Scott and I accepted my father’s challenge to carefully examine 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the verse I’d used as proof-text for my belief in “Scripture alone.” We were quite certain that the rest of the Bible and our interpretation of these verses would more than prove that indeed the Bible alone is the one and only authority that Christians are to follow when it comes to matters of faith and morals. But as we took a closer look at 2 Timothy 3:16 and the surrounding verses and their context we were surprised by what we found.
In 2 Timothy 3:14-15 Paul charges Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” In verses 16 and 17 Paul comments on the Scriptures he has just referenced and says this: “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Now I’d always been taught that these verses were evidence that Scripture alone is all we need and are to rely upon as Christians. However, the closer Scott and I looked we realized that this isn’t what Paul was saying to Timothy. Paul was telling him to continue in what he’d learned not only from Scripture but also those from whom he learned. His comments on Scripture are asserting their authority but Paul doesn’t say they are the only authority. He says they are ‘useful for teaching, rebuking, and training in righteousness” but he doesn’t say that Scripture is the only authority on doctrines of the faith or moral issues. We realized that we’d been assigning meaning to Paul’s words that weren’t really a part of the text.
Another realization came when we considered the context of these verses. One of the things I valued about my Protestant upbringing was that I was taught to consider the context in which Scripture was written. The only problem is I hadn’t ever really examined the context of these verses. If you consider the context, then you must consider the fact that when Paul speaks of Scripture he must be referring to what we now call the Old Testament because at the time he wrote this letter these were the only Scriptures that existed. The New Testament was not canonized and officially considered Scripture until the latter part of the 4th century. So if verses 16 and 17 were teaching that Scripture alone is our only authority then the verses actually prove that the Old Testament alone is our one and only authority. We had to ask ourselves, was Paul really teaching the doctrine of “Scripture Alone” in this text? If so, then we can only conclude from the historical context that the Old Testament is our only authority. Scott and I both agreed that this interpretation seemed unreasonable.
So, we set out to find other verses in the Bible that taught “Scripture Alone.” But it was a long and fruitless search because after several nights of studying Scripture we could find no explicit teaching that the Bible alone is the believer’s final and only authority on doctrines of faith and moral issues. We found this hard to believe. For years we’d judged others for holding onto “unscriptural” beliefs that were “man-made” traditions because we believed that “if it wasn’t in the Bible it wasn’t true or Biblical.” And yet we were hard pressed to find any Biblical support for the doctrine of “Scripture Alone.” There’s irony for you, the very doctrine that teaches all doctrine must be found in Scripture is not even in Scripture. Using the logic skills God gave me I could only conclude that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) is by its own definition “unbiblical” because it’s not taught in Scripture. A scary conclusion, I know, but a logical one none-the-less.
Needless to say this took a while to absorb and sink in. A part of me wanted to argue that it really doesn’t matter if the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is taught in Scripture. Scripture is all we have and so it still makes sense that we would rely only on Scripture as our authority. What else would/could we rely upon? But I knew that this “argument’ was not rationale nor valid. That’s when we started to examine some verses in the Bible that I swear I’d never seen before.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul tells the church of the Thessalonians “So, then brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you whether by word or mouth or by letter.” In these verses Paul is telling the church to hold to teachings “taught by mouth.” In other words he tells them to hold to “oral teachings” and not just the written word. What’s interesting is the word “teaching” is also inter-changeable with the word tradition. Could Paul be telling the church to hold to “oral tradition?” Scott and I had never read this verse before. We’d always believed that we’re not to hold to “tradition” but to Scripture alone. We believed that Jesus gave us the written word as the foundation of truth for all Christians. Then we read something that Paul wrote in 1st Timothy 3:14-15, “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Hmmm. Another verse I’d never seen. Paul calls “the church,” not Scripture, the pillar and foundation of truth. We would eventually come back to study this verse in greater depth but suffice it to say we were surprised that Paul would refer to the church as the pillar and foundation of truth.
We continued to “stumble” upon verses that seemed “new” to us.
In 2nd Timothy 1:13-14 Paul tells Timothy “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you-guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”
Ok, once again Paul tells the Lord’s disciple to guard what he has heard, not just what has been written down. If Sola Scriptura was God’ plan for leading us into all truth then why is Paul encouraging adherence to oral teaching? Why does Paul refer to the church as the pillar and foundation of truth and not Scripture alone? These were questions we’d never asked ourselves and questions we’d never heard addressed by the Bible teachers we’d listened to over the years. But they were valid questions.
These verses led us to study and pray even more and brought us back to a question my father asked us when discussing the doctrine of Scripture Alone: “According to whose interpretation?”
Interpretation…this word began to challenge my thinking. Until I re-examined 2 Timothy 3:16-17, I never considered that “my” interpretation of that Scripture could be wrong. Actually, I never really gave much thought to the idea that the Bible has to be interpreted. While it is true that portions of the Bible help to interpret or shed light on other portions of Scripture, the Bible does not “interpret” itself. Humans must read the Bible and determine what it means. This happens every Sunday morning in thousands of churches across the world. The Bible is read and a man or a woman stands up and tells his or her congregation what it means.
Now I realized that were churches who taught different doctrines than the reformed doctrines. I just assumed that the reformed doctrine was truth and that the other churches were wrong (yes, I know, there goes that arrogant pride again). Churches on every street corner teach their own interpretation of Scripture. In most of these churches the pastors have studied Scripture, prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide them and they’ve come up with a sermon that they teach as “truth.” For the first time in my life I considered that there’s something not quite right about this. Everyone is reading the same Bible (for the most part) and yet there are so many denominations coming up with different and often competing doctrines on faith and beliefs about morality. Despite the differences these pastors all claim the Holy Spirit is leading them and they are teaching the truth.
As we thought more about biblical interpretation we realized that this just doesn’t happen in the local church; it happens at home when individuals go and study the Word for themselves. They read the Word, ask the Holy Spirit to lead them and then interpret what they’ve read coming up with what they believe to be “the truth.” But often it is a different truth than their neighbor who has done the exact same thing (read, prayed and asked the Holy Spirit to lead them). This is the product of the doctrine of Sola Scripture. Because there is no binding authority on the conscious of the believer it is up to each individual to read Scripture and determine what it means (or what truth is) based on what they think the Holy Spirit is telling them. And under the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, no one has the authority to tell anyone else their interpretation or their “truth” is in accurate. After all, who am I to say that the Holy Spirit didn’t lead you to your conclusions about the Bible?
We soon realized that under the doctrine of Sola Scriptura truth becomes relative. The interpretation of the Bible, when it comes to doctrine and morality, is up for grabs, because it’s based upon an individual’s personal interpretation. The more we considered this the more we realized that this was at the heart problem with all the divisions in the Body of Christ. And we began to ask ourselves some questions:
- Did God intend for each individual to sit down with their Bible and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit determine what is and isn’t truth?
- If so, then why weren’t we all coming up with the same truth?
- And by what authority can someone claim they have the truth?
We’re all claiming the Bible as our authority and yet we’re all coming to different conclusions. And we’re claiming the Holy Spirit has led us to these conclusions. But we had to ask ourselves:
- Would the Holy Spirit lead one church to teach that homosexuality is acceptable and another to condemn it?
- Would God lead one church to teach that you don’t need to be baptized and another to teach you must be baptized?
The number of issues and varying interpretations are endless. Surely God did not intend for the Body of Christ to be so divided on matters of faith and morality. Especially when time and time again Scripture warns us against “false doctrines” and the importance of “sound doctrine” (See 1st Timothy 1:3, 6:3; Titus 1:9-11, 2:1; 2 Peter 2:1; Jude 1:19). Clearly doctrinal truth mattered to the early church and the Apostles.
At this point I remember feeling like my world had been turned upside-down. The bedrock doctrine of the Protestant faith, Sola Scriptura, had begun to crumble under our feet. It was neither logical, Biblical nor defensible. This was something I suspect my father already knew when he challenged us to really examine this doctrine more closely. He was only gracious enough to let us figure it out on our own. But this realization about Sola Scriptura only brought more questions to mind, like, “if we’ve been wrong about this doctrine, what else have we been wrong about?” This led us to begin an intense time of study and prayer during which God decided to answer that question over and over again. Indeed, there had been plenty that Scott and I had been wrong about (it was like one long continual lesson in humility).
During the next seven months God rocked our “spiritual boat;” all the while challenging us to get out of the boat, take a step of faith and follow Him no matter where it might lead.