“Scripture” In Scripture

Perhaps instead of writing a full “Summa Contra Sola Scriptura” (the first draft of which has already swelled to 17000 words and shows no sign of completion) I should write a series of vignettes.

In that spirit, here’s a stray thought on a key Sola Scriptura proof-text, 2 Tim 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The typical Catholic response to this text is that of course Catholics also affirm this.

It is also to say that this text is in fact a repudiation of Sola Scriptura, since to say that Scripture is “profitable for teaching” is to emphatically not say that Scripture is the only thing profitable for teaching, or even the most important thing. But this is another point.

One point which is usually not sussed out: as Tom Wright notes in Scripture and the Authority of God, in the historical context of the Reformation, Sola Scriptura was not only an appeal to the “authority” of Scripture against apostolic authority, it was also an appeal to the literal sense of Scripture. Not “literal” in the 20th century fundamentalist sense (which I would call literalistic), but literal as opposed to the three other traditional “senses of Scripture” (allegorical, moral and anagogical). In traditional exegesis, the “literal” sense of Scripture is the sense intended by the author, so that, e.g., to read Genesis as a physics and biological textbook is to read it non-literally, since that’s not what the author intended to say.

Anyhow, the point is this: most historians today would agree that at the time Paul wrote Second Timothy, the Gospels, with the possible exception of Mark, were not yet written, and certainly not yet canonized into the Christian Bible we mean when we say “Scripture.” In this verse, Paul is clearly referring to the Hebrew Bible, and is making (what we would now call) an anti-Marcionite point against Christian rejection of (what we now call) the Old Testament. In the literal sense, this passage has nothing to say about “Scripture” as we today mean the term.

Which yields the sad (for Protestants) and delicious (for Catholics) irony that in order to read this text as validating Sola Scriptura, you must first accept a hermeneutic that Sola Scriptura rejects.

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