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)


series
Defending the sufficiency of Scripture, part 2

Continued from part 1 « The comments regarding 2 Timothy 3:16-17 were not the only ones I received from this particular correspondent. He went on to say— Paul also refers to oral tradition in 2 Timothy (1:13-14; 2:2; 3:14). The Bible is part of a Tradition which is larger than itself. The Tradition is the […]

Continued from part 1 «

The comments regarding 2 Timothy 3:16-17 were not the only ones I received from this particular correspondent. He went on to say—

Paul also refers to oral tradition in 2 Timothy (1:13-14; 2:2; 3:14). The Bible is part of a Tradition which is larger than itself. The Tradition is the beliefs and practices that are handed on, orally and in written form. They complement each other. The Bible encapsulates [sic] the Tradition. Sola Scriptura is a concept that constitutes the use of a document, and the document only, contrary to the same document’s explicit and implicit testimony. The Bible needs to be interpreted in the light of the Church’s Tradition, that is, the teaching that has been handed on down the ages. You surely would not say to Paul, “I’m not listening to you when you say, ‘This is what was handed onto me by the Lord.’ I’m only prepared to listen to what you wrote.” All that has happened is that the timeline of Tradition has grown longer. If you study Church history carefully, you will see that there is a consistency in the Tradition; where there have been threatened deviations the Church has corrected them through papal pronouncements and councils.

There is even more, to which I will respond in another post as well. For now, I reply:

My previous response, to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, proves quite adequately that Scripture is indeed sufficient—to the completion of every good work. The logical consequence of this is that tradition is in no way necessary to these things; though, again, it may often be helpful. Since Scripture alone is able to make us competent and equipped for every good work, tradition is by definition excluded as being necessary. The primacy and sufficiency of the Bible is clear in this passage.

Given this fact, we cannot expect Paul’s comments about oral tradition, in the very same letter no less, to contradict his statements about Scripture’s sufficiency. And neither is such an interpretation to be found, unless the Catholic teaching about tradition is presupposed and read back into these verses:

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you […] 2:2and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Although I will not quote the whole of chapter 1 here, it is important to have read it, as it provides the context in which Paul is making these remarks. 2 Timothy is a farewell discourse, and Paul is therefore particularly concerned with summarizing his own life and encouraging and instructing Timothy in the responsibility of his ministry. Indeed, he achieves the latter through the former, by holding himself up as an example. Given the strength of his exhortations, it appears Timothy’s ability to perform the task of ministry was of concern to Paul. As Jamieson, Faucett, and Brown comment, “he writes a series of exhortations to faithfulness, and zeal for sound doctrine, and patience amidst trials: a charge which Timothy seems to have needed, if we are to judge from the apostle’s earnestness in urging him to boldness in Christ’s cause, as though Paul thought he saw in him some signs of constitutional timidity (2 Timothy 2:2-8, 4:1-5; 1 Timothy 5:22,23)” (Jamieson, Faucett, Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, 2 Timothy, Introduction).

Nonetheless, he writes not because he is not confident in Timothy’s faith, but because he is confident and knows that Timothy requires instruction and encouragement. Verses 3-8 of chapter 1 establish this confidence, and exhort Timothy to share in the suffering of the gospel, being unashamed. In verses 9-12 Paul then summarize that gospel message, culminating in his own assertion that he is unashamed of the gospel and convinced of God’s power. It is in this context that he then exhorts Timothy in verses 13 and 14 to follow his example: to follow the pattern of his own words, and to guard the deposit of knowledge Paul has entrusted to him.

Verse 15 then further contextualizes the reason that Paul is particularly concerned to give Timothy these instructions: because “those in Asia turned away”, and Timothy will be continuing Paul’s work in a difficult and hostile environment, with temptations to turn aside. Within this context he also recalls to mind the faithfulness of Onesiphorus in verses 16ff—who has apparently visited him at Rome, and is held up as an exemplar for Timothy. Then, returning to and continuing his previous thought about following the pattern of his words and guarding the deposit, he adds, “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2:2). So 1:13-14 and 2:2 are really part of the same thought.

Now, what had Timothy heard from Paul in the presence of many witnesses? What was it that he was to entrust to faithful men? What has Paul been speaking of this entire time, which he summarized in 1:8-12? Obviously it was the gospel. Imagine it is 2027, and I am an elder in my church. Imagine that my pastor said to me on his deathbed, “Dominic, I want you to follow the doctrine that I have taught you from the Scriptures, making sure to hold to the faith and to love the church. Remember you aren’t doing this by your own power, for the Holy Spirit dwells within you and will help you to guard the teachings I am entrusting to you—the teachings which you heard from me in sermons, in the presence of the whole congregation. And I want you to entrust these also to faithful men who will be able to teach others now that I am gone.” Does that sound like a man who is telling me to continue an oral tradition? Does it sound like he is telling me to continue some kind of extra-biblical tradition? No it does not. He is telling me to continue the teaching of the gospel. And, indeed, some day, God willing, he might say something like this to me. Not that he would be telling me I am to be his only successor, but rather that I am to continue the teaching ministry of the church, along with whatever other elders are appointed.

Now, it is true that the analogy is not perfect, for obvious reasons. For one thing, David is not an apostle. For another, we are far removed in history from the apostles. In the time in which Paul was writing, the teaching of the apostles was heard directly, rather than through Scripture. But what difference does that make? The fact remains that these passages in 2 Timothy are speaking of building the church’s teaching ministry—a ministry teaching the gospel, which is written down in Scripture itself. There is no hint of other kinds of tradition, and you would have to already have a prior belief in Catholic Tradition to even suspect it is taught in these passages.

You say that I would not tell Paul that I refuse to hear him and only accept what he writes. You are correct; but it is a red herring. I would consider his oral teaching to be authoritative because he is an apostle. But Paul is not here to preach orally any more—only his written teaching is available. And that teaching, the gospel, is preached orally at my church every week.

The problem you have is that, in order to make oral tradition somehow necessary, somehow sanctioned by Paul himself, you have to presuppose that this tradition contains different information than the Bible, and then exegete passages like 2 Timothy 1:13-14 according to this presupposition. But if you have already presupposed tradition, you have not genuinely exegeted it from Scripture at all: you have eisegeted it. You are assuming it to prove it.

Obviously this is unsurprising, since you say that the Bible must be interpreted in the light of the Church’s tradition—which really is to reverse the epistemological priority altogether, isn’t it? Rather than read Scripture to determine what tradition should say, you read tradition to determine what Scripture should say. You then go to Scripture and find some way to make it say this, regardless of how congruent it is with the actual text. It therefore cannot be possible to actually prove anything to you from Scripture, since you have given tradition epistemological priority. So we should examine the epistemological basis for tradition, then.

I won’t do this from the bottommost presuppositional level; that would be rather tedious, and I have already given a sufficient critique in The Wisdom Of God. Rather, I would like to ask a simple question: that is, what proof do you have of this alleged tradition? Appealing to the writings of some early church father or other is not sufficient, even if you can do so, because the fathers were fallible. But you are claiming that tradition is at least as authoritative as Scripture is, since Scripture actually must be interpreted through it. So what evidence for this tradition do you have? Surely you cannot be referring simply to the writings of individual, fallible theologians. And we have already seen that Scripture does not support your contention, being sufficient in itself.

Not only must you be able to give evidence for this tradition in order to not be begging the question and engaging in eisegesis, but you must also be able to show that doctrines such as the Marian dogmas were included in it also. They are nowhere found in Scripture itself, and cannot be deduced from it. Since the Church has infallibly defined these dogmas, and even stated that anyone disbelieving them is anathema—making them in a sense vital to salvation and thus integral to the gospel—there ought to be some evidence that they are, in fact, apostolic. If there is not; if the earliest mention of these dogmas is centuries after the time of the apostles; then how can we have any confidence that they are genuine? The Catholic Church could invent any doctrine at any time, define it infallibly, and then claim that it is congruent with Scripture and constitutes apostolic tradition.

Furthermore, although I am unsure of exactly what Catholic Tradition is supposed to encapsulate, I am fairly certain that the teachings of the early church fathers does remain part of it (even though they were fallible and often wrong). Therefore, the words of Tertullian regarding the very passages in question in 2 Timothy, would seem to refute the idea that the Marian dogmas could be contained in tradition, since they are not contained in Scripture:

But here is, as we have said, the same madness, in their allowing indeed that the apostles were ignorant of nothing, and preached not any (doctrines) which contradicted one another, but at the same time insisting that they did not reveal all to all men, for that they proclaimed some openly and to all the world, whilst they disclosed others (only) in secret and to a few, because Paul addressed even this expression to Timothy: “O Timothy, guard that which is entrusted to thee;” and again: “That good thing which was committed unto thee keep.” What is this deposit? Is it so secret as to be supposed to characterize a new doctrine? or is it a part of that charge of which he says, “This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy?” and also of that precept of which he says, “I charge thee in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Jesus Christ who witnessed a good confession under Pontius Pilate, that thou keep this commandment?” Now, what is (this) commandment and what is (this) charge? From the preceding and the succeeding contexts, it will be manifest that there is no mysterious hint darkly suggested in this expression about (some) far-fetched doctrine, but that a warning is rather given against receiving any other (doctrine) than that which Timothy had heard from himself, as I take it publicly: “Before many witnesses” is his phrase. Now, if they refuse to allow that the church is meant by these “many witnesses,” it matters nothing, since nothing could have been secret which was produced “before many witnesses.” Nor, again, must the circumstance of his having wished him to “commit these things to faithful men, who should be able to teach others also,” be construed into a proof of there being some occult gospel. For, when he says “these things,” he refers to the things of which he is writing at the moment. In reference, however, to occult subjects, he would have called them, as being absent, those things, not these things, to one who had a joint knowledge of them with himself (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 25).

Similarly, Irenaeus says,

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. (Against Heresies 3.1).

Both Tertullian (160-220)and Irenaeus (b. C2) constitute early witnesses in your own tradition. They say that the oral traditions were written down in the Bible, and there is no other set of doctrines which exist apart from them. Were they wrong? If so, how do you know? It would seem that the Catholic position is an epistemological quagmire—which is to be expected from an unbiblical worldview; but certainly not from one which claims to hold the fullness of truth.

Continued in part 3 »

6 comments

  1. orthodox

    “But Paul is not here to preach orally any more—only his written teaching is available.”

    When Paul preached in a city, set up a church, and moved on, suddenly his oral teachings, directly from his mouth, would no longer exist. So I guess the church ought to have put up the “no vacancy” sign, saying “we are a sola scriptura church, as yet with no scriptura, so since the apostle isn’t here, you need to wait till we have an apostle or scripture before you ought to believe”.

    That’s nonsense.

    “you have to presuppose that this tradition contains different information than the Bible”

    Why presuppose anything? Why not hold to the traditions whether by word or mouth or epistle, without presupposing whether they are or are not the same?

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Orthodox—

    What are you talking about? Sola Scriptura does not claim that verbal inspired teachings are not inspired; that would be a contradiction in terms. Neither does it claim that oral traditions are irrelevant; particularly prior to inscripturation. It is perfectly possible to adhere to the gospel as orally delivered—for example, this is commonplace in mission situations even today, when the congregation does not have a Bible translated into their language, and must work orally, at least for a time.

    However, it is equally the case that:

    1. Oral teachings tend to become distorted over time, particularly when not committed to memory word for word; therefore, the inscripturated teachings must serve as a corrective where they are available; and,

    2. The oral teachings of the first century do not appear to be in existence today in any case, except where they have been written down in Scripture. Unless, perhaps, you could direct me toward someone who has had these teachings passed down to him, and who could tell them to me? In that event, either the teachings would be the same as what is written in Scripture (which is consistent with Scripture’s own claims about its sufficiency), or they would contain information different from that in Scripture—in which case, how do I know that it is genuinely apostolic unless by comparing it with Scripture?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. orthodox

    “Oral teachings tend to become distorted over time”

    Do they? What is the chapter and verse on that?

    And also, the scriptures have undergone some corruption over time. The LXX for example comes from quite different manuscripts than the Masoretic Hebrew texts.

    “particularly when not committed to memory word for word”

    You assume that the oral teachings are of a kind where word-for-word reproduction is desirable.

    “Unless, perhaps, you could direct me toward someone who has had these teachings passed down to him, and who could tell them to me? “

    Go to the Orthodox Church. But as I said, don’t expect something word-for-word. Oral traditions are used for things for which oral teaching is more appropriate than written. Each has its own place.

    “in which case, how do I know that it is genuinely apostolic unless by comparing it with Scripture?”

    How do you know what is genuinely scripture without comparing it to what tradition was handed down in the church?

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    How do you know what is genuinely scripture without comparing it to what tradition was handed down in the church?

    More to the point, how can you compare it to tradition without first presupposing it as the basis for your epistemology?

  5. orthodox

    I responded to your theories here.

    Scripture is not the only source of the Christian world view. The Christian world view predated the New Testament.

    Tradition doesn’t presuppose that its authority comes from the word of God.

    Tradition contains the same fundamental truths as scripture does.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Yes, I read your response. I did not reply to it since it does not actually address my position at all, and is almost entirely refuted in The Wisdom Of God (which it claims to critique).

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