As I have been reading and re-reading this post I can’t help but think it doesn’t do justice to the importance of the canon as we have received it. I can’t see anything specifically wrong with it but I am concerned that it could be picked up as somehow denigrating or making little of the bible. Anyone who knows me and who reads my other posts will know that I consider the Scripture/ canon/ bible as being of great importance. Please feel free to comment.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 in Context
Grasping God’s Word – Assignment 14:2
The statement by Paul that “all Scripture is inspired by God” has been a significant pillar in popular evangelical doctrine to emphasise the importance of the canon – the bible as we know it. However what was meant by the word “Scripture” in Paul’s time and what mainline evangelical Christianity means by it now are very different. Not even the OT was the same as the references to Jannes & Jambre in 3:8 make clear.
This lack of certainty about what exactly is meant by “all Scriptures” is not limited to the fact that Paul and Timothy’s versions were so significantly different from what we recognise as the canon today. There are significant differences in translations of the canon and even the underlying Greek texts. It is also clear that there are many schisms in Evangelical Christianity that have arisen because of different interpretations of the texts that most people agree are in the canon (e.g. the Baptism in the Spirit to name just one obvious example).
The conclusion that this study comes to is that God never intended the canon or whatever we interpret by the words “All Scriptures” to be used as the ultimate basis for our faith. That basis is Jesus Christ in us and a living relationship with Him. However once that is clearly understood the canon does have a significant role to play. It is the main source of the anointed words that Paul so encourages Timothy to preach.
Therefore preaching is very significant, perhaps more than we realise. It is the preached word that creates faith in the person hearing and that is the main means God uses to save people (Romans 10:4-18, 1 Cor. 1:21-25). We need to pay more attention….
Step 1: What did it mean to the original readers?
2 Timothy is written from Paul to his “dear son” Timothy towards the end of Paul’s life. Despite his innocence Paul is in prison chained like a criminal. He has many enemies and many of his disciples have left him, most not for good reasons. Despite this he is encouraged and looking forward to the reward that he now feels sure is awaiting him. He writes to Timothy to encourage him with the encouragement that he feels and to remind him of the principles of how to stay encouraged in the face of similar adversities. Things are not going to get any easier but there are things Timothy can do:
- Keep focussed on Jesus, strengthen himself in Him, remember Him
- Remember the gospel
- Remind himself of how Paul lived
- Stay preaching the word
In other words: “Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures..” (3:14-15).
Who is Timothy?
Timothy was a “son in the faith” to Paul, his true disciple and someone with oversight over churches in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). He was Paul’s disciple and, along with Titus and possibly others, was Paul’s next generation, his legacy, of preachers and apostles.
What Scripture is and what to do with it
In this context Paul reminds Timothy that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (v. 16,17). Since this is the nature of Scripture, Timothy is then strongly encouraged to preach the Word i.e. use the Scriptures in the way they were meant to be used, for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training others in righteousness. All of this is summed up by Paul in his exhortation and command to Timothy to preach the Word (see also 1 Timothy 4:13). It seems Timothy had a gift which, given the context of 1 Timothy 4:14 and 2 Timothy 1:6, was probably preaching. The time will come, Paul warns Timothy, when men will not put up with sound doctrine.
The definition of Scripture
But what did the term “All Scripture” mean to Timothy? And what does Paul mean by “sound doctrine”? As Paul says to Timothy he had known these holy Scriptures since his infancy, i.e. before any of the New Testament was written. So all Scripture in this context is probably the Old Testament as the Jews of Timothy’s time knew it. That that was not the same as the OT that we have in our canon is indicated by Paul’s references to two characters that are not mentioned by name in our OT i.e. Jannes and Jambres (3:8).
But there is also something related in Paul’s emphasis upon his own teachings to Timothy – what you have heard from me – sound teaching (1:13) and his reference to sound doctrine in 4:3 – that would have meant that Timothy would have been as likely to give Paul’s utterances and writings as much importance as the Scriptures he had read. See also verses 2:2, 7, 15; 3:10, 14. In 1 Timothy the emphasis on sound doctrine as taught by Paul is even stronger. If Timothy had also heard Peter’s opinion of Paul’s writings (as he expressed in 2 Peter 3:15) then he would have understood the relative importance of Paul’s teachings vis-à-vis the Scriptures he had been brought up on, i.e. that both were Scripture and both were therefore as useful as each other in the way described in 3:15.
This was towards the end of Paul’s life, i.e. about 67 AD and some of the other NT books and letters had been written by this time. Perhaps Timothy could recognise which of these were inspired, i.e. canon, and which were not but this is speculation.
Step 2: What are the differences between the original readers and us?
Not many of us personally know people that are significant leaders in the church and that are in prison for their faith. But otherwise much of the same situations apply. If it was the last days in Paul’s time (at least the writer to the Hebrews thought so – see Hebrews 1:2) then it certainly is for us.
The particular role of Paul as a writer of one of significant components of the canon is not one that we have a counterpart to today.
We also know the NT canon, a lot of which was not written when Timothy got this letter. So we have a bit more certainty perhaps than Timothy about the importance of the letters he got from Paul or which he had read himself. But that is very much a “perhaps” – Timothy had a “gift of God” probably similar to what we have. The Holy Spirit is well able to teach him and us and guide us all into all truth once we have received that same gift.
Step 3: What are the theological principles in the text?
- All Scripture is inspired by God
- As a result, all Scripture is useful for
- training in righteousness
- The result of using Scripture in this way is make a man of God thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Step 4: How do these principles fit in with the rest of the bible?
These principles are backed up by Peter in 2 Peter 3:15. The word of truth and the Scriptures themselves are nothing but a set of statements that can be used in many ways if the person reading them is not filled with the Spirit and taught by God. Ultimately Jesus is the Truth and the Word of God and unless you are being taught by His Holy Spirit in a real experiential way you will eventually be confused and unsure of what to believe. No amount of reading of the bible or study will bring you to God, only faith in the preached word does that (see 1 Cor. 1:18-31).
Step 5: How should we live out these theological principles?
Most Christians have not been exhorted by a godly Apostle to preach the word or use the Scriptures in the way Timothy was though there are those who have received that gift from Jesus.
But the biggest applications for my personal walk that I get from these verses is as follows:
- Listen to godly, gifted preachers, who are preaching the Word of God in the way God intended. Be prepared to be taught, rebuked, corrected and trained by this preached Word.
- The Scriptures are not the same thing as the Word of God. It takes the action of the Holy Spirit working His gift through a godly man to make Scriptures useful.
- Both Paul and Timothy’s versions of the Scriptures were different from ours as has been the case for many Christians even after the canon was decided. Different translations and underlying texts can make significant differences even today. We should not get too tied up by the fact that Scripture cannot be precisely pinned down to the last Greek letter. The Holy Spirit does not want us to make a fetish out of the words on the page. As Paul says elsewhere: “The letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
 Zondervan NIV Study Bible