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No. 56: Which Sacred Writings?

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 56
December, 1993
Copyright 1993, Biblical Horizons

These verses have historically been used by Protestants to prove the sufficiency of Scripture over against Roman Catholic views of tradition. Positively, the argument can be stated as follows: Paul teaches that Scripture equips us for every good work. Everything we need to know and do to be "perfect" is contained in the Scriptures. Therefore, the Scriptures are sufficient as a guide for faith and practice; we need nothing else to train us in perfection. The negative argument goes like this: If the Roman Catholic view were correct, there would be good works for which Scripture does not equip us. Scripture nowhere instructs Christians to venerate Mary or pray to the saints. If these are good works, then Paul’s statement is false. The implications of the Roman Catholic view directly contradict Paul’s statement in these verses, and therefore the Roman Catholic view must be incorrect.

In his book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Roman Catholic apologist Karl Keating responds to the Protestant use of these verses with the claim that the passage merely teaches that Scripture "has its uses," which are enumerated in the verse. To say that Scripture "has its uses" is not to say that it is "sufficient"; therefore, these verses do not teach the sufficiency of Scripture (p. 135). Unaccountably, Keating leaves out the final clause of verse 17, "that the man of God may be perfect, equipped for every good work." It is this clause that seals the Protestant case. Keating’s argument is plausible only because it ignores the final clause.

More substantively, Keating cites John Henry Newman’s argument that 2 Timothy 3:16-17, if it proves the sufficiency of Scripture, actually proves the sufficiency of the OT, since the NT was not yet final. Since the Protestant interpretation of these verses proves too much, it is an invalid argument (pp. 135-36).

In fact, Newman’s argument is less formidable than first appearances may suggest. Let us concede Newman’s point that Paul was writing before the NT Scriptures were recognized and that the passage proves the sufficiency of the OT Scriptures. Is this a problem for the Protestant view of the sufficiency of Scripture? I don’t see how. Until the production of the NT, the OT Scriptures were sufficient to teach the wisdom that leads to salvation. Until the completion of the canon and the destruction of Jerusalem, the Church was still in a transitional age. During this age, it could plausibly be argued, the OT Scriptures continued to serve as the canon of the Christian Church, sufficient for that period. The same was true of the Torah before the addition of the Former Prophets; the same could be said of the Former Prophets before the addition of the Latter Prophets. In each age of redemptive history, the existing Scriptures were sufficient for God’s purposes in that age.

But are we certain that Paul was referring exclusively to the OT Scriptures in 2 Timothy 3? I have always assumed this was the case, but Newman’s argument forced a reconsideration. It now seems more likely that Paul was referring to the Scriptures of both the OT and NT.

Consider: Paul wrote 2 Timothy during his house arrest in Rome (1:16-17) near the end of his life. By this time, Paul obviously had already written most of his other epistles, which were already being recognized as "Scripture" (2 Pet 3:14-16). It is likely that most of the other writings of the NT were already completed by this time. Thus, it is not implausible to conclude that Paul knew of the existence of a definite, though yet incomplete, canon of NT writings when he wrote to Timothy.

Newman, however, pointed to a weakness in this line of argument. The Scriptures in view in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 are primarily the ones that Timothy learned as a child (vv. 14-15), which, Newman assumes, must be the OT Scriptures. Even this conclusion does not necessarily follow. Consider the following chronological data: Timothy was a youngish man–no more, certainly, than 40–when Paul wrote his first letter to him (1 Tim. 4:12). Supposing that 1 Timothy was written around 60 AD, and supposing Timothy to be 40, we find that Timothy would have been 10 when Jesus was crucified in 30 AD. It is possible that the earliest NT writings were produced in the 30s. Therefore, Timothy might have learned the NT writings from his mother as a teenager.

This is possible, but doesn’t fit well with Paul’s description of Timothy learning the Scriptures "from childhood." Can we find more specific evidence of Timothy’s age? While I cannot prove it, it seems likely that Timothy is closer to 30 when 1 Timothy was written. 1 Timothy has all the marks of an ordination letter. Paul instructs Timothy to avoid speculative teaching in his ministry and instead to concentrate on love and faith (1:3-7); he warns that others have been "shipwrecked" and excommunicated (1:18-20); he instructs him how to conduct worship (2:1-4), and the proper role of women in the public ordinances of the church (2:9-15); he enumerates the qualifications for officers in the church (3:1-13); he tells him how to deal with various classes of people in the church, including older men, widows, and young women (5:1-16). The book begins and ends with exhortations that Timothy remember what has been entrusted to him (1:18; 6:20). Given the OT evidence, we might speculate that the age of ordination in the apostolic Church was 30. Thus, we can guess that Timothy was around 30 when he received the first letter. Assuming that 1 Tim. was written in 60, Timothy would have been born in 30 AD. His mother, a believing Jewess (Acts 16:1-2), would have taught him what she knew of the NT Scriptures that were being produced during the first decade of Timothy’s life.

The evidence of the book of Acts lends additional support to this reconstruction. Acts 16:1-5 tells us that Timothy joined Paul on his second missionary journey. The date typically assigned to this mission is around 50 AD. If Timothy were born in 30, he would have joined Paul at the age of 20, a suitable age to begin serving as an apprentice to the apostle.

Finally, Paul claims that the writings that Timothy learned as a child communicated wisdom unto salvation through "faith in Christ Jesus" (v. 15). To say that the OT Scriptures taught faith in Jesus surely seems an extravagant claim. It seems more likely that Paul meant the NT Scriptures where the Christ is shown to be identical to Jesus of Nazareth.

Even if the specific dates need to be adjusted, the point will stand, namely, that the NT writings were being produced during Timothy’s childhood and/or youth, that they were early recognized as "Scriptures," and that Timothy would have learned their truths from his mother. If my argument is valid, 2 Timothy 3:14-17 stands as a stronger testimony to the divine origin of the whole Bible than Protestants have generally recognized.