1 Timothy 3:15 = Church Infallibility (vs. Steve Hays)

1 Timothy 3:15 = Church Infallibility (vs. Steve Hays) May 14, 2020

Steve Hays of Tribalblogue is an anti-Catholic polemicist and sophist. I’ll be responding to one portion of Steve’s article, “Catholic prooftexts” (12-17-17, Tribalblogue). His words will be in blue.

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1 Timothy 3:15b (RSV) . . . the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

Catholic apologists quote this passage to prove the infallibility of their sect. However. 
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1. A basic problem is quoting the verse out of context. A pitfall of chapter and verse division is that Christians sometimes read a particular verse while failing to place that verse in the flow of argument. They don’t consider what comes before or after. 
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Catholic apologists say, “See, Paul doesn’t say “Scripture” is a pillar of truth, but “the Church”. Yet they completely ignore the preceding verse. Paul is directing Timothy to what he wrote.  Look at what I just wrote you!
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2. Moreover, he wrote Timothy so that Timothy would know how to conduct himself in church, based on Paul’s written instructions. If, however, the church is the source of truth, then that’s superfluous. Yet Paul points Timothy to Paul’s explicit, written directives. That’s the benchmark. 

Catholic apologists quote v15 but disregard the preceding verse. Yet we need to back up one verse to get the overall thrust: . . . 

I don’t see how it changes anything, because Paul was writing about how Christians ought to behave. Behave where? Well, in the Church: an essential attribute of which he then describes (which seems to me to stand alone as a proposition). Here is the previous verse and the complete 1 Timothy 3:15:
1 Timothy 3:14-15 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.
If Paul had written all this, ending with “behave in the marketplace” or “behave in the academies” and then proceeded to describe marketplaces or academies, in the same way, his description of those would not have directly to do with the previous section about “behave in such-and-such a manner.” It’s two distinct propositions.  The behavior he refers to would apply in pretty much all situations (“temperate, faithful in all things . . . let them manage their children and their households well”: 1 Tim 3:11-12). Paul simply threw in a description of the Church for no extra charge.
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And that is inspired Scripture as well, and has a great significance, since it is a description of an essential characteristic of the Church by the great Apostle Paul. The Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” We have to look at what this particular clause could plausibly mean; and the meaning does not change because of the passage just before it. Again, it is an isolated statement that stands on its own (almost like a footnote added to what he was asserting).
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3. Syntactically, v14 refers back to the preceding section (2:1-3:13). But the principle extends to the rest of the letter. Since Paul can’t instruct Timothy and the congregation in person, the letter is a stand-in, which serves that purpose.
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Sure, but again, this has no bearing on Paul’s short and sweet description of the fundamental characteristics of the Church. It doesn’t wipe out the description.  Basically, this argument of Steve’s is a non sequitur; that is, of no relevance to the topic at hand.
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4. By Paul’s own admission, his letter takes the place of Paul’s face-to-face teaching. Catholic apologists claim we need a “living voice”. An infallible interpreter. Yet the function of an apostolic letter is to instruct the faithful in the apostle’s absence (cf. 2 Cor 13:10).
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It would be insubordinate to say, that’s only a text, so we can’t know what Paul really meant. That’s why we have apostolic successors like Timothy, to infallibly expound the deposit of faith.
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Yet Paul takes for granted that his written instructions should suffice in his absence. And even if we anachronistically classify Timothy as a bishop, Timothy has no independent authority. Timothy can’t say, by virtue of his “office”, how Christians are supposed to behave in church. That’s based, not on Timothy’s teaching authority, but on Paul’s teaching authority, in written form. Timothy simply transmits what he was taught by Paul. There’s nothing here about the necessity of an infallible teaching office to interpret the deposit of faith, even though Paul is nearing the end of his career. He will soon pass from the scene. He will have to hand off the work to the next Christian generation. 
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5. Even if Timothy received oral instruction from Paul in the past, the letter is an aid to memory. 
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This is all fine and good as well, but perfectly irrelevant as to the question of what Paul means by the phrase “pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
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6. In addition, it’s funny when Roman Catholics quote Bible verses about “the Church,” because, for them, “the Church” instantly shrinks down to the papacy or current pope or so-called ecumenical councils. 
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I don’t see how. For us, the Church incorporates all of those things and much more (bishops, priests, religious, laity, etc.).
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But, of course, Paul didn’t say anything about the pope or papacy or a episcopal council in 1 Tim 3:15. 
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It was not logically required that he do so. He was making a general statement about the nature of the Church. In the same way, one might say, “the presidency is the pillar and bulwark of the American system of government” without getting into a host of specific aspects of the office of the presidency. The idea is that it is central to the whole thing, just as the Church is central in the matter of ascertaining and determining what is the truth in theological and spiritual matters.
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Notice what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t say the papacy is a pillar and foundation of truth. He doesn’t say the Roman episcopate under the Roman pontiff is the pillar and foundation of truth. He doesn’t say church councils ratified by the pope constitute a pillar and foundation of truth. 
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Again, he doesn’t have to for our point to stand. This line of reasoning is perfectly irrelevant and absurdly sophistical. But then again, this sort of thing is Steve’s trademark, so we fully expect to see it from him, when he has no good, solid counter-argument to Catholic (and, as it were, also scriptural) claims.
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When Catholic apologists read this verse, they mentally substitute something it doesn’t say in place of what it actually says.
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Timothy was one of his handpicked deputies. Once again, you can’t legitimately extrapolate from that to claimants centuries after the fact.
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In this verse there’s no lay/clerical dichotomy. No doubt Paul thought pastors should be guardians of doctrinal truth, but he doesn’t drive a wedge between pastors and laymen in that regard. 
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More mere obfuscation . . .
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Most of his letters are addressed to the entire congregation. To be read aloud in church.
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Incomplete sentences will not impress many readers . . .
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Christians in general are supposed to uphold the Gospel truth. It’s not as if he thinks pastors are supposed to safeguard the truth while laymen are not supposed to safeguard the truth. When Paul says “the church” in 1 Tim 3:15, he’s not excluding the congregation, as if elders and deacons are the church, but the congregation is not. As a Catholic prooftext, this verse either proves too much or too little. 
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He’s talking about the Church as a whole, as an institution, not just the local congregation. That’s the “whole ball of wax.”
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7. In Pauline ecclesiology, the church is the people of God. Christians. Hence, Christians have a duty to uphold the truth. 
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So, for instance, you had mid-1C churches planted by Paul. It was incumbent on individual members comprising the congregation to uphold what Paul taught them. They received the truth from St. Paul. Their duty was to remain faithful to what he taught them–or in some cases his handpicked deputies.
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That’s true, but it’s a different proposition. St. Paul writes a great deal about “the truth” (which to him is synonymous with “the gospel” and “the word of God” and [true, apostolic, passed-down] “tradition”) and Christian’s duty to correctly discern and apply it:
Romans 2:8 but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.
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2 Corinthians 13:8 For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.
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Colossians 1:5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel
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2 Thessalonians 2:10 . . . they refused to love the truth and so be saved. (cf. 2:12-13)
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1 Timothy 2:4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
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1 Timothy 4:3 . . . those who believe and know the truth.
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2 Timothy 1:14 guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. (cf. Jude 3)
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2 Timothy 4:4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. (cf. 2:18, 25; 3:7-8; Titus 1:14)
What none of these passages do is state that any individual Christian is a support, foundation, or upholder of the truth. Scripture says that about apostles in the Church, as I will show below, but not about Joe Everyman Christian. But Paul says it about the Church. So this reasoning of Steve’s is “apples and oranges.” He keeps talking about stuff that is not our topic at hand. And that’s what sophists and folks with weak arguments do (hoping that no one will notice).
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8. Moreover, Paul doesn’t say the church is the source of truth. And he doesn’t say the church has the authority or prerogative to determine the truth. Rather, the church is tasked with the responsibility of upholding the truth. 
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For that matter, “determine” is ambiguous. That can mean “ascertain” or “arbitrate”. Those are two very different concepts. To ascertain is an act of understanding. To arbitrate is an act of authority. To obligate other people. . . . 
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10. A Catholic apologist just decide for himself what it means (1 Tim 3:15). His denomination can’t very well determine that for him, because he must to know if it’s even applicable to his denomination. Unless it refers to his church, or includes his church, then his church isn’t a ground and pillar of truth. In which case it isn’t qualified to interpret that passage on his behalf. 
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That’s a Catholic conundrum. You can’t rely on your denomination to determine what is true before you determine that your denomination is a rightful candidate for that distinction.
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More on this below, when I make my exegetical argument.
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9. The NT doesn’t command blind submission to church leaders. After all, some church leaders were false teachers. The NT warns Christians to be on the lookout for false teachers. That means Christians have to exercise some degree of independent judgment, using the Bible as their standard.
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Off-topic again. Nice try.

11. Did Paul consider “the church” to be infallible?

Yes. See my reasoning below.

Paul didn’t even regard Pauline churches as infallible.

Individual congregations or “churches” are not the same as the entire institutional Church set up by our Lord Jesus Christ, with St. Peter as its first appointed leader, or what was later known as “pope.”
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Would he call the church of Corinth a “pillar and foundation of truth”? Would he call the Galatian churches “a pillar and foundation of truth”? 
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No. See my previous comment.
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Even churches he planted and supervised were prone to moral and doctrinal aberrations. 
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Of course they were. It’s not individual congregations or bishops that are protected by God from doctrinal error, but the Church as a whole (including the pope), in her (and his) authoritative proclamations — such as we see in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. That was the institutional Catholic Church (not merely the local Jerusalem church), led at that time by the apostles, including the leader of the apostles, Peter. And when they made a decision, it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (15:28). There’s your infalliblity. And this binding infallibility led Paul himself to deliver to the “cities, . . . for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.”
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It was a decision made by the entire Church (represented by its leaders in a sublimely authoritative council), that bound Christians everywhere: with Paul himself proclaiming the decision in his missionary journeys. If all that doesn’t demonstrate infallibility and an infallible Church, I don’t know what conceivable thing does. It couldn’t be more clear than it is. And it couldn’t be more contradictory to sola Scriptura than it is: since sola Scriptura proclaims that only Holy Scripture is the only final infallible authority: not also the Church: as this passage and 1 Timothy 3:15 and other passages teach.
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12. A Catholic apologist might object that God doesn’t protect individual congregations from falling into heresy.
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You got it. Since I am answering as I read, I didn’t see this before I asserted the same thing.
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But this means Catholic theologians must add qualifications to 1 Tim 3:15 that are conspicuously absent from the text.
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Not really, since the passage is rather clearly talking about the entire institutional, hierarchical, visible Church.
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Now how about some honest, in-depth, straightforward exegesis of our text in question, rather than the obscurantist, illogical, obfuscatory sophistry that Steve has offered?
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Here is the related portion of my book, 100 Biblical Arguments Against Sola Scriptura (2012, pp. 104-107, #82):

1 Timothy 3:15  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.

Pillars and foundations support things and prevent them from collapsing. To be a “bulwark” of the truth, means to be a “safety net” against truth turning into falsity. If the Church could err, it could not be what Scripture says it is. God’s truth would be the house built on a foundation of sand in Jesus’ parable. For this passage of Scripture to be true, the Church could not err — it must be infallible. A similar passage may cast further light on 1 Timothy 3:15:

Ephesians 2:19-21 . . . you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, [20] built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, [21] in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;

1 Timothy 3:15 defines “household of God” as “the church of the living God.” Therefore, we know that Ephesians 2:19-21 is also referring to the Church, even though that word is not present. Here the Church’s own “foundation” is “the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” The foundation of the Church itself is Jesus and apostles and prophets.

Prophets spoke “in the name of the Lord” (1 Chron 21:19; 2 Chron 33:18; Jer 26:9), and commonly introduced their utterances with “thus says the Lord” (Is 10:24; Jer 4:3; 26:4; Ezek 13:8; Amos 3:11-12; and many more). They spoke the “word of the Lord” (Is 1:10; 38:4; Jer 1:2; 13:3, 8; 14:1; Ezek 13:1-2; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jon 1:1; Mic 1:1, et cetera). These communications cannot contain any untruths insofar as they truly originate from God, with the prophet serving as a spokesman or intermediary of God (Jer 2:2; 26:8; Ezek 11:5; Zech 1:6; and many more). Likewise, apostles proclaimed truth unmixed with error (1 Cor 2:7-13; 1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11-14; 2 Pet 1:12-21).

Does this foundation have any faults or cracks? Since Jesus is the cornerstone, he can hardly be a faulty foundation. Neither can the apostles or prophets err when teaching the inspired gospel message or proclaiming God’s word. In the way that apostles and prophets are infallible, so is the Church set up by our Lord Jesus Christ. We ourselves (all Christians) are incorporated into the Church (following the metaphor), on top of the foundation.

1 Peter 2:4-9 Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; [5] and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. [6] For it stands in scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.” [7] To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,” [8] and “A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall”; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. [9] But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (cf. Isa 28:16)

Jesus is without fault or untruth, and he is the cornerstone of the Church. The Church is also more than once even identified with Jesus himself, by being called his “Body” (Acts 9:5 cf. with 22:4 and 26:11; 1 Cor 12:27; Eph 1:22-23; 4:12; 5:23, 30; Col 1:24). That the Church is so intimately connected with Jesus, who is infallible, is itself a strong argument that the Church is also infallible and without error.

Therefore, the Church is built on the foundation of Jesus (perfect in all knowledge), and the prophets and apostles (who spoke infallible truth, often recorded in inspired, infallible Scripture). Moreover, it is the very “Body of Christ.” It stands to reason that the Church herself is infallible, by the same token. In the Bible, nowhere is truth presented as anything less than pure truth, unmixed with error. That was certainly how Paul conceived his own “tradition” that he received and passed down.

Knowing what truth is, how can its own foundation or pillar be something less than total truth (since truth itself contains no falsehoods, untruths, lies, or errors)? It cannot. It is impossible. It is a straightforward matter of logic and plain observation. A stream cannot rise above its source. What is built upon a foundation cannot be greater than the foundation. If it were, the whole structure would collapse.

If an elephant stood on the shoulders of a man as its foundation, that foundation would collapse. The base of a skyscraper has to hold the weight above it. The foundations of a suspension bridge over a river have to be strong enough to support that bridge.

Therefore, we must conclude that if the Church is the foundation of truth, the Church must be infallible, since truth is infallible, and the foundation cannot be lesser than that which is built upon it. And since there is another infallible authority apart from Scripture, sola scriptura must be false.

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Related Reading

See many many related articles on my Church and Bible and Tradition web pages.

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Photo credit: Antwerp Cathedral, by Hollerz (7-6-08) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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