The belief in Sola Scriptura, that Scripture is the supreme and final authority in all things, was once held with conviction by Protestant Christians. Today, however, it seems many Christians simply pay lip service to this doctrine without being able to defend or define what it actually is.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation,1 serving as a guard around Scripture to protect it from unbiblical ideas being imposed upon it.2 Nevertheless, many Christians today struggle to defend this vital doctrine while others say that Sola Scriptura is not even taught in the Bible.
The Apostle Paul, however, told Timothy that Scripture was sufficient for him in his ministry. This article will look at what 2 Timothy 3:16–17 says about the sufficiency of Scripture.
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he instructed him to remain in Ephesus so that he may “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3). At this time, many false teachers were teaching myth and human commandments (1 Timothy 1:4; cf. Titus 1:14), which have their origin in demons (1 Timothy 4:1). This false teaching in Ephesus was doctrinal as it included a distorted view of the resurrection (2 Timothy 2:18), a false view of knowledge (1 Timothy 6:20), and ethical in prohibiting marriage and the eating of certain foods (1 Timothy 4:3–5). Yet Paul reminded Timothy to be confident in his ministry to the Christians at Ephesus and in his dealings with false teaching, because his message came from God and not from men:
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out 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. (2 Timothy 3:12–17)
Paul called Timothy to be faithful in his preaching of the true gospel, in all seasons, as there would come a time when people would no longer listen to sound teaching (2 Timothy 4:3). The only way to deal with false teaching is by holding to the trustworthy Word of God so that you will be able to rebuke those who contradict it (see Titus 1:9).
It is the nature of Scripture as the sole example of revelation in the church today that is the foundation of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The Apostle Paul’s view of the inspiration of Scripture is that revelation comes from God in and through words. Scripture is “breathed out by God” (theopneustos). In other words, God did not “breathe into” (inspire) all Scripture, but it was “breathed out” by God. This passage in 2 Timothy 3:16 is not about how the Bible came to us but where it came from.
Because the Scriptures are the only God-breathed revelation given to the church, they form the only infallible rule for the church today.
Because the Scriptures are the only God-breathed revelation given to the church, they form the only infallible rule for the church today.3 God’s Word has no higher or equal authority.4 It is the ultimate authority in all things, for God cannot refer to any higher authority than himself to establish the truthfulness of what he says (Hebrews 6:13). Sola Scriptura denies that there is any other infallible rule of faith for the church. There may be other rules (e.g., confessions of faith and doctrinal statements), but they are not infallible and are only useful if they accurately reflect the teaching of Scripture. Since Scripture is God-breathed, it provides us with the very voice of God (see Matthew 22:31–32), whereas human tradition not founded upon Scripture makes “void the word of God” (Matthew 15:6).
Scripture is able to make someone “wise for salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15; cf. Luke 24:25–27, 44–49; Acts 8:30–38). Because Scripture is the means God uses to bring salvation to the unbeliever (cf. James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23) , it must be sufficient, not just necessary, for that task. Paul does not give Timothy any instructions to go to any other sources (e.g., human tradition) other than what is God-breathed.
The only thing that we have today that is God-breathed is Scripture,5 this is why it has the highest authority. However, since Timothy only knew the “sacred writings” (Old Testament) from childhood, does this alone prove their sufficiency? The phrase “sacred writings” are qualified by “through faith in Christ Jesus,” which Paul used to expand the scope beyond the Old Testament and to the gospel of Jesus Christ, as New Testament scholar William Mounce points out:
It may be concluded that the expression “sacred writings” is drawn solely from the vocabulary describing the Hebrew Scripture, but since Paul is thinking about the culmination of the scripture hope realized through faith in Christ Jesus, he chooses the anarthrous plural construction to develop his argument in the direction of joining the Hebrew Scripture and the gospel.6
Timothy would have learned the gospel along with the Old Testament. Paul told him to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2), which is not just the Old Testament alone, but the whole counsel of God including the Apostolic message (see 1 Timothy 4:6–16; 2 Timothy 1:13–14). Moreover, there is an interesting reference in 1 Timothy 5:18 revealing that Paul regarded New Testament books as Scripture (graphe):
For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
Paul’s first quotes comes from Deuteronomy 25:4, but his second quote is identical to Jesus’ statement in Luke 10:7. According to Michael Kruger in The Questions of Canon, there is good evidence to believe Paul is citing from Luke’s gospel rather than just an oral tradition:
This shows that early in the first century (AD 62–64) Paul understood the gospel of Luke to be Scripture, as also were his own letters (see 2 Peter 3:15–16).
What does it mean for Scripture to be profitable? The Greek term for “profitable” or “valuable, advantageous, beneficial” (ophelimos) only occurs two other times in the New Testament, both in Paul’s Pastoral letters: bodily training is of some value (1 Timothy 4:8) and devotion to good works is profitable (Titus 3:8). Paul tells Timothy that Scripture is profitable for four things: teaching, reproof, correction, and training.
Teaching (didaskalia) in Paul’s pastoral letters refers to the “doctrinal formulation of Scripture”8 (see 1 Timothy 4:13). Doctrine, not myth, is the foundation for Timothy’s ministry and the only basis for correcting ungodly behavior (1 Timothy 1:10). Paul makes it clear that those who serve as overseers in the church must be able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2).
Timothy is also called to reprove (elegchos) those who persist in sin (1 Timothy 5:20) by preaching the Word (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul knew that false teaching would one day come into the church (see Acts 20:29–30), and the only basis for reproving people of their false doctrine was Scripture. The purpose of rebuking those that teach false doctrine is that they will become “sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). Because Scripture is both the standard and pattern of truth, Timothy is called to guard it (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:13–14).
Scripture is both the standard and pattern of truth.
Paul then moves from doctrine to behavior and tells Timothy that Scripture is profitable to “correct” and “train.” The Greek word for “correct” (epanorthosis) occurs only here in the New Testament and refers to correcting improper behavior.9 For example, Paul had to correct Peter when he saw that his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14).
One way of correcting mistakes is by using Scripture to be “trained” (paideia) in righteousness (cf. Titus 2:12). While training can have an “instructional” or “educational” purpose (see Ephesians 6:4), it can also be used for “discipline” (1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 2:25). The purpose of being trained in righteousness (dikaiosune) is for practical purposes in the life of the believer (1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22).
All four of these things are by necessity what the man of God must do in the church.
In verse 17 the words “that the” (hina) tell us the purpose of Scripture being God-breathed. Since Scripture comes from God, and is therefore true, it provides that which Timothy needs to “be complete, equipped for every good work.”
The word “complete” (artios) occurs only here in the New Testament and may be best understood as “thoroughly equipped” (NIV). Equipped (exartizo) is the verbal cognate of artios and “the fact that it is in the perfect tense, and its connection to πᾶν, ‘every,’ all emphasize the completeness of Scripture’s preparation.”10 To be equipped is “to make someone completely adequate or sufficient for something”11 and only that which is God-breathed is sufficient to equip the believer for every good work.
If the man of God is made sufficient by that which is God-breathed for every good work, then this teaches the sufficiency of Scripture to function as the only infallible rule of faith for the church.
A text that is usually cited to try to show that there is equal value between Scripture and tradition is Paul’s statement in 2 Thessalonians 2:15:12
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
Although the term tradition (paradosis) can carry negative connotations among Christians today, we must remember that in the time of the Apostles, when the New Testament was being revealed, the Word of God was in spoken form. In Paul’s letters these traditions deal with a number of diverse issues: the institution of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:2, 23), the resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3), self-sufficient labor (2 Thessalonians 3:6), and the gospel message (1 Thessalonians 2:13). However, what is the tradition that Paul is referring to here? He’s referring to one truth (the gospel) that is communicated in two ways: 1) by spoken word (preaching) and 2) by letter (1 Thessalonians). In other words,
the term “traditions” refers to the teaching about Jesus’ glorious return that Paul has given the Thessalonian converts both during his mission-founding visit and in his previous letter.13
Paul’s reference to tradition here cannot contain some unknown body of traditions, such as purgatory or papal authority, which the Thessalonians knew nothing of. Moreover, Paul told the Thessalonians to “stand firm” (steko), which elsewhere refers to the gospel (1 Corinthians 16:13), in these things, a command that assumes they possessed or knew what to stand firm in.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura means that we can have full confidence in Scripture because it alone is God-breathed and is the only infallible rule of faith and practice for telling us what to believe, how to live before God, and how to think about the world around us.