2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Sola Scriptura

by James Akin 

Advocates of the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (the "Bible only" theory) have a problem.

If the doctrine of sola scriptura is true then we must be able to prove all doctrines from Scripture alone. If that is true, then we must be able to prove sola scriptura from Scripture alone. If we canot do that then sola scriptura turns out to be self-refuting, an idea that cuts its own basis out from under itself, like the proposition "No generalizations are true."

As a result, there is a great rush to find verses in Scripture which can be used to prove the theory of sola scriptura. These attempts are typically made by one of two kinds of advocates for the doctrine--the careless and the careful. The former are, of course, the great majority. Most advocates of sola scriptura, like most advocates of most ideas, are careless in how they support it and will press even the most tangential of things into service as proof that the idea is true.

Careless advocates of sola scriptura are no different and will assert all kinds of irrelevant passages as if they proved the doctrine.

For example, passages in the gospels where Jesus is being questioned about some doctrine by his enemies and, in answering them, he points their attention to some passage in the Old Testament. This kind of verse can be validly used to prove that the Old Testament has doctrinal authority, but it cannot be used to prove sola scriptura since Jesus does not say that only the Old Testament has doctrinal authority (in which case we would have a sola Old Testament doctrine).

Jesus citing the Old Testament to prove a particular doctrine shows only that Jesus considered that doctrine to be provable by that passage of the Old Testament. It does not show that he considered alldoctrines to be provable by the Old Testament or by Scripture in general. And so it is no surprise when we see Jesus sometimes answering his enemies by appeals to his own authority or other extra-Scriptural sources.

The idea that Jesus -- the living Word of God who came to bring us new revelation via his oral preaching and teaching -- would have believed and practiced the proposition that all doctrine must be proved only by the written word of God is absurd on its face, yet this does not stop the careless advocate of sola scriptura from appealing to instances where Jesus uses Scripture to prove an individual doctrine as if they were proof Scripture is able to validate all doctrines whatsoever.

Careful advocates of sola scriptura -- those who try to limit the verses they appeal to in support of the doctrine to only those that have some hope of being relevant -- are as rare as hen's teeth. But those there are recognize that they have a greatly diminished number of passages to appeal to in support of the doctrine once the obviously irrelevant passages are cut away from the debate. In fact, they recognize that there are really only one or two passages which have any hope of being looked to as support for sola scriptura.

The one which has the best hope is 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which states:

"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" (Revised Standard Version).

Some who appeal to this passage appeal to the first clause of it -- "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching" -- were sufficient to establish sola scriptura. Sometimes the appeal takes the form of an emotive appeal to the fact that the text says all Scripture is inspired by God -- better translated as "God-breathed" -- as if Catholics did not also believe that Scripture is written by the verbal inspiration of God.

Ultimately, however, the appeal to the first clause is fruitless since it merely says that Scripture is profitable or useful (Greek, ophelimos) for teaching, not that it is mandatory for teaching every individual point of theology. A hammer is profitable or useful for driving nails, but that does not mean that nails can be driven only by hammers (as anyone can testify who is lucky enough to have a nail gun or unfortunate enough to have had to drive a nail with a random blunt object which was at hand).

A more careful appeal to this passage would look to other parts of it instead, for example, the last clause, which focuses on the idea that "the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."

One anti-Catholic I know built his case on the Greek words used in this passage for "complete" 
(artios) and "equipped" (exartizo), which he interpreted to mean "sufficient." He was able to cite one lexicon that listed "sufficient" as a possible translation of artios and one lexicon which listed "sufficient" as a possible translation of exartizo, but there are major problems with his argument.

  1. The two lexicons that used the term "sufficient" listed it as a third or forth translation of the terms, not as the primary translation, and one cannot appeal to possible meanings of a term as proof that itdoes mean something in a given text, especially when they are third or fourth string possibilities for its meaning. 
  2. All the published Protestant Bible versions (KJV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV, NIV, etc.) agree that "sufficient" is not the correct translation of these terms in this instance. None of them render the passage "that the man of God may be sufficient, sufficient for every good work." In fact, none of them use "sufficient" as a translation of even one of the two terms.
  3. There is such a thing as hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point), and it is a common Hebrew idiom and a common feature of Paul's letters. For example, in Colossians 1:20 Paul states that God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself through Christ. But obviously he does not mean absolutely all things or he would have to say that God reconciles Satan and the damned to himself through Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19, Eph. 1:10). Thus Paul's statement that Scripture makes a minister one complete may be no more than a typical Hebraic hyperbole. 
  4. Absurdities result if we take the principle that he uses to interpret 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and apply it to other texts. The principle is: "If (X) makes you complete then you don't need anything other than (X)" (hence his reasoning, "If Scripture makes you complete then you need Scripture only"). If we apply this principle to James 1:4, which states, "And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." If we applied the principle to James 1:4 we would have to say that we do not need anything other than steadfastness, including Scripture!
  5. (One might object that James 1:4 the Greek words are not artios or exartizo. This is certainly true; the words in that passage are teleios and holokleros, which are even stronger Greek terms. The objection would also commit a basic translation fallacy by assuming that a difference of term always means a difference of concept -- it doesn't -- and, in any event, nobody is going to be able to build much of a case for the meaning of either artios or exartizo based on New Testament study since the first term occurs only once in Scripture and the second only twice [the other occurrence being in Acts 21:5], making meaningful Scriptural comparative studies of the usage impossible).
  6. The two terms modify the man of God, not Scripture. 2 Timothy 3:17 says Scripture helps makes the man of God complete and equipped, not that Scripture itself is complete and equipped. In order to prove that Scripture is sufficient, the advocate of sola scriptura would have to argue backwards from the sufficiency of a man to the sufficiency of a collection of documents. This puts an extra layer in the argument and thus an extra layer of exegetical uncertainty.
  7. This layer of uncertainty is even more problematic for the advocate since to say something helps make a man complete and equipped can presuppose that he already has certain other pieces of equipment. For example, if a man is going on a hiking trip and he has all the equipment he needs except a canteen. He then goes into a sporting goods store and buys one. When he does, he says, "There. Now I am complete, equipped for all of my hiking adventures." This does not at all imply that the canteen alone was all the equipment he needed to be completely furnished. It was only the last piece of equipment. The statement that it made him complete presupposed that he had all the other equipment he needed. In the same way, the statement that Scripture works to complete the man of God can presuppose that the man of God already has certain other articles in his possession that pertain to doctrine (such as the oral teachings of the apostles).
  8. Even if a single source does give a person all the equipment he needs, this does not teach him how to use the equipment. He may need training in how to use his equiptment. Just because a person has all the tools he will need to survive in the woods on a hiking trip does not mean he knows how to use the tools. In the same way, even if Scripture gives one all the basic equipment one needs to do theology, it may be unclear to the point that one needs to use Apostolic Tradition to arrive at the correct interpretation of it. 

  9. In fact, this is a permissible position for Catholics to hold. The claim that Scripture contains or implies all the basis data for theology is known as the material sufficiency of Scripture, and it is a perfectly acceptable position for Catholic theologians to hold (cf. Yves Congar's work Tradition and Traditions), so long as one does not move to the position of claiming that Scripture is so clear that one does not need Apostolic Tradition or the Magisterium to interpret it -- a position known as the formal sufficiency of Scripture, which is identical with the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Thus a Catholic can say that Scripture gives one all the equiptment one needs for theology, just not the background one needs to use the equiptment.
  10. So even if one could show that the words artios or exartizo means "sufficient" in this passage, and even if he could show that it applies (directly or indirectly) to Scripture, all this would prove is the material sufficiency of Scripture, which a Catholic can be happy to admit. It does nothing to prove formal sufficiency (the sola scriptura theory). 
  11. In fact, the text says that Scripture will make the man of God complete -- it completes a clergyman, not an ordinary layman. A clergyman is someone who has special training -- for example, his knowledge of the Apostolic Tradition which enables him to correctly interpret Scripture. The text thus presupposes a knowledge that the man of God already has before he even approaches Scripture. 
  12. But apart from these considerations which deal specifically with the hypothesis being advanced in connection with the terms artios or exartizo, there are positive reasons why this passage, no matter what translation of these terms is given, cannot be used to prove sola scriptura...

To begin with, in the opening clause of the passage, the phrase "All Scripture" is normally taken by Evangelicals to mean "All of Scripture" -- in other words, a reference to the whole of the canon of Scripture, which coextensive with what a Protestant wishes to make normative for theology. This is natural for a Protestant since he things of the term "scripture" in the singular as a reference to the entire Bible and nothing but the Bible. But that is not the way the term is used in the Bible itself.

The ability to refer to the Bible as a unified work is an invention of the age of moveable type. Prior to the existence of the printing press, Scripture was at best a set of individual, bound volumes. In the first century, when Paul was writing, it was a collection of several dozen scrolls. There was no way it was conceived of as a unified literary work, as it is today.

As a result, a study of the way the New Testament uses the term "scripture" reveals that whenever the term is used in the singular -- "scripture" -- it always refers to either a specific book of Scripture or aspecific passage within a book. It never refers to the whole of the corpus of works we today refer to under the unified title of "Scripture." When the Bible wants to refer to the whole of the corpus, it always uses the term in the plural -- "the Scriptures," never "Scripture."

Knowing this, we should be clued in to the presence of a mistranslation in the opening clause of 2 Timothy 3:16. Since the singular term "Scripture" is always used for an individual book of passage of the Bible, the phrase "All Scripture" would mean either "All individual book of the Bible" or "All individual passage of the Bible" -- neither of which makes grammatical sense.

And when we turn to the Greek of 2 Timothy 3:16, we find that there is, indeed, a mistranslation. The phrase rendered "All Scripture" is pasa graphe, which means "Every Scripture" -- they key word being "every," not "all." This is an important distinction, and it makes grammatical sense of the phrase, given our knowledge of what the singular term "scripture" means (for "every individual book of Scripture" and "every individual passage of Scripture" certainly make grammatical sense).

Had Paul wanted to refer to the entire corpus of Scripture, he would have used a different Greek phrase -- something like hai pasai graphai ("the whole of the scriptures"), not pasa graphe, which means simply "every scripture" (a fact which even some of the biggest advocates of using 2 Timothy 3:16-17, such as anti-Catholic James White, have admitted).

This is important because it makes it totally impossible to use the passage to prove sola scriptura, because if one tries to use it in that way it will prove way too much.

Since the passage says "Every Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, etc.," if this proved the sufficiency of Scripture, it would actually prove the sufficiency of each passage of Scripture for theology or at least the sufficiency of each book of Scripture for theology. This would mean that not only would the Bible as a whole be enough to prove every point of theology, but each individual passage or book would be sufficient. So you could do theology not only by Scripture alone but by Matthew alone or by Mark alone or Luke alone or what have you. You could do theology sola Matthew, sola Mark, sola Luke, or, to go to the shortest books of the Bible, even sola Jude or sola 3 John if you wanted.

But that is clearly absurd. No single passage, and no single book, of Scripture contains all that we needs to know to do theology. As a result, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 cannot be used to prove sola scriptura. If it could, it would prove way more than sola scriptura. Paul is simply saying that each individual scripture contributes to the man of God being prepared for all of his ministerial tasks, not that each individual scripture is sufficient to do all of theology.

Furthermore, the idea that these verses prove that we should look to Scripture alone clearly takes them out of context. Whenever Protestants quote 2 Timothy 3:16-17, they almost always leave the previous two verses out of their citation. This is unfortunate since if we read the passage with the two preceding verses we get:

"14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 
15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
16 Every scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 
17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."

Paul tells Timothy to remain in what he has firmly believed and then cites two bases for that belief:

  1. He knows from whom he has learned it. This was the oral teachings of the apostle Paul himself, so right here we have Timothy's beliefs being based on apostolic Tradition.
  2. From childhood Timothy has been acquainted with the holy Scriptures. So this is the second basis for Timothy's beliefs.

Thus, right here in 2 Timothy 3:14-17, we have a double appeal to both apostolic Tradition and apostolic Scripture. So when Protestants come and quote verses 16 and 17, they are only quoting the back half of a double appeal to Tradition and Scripture, clearly something that does not prove sola scriptura.

Finally, all of the points we have listed, simply by virtue of their number, constitute a case against the advocate's basing sola scriptura on 2 Timothy 3:16-17. The reason is that the thing that differentiates sola scriptura from the Catholic material sufficiency option is that sola scriptura claims that not only does Scripture have all the basic data one needs for theology but that this data is also sufficiently perspicuous in Scripture -- that is, sufficiently clear -- that one does not need outside information, like that provided by apostolic Tradition or the Magisterium, in order to correctly interpret Scripture.

The fact that we have been able to name so many factors undermining the use of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 -- any one of which is fatal to attempts to use the passage -- shows that the passage is sufficiently unclear that sola scriptura cannot be proved from it. Even if one were not convinced by anything we have said, if even one of the considerations we have named is recognized as a valid interpretive option then the passage is not sufficiently clear to prove the doctrine and thus canot be used to do so.

And since, as we noted at the outset, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is the passage which has the best chance of being relevant to the issue of sola scriptura, the fact that it is not sufficiently perspicuous to show the doctrine shows that there aren't any passages in Scripture that are perspicuous enough to prove sola scriptura and thus that Scripture is not sufficiently perspicuous for sola scriptura to be true.