2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Sola Scriptura

Scripture Alone?If you have ever spent time debating non-Catholics on the scriptural basis of Catholic beliefs, invariably the discussion of “Sola Scriptura” will come up at some point. “Sola Scriptura” is latin for the “bible alone”, the protestant idea that the sole rule of faith is scripture… not tradition, and certainly not the Catholic Church. In essence, all a believer needs is the bible and the Holy Spirit.  The interesting thing about this doctrine is that scripture nowhere teaches that “scripture” is the sole rule of faith for the believer.  One would think that it would be very clearly laid out if Jesus and His Apostles taught such a doctrine, and expected it to be perpetuated to future believers, but, strangely enough, its not found anywhere in the bible.  I’ve dealt with this issue previously in my podcasts and articles, which you can find in my Catholic Apologetics Series, however, I would like to focus a bit more on the main verse non-Catholics will point to in an effort to defend “Sola Scriptura”… 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
2 Timothy 3:16–17 (RSVCE)  
16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Often, when I am asked where in scripture do we find “this or that” Catholic doctrine, I will first ask the questioner “where in scripture does it say that it must first be written in scripture before it is to be believed?”  After all, why do we think that every doctrine taught by the Church must be explicitly stated in scripture? Which came first, the bible or the Church? Was there ever a book  of the bible written that was not received by the already existing Church? Now, don’t get me wrong, we can certainly demonstrate the Catholic Church from sacred scripture, but, where does it say in scripture that we MUST demonstrate it from scripture? More times than not the questioner will bring up 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and say, “See? Paul says scripture is ‘sufficient’, ‘perfect’ and therefore it needs nothing else!” Unfortunately, most Catholics will be thrown by this argument, and, without digging into this further, may have their faith in the Church shaken by it.

Whenever you find yourself in a scriptural discussion with a non-Catholic just remember one thing, context is everything! Many times the non-Catholic will pick and choose verses to toss out in hopes of creating a “Gotcha” moment for the poor, unsuspecting Catholic in hopes of luring them away from the Church. If you can remember nothing else… remember that context is everything, and, even though you may not be able to recall chapter and verse, you will find that common sense will take you a long way in the discussion.  As a rule of thumb, always seek the authors intended context when reading any particular verse. As I’ve said many times before, you must always read the verse in light of the verse before and after it, in light of the chapter it is written, in light of the book it is written in, in light of the testament it is written in, in light of the bible as a whole, and in light of the lived teaching of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church over the course of the past two millennia.  It must make sense… if it seems to be contrary to the bible as a whole, or to what the Church has believed and taught for two thousand years then, put simply, your understanding of it is flawed and you should dig a little deeper.

So, getting back to 2 Timothy 3:16-17; is St. Paul teaching the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura?” Well, in fact, too many non-Catholics believe he is teaching this doctrine, and, at first glance, it may read as though that’s true. So which is it? Is he or isn’t he? The easy answer is no, St. Paul is not here, nor anywhere else, teaching the notion that the “bible alone” is the sole rule of faith, and the only authority for the believer. (If you’re looking for a fuller argument on the false doctrine of “Sola Scriptura”, read my article: ”The ‘Bible Alone’ and the authority of the Catholic Church”.) Let me point out just five things about this verse that will hopefully help to clarify this point.  More could be said, but, I think these five points will go a long way to demonstrating that St. Paul is not a “bible alone” Christian. Let’s add a little context to the verse so we can see a fuller picture. To do that, let’s read the verses before and after the passage in question.

2 Timothy 3:10–17 (RSVCE)   10 Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions, my sufferings, what befell me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra, what persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 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. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.  

2 Timothy 4:1–2 (RSVCE)  1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching.  

To start, the very notion that the “bible” was the only authority for the Christian believer would be absolutely foreign to St. Paul.  For instance, do we really think that St. Paul would have considered his own writings as “sacred scripture?” No, of course not.  Look at verse 15; notice that St. Paul reminds Timothy that he has known the “sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation” from his childhood.  Question, was the New Testament written when Timothy was a child? Maybe some portions, like say the Gospel of Mark for instance, but, certainly NOT any of St. Paul’s writings.  So, clearly, St. Paul is not here referring to any of his own letters, which make up the majority of the New Testament, furthermore, he’s not likely even referring to anything other than the Old Testament in this exhortation to the young Bishop.

This of course should then raise a valid question in our minds … if St. Paul is only referring to the Old Testament, or even to a portion of the New Testament, and he was teaching the idea of “Sola Scriptura”, how is it that any new books were added at some later date to the canon of scripture?  After all, If the “sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation” were “sufficient”, or even “perfect”, as the non-Catholic seems to think verses 16 & 17 suggest they are, and therefore doesn’t need anything else to build up the “man of God”, then how dare anyone add to it at any point in the future (or even take away from it like Martin Luther did)? Its easy to see how this line of reasoning fails the common sense test, therefore the verse can not be teaching something that would have been a strange concept to St. Paul. Clearly, the canon of the New Testament was still under construction and would be debated for four hundred years before the North African councils will establish the list of the books of the New Testament canon, and not until the Council of Trent, in the 1540’s, before the Canon of scripture would be dogmatically defined (a response to Martin Luther removing books that had been considered inspired by God from the earliest days of the Church).

Secondly, simply look at the context of this letter and you will see that St. Paul, like a good father, is preparing his son Timothy to carry on after he is gone. St. Paul was under arrest in Rome and nearing his final day on earth, (Chapter 4:6  – “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come”), and was exhorting Timothy to be the “man of God”, to be equipped and ready for “every good work”, that Timothy will  “…always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry (ch. 4:5)!”  So, the context was NOT, “hey, the bible is the sole rule of faith and is all you need!”, but, rather, “hey, buck up… soon I will be dead and you need to carry on the work of evangelization, the work of your office as Bishop, so prepare yourself!”

Now, you might say, “sure, ‘Sola Scriptura’ is not the main focus of the letter, but, he is insinuating to Timothy that the bible is the only perfect source to prepare him for his work of evangelization.”  Is this true? No, of course not!  Nowhere does St. Paul say that the bible is the only source for preparing the “man of God” for “every good work!”  For instance, back up to chapter 2, and you will see how St. Paul instructs Timothy to live out his duty as a Bishop, as a Catholic Christian, one whom St. Paul had laid hands on and prayed over (chapter 1:6) in his ordiantion.

2 Timothy 2:20–26 (RSVCE) 20 In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and earthenware, and some for noble use, some for ignoble. 21 If any one purifies himself from what is ignoble, then he will be a vessel for noble use, consecrated and useful to the master of the house, ready for any good work. 22 So shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart. 23 Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, forbearing, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, 26 and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Now, if in fact St. Paul believed in “Sola Scriptura”, don’t you think there would have been an emphasis on “reading” from it as the only means by which to be equipped for his work as Bishop?  Yet, instead of saying something like, “read scripture, and learn its lessons and apply them, then pass out scripture for others to read as well!”, he says rather, “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2 and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (vs.1&2), “shun youthful passions” (vs. 22), “Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies” (vs. 23), and, not to mention, “Avoid such godless chatter” (vs. 16).  In a nutshell, St. Paul exhorts Timothy to seek holiness, to live holiness and “present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (vs. 15).”

If you were St. Paul, and you really wanted to teach the world the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura”, would you have written these verses in this vague, “beat around the bush” kind of way? No! Its more likely you would have chosen stronger language to express so fundamental a “doctrine” as “Sola Scriptura”. Maybe, just maybe, that language doesn’t exist because St. Paul doesn’t actually believe in “Sola Scriptura”! Maybe this could explain why he NEVER says anywhere, let alone in this letter, that the bible is the sole rule of faith for the believer.  It would seem that St. Paul thinks of scripture as one tool in the toolbox of holiness, and not the only tool!

So, this reasoning too, fails the common sense test, clearly St. Paul has listed many other things in which Timothy, let alone others, MUST DO to be perfect in the faith, other than just reading the bible, to be equipped for “every good work!” St. Paul will also make this point in Ephesians 6:11, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”  He goes on to explain how the various parts of the armor represent the various aspects of the faith that we MUST “put on” to combat the devil… “the sword of the Spirit, the word of God”, is only one of those “must have” items! In fact, the sword is listed last, and we must put on the whole armor of God, not just take up the word of God!

Thirdly, in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 it’s easy to read it through too quickly and misunderstand what St. Paul is trying to say.  For instance, who is “perfect”? Is he referring here to Scripture? Or is he referring to the “man of God?” On our first pass, we said it was scripture that was perfect, but, is that true? Let’s read it again, only this time, lets pay closer attention.

2 Timothy 3:16–17 (RSVCE) 16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

As it turns out, it’s NOT scripture that is “complete”, “sufficient”, or even “perfect”, but, rather, it is the “man of God” that enjoys this adjective of “completeness” (ἄρτιος – artios).  In fact, notice what adjective St. Paul uses to describe scripture in verse 16, ὠφέλιμος (ophelimos), which means “useful”, “beneficial”, or “profitable”. The contrast between these two words could not be greater. The “man of God” is artios, perfect, and scripture is ophelimos, merely profitable and NOT perfect. “Hold on!” you might say, “sure, but, its the scriptures that make the ‘man of God’ perfect, therefore scripture too is perfect!”  Is this true? No! That’s not what St. Paul said! Does this somehow mean that scripture is not important? No! Of course not! It is, after all, inspired by God, and one of the chief components of the armor of God, used in conjunction with the other items, the FULL armor of God, to make the “man of God” perfect, complete for “every good work!”  Scripture, as the Church reaffirmed at the Council of Trent holds a pride of place in the Christian faith, however, Scripture is still just one of the many components necessary. Therefore this reasoning too fails the common sense test.

Fourthly, did you notice what St. Paul says scripture is “profitable” for? He says its good for “… teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” in verse 16. If St. Paul truly did believe in “Sola Scriptura”, don’t you think he would have added a few more items to this list? Maybe something like “for settling all disputes over doctrine, for establishing every aspect of worship, for absolute authority for every believer, etc. etc. etc.” Clearly, St. Paul doesn’t say anything of the like, rather it would seem that St. Paul see’s scripture as a divinely inspire tool for, well, exactly what he said… “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness!” To what end? To settle all debates among believers over doctrine? No! To prepare the “man of God” for every good work!  In other words, to complete the Bishop for his role as “overseer” in the flock of Jesus Christ! If St. Paul is insinuating anything about absolute authority in this verse, its not scripture, but, rather, the Bishop who posses it.

Lastly, if this verse truly is an example of St. Paul teaching “Sola Scriptura”, then it should certainly not contradict anything else that St. Paul has written (let alone the rest of scripture).  The question is then, are there any contradictions in his writings? As I said above, “Sola Scriptura” is the protestant teaching that the bible alone is the sole rule of authority for the believer.  If St. Paul did believe this doctrine, then why did he say, “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” in 2 Thessalonians 2:15?  It seems rather strange for him to “apparently” teach in one letter the “bible alone” is the only authority, then in another letter “traditions” passed on by “word of mouth” are equal to the written text.  Don’t you think? Why would St. Paul introduce such confusion to the believer who might read his letter IF, in fact, he did believe in “Sola Scriptura?” After all, isn’t his letter divinely inspired?

The answer is, yes! His letter is divinely inspired, and it, in fact, does NOT teach the false notion of “Sola Scriptura” as many would like it to.  St. Paul was a master at using the scriptures for “…teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”, and yet it was not scripture that he taught was the “pillar and foundation of Truth”, but, rather, it was the Church!

1 Timothy 3:14–15 (RSVCE) 14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, 15 if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

Notice what he says in verse 14… he hopes to come to them, to teach them in person. St. Paul only writes the letter because he can not be there in person. The letter is clearly a secondary intention and will “just have to do” in his absence. And what is it that he is desperate to communicate to them? That the Church, the household of God, is the “pillar and bulwark” of truth (the inference is that if it’s the Church, then it’s NOT scripture). In fact, St. Paul holds the Church in so high a regard that in Ephesians 3:10, he teaches that it is the Church, not scripture, that teaches the “manifold wisdom of God”, even to the Angeles!  So, this reasoning too fails the common sense test. St. Paul could not have been teaching “Sola Scriptura” in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, or anywhere else, as it would utterly violate his teaching is many other places.

The proponents of the false doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” can’t imagine a Christianity where they would have to submit their will to those they perceive to be “false shepherds”, the Bishops of the Catholic Church. As difficult as that truly is, it is, nonetheless, exactly what is called for.  Too often we talk of faith, but, rarely,  do we exercise it in this way. It is God who has placed fallible men over us. It is God who uses the weak to confound the wise. It is God who, took upon flesh, dwelt among men, called his twelve to himself, ordained them Priests and Bishops in the upper room, breathed upon them the Holy Spirit to send them to do what He was sent by the Father to do. It was that God-Man who said in Matthew 18:17, “…and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” So, let us die to self, take up our cross, step out in faith, and follow the Church Jesus established, and the Shepherd’s He set over it and us(John 21:20).

The next time a non-Catholic tries to use this verse to defend their doctrine of “Sola Scriptura”, in charity and Truth, use some common sense, and point out how St. Paul is not the “bible only” Christian they think he is, rather, he is a champion of the Church calling us all to greater obedience and fidelity with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.


About the Author:

Joe McClane – The Catholic Hack! – is the director and events coordinator for Fullness of Truth Catholic Evangelization Ministries, as well as an a Catholic New Media producer & Evangelist. He is married to his lovely wife Michelle and they have five children. The Catholic Hack | Catholic Apologetics, Theology & More!