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“The Escape from Interpretative Chaos”

2 Timothy 3:14-17
Bob DeGray
July 16, 2017

Key Sentence

Tradition and authority combine to make Scripture uncomfortably profitable.


I. Babel
II. Tradition (2 Timothy 3:14-15)
III. Authority (2 Timothy 3:16-17)


As we’ve looked at the foundations of the church and its history, we’ve been positive about the early church, and positive about the Reformation. But not everybody is. There are some who say the early church in establishing the Trinity and the full humanity and deity of Christ went beyond the Scriptures. I hope we’ve shown over several weeks that what they really did was to restate and defend Scriptural truth against heresy. But there are those who say the Reformation, far from recovering Scriptural truth really unleashed Scriptural chaos on the church. This criticism, around for centuries, threatens to undermine our understanding of and submission to Scripture. How do we respond to it?

Well, first we have to understand what is being said. One of the key truths of the Reformation is Sola Scriptura, literally, Scripture alone. We’ve said we are saved by Christ alone, through grace alone by faith alone. The Reformation also said that we learn these truths from Scripture alone. But critics say that when you elevate Scripture as the sole source of authority, you end up with no authority because everyone devises their own interpretation of Scripture.

These critics have a point. I recently read a book by Kevin Vanhoozer called Biblical Authority after Babel. Babel, of course, is the tower that man built, and God judged it by multiplying the languages of the people. It stands for a confusion of voices. The critics say that the Reformation was a new Babel. It divided the church into thousands of competing voices. In fact, as of 2010, there were 38000 Protestant denominations, most of them tiny, and that doesn’t count independent churches. There are those who say “based on Scripture I deny the Trinity,” “based on Scripture I deny the deity of Christ,” “based on Scripture I deny justification by faith.” And if those points are disputed how much more the details of the second coming and the ethical requirements of the faith. In recent generations there have been disputes as to what Scripture sees as social justice and deep disputes over the role of women in the church.

Recently some who say they honor Scripture, say that homosexual and transgender behaviors aren’t a problem. Just this week Eugene Peterson, was quoted as saying he would perform a same-sex marriage. Then he took it back. But ultimately, I think churches and denominations will split on this issue, but over the authority and interpretation of Scripture. Last year Inter Varsity announced a thoughtful policy on same sex marriage, based on Scriptural teaching. If any of their staff could not get on board that policy, they would be asked to leave, with a process for that to happen as gracefully as possible.

But people within InterVarsity who don’t support this started a group called, “The Queer Collective.” One of the leaders says “[we] went through a very biblical, very spiritual process, with the Holy Spirit, to get to where we are. I think a lot of people think those who are affirming [same-sex marriage] reject the Bible, but we have landed where we have because of Scripture.” She said that InterVarsity taught them to study the Scripture, and it is through their study of Scripture that they arrived at the conclusion that same-sex marriage is okay. Do you see where this ends up? If Scriptural authority is subject only to my personal interpretation Scripture, it has no authority at all.

The critics blame this on the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The original bad guy in their eyes is Martin Luther. He was called before the wonderfully named ‘Diet of Worms.’ A diet is a council, Worms is a city. He was told to recant his “grace alone, faith alone” teachings, but he replied “Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” We love those words. But critics say that finding authority in Scripture alone with conscience the only interpreter leads not only to Protestantism’s chaos, but to skepticism, secularization and individualism.

How do you refute that? How do you refute someone who says “my interpretation is just as good as yours. Here I stand.” It is like Babel, or as Vanhoozer says, pervasive interpretive chaos. Everyone thinks that their own understanding of Scripture is the right one. In response, Vanhoozer makes a helpful distinction between Sola Scriptura and what he calls Solo Scriptura. Sola Scriptura means Scripture stands as the final authority, but it is not solo, not only Scripture. He says “Scripture itself indicates that the Scriptures are the possession of the Church and that the interpretation of the Scripture belongs to the Church as a whole, as a community.” The church ought not to give as much weight to every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s opinion as it gives to Nicaea’s doctrine of the Trinity. Solo scriptura is something altogether different from sola scriptura: “our final authority is Scripture alone, but not a Scripture that is alone.”

So in the place of pervasive interpretative pluralism, or chaos, Vanhoozer offers “plural interpretive unity.” I think the simplest translation of that is that many people, under the authority of Scripture, interpreting together, can reach unity in the essentials. Paraphrasing something Vanhoozer says that I can’t seem to find, we need to be people humble enough to realize that someone else may have had key insights into the right understanding of Scripture. We need to be willing to learn from others, not try to re-invent the wheel ourselves.

The “many people” are not only many people across the world at a particular time, but many people across the history of the church. The Nicene Creed, which we’ve studied, is not Scripture, but is an understanding of Scripture hammered out by many people over many years and once enunciated it has stood the test of time among Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Evangelical believers. So that is a tradition we would be very, very foolish and prideful to rebel against.

So how do we escape from interpretive chaos?. The Catholic solution is a single individual, the Pope, who alone dictates what Scripture and tradition mean. The Orthodox church says Scripture is only one voice, that authority rests in the church and its Holy Tradition. The liberal church says there is no authority. Vanhoozer, on the other hand, seeks to recover what the Reformers really meant. For today I want to extract from his comprehensive “Mere Protestant Christianity” just two words, and what I think is a key application. The two words are tradition and authority and the application is “let Scripture tell you what to do.” Defer to tradition, recognize authority and let Scripture tell you what to do, rather than following individual feelings or interpretation.

Our text is a familiar one, 2 Timothy 3:14-17. It fits perfectly with what we’ve been talking about because it shows that tradition and authority combined make Scripture uncomfortably profitable to us. This argument over interpretation of Scripture is not academic. Giving up Solo Scriptura and embracing Sola Scripture gives the Bible back its right to tell us what to do. And that will be uncomfortable but profitable. 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 15and 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. 16All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Timothy is in Ephesus, serving as the interim pastor in this church founded by Paul. Paul senses that Timothy is daunted by the task, which he probably was. So back in chapter 1 Paul began to encourage Timothy: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.” Whatever Timothy knows, in verse 14 of our text, he learned from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. Timothy’s father was a Gentile and apparently not a believer, but his mother, and therefore his grandmother were Jewish, and had probably come to faith in Christ when Paul first visited Lystra as recorded in Acts 14. About four years later Paul took Timothy with him to help in ministry. And some years after that, he sent Timothy to Ephesus to care for the church in that city.

So, according to verses 14 and 15 there were two influences at work in Timothy’s life when he became a believer. One of them, of course, is Scripture itself. Verse 15 tells us he has known the sacred writings, the Scriptures, mostly of the Old Testament because the New Testament was still being written. These Scriptures, Paul says “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” In other words the Scriptures, even of the Old Testament, teach you the kinds of things we have been learning in this series: the nature of God, especially as creator and as holy, and the nature of humanity, as fallen and sinful and needing salvation. Scripture teaches these truths over and over, from Genesis to Malachi. The Scriptures even teach, in Genesis and Habbakuk and throughout the Psalms that this salvation is by faith.

But Paul doesn’t say that Timothy just picked up a scroll at the synagogue of Lystra and became a believer in Christ Jesus. He says “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed knowing from whom you have learned it.” We’ve already seen that the whom is is mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. It may also include Paul, if Timothy became a believer during Paul’s first visit to Lystra. But there is no doubt that after they came to faith, Lois and Eunice helped Timothy, who was probably very young, to integrate this newfound faith in Christ with the Old Testament teaching of salvation.

In other words they taught him ‘the tradition,’ both the tradition of the Jews in respecting and believing the Scriptures and the tradition of Jesus as handed down by Paul and the other Apostles. By the time Paul writes to Timothy this tradition already exists as a body of knowledge. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 says “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the tradition that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” 2nd Thessalonians is one of the earlier letters of the New Testament, yet Paul can already speak of a tradition that includes both his writings and his words.

What is this tradition? It’s the good news about Jesus. What is this tradition? It’s the good news about Jesus, that which is able to bring you to faith in Jesus Christ. In First Corinthians 15 Paul says: For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas,” and others. This is the core of the tradition, handed down by the Apostles and handed on by others. In 2nd Timothy 1 we see it being handed down within a family by Lois and Eunice and in 2nd Timothy 2 we see it being handed down within a church by discipleship. “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

So this is tradition. It’s not only the written Scriptures, though the written Word is the supreme authority, but it is the process by which people in community learn and then share the truths and the meaning of the truths. For Timothy it was “whom you learned it from” and then “what you learned.”

So how does that apply to the problem of Babel we’re addressing? The problem is people who take Sola Scriptura as Solo Scriptura. It’s just me, whatever I think it says. And Paul is telling us that as early as Timothy’s conversion what his family elders say and what the church elders say shapes his understanding and application of Scripture. Notice that it doesn’t change the truth or the authority of Scripture. It’s the Scriptures that make you wise for salvation. But the people you learn it from are important. How does that apply to us? We stand at the end of a great tradition, beginning with the apostles, the early Church Fathers, the creed writers of Nicea and Calcedon and ultimately the reformers themselves. We should not take that tradition lightly. Their understanding and interpretation should shape ours. When they point at Scripture and say ‘this is clear,’ we should not lightly say ‘no, it’s not.’ Which is what modernity says.

I blame the renaissance, the enlightenment, modern thought and individualism for the Babel of interpretations way more than I blame the Reformers. They did not feel they were trashing tradition, but rather that they were affirming the true tradition of the Apostles and the Church Fathers and the Creeds against the false traditions that had crept into the Catholic Church. Vanhoozer says “the Reformation was a retrieval, first and foremost of the biblical gospel, particularly [Paul’s teaching,] but also, secondarily, of the church fathers.” Historian David Steinmetz says “The Reformers use the Fathers all over the place. We know Calvin read Augustine. We discovered recently that Luther read Jerome—he had copies annotated in his own hand. The index of Calvin's Institutes is filled with an enormous number of quotations from the Fathers.” He says “They turned to the Church Fathers because they found them important sources of insight into the text of Scripture. Calvin and Melanchthon both believed it was a very strong argument against a given theological position if you couldn't find authorization for it in the Fathers.”

So part of the answer to the charge of interpretative chaos, “nobody really knows or agrees what the Scripture means” is to look backwards into church history and ask “how was this understood?” Take the issue we talked about, homosexual marriage. If we look back across twenty centuries of church teaching, from New Testament times until just a few years ago, we find no church leaders who questioned the simple truth that marriage is between one man and one woman for life. We find no church leaders who sanctioned ‘divorce for any reason.’ We find no church leaders who turned a blind eye to pre-marital sex.

We can also look around at the church, today, and find similar things. The Anglican church worldwide is in turmoil because the majority of Anglican believers, especially in Africa and Asia wouldn’t think of ordaining homosexual priests. But the Anglican church in America, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Church in the United Kingdom, the Church of England, have both moved to that position and made themselves outcasts in the world Anglican community. If a consensus of Bible believing students of Scripture agrees on what the Bible teaches about something, we ought to take that seriously.

And if a consensus doesn’t exist, we ought to take that seriously too, and think twice about trying to impose our understanding across the board. I keep thinking of this move by the Evangelical Free Church to remove the word pre-millennial from our doctrinal statement. I’m opposed to that. I think a denomination can have a distinctive like that, especially when it seems to make sense of so much Scripture. In the early church the pre-millennial position was maybe the most common, but it coexisted with other positions. It did not create a dividing line between orthodoxy and heresy. I think we can coexist, that the denomination can take a position on this without accusing those who think otherwise of heresy. We stand in a tradition that takes the Trinity and the Deity and Humanity of Christ and other salvation issues very seriously, but does not have to make a salvation issue of non-salvation secondary doctrines.

So, we’ve seen that Protestantism and Evangelicalism are accused of interpretative chaos, everyone believing their own interpretations and dismissing everyone else’s. But if we stand under Scripture and take the thinking of the Christian community both over time and across the world seriously, then we can recover Scriptural authority. And this is clearly where Paul intended us to stand. Let me re-read these familiar verses: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” The difference between Scripture’s authority and any human authority is that Scripture is God-breathed. It comes from the mouth of God. Though written by human authors, reflecting their own unique styles and even interests, what was written was what he wanted written, no more, no less.

Therefore this Scripture is profitable. God’s is intended to do people good. So the study of Scripture is profitable, the memorization of Scripture is profitable, the reading of Scripture is profitable. Most of all, the application of Scripture is profitable, the heart response to Scripture is profitable. This is clearly where Paul is going. He is not, here, focusing so much on Scripture’s authority over our doctrine. He’s mentioned that in these other places. But his application, as I want mine to be today, is on Scripture’s authority to tell us what to do.

Scripture is profitable. The mental picture I’ve used for decades is a tractor. Teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. Scripture is designed to change our lives, to tell us what to do. Interpretative chaos gets in the way of that. Just as in the Garden Satan asked “did God really say,” so now our culture teaches us to ask “is that really what it means?” “Is that really what Scripture teaches about the role of women?” “Is that really what Scripture teaches about homosexuality?” “Don’t we know better than that?” Well, no. The purpose of “Sola Scriptura” is not to win doctrinal arguments. If we follow Paul in 2nd Timothy we find that the purpose of Scripture is to teach us, to rebuke us, to correct us, to train us in righteousness. Why? So that the person following God may be fully equipped for every good work. Not for every good argument, not even for better teaching not even for better worship, though those thing will happen. But the purpose of Scripture is to equip us to live by grace the way God wants us to live and the authority of Scripture reaches its purpose when we allow Scripture to tell us what to do.

Two weeks from now we’re going to look at Colossians 3 and we’ll be reminded in very concrete terms of the kinds of things Jesus and the apostles commanded, over and over, for the Christian life. Next week David Jackson is going to talk about the person and work of God the Holy Spirit. No doubt he will teach us that God graciously comes to live in us so we can do these things. We’ll find that the Spirit is at work to produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. These are the kinds of things the Scripture has the right to tell us to do and be.

Scripture commands you to be kind. Scripture commands you to be compassionate. Scripture commands you to put to death sexual sins. Scripture commands you to forsake anger. Scripture commands you to obey the elders of the church, Scripture commands you to submit to rulers and authorities. Much as we may push back on these things or say I can’t do this, we can’t deny these things. The authority of Scripture means that it has to be a tractor in our lives. We have to allow it to teach us what is right. We have to allow it to rebuke us where we’re wrong, we have to allow it to show us the correct path. And we have to submit to its training that we might live out the righteousness God has given us and be fully equipped for every kind of goodness.

So my next to the last word to us this morning is reject interpretive chaos. Reject the idea that Sola Scriptura means everyone gets to have their own interpretation of Scripture. Uncomfortable as it may be, reject the temptation to think “Well, that’s not how I understand that verse, that doesn’t apply to me, that doesn’t feel right to me. I’m not going to believe it.” Reject interpretive chaos.

But my last word to you is ‘let Scripture tell you what to do.’ I’m not arguing this morning for more Scripture study, though that’s good if it builds in you an understanding of what Scripture wants you to do. I’m not arguing for more Scripture memory, though that’s good for the same reason. I’m not arguing for more reading. I’m arguing that you and I need to put ourselves under Scripture’s authority so that we receive it’s teaching as God’s word to us, allow it to rebuke us, to show us areas of persistent sin in our lives, allow it to tell us what the correct action or attitude is, and then, by repetitive attempts, allow it to train us in living righteously. This is the uncomfortable profitability of Scripture. And tradition and authority combine to make it profitable for us.