PMT 2015-021 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
With this article I am closing this series responding to Dr. James White’s rebuttal of my views on 2 Tim 3. In his October 16, 2014 webcast he rejected my argument that Paul’s statements should be understood as applying to the first-century heretics Timothy was facing in Ephesus. He sees Paul’s warnings as more general, applying to all the future. As a result, he sees Paul as undermining postmillennialism.
In my response, I have been pointing out that Paul’s letters to Timothy are occasional epistles dealing with occasions in the first century. I noted that Paul mentions the names of specific first-century heretics (Hymenaeus, Alexander, Phygelus, Hermogenes, and Philetus, 1 Tim 1:15, 20; 2:17) and criticizes their particular deeds (e.g., 2 Tim 3:5–9) and doctrines (e.g., 2 Tim 2:16–18). And consequently, in the very context in question, Paul specifically warns Timothy: “Avoid such men as these (2 Tim 3:5b).
I think it is quite clear that Paul is confronting issues in his own day. Though we can certainly apply his teaching when similar situations arise today, the fact remains: he is not talking about the distant future, but Timothy’s current circumstances.
In my last article I noted that one argument that White uses against me is that in the context of 2 Timothy 3 Paul presents his classic statement affirming biblical inspiration (2 Tim 3:16–17). White believes that since Paul points to this universal truth, he must be dealing with universal issues. And thus, his warnings anticipate difficult times throughout the whole course of Christian history.
In my last article I made a general observation on this argument. I noted that it should be expected that when confronting a particular heresy, the universally-true Scriptures must be brought to bear. I do not see how the universality of Scripture authority requires that the issue Paul faces must universally prevail. This simply does not follow. But I would like to explain Paul’s reference to biblical inspiration in this context in a more specific way.
Paul’s contextual flow
Before presenting Paul’s specific argument, we must (briefly) recall his contextual flow (see earlier articles for fuller elaboration).
After highlighting the sinful conduct of the heretics in 2 Tim 3:2–8, Paul declares: “But you followed my teaching.” The NASB translates the Greek word de as “now”: “Now you followed.” It seems clear, however, that Paul is contrasting the heretics’ ways and words with his own, thereby praising Timothy for his faithfulness. Hence, the better translation would be to use the particle de in the adversative sense of “but.”
Then Paul notes that he lived according to his own teaching despite the “persecutions and sufferings” he endured (2 Tim 3:10–11). And consequently, on the basis of his personal experience, he warns Timothy that he should expect suffering too, for “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).
As he continues, he further warns Timothy about these heretics and why they must be stopped in their tracks. These “evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim 3:13). They are morally bankrupt now and will only become more corrupt — such is the nature of progressive personal degeneration involved in wholesale apostasy. But let us now consider:
Paul’s specific argument
Why does Paul mention the inspiration of Scripture in the next verses? Notice the way he segues into his statement on the inspiration of Scripture: vv 14–15 lead him to vv 16–17 in a most contextually relevant way. A way that is clearly not implying that the errors he confronts are universal errors that will remain for all times. In fact, the matter is quite the opposite.
He states: “evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:13–15).
In 2 Tim 3:14 he is continuing his argument against the heretics and as an exhortation to Timothy: “You [emphatic use of pronoun su], however [i.e., in contrast to the Ephesian heretics, he uses the de as an adversative], continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom [plural] you have learned them [i.e., from his faithful mother and grandmother, cf. 2 Tim 1:5, and from Paul himself, cf. 2 Tim 3:10].”
Paul is referring to doctrine, i.e., biblical teaching, the things Timothy has learned. Then he immediately reminds Timothy that “from childhood [again: his loving mother and grandmother taught him,” 3:15] he had known “the sacred writings” — which give “wisdom” (3:15a) and are “profitable for teaching” (3:16). This is not a universal truth for all Christians: Paul is declaring this of Timothy (not all Christians are raised in Christian homes, nor are all raised by Eunice and Lois). He is calling Timothy to remain faithful to his upbringing in the true Christian faith. The “sacred writings” led him “to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (3:15b).
Timothy should not follow the innovative heretical teachings of the apostates troubling the church. Rather he must recognize that “Scripture” is that which “is inspired by God and profitable for teaching” (2 Tim 3:16). Paul is therefore urging his ministerial associate to maintain sound doctrine — over against the specific heresies and practices he is enduring in Ephesus while Paul is in prison (1 Tim 4:6–7, 11, 16; 6:13–14, 20; 2 Tim 1:13–14; 2:1–3, 14, 23; 3:14–16; 4:1–5).
When all is said-and-done, 2 Tim 3 is a powerful passage directed against corrupt, first-century heretics. It is not a warning that heresy and immorality will always plague the church throughout history until the end.
Of course, this does not mean that only in the first century should we expect heresy. Certainly heresy arises often, even today. But this is not because Paul prophesied such in 2 Tim 3. And just as certainly, we may apply against modern heretics the principles that Paul used against the first-century heretics. This is the nature of Scripture: it is applicable even beyond the direct points for which it was written. Otherwise, we would have nothing to believe or preach today.
Postmillennialists do not see 2 Tim 3 as countering the postmillennial hope for the victorious conquest of the gospel in history. And we don’t believe this passage can successfully be brought against us. When interpreted contextually.
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