Chartres Cathedral, Eure-et-Loir, Centre, France. The north façade. Photograph by “Tango7174” (9-27-08) [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license]
“. . . the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (RSV)
* * * * *
Some Protestants have argued that “church” here means simply all believers, and/or that “truth” in 1 Timothy 3:15 refers to the gospel only, not all spiritual matters. This is not at all obvious, and I see nothing in the immediate context that proves it beyond any doubt. The gospel is certainly a very important part of Christian truth, but not the sum and total of it.
We see this in the many instances of truth (Gk., aletheia and cognates) in the New Testament. For example, John 16:13: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Jesus was speaking to the disciples, who were obviously believers, who understood (and had received) the gospel. Therefore, the “truth” referred to must include more than the gospel itself. In fact, the later part of the same verse proves this: “he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
Many other counter-examples could be given. In Romans 1:18 Paul refers to wicked men who “suppress the truth.” This truth, in context, goes beyond simply the gospel, to “what can be known about God” (1:19): His “eternal power and deity.” God’s attributes are not the gospel (cf. 1:25: “the truth about God”). The larger meaning in many places can be seen in any linguistic reference work, such as Vine’s Expository Dictionary, Kittel, Robertson, Vincent, Thayer, or other such aids. Jesus says “I am the truth” (Jn 14:6). Obviously, He didn’t mean, “I am the gospel.”
Granted, “church” has a wide latitude of meaning in the New Testament. Whether it means “all believers” in 1 Timothy 3:15 or a more strict meaning of an organization with bishops, etc. (or both) may be disputed by well-meaning exegetes in good faith, with honestly held differences. The difficulty remains, however, in either scenario, of how to interpret being the “pillar and bulwark” of truth if “church” is defined in a less hierarchical or institutional or “visible” way. In what sense does the doctrinal chaos and inability to unify on so many doctrines in Protestantism constitute supporting (the one) “truth”?
How do we determine the truths (indeed, the one “truth”) of the Christian faith? How do we wade through all of the interminable Protestant internal disagreements? In what fashion do they possess “authority” to present to the unbelieving world the one truth, given their own inability to agree on it? How can they claim to be one, as Jesus and the Father were one? At least our view (agree or disagree) is coherent, self-consistent, and sensible, whereas Protestantism (if we are talking about Protestantism as the alleged purveyor of “one truth” and the “pillar and support” of it) is virtually meaningless and cannot be defended except in the vaguest generalities.
The Bible provides a crystal-clear example of the Church exercising its infallible authority: the council of Jerusalem, that made a binding pronouncement, guided by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28-29), which was binding upon the faithful, and proclaimed as such by Paul himself, in his missionary journeys (16:4).
The Church isn’t the “source” of Christian truth, if by that one means “origin.” That is clearly God. The Church preserves this truth with the direct aid of God the Holy Spirit. One doesn’t think that a “preserver” of something was the origin of that same thing. That would be as foolish as saying that the salt used to preserve meat (in pre-refrigerator times) created the meat (salt would then equal a bull or a pig). It’s absurd. A guard or guardian doesn’t originate the things he guards (be it a child or a bicycle or a bank).
Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (abridged edition, translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1985), in its commentary on stylos (pillar) on p. 1097 states, discussing 1 Timothy 3:15 in particular:
The cultic community is the house of God and as such it is the pillar and ground of the truth.
Likewise, the same work comments on hedraioma (bulwark) as used in our passage, on p. 200:
The church is here a solid defense against the confusion of myths, offering individual faith and thought a sure ground with its confession (v. 16).
NIV uses the word “foundation.” Other translations use similar terminology:
KJV / NKJV / ASV pillar and ground
Phillips pillar and the foundation
Williams / Moffatt pillar and foundation
Barclay pillar and buttress
CEV strong foundation of truth
Amplified pillar and stay — the prop and support — of the Truth
As for infallibility, that follows straightforwardly from what we see in the Jerusalem council. The Holy Spirit guided the decision; therefore it was infallible, and regarded as such by everyone. It was binding. Catholics see something like the Jerusalem Council as a concrete application of the notion under consideration in 1 Timothy 3:15.
I don’t deny that there is a sense of the Mystical Church. Catholics believe that, too (and I’ve written about it), but we don’t deny the visible, institutional, historically continuous Church. That’s where Protestants go astray. Some try to maintain the visible church in some sense (Calvin tried). But then it is a matter of implausible definition, as if some Protestant denomination can fit the biblical specifications for what “Church” in this visible sense means. His problems continue to be: what is this visible Church? What does it teach? How is it the pillar and ground of truth, as Holy Scripture describes it?
Protestants cannot do this, pure and simple. Their ecclesiology and rule of faith do not logically permit it. Even if we grant this invisible church, the problem remains of identifying the doctrines of this ethereal, nebulous, mysterious entity. And until the Protestant can do that, it is folly and a pipe dream to pretend it is a foundation or support of “truth.” It is playing games with reality and logic and the Bible.
The same Paul who gave us 1 Timothy 3:15 also participated in the Jerusalem Council and promulgated its binding and infallible decrees. so obviously he does not believe only in an invisible church or remnant, by his own actions.
* * * * *