Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

Defending the sufficiency of Scripture, part 1

I recently received the following correspondence in relation to 2 Timothy 3:16-17. As any Christian ought to know, this is no doubt the most perspicuous passage in which Scripture is affirmed as our sufficient rule of faith; apart from any other tradition. Paul states plainly that it alone is required for all Christian practice: teaching, […]

I recently received the following correspondence in relation to 2 Timothy 3:16-17. As any Christian ought to know, this is no doubt the most perspicuous passage in which Scripture is affirmed as our sufficient rule of faith; apart from any other tradition. Paul states plainly that it alone is required for all Christian practice: teaching, correction, rebuking; indeed, for “every good work”. Of this fact, my correspondent, a Catholic, says—

“All Scripture” means the written bits, and he’s referring to the Old Testament because none of the New was canonised yet. “All Scripture” does not mean the same as “only Scripture.” Scripture is profitable for teaching, etc, but not necessarily sufficient. Paul did not know what was going to be NT Scripture, so he could hardly have been referring to that; if only Scripture is sufficient, he would mean only the OT is sufficient, which is hardly likely.

I reply: it is unreasonable to assume that Paul is referring only to the Old Testament when he speaks of the Scriptures in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Notice the structure of verses 14 and 15:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Verse 15 describes a separate but related action to verse 14. Verse 14 recounts Timothy having learned and firmly believed the gospel of Christ, and its related doctrines, as summarized in the whole previous part of the chapter. Verse 15 describes the prior acquaintance he had with the Old Testament, from infancy. Verses 16 and 17 then appear to draw these separate clauses together; referring to both the first and the second in saying “all Scripture is breathed out by God.” Indeed, the fact that he says ” all Scripture is inspired” (NIV, emphasis mine) suggests an implicit comparison between the Jewish sacred writings, and the newer—but equally inspired—apostolic ones. Given that chronological snobbery is a typical error, perhaps particularly of laity, with whose instruction Timothy was charged, it seems likely that Paul is reiterating that all the Scriptures are of equal status, regardless of when they were written. This is certainly consistent with the instructional tone of the letter, and with Paul’s astute habit of choosing the most precise language possible when instructing, thus implicitly addressing potential objections or errors. Were he not anticipating this sort of error here, it would seem that simply saying “Scripture is inspired” would have sufficed, had he even mentioned it at all.

But Paul understood that he was writing Scripture; and, indeed, that he had written previous Scripture to Timothy and to others. One can hardly suggest otherwise, as if a man inspired of the Holy Spirit, acting under a promise given by Christ himself (John 16:12-14), was not aware of it! On the contrary, Paul was extremely aware of the revelation he had directly received from Jesus himself (Gal 1:11-12); and had given to others—and which was by no means a once-off occasion, either (Acts 9:4-5, 21:10-12, 26:12-18; 1 Tim 4:1 etc).

Furthermore, as you know, 2 Peter 3:15-16 demonstrates that the other apostles regarded Paul’s writings as Scripture. Indeed, given the almost offhand manner in which Peter lists Paul’s writings next to “the other Scriptures”, it is evident that their inspired nature was commonly accepted knowledge. And, since both 2 Timothy and 2 Peter were written toward the end of those apostles’ lives, around 67-68 AD, it follows that all of Paul’s prior letters were already regarded as Scripture when 2 Timothy 3:16-17 was penned. Certainly Paul knew that.

Therefore, when he says that “all Scripture is breathed out by God”, he most certainly is not excluding his own writing, or the writings of the other apostles, even if the immediate context and language appears to be specifically in regards to the Old Testament—which, as I’ve suggested, does not appear to be the case. However, again, even if Paul was not referring to the New Testament at all, there is no sense in which we, in reading his words, cannot recognize that indeed all Scripture is breathed out by God. It is not as if we think only the Old Testament is inspired, is it? Therefore, whichever Scripture Paul had in mind when he wrote this to Timothy, the Holy Spirit so inspired him as to ensure that the larger scope of the whole canon is included in his statement—even works which had not then been penned. Unless you wish to deny any sensus plenior in the passage, and confine its meaning to the immediate, temporal context in which it was written—which principle is unjustified and, if applied consistently, would ultimately render most of Scripture’s prophecies null and void, as well as make Catholic interpretations of numerous other passages impossible—there is really no way around the fact that the full sense of this passage is that all Scripture is breathed out by God. Not just the Old Testament, but all Scripture: New and Old alike. Surely you agree. Whichever specific writings Paul had in mind when he wrote this are irrelevant, and pursuing this line of argumentation constitutes a red herring, because the actual meaning of the passage to us is clear: it includes all of the Bible.

That being the case, I’m afraid you are simply wrong to say that Scripture is profitable, but not necessarily sufficient. It is indeed sufficient, because that is what 2 Timothy 3:16-17 plainly states: that it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” That is to say, that the Christian may be complete and proficient, well fitted and thoroughly equipped for every good work” (Amplified Bible). The Greek adjective is artios; it means “fitted; complete, perfect; having reference apparently to ‘special aptitude for given uses'” (Thayer and Smith). Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker say, citing this specific passage in reference, “able to meet all demands”. Richard Trench, in Synonyms of the New Testament, says, “If we ask ourselves under what special aspects ‘completeness’ is contemplated in artios, it would be safe to answer that it is not as the presence only of all the parts which are necessary for that ‘completeness’, but involves, further, the adaptation and aptitude of these parts for the ends which they were designed to serve. The man of God, St. Paul would say, should be furnished and accomplished with all which is necessary for the carrying out of the work to which he is appointed” (quoted from James White, ‘Does The Bible Teach Sola Scriptura?’).

Now the verb, which compounds and expands upon and emphasizes the adjective artios, is exartizo . Paul was not content merely to say that Scripture makes the man of God artios, complete. He evidently wished to so emphasize this as to leave absolutely no doubts about how totally sufficient it really is. Exartizo means “to complete, finish; to furnish perfectly; to finish, accomplish, (as it were, to render the days complete)” (Thayer and Smith). The prefix, ex, gives this term the perfective force; the related term, katartizo, in Luke 6:40 means “fully trained”. So we have here two statements of completeness and perfection which build upon each other: the adjective of being complete, and the verb of being complete. That is, the man of God, through Scripture, and only through Scripture, may be made completely equipped for every good work. Not mostly equipped; not for some good works. Completely equipped for every good work.

Therefore, despite your claim that “all Scripture” does not mean “only Scripture”—as if Paul is saying that Scripture, by itself, is unable to do this, and that Tradition is needed also. The context and the very meaning of the words he uses clearly dicate otherwise. Since all graphe, all the written Scriptures, are able to completely and perfectly equip the man of God, tradition is by definition excluded as being necessary. The statement is explicitly and perspicuously one which affirms the sufficiency of Scripture alone. Definitionally, that is what it is. A Greek word study certainly helps to draw this out, but it remains sad that it is required to prove it; even the English translation of most Bibles makes it perfectly clear (I prefer the HCSB).

This is not to say that tradition is not helpful. But certainly it is not necessary, since the Bible alone is sufficient. If the Bible is sufficient, both for teaching and for correction, along with all training in righteousness and all good works, it logically follows that tradition, as well as not being necessary for these things, is also subject to Scripture itself. This is because tradition largely is a matter of expositing and interpreting that Scripture: teaching it, and correcting others’ teachings. These things are achieved by and through Scripture, and so are subordinate to it. Since Scripture alone is sufficient, whatever body of teachings and interpretations exist currently are by no means necessary to the man of God. Again, they may be helpful—but they are not necessary. Scripture alone is sufficient for all that a Christian requires.

Continued in part 2 »


  1. Ryan

    Well written. I’d also like to point out something else with regards to the last point you made. It is my understanding that the Roman Catholic Church claims to hold Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition on an equal plane (if I am wrong on this, my apologies). However, they use Holy Tradition to help them interpret the Holy Scriptures. Logically then, they cannot rightly claim equality between the two. They would have to hold the position that Holy Scripture is subject to Holy Tradition. Am I right about this?

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Ryan—

    I have found that it depends on who you are talking to as to how exactly they will describe the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. As you can see, in this case Scripture is said to be a subset of Tradition; meaning that all Tradition is authoritative, and Scripture is part of all Tradition.

    However, regardless of how Catholics would like to describe the relationship, their view of Tradition does indeed place Scripture subordinate to it. It is a matter of simple epistemological necessity: Tradition is given logical priority over Scripture by merit of being made authoritative in interpreting it. Scripture becomes unable to speak for itself. Catholics would claim that this is not problematic, because Tradition and Scripture are perfectly in accord. But it is often manifest that this is not the case, such as in the example of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, where the plain meaning of the passage contradicts the Catholic position. Similarly those passages describing God’s definite election and reprobation; regarding salvation by faith; and so on.

    As I discuss in my book (see the top of the sidebar), this subordination of Scripture by Tradition ultimately refutes itself, because it is only in Scripture that an epistemological foundation for Tradition exists. Therefore, in order to claim the primacy of Tradition, one must first claim the primacy of Scripture. But the one logically contradicts the other. Once Scripture has primacy, Tradition must be made properly subordinate; and so using Scripture as an epistemological foundation makes it impossible to claim that Tradition is equally authoritative.

    Furthermore, there is the obvious problem of just what exactly Tradition encapsulates. Which specific writings constitute Tradition? Even a cursory perusal of the early church fathers will demonstrate vastly differing opinions on a variety of topics. The fact that one or two of them generally can be cited in support for any given Catholic doctrine to demonstrate its historicity does not indicate that tradition supports the doctrine, since numerous other contemporary theologians may have disagreed. (And, indeed, when it comes to things like the Marian dogmas, you will search in vain to find anything in the early church fathers which remotely resembles the doctrines which the Catholic Church now defines as infallible and necessary to be believed for salvation.) In any case, the Church certainly acknowledges that theologians have erred in the past, and it denies that any theologian is infallible. It also appears unable to establish a comprehensive and guaranteed list of even those statements made by Rome itself which are to be considered infallible. How, then, does it claim authoritative teachings from the collected writings of theologians, which it admits are individually fallible and often in error; and the collected pronouncements of Rome, which it is frequently unable to confirm are infallible or not?

    Again, the problem is one of epistemology. If we are to claim a tradition as apostolic, there is genuinely only one way to know it is apostolic—is it recorded by the apostles? In other words, is it found in Scripture? It is simply insufficient to claim that an unbroken tradition exists when this cannot be demonstrated, and when clearly numerous traditions are later inventions, while others contradict Scripture. It is not even a matter of faith, because one does not have faith in the manifestly irrational and false.

    I hope this helps; I am writing part 2 of this series now, dealing with oral tradition in 2 Timothy.


  3. orthodox

    We can grant that all scripture is God breathed, not just the NT. However, if what Paul is saying is that scripture is “sufficient” in the sense you attribute to him, what of all the NT books that aren’t yet written?

    For example, nobody could dispute that Revelation contains teachings that are nowhere else found in the bible. So if Paul is saying to Timothy that the scriptures that he has NOW contain all authoritative knowledge, then clearly Paul would be wrong. So Paul can’t be saying that.

    In fact, isn’t it interesting that the passage starts out with: “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it “. That sounds like an oral teaching to me. That sounds to me like Paul is saying to hold to the oral teachings of the apostles, and to the scriptures. And the result is being fully equipped in a general sense, but certainly not in the sense of denying that there could be further revelation, such as we know came from the apostle John in Revelation. This further revelation hardly left Timothy unequipped in the sense Paul means. Neither does it deny that Revelation is indeed revelation.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant


    I have addressed this topic in the article itself. Please refer to my comments regarding sensus plenior.

    Furthermore, it is important to understand that sola Scriptura applies in other time periods before the close of the canon; such that Scripture has always been sufficient for the time in which it was given. It is also false to suppose that sola Scriptura denies the inspiration of the verbal teaching of apostles and prophets prior to inscripturation. What it does deny is that teachings were not inscripturated which are necessary for “every good work”.


  5. orthodox

    So is the Revelation of John not necessary for “every good work”?

    Or does “every good work” keep expanding with further revelation?

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant


    Since we have been given the Revelation of John, I must conclude that it is indeed necessary. Similarly, it must be the case that the good works for which Scripture is sufficient—the training and teaching and correcting—would indeed expand in both quality and quantity as revelation is added to revelation.


  7. orthodox

    This is the tangle you get in trying to interpret texts in such a mechanical way.

    In any case, the verse doesn’t say that scripture fully equips you, it says that scripture is useful for X, Y and Z, so that the man of God might be fully equipped.

    The Psalms are profitable and useful, and provided as part of the goal that the man of God might be fully equipped. It doesn’t mean the Psalms contain all knowledge.

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