Sola Scriptura: 2 Timothy 3:15-17

Sola Scriptura

The first series of Reformation Friday articles dealt with the doctrine of “Justification by Faith” and the principle of Sola Fide (i.e., salvation through faith alone). Our second subject will be the principle of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)—that is, the Christian Scriptures (Old and New Testaments) as the primary, if not exclusive, source of authority for all matters of theology, teaching, and the Christian life.

This Protestant principle was born out of the early years of the Reformation, but did not develop and coalesce into a distinct article of faith until some years had passed. The historical context of this development, often ignored or unknown by Protestant Christians today, is worth summarizing briefly.

By the onset of the Reformation (usually tied to the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517), the late medieval Roman Catholic Church had established a number of lines of authoritative religious tradition, having grown and developed over many centuries. However, it was the concentration of this authority in the Roman hierarchy that was most problematic for the princes and leaders in the German Empire. Indeed, the Pope (bishop of Rome) was accorded virtually an absolute and infallible religious authority, though one which was an extension of the authority possessed by bishops and archbishops throughout the old (Roman) Imperial system, based on the theological principle of apostolic succession—that is, an authority inherited and continued from the first apostles (the idea of Apostolic Tradition among first-century believers is touched on below). The Pope, in particular, was seen as the spiritual successor of Peter as the head (and foundation-rock) of the Church.

At the same time, a vast corpus of authoritative Church Law (Canon Law) had accumulated, including the decisions of the bishops in the various international Church Councils, as well as many other ecclesiastical rulings. Other customs and traditions had become equally authoritative in practice, even if they had not been specifically spelled out in the Canon Law.

As learned Christians began, under the influence of Renaissance scholarship and education, to study the text of Scripture (esp. the Greek New Testament) in more detail, many people noticed that there was little (if any) clear Scriptural support for these authoritative Roman Catholic beliefs, traditions and customs. Gradually, fueled by the socio-political tensions within the German Empire (as well as in the neighboring countries) over the influence of the Roman government, prominent leaders, ministers, and scholars began to express dissatisfaction and to speak out against the authoritative Roman Catholic traditions.

At first, the conflict between Scripture and Roman Catholic Tradition was only expressed in a marginal way, being implied at key points, for example, in Luther’s 95 Theses or Zwingli’s 67 Articles, the Ten Theses of Berne, etc. Even the foundational Augsburg Confession (1530) deals with the question of the authority of Scripture only in passing or indirectly, though the seminal principle of Sola Scriptura is implied throughout. See, for example, the opening sentence of article 22 (at the close of the first part), where it is stated that the “sum of doctrine” among Protestants contains “nothing which is discrepant with the Scriptures, or with the Church Catholic”. The First Helvetic (Basle) Confession in 1536 is one of the first Protestant creeds or confessions of faith with a clear statement (Article I) regarding the nature and status of the Scriptures. While this statement is quite brief, it was developed considerably in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566)—here, quoting from chapter 1:

“We believe and confess the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God Himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures. And in this Holy Scripture, the universal Church of Christ has the most complete exposition of all that pertains to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God; and in this respect it is expressly commanded by God that nothing be either added to or taken from the same.”

The later Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) gives, in its first chapter, an even more systematic expression of the Sola Scriptura doctrine, from the Reformed standpoint. The Lutheran Tradition has an equally clear statement in the opening of its Formula of Concord (1576). Many Protestant theologians have defended and expounded the Sola Scriptura principle. One of the earlier treatments of the subject, within the framework of a rudimentary Systematic Theology, is by John Calvin in his famous Institutes (Book I, Chapters 6-10).

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In these articles, we will be examining the Scriptural (New Testament) basis for the Protestant Sola Scriptura doctrine, beginning with the famous declaration in 2 Timothy 3:16 (discussed below). It will be helpful to define first what the earliest Christians understood by the “Scriptures”. It is abundantly clear that, with one possible exception, the “Scriptures” (lit. “Writings,” grafai, grammata) refer to the Old Testament Scriptures, though there is some uncertainty regarding the extent of the Old Testament that is meant. Unquestionably, early Christians, following the view of contemporary Jews, considered the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy), the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi), and the Psalms to be uniquely inspired and authoritative Scripture. Moreover, all of these books were authoritative because of their prophetic character. The Prophetic books throughout contain oracles of God’s words, while similarly the Pentateuch is rooted in the revelation of the Torah to Moses; the Psalms tended to be grouped together with the Prophets, its authors (such as David) being understood as functioning as inspired prophets (cf. Mark 12:36 par; Acts 1:16; 2:30; 4:25). It is uncertain whether, or to what extent, the remaining books of the Old Testament were considered authoritative Scripture in the same way. By the second half of the 1st century A.D., it is likely that Jews and early Christians accepted something like the entire canonical Old Testament as authoritative, but we cannot be absolutely certain on this point.

In 2 Tim 3:15, the specific expression ta\ i(era\ gra/mmata (“the sacred Writings”) is used, an expression that had become relatively well-established in reference to the Old Testament Scriptures, though it occurs nowhere else in the New Testament (the unprefixed adjective i(ero/$ is itself rare, used only in 1 Cor 9:13). The same expression is found in the writings of Philo of Alexandria (Life of Moses 2.292) and Josephus (Antiquities 10.210), roughly contemporary with the New Testament usage here.

Our studies will take the following course. After an initial examination of 2 Tim 3:16 (below), we will be looking at other representative New Testament passages in relation to the following topics:

    • References reflecting the view of Jesus and first-century Christians on the Old Testament Scriptures
    • The Gospel (and the Gospels) as Scripture, in terms of:
      • The words of Jesus himself
      • The Gospel message
      • The inspired character of the Gospel narratives
    • The authority of the Apostolic Tradition—i.e., the words and writings of the apostles has having authorative/inspired Scriptural status
    • The main challenges to the Sola Scriptura doctrine within the New Testament itself

The last topic will be touched on at a number of points throughout the individual studies (cf. below), but our final article(s) will bring the manner into sharper focus.

2 Timothy 3:15-17

The central New Testament declaration regarding the inspiration of Scripture—and arguably the only reference that is directly on point—is the famous statement in 2 Timothy 3:16:

“Every Writing (is) God-breathed and (is) profitable toward teaching…”

There is, unfortunately, a tendency by Christians—Protestant Christians, in particular—to cite this verse out of context. When so cited out of context, it sounds much more like an absolute declaration regarding the nature of Scripture. When read within the full context of chapters 3-4, however, there is a rather a different emphasis to verses 15-17.

Before proceeding, a word about the authorship of 2 Timothy. All three of the Pastoral Letters (1-2 Timothy, Titus) are presented as genuine letters by Paul to his younger ministerial colleagues (Timothy & Titus). Many scholars, however, including nearly all critical commentators, regard these letters as pseudonymous—and, as such, were likely written considerably later (toward the end of the first century, or even the beginning of the second). There are legitimate arguments for pseudonymity that need to be considered, though, in my view, there is far more evidence (in favor of pseudonymity) in the case of 1 Timothy, compared with 2 Timothy and Titus. Indeed, 2 Timothy appears to have much more in common with the undisputed letters, in terms of content, style, and points of emphasis. For the purpose of this study, I will treat 2 Timothy as a genuine work by Paul, while recognizing the merit of at least some of the arguments that have been posited for pseudonymity.

Chapter 3 begins with an eschatological section (vv. 1-9), warning (Timothy) against wicked and immoral persons who pose a threat to believers within the Church. The danger of ‘false believers’ is part of the end-time period of distress, during which there will be an increase of wickedness and opposition to God. This is central to the eschatological worldview of early Christians, seen clearly in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 13 par); the false prophets and Messianic pretenders predicted by Jesus (Mk 13:6, 21-22 par) came to include the idea of false and deceptive Christians who would corrupt the Church and lead people astray. First John shows perhaps the clearest evidence of this development within early Christian eschatology (see esp. 2:18-27; 4:1-6), but the developing polemic against heresy can also be seen in 2 Peter, Jude, and the Pastoral Letters.

In contrast to the godless ‘false believers’ who oppose the truth and will not accept sound teaching, Paul (or the author) emphasizes the importance of ministers (like Timothy) holding firm to what we may call the “Apostolic Tradition”. By this expression is meant the Gospel message and other authoritative teaching communicated by the apostles—the pioneering missionaries (like Paul) who first proclaimed the Gospel and played a key role in the founding of congregations. Verse 10 clearly expresses the importance of this tradition, as exemplified (for Timothy) in the person of Paul:

“But you (have) followed along (with) me in the teaching, the leading (a way of life), the setting forth (of purpose), the trust (you hold), the long endurance, the love, the remaining under (with patience)…”

The Apostolic Tradition thus entails both teaching and personal example—i.e., character and way of life, etc. This is Paul’s emphasis in verses 10-14, stressing the importance for Christian ministers of holding firm to this inherited tradition:

“But you must remain in the (thing)s which you (have) learned and trusted in, having seen (from) alongside whom you learned it” (v. 14)

It is in this context, that Paul (or the author) makes reference to the Scriptures, in verse 15:

“…and that from infancy you have known [the] sacred Writings, the (writing)s being able [i.e. that are able] to make you wise unto salvation through (the) trust th(at is) in (the) Anointed Yeshua.”

They way that verses 15-17 are related to vv. 10-14 makes relatively clear that the “sacred Writings” are understood as supplemental (“and that…”) to the Apostolic Tradition. As a Jewish Christian (cf. Acts 16:1ff), Timothy would have known the Old Testament Scriptures from childhood (spec. since he was an infant). These Scriptures remain important for Christians, for two reasons: (1) they provide the framework for early Christian religious and ethical instruction (“able to make you wise”), and (2) they point to the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah (“the Anointed Yeshua”) and confirm the truth of the Gospel (“…unto salvation through trust in…Yeshua”). We will be discussing these points further in the upcoming studies.

The special character of the (Old Testament) Scriptures is further described in vv. 16-17:

“Every (such) Writing (is) God-breathed and profitable toward teaching, toward rebuke, toward straightening up, toward training a child in justice/righteousness, (so) that the man of God might be fit, having been fitted out toward every good work.”

Two key points (or claims) are made regarding the Scriptures:

    • They are “God-breathed” (qeo/pneusto$)—This adjective, which is found (albeit rarely) in other Hellenistic Jewish and Greco-Roman writings (e.g., Pseudo-Phocylides 129; Plutarch Moralia, p. 904F), more or less accurately captures what most Christians mean by the special inspiration of Scripture. It primarily refers to the idea of prophecy—of a message by God communicated to the prophet (Scripture-writer) through a special (and gifted) revelation. For Jews in the 1st century B.C./A.D., this refers unquestionably to the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy), the Prophets (Isaiah-Malachi) and the Psalms (cf. above); and early Christians inherited this religious view. The inspiration of the Scriptures, in at least a basic and fundamental sense, would have been accepted by virtually all early Christians without reservation.
    • They are “profitable” (w)fe/limo$)—that is, for Christian teaching and all manner of religious-ethical instruction. The underlying denotation for the adjective w)fe/limo$ is of the ‘piling up’ of wealth (i.e., profit, gain); it can be used in a more general sense, for something that is useful or advantageous, but here it is better to hold to the fundamental meaning of “profitable”.

I must emphasize again that, from the standpoint of our passage here, the Scriptures are supplemental to the Apostolic Tradition—the Tradition itself has priority for early Christians (and their pastors/ministers). It is this point, which will be further demonstrated and illustrated through an examination of other key New Testament passages, which runs contrary to the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura. While the Scriptures are immanently valuable for first-century Christians, they are scarcely the sole (or even primary) source of authority for them. Rather, it is the apostolic line of tradition—the Gospel message and other authoritative teaching inherited from the apostles—that holds first place.

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