Probably the most cited passage used to support sola-Scriptura is 2 Timothy 3:14-17 – “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 instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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.” From this passage is derived conclusions like this one:
“Passages such as 2 Timothy 3:17 affirm the sufficiency of Scripture. Having affirmed that God’s Word is profitable for ‘teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (v. 16), Paul explains that Scripture is enough to make us ‘complete, equipped for every good work.’ Scripture in its totality is all that is needed so that we will be completely prepared to serve the Lord.”
When we look at this passage in context, one of the first things to notice is St. Paul is not writing to one of his congregations. He did not write this to the Corinthians, or the Philippians, or the Colossians or Thessalonians. He wrote it to Timothy, and it is important to understand exactly who Timothy is. We are first introduced to Timothy in Acts 16, where we learn while his mother was Jewish, his father was Greek. So while he was “acquainted” with the Jewish Scriptures, he was not brought up in the Jewish faith, since he had never been circumcised (Acts 16:3). But he became a constant companion to Paul, is mentioned as a “fellow worker” (Romans 16:21) and is sent by Paul to teach (1 Corinthians 4:17, 16:10). And while St. Paul is credited with writing many New Testament letters, in several of them he sends them from both himself and Timothy (2 Corinthians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:1, Philemon 1:1). We also learn he has been ordained by Paul (2 Timothy 1:6-7), and church history tells us he becomes the first bishop of Ephesus. Hence we see St. Paul refer to Timothy as “man of God,” which is an Old Testament term used for prophets. It is only used twice in the New Testament, both times by St. Paul referring to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:11, 2 Timothy 3:17). It denotes his role as an ordained bishop.
In the first verses, St. Paul charges Timothy to “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 instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:14-15) At the time of this writing, Timothy’s exposure to the Scriptures would be limited to the Old Testament texts. While they would have pointed to Christ, they would not have contained the “good news” – the Gospel. So St. Paul also reminds Timothy to continue in what he has learned from St. Paul – the oral tradition of the Church about the Truth of Jesus Christ.
In verses 16-17 we read “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.” There is much to discuss in that one sentence. First is the understanding that all of Scripture is “inspired” by God, or as some translations say “God-breathed.” As Catholics we wholeheartedly hold to that belief.
It then says that Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Instead of “profitable,” some translations say “useful.” As Catholics we would also affirm that for a “man of God” who has been ordained a bishop, Scripture is indeed useful in the role of teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.
And the reason St. Paul gives for this is so “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” This is where the largest question comes in. In the view cited above, the conclusion reached by those who believe this proves sola-Scriptura is Paul’s meaning is that Scripture alone is totally sufficient, it is enough, and it is the only thing needed to thoroughly equip this bishop for every good work. But St. Paul never uses words like “sufficient,” or “only,” or “enough,” although he certainly uses these words elsewhere in his writings. And by telling Timothy this will make him “complete,” there is an implication that this is a final piece of what he needs, not the totality.
He does tell Timothy that in his role Scripture will be useful, and he will need it if he’s going to be complete and equipped for every good work. But he never tells him that Scripture is the only thing he needs or that Scripture alone is “enough” – that is adding words that are not used in the text to reach a desired conclusion, not letting the words stand as written. Earlier in his letter he tells Timothy that if he purifies himself, he will be ready for every good work (2 Timothy 2:21). Should we conclude from that verse that purification is the only thing he needs to be ready for every good work to the exclusion of all else, including Sacred Scripture? Words like “only,” “enough,” and “sufficient” are not in the text and can’t be asserted that is the meaning without altering the text.
The interpretation that Scripture-alone is all Timothy will need to be “complete, equipped for every good work” also ignores that Paul had already told Timothy that the church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). To then profess that he would not need the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” in order to be equipped for every good work is more than a bit problematic. But that is what an understanding of 2 Timothy 3:17 as promoting sola-Scriptura requires – that even though Paul has told Timothy that the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth, it is not necessary for him to be fully equipped for his work. As Catholics we understand that both the Church and Sacred Scripture are necessary.
Another thing this passage clearly does not do is to open the door to the individual lay person or congregation to profess that Scripture is all they need. It’s not addressed to them. It’s addressed to the bishop who will find Scripture useful to teach, reproof, correct and train his flock. In turn, those flocks then logically need the bishop to teach, reproof, correct and train them. As we explore this topic further we will discover the authority given to Timothy through his ordination to do just those things is a very Biblical concept.