“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.


The Best Defense Is A Good ..."
"The point that leapt out at me from this post is the complaint that atheists ..."

The Amazing Incuriosity Of The New ..."
"I'm glad to see the atheist reaction against New Atheism becoming more widespread. Although it's ..."

David Hume Against The New Atheism
"Which may indicate you don't actually know the Gospel. Tell me: if you died and ..."


Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • oregon nurse

    I get what you’re saying but all Scripture is essentially referential to other Scripture. So even though St Paul may not have been referring literally to the NT as he wrote it, the Spirit inspired nature of his words would. Otherwise it would just be a history lesson.

    • Indeed–but that’s the kind of hermeneutic that the 16th century Reformers tended to reject.

  • David Naas

    There is apparently discussion as to whether Paul wrote all he has been credited with, including 1 & 2 Timothy. That doesn’t destroy the casting of the New Testament as we know it as Scripture, but that and certain things do undermine the “infallibility” of Scripture (not to mention the “infallibility of scripture” says nothing as to the infallibility of the hermeneutic used by the Infallibalist.)

  • captcrisis

    I was ok with this until you put in a gratuitous swipe at Protestants at the end. Protestants affirm what Paul (or whoever wrote 2 Timothy) says also. You go out of your way to concoct a disagreement. Not necessary. Why did you do that?

    • The post is *about* the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which divides Catholics and Protestants, and argues that the Protestants are wrong. I’m pretty sure it’s “necessary” to disagree in the process of doing that.

  • The proper prooftexting response to 2 Tim 3:16-17, is 1 Tim 3:15

  • davend

    I think you’ve accepted a type of non-scholarly, apologetic strawman characterization of sola scriptura which is only going to lead you down a giant rabbit hole of misunderstanding. Also, I don’t know of any scholars who believe the Hebrew Bible, as such, existed at the time of Paul. In a sense there was/were “Scripture(s)/scriptures” in the first century, but no “Bible.” Finally, you might want to stick with the characterization “plain sense” of Scripture, which is less fraught with difficulties.

    • Your problem really is with N.T. Wright, Anglican bishop emeritus of Durham, Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College in the University of St Andrews.

      • davend

        You will find plenty of company in said rabbit hole to be sure. Personally I think N.T. Wright bats about .500, to mix metaphors. Not bad if he were playing first base I guess.

        Whenever one argues against the “Protestant” view on almost anything, the counter assertions are probably going to be in error, virtually by definition. “Protestant” is an extremely diverse religious phenomenon. Are you opposing a Lutheran understanding of sola scriptura (which isn’t a doctrine at all–and it does seem they came up with the slogan first), or what is popularized as sola scriptura—more of a doctrine of biblical sufficiency, with which many Protestants would disagree? Or something else entirely?

  • “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.”
    Pascal, your problem is that you’re too wordy. Get to the point. You don’t have to flesh out the entire context. It can be referenced or implied.
    That said, I agree with everything you said here. It’s good, traditional Catholic understanidng of scripture. The only issue I have is which and when the traditional senses of scripture can be applied. Genesis is easy; it’s clearly not science. But what about the problematic passages, such as when God commands the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child of the Caanites in the Book of Joshua? Is that literal fact of which then God is commanding a sin or is it metaphor? I’ve heard people argue it’s metaphor, but language is clearly declarative to me.

    • Rev. Barron has an excellent video on this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1A65Wfr2is0

      • Yeah, I’ve seen that before. It doesn’t wash with me. This is a historical passage and the language is not metaphoric. It’s declarative. I would prefer to read it as an error getting into the bible and once the Israelite commit such sins they justified their actions to God, making excuses. I know metaphors. Do you read those passages as metaphors? Does that wash with you?