, when read as it is actually presented in the New Testament and within the context that I have outlined, suggests that he may not have even read the original text! There is no “either / or” dichotomy; the single word of God is found in both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, without rivalry, without one buried under the other, but as the single, intended voice of God. The Scriptures never claim that the word of God is the Bible only, but rather, that the word of God is found in both forms the Catholic Church recognizes. In other words, the passage Pollard chose to re-write (change) in order to prove your group’s position actually teaches the exact opposite of what he was forcing it to mean. Yes, the feared “alternative” to Pollard’s model is absolutely “Scripture … along with something else,” because Scripture along with Tradition is precisely what the Scripture reveals. For review:
Pollard’s indicative re-write of biblical text:
Scripture is God-breathed, making one spiritually complete (2 Timothy 3:16-17, altered).
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work(2 Timothy 3:14-17).
The fact that proponents of sola Scriptura must re-write the Scriptura to argue for sola Scriptura is telling. And it is clear that St. Paul was in no way reflecting an already established concept of sola Scriptura (Doing so would be in violation of any such premise.), and he was in no way teaching St. Timothy to mind any new Rule of Faith that rejects Sacred Tradition—the passage’s very existence and its message is a ringing endorsement of Sacred Tradition! So what the passage reveals is: 1) St. Paul wrote to a man who was worthy of the phrase man of God. 2) St. Paul, with at least a chiastic structure, if not, then by overt emphasis through literary nearness, taught that both authoritative apostolic Tradition and the Old Testament are both intended by God to act as conduits of His word. 3) The sacred writings are useful / profitable for the purpose of priesthood. 4) The priestly duties that St. Paul outlined make use of the Scriptures, resulting in the man of God’s every good work. 5) The text’s word complete has nothing to do with “spiritual completeness”, but rather, the Scriptures provide the priest with the knowledge of Christ, by means of prophecies and typologies, so that he may go out into the world and introduce mankind to the complete fulfillment of the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17), which is, of course, the entire apex of St. Paul’s literary unit: 6) the salvationof soulsthrough faith in Christ Jesus.
The full passage runs against your sensitivities, I know. The full passage makes clear St. Paul’s intended audience, and it reveals the sort of “completeness” that he mentions is not a status that all who read the Bible attain, but rather, is the living and active status that is constructed by both intrinsic elements acting in concert: authoritative Sacred Scripture and authoritative Sacred Tradition—the Christian Rule of Faith.
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• Unless otherwise noted, biblical citations are from the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
• I'm a layman. To the best of my knowledge, everything I present within this blog is orthodox and true. If anything I present is not in accordance with the Sacred Tradition of the Holy Catholic Church, and if I'm shown to be in error, I will happily correct my mistake.