Interview with Robert Yarbrough about the Pastoral Epistles

Interview with Robert Yarbrough about the Pastoral Epistles October 1, 2018

Dr. Robert Yarbrough is Professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary and is known for his work on the Johannine Letters and Gospel of John.

Now, however, he has just released a commentary on the Pastoral Epistles of 1-2 Timothy and Titus as part of the Pillar New Testament Commentary Series.

Here is my interview with Yarbrough about his book:

I guess many will want to know what you make of the authorship question of the Pastoral Letters. Did Paul write these letters or are they post-Pauline materials?

I went with Pauline authorship, though I tried not to let this issue loom larger than it needs to (21 pages on authorship out of 560). This is a Pillar commentary, not a Hermeneia or ICC that features a comprehensive investigation of introductory matters.

Luke Johnson’s Anchor Bible commentary on 1-2 Timothy did a good job of demonstrating the thinness of the non- or post-Pauline case. As my ability to read German increased over the years, I was never convinced by the Schleiermacher-F. C. Baur-Holtzmann line of argument, even when augmented in the 20th century by P. N. Harrison.

In favor of Paul’s authorship are (a) the first word of each of the three letters along with the substance of the letters themselves; (b) the unanimous verdict of the church until the promotion of skepticism over divine revelation in 19th century biblical studies; (c) scores of commentaries in the 19th and 20th centuries arguing for Pauline authorship (see Johnson’s commentary for lists); (d) major recent commentaries and studies by, e.g., Knight, Johnson, Towner, Mounce, Köstenberger, Schnabel, Porter, and others; and (e) the resonance the Pastorals meet in global Christian usage where people labor less under the strictures of sometimes dubious historical-critical premises viewed as binding even in for the church (why?) in some quarters of Western influence. The kerygmatic, didactic, and doxological efficacy of these letters is not in itself proof of authenticity, but it is consistent with the possibility that a) they are apostolic in origin, and that b) when accepted and proclaimed as such bear fruit accordingly.

Are there any unifying themes that connect the Pastoral Letters together?

I emphasize God (Father, Son, and Spirit), savior and salvation, godliness (eusebeia), sound doctrine (including “trustworthy sayings”), and the effectiveness of earnest labor in ministry (cf. 1 Cor. 15:58). If Paul wrote these letters, then they intersect at numerous points with emphases in other of his letters and become significant witnesses when they touch on any well-known Pauline emphasis, like faith, grace, law, Christ, ethics, church, worship, and much else.

By their very tone, intent, and substance, the letters confirm the agony and ecstasy of pastoral and missional vocation, in Paul’s day and, many would affirm, along similar lines worldwide today.

Okay, what do you do with 1 Tim 2:11-15?

Hmm. I see that I give it 19 pages. Make that 25 pages if you extend the purview back to 2:9. So you could say I treat it carefully, though not as fully as the book edited by Köstenberger and Schreiner, Women in the Church (3rd ed. 2016), to which I defer for much of the technical discussion.

My reading emphasizes Timothy’s responsibility to create space for women to learn—the essence of discipleship—in an ecclesial atmosphere conducive to that pursuit. I don’t see reasons for limiting 2:9-15 to Timothy’s Ephesus in their application.

Almost every word in the passage is contested. Readers will have to wade through my interaction with the text and other commentators to determine if my exposition seems plausible. As a readable and less technical summary of these verses, Claire Smith’s God’s Good Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women, chapter 2, comports with the bulk of my own philological and exegetical conclusions.

Paul talks a lot about guarding the faith (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14). How do we “guard” the faith that has been entrusted to us today?

Assuming we have come into a saving relationship with God through repentance and faith in Christ who died for us and rose, we have to know and be growing in the faith. I’m not talking about the experience of faith but the articles of true Christian belief. The Apostles’ Creed is a good summary. Western Christianity has notoriously often gutted Christian belief of its pillars, like Jesus’ divinity and resurrection. We don’t guard the faith when we alter it to satisfy the demands of its cultured despisers, or when we make it more about human experience than the divine verities that give religious experience its validity.

If what we affirm and confess is in line with “the truth that is in Jesus” (Eph 4:21), then we guard the faith by living it with integrity. What that looks like varies with our individual identity, station, and season in life. The Pastorals are valuable guides and resources for (re)instructing pastoral leaders in core theological truths, ecclesial practices, relational priorities, and ethical entailments, all necessarily flowing from Jesus’ lordship.

Since discipleship under Jesus’ design is missionary in focus (Matt 28:19-20), we guard the faith, not by living it for our own sake, but by devoting our lives (as we learn to do so) to spreading the saving knowledge of God through faith in Christ to whatever spheres we are able.

The Pastorals model a “guarding” that is both gracious and nurturing, on the one hand, and proactive and assertive, on the other. This mirrors Jesus’ own ministry, which could be tender or terrifying as occasion called for. It also mirrors Paul’s conviction (and Jesus’ teaching) regarding a God who models both kindness and severity (Rom 11:22).

If you had to preach one passage from the Pastorals to a group of pastors, which text would you choose and why?

It would depend on the identity, location, and situation of those pastors. In recent years I have taught in North America, South Africa (both the Cape Flats and then more affluent Johannesburg-Pretoria), Hong Kong, and Australia. Until 2013, for nearly 20 years I taught pastors in Sudan (and once in South Sudan).

The Pastorals glitter like gold with passages suggestive for the encouragement, guidance, sometimes reprimand, and continued instruction of any group of pastoral leaders—or lay believers who are, after all, the main foot-soldiers on the daily front lines of “the work of ministry” (Eph 4:12) that the church is called to render.

John Piper wrote recently of his “hope that preachers will be strengthened and encouraged . . . in their resolve to preach for their people’s joy—a joy in God that gives rise to love, and thus confirms faith and election” (Expository Exultation, 252).

With such an end in view, if you ask me today, I will say 1 Tim 3:14-16. This passage stresses teaching, conduct, ecclesiology, God, truth, and more—it is very pithy. But most of all it conduces to doxology by highlighting the mystery of the Christian confession as it is upheld by Christ’s person and work (see 3:16!). In the end pastors face demands that only God at work in them can ready them to meet. The resources in just this one brief passage for the Holy Spirit’s fortifying ministry to ministers (and to every Christian) are infinite.

What do the Pastoral Letters teach people who are not themselves pastors or called to pastoral ministry?

The Pastorals teach all Christians that suffering is unavoidable in the course of following Christ (2 Tim 3:12).

The Pastorals teach all Christians that we belong to God and his household—we are the church of Christ under the guidance of the Scriptures given by the Spirit (2 Tim 3:16) and not free agents working out some new religion for our time and tastes—though nothing is fresher or more suited to the times than the gospel message newly grasped and lived out.

The Pastorals teach all Christians to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus,” so that as we learn and live the faith, we will become “reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” in accordance with the things Timothy heard Paul say “in the presence of many witnesses” (2 Tim 2:1-2).

Since I am my 60s now and find obituaries of more interest than the sports pages in our local paper, I am impressed how the Pastorals teach all Christians to harbor a hope that will sustain them in death: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” We don’t need to be the apostle Paul to draw inspiration from that.

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