Crossfunction: June 2005

Monday, June 27, 2005

2 Timothy 3: Dangerous times

Raphael. Cartoon for St. Paul Preaching in Athens. c1513-1514. Mixed media on paper, mounted on canvas. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

2 Timothy Chapter 3 (RSV)
1 Know also this, that, in the last days, shall come dangerous times.
2 Men shall be lovers of themselves, covetous, haughty, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, wicked,
3 Without affection, without peace, slanderers, incontinent, unmerciful, without kindness,
4 Traitors, stubborn, puffed up, and lovers of pleasures more than of God:
5 Having an appearance indeed of godliness, but denying the power thereof. Now these avoid.
6 For of these sort are they who creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, who are led away with divers desires:
7 Ever learning, and never attaining to the knowledge of the truth.
8 Now as Jannes and Mambres resisted Moses, so these also resist the truth, men corrupted in mind, reprobate concerning the faith.
9 But they shall proceed no farther; for their folly shall be manifest to all men, as theirs also was.
10 But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, patience,
11 Persecutions, afflictions: such as came upon me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra: what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord delivered me.
12 And all that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution.
13 But evil men and seducers shall grow worse and worse: erring, and driving into error.
14 But continue thou in those things which thou hast learned, and which have been committed to thee: knowing of whom thou hast learned them;
15 And because from thy infancy thou hast known the holy scriptures, which can instruct thee to salvation, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16 All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice,
17 That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.

Throughout this epistle Paul has passionately urged Timothy to preserve and transmit "the gospel which thou hast heard of me in faith" (2 Timothy 1:13). He calls it, "my gospel" (2 Timothy 2:8). He does not mean that he owns it, but he means to distinguish the gospel which he has received and transmitted to Timothy, from the many other false gospels being spread by false teachers.

Now Paul tells us something about these false teachers. He characterizes them not so much by their erroneous doctrine as by their unseen, disordered passions and sinful lives. They perhaps present an "appearance... of godliness" but deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5). What does this mean? Paul explains.

He compares them to Jannes and Mambres, whose names Paul knows not from Scripture -they are named nowhere else in the Bible- but by oral tradition. These men were Pharoah's magicians, who when confronted with Moses, God's appointed messenger, resisted him and his message. When Moses displayed God's power through his staff turned serpent, Jannes and Mambres likewise produced serpents from staffs. Whether their sign was a clever magician's trick or was brought about by demonic power, the purpose of their counterfeit sign was to discredit Moses and deny the truth of his testimony. Even though Moses' serpent devoured the others, the magicians' efforts contributed to the hardening of Pharoah's heart as well as their own.

Similarly, the false teachers of whom Paul warns Timothy produce a false sign -the appearance of godliness- to conceal the reality that they are not sent by God and do not bear His message. Their "appearance of godliness" -a sham holiness and supposed knowledge of spiritual things- is skin deep, for their lives contradict the truth that God truly gives the power to turn from sin and grow in holiness. These false teachers do not believe or wish to believe that such transformation is possible or necessary.

From the first centuries of Christianity, some heretics promoted the error that only the soul is good, and all matter is evil; therefore, they taught, we should expect the body to desire and to naturally carry out evil acts, and that temptations to such sins can be irresistible. If they are irresistible, we aren't culpable for giving in to them. These heretics taught that if the body is evil, it is futile to try to make it behave virtuously. In the end, they held that salvation for Christians is salvation of the spirit, and the body can be permitted to run its course of sin.

Paul seems to be addressing just this sort of error. He identifies "silly women laden with sins" (2 Timothy 3:6) as particularly vulnerable to the lie that we can not resist temptations to sin. Women -then, just as now in many places- are too often victimized by men seeking conquest and sexual gratification without cost or consequence. The false teachers condemned by Paul in this chapter perhaps included some who were spreading a false message as a means for taking advantage of women in a particularly demeaning way: their victims would be left with an increased burden of guilt from which they would feel powerless to be freed. For them, the Gospel has been emptied of its power to bring about godliness.

In contrast, Paul's gospel is one of salvation for the whole person, body and soul, and a life transformed by the Gospel is one illuminated by holiness and virtue.

2 Timothy 3: Finding the Gospel, the Bible way

Here are two different ways to find someone sent by God to definitively preach the Gospel: which is the Bible way?

Method 1:
Seek out a preacher whose message about Christ sounds right, and appears to agree with Scripture. If so, observe his life to determine whether his example agrees with his teaching. If so, acknowlege him as a man of God and an authentic teacher of God's Word.

Method 2:
Seek out a person who has received the gift of the imposition of hands -like Timothy- from one who himself has received this apostolic gift -like Paul. Embrace his teachings unless they appear to contradict what the Church and Scripture clearly teach.


Method 1 is essentially a Protestant approach. It relies on me -with the help of the Holy Spirit- determining whether a given preacher is teaching and living the truth, in which case I will decide to believe what he says. If at some point his message doesn't sound quite right or his life doesn't look quite right, I'll have to reconsider.

Method 2 is essentially a Catholic approach. It relies on the scriptural fact that Jesus gave His apostles the power to preach the Gospel and through the imposition of hands to pass on that ministry to others, who are also able to do the same. Therefore, God sends us teachers who have been publicly set aside for that ministry according to the clear pattern set down in the Gospel and followed continuously since the first century. If such a man then teaches things that seem to contradict what Scripture and the Church teach, then I have to be careful not to be deceived by his potentially false teachings. If his life contadicts his teachings, then again I have cause for caution.

Paul before Agrippa.  Tiffany Studios.  Union Congregational Church, Montclair, NJ.
Note that the two methods are rather different. Method 1 requires me to build a case FOR a preacher in order to decide whether, in effect, his message is good enough to be believed.

Method 2 more exemplifies the belief that Jesus makes His appointed teachers readily recognizable, just as He did in the first century, and they are to be welcomed with respect and trust. We recognize them the way early Christians were to recognize the teachers sent to them: they were sent by the apostles or those sent by the apostles. At the same time, we must recognize that individual teachers can teach error, and their words must be weighed against the teachings handed down by the apostles through Scripture and Tradition.

These legitimately ordained teachers teach with true authority as long as they continue to teach in union with the successors of Peter and the other apostles.

Monday, June 20, 2005

2 Timothy 3: sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition

The Conversion of St. Paul.  Carravaggio, 1600. Oil on cypress wood, 237 x 189 cm.  Odescalchi Balbi Collection, Rome.

Paul wrote to Timothy:

14 But continue thou in those things which thou hast learned, and which have been committed to thee: knowing of whom thou hast learned them;
15 And because from thy infancy thou hast known the holy scriptures, which can instruct thee to salvation, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16 All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice,
17 That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.

This passage offers a clear view of Paul's concept of how the Gospel is transmitted: by Scripture and apostolic preaching.

Verse 14 urges Timothy to hold fast to the teachings which have been "committed" to him. On what basis? Because Timothy knows that Paul, the messenger of those teachings, is an apostle. Timothy is to "continue" in these things not because they sound good or seem plausible, but because Paul expects Timothy to recognize Paul's position as an apostle and therefore one who speaks definitively with teaching authority received from Jesus.

Verses 15-17 affirm the divine inspiration and value of Scripture in providing instruction profitable in achieving salvation. But these verses were written in the same breath, so to speak, as verse 14, and so rightly coexist with a harmonious meaning.

Paul never taught that oral tradition made Scripture unnecessary, nor did he teach the opposite. Rather, as the whole passage makes clear, Timothy is exhorted to respect and live by all the apostolic teachings he has received, whether they have been communicated to him via sacred Scripture or by authoritative apostolic preaching.

2 Timothy 2: Five generations of apostolic tradition!

Paul exhorts Timothy,

1 Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace which is in Christ Jesus:
2 And the things which thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men, who shall be fit to teach others also.

Let's unpack that verse 2...
-Paul spoke certain things to "many witnesses";
-these witnesses delivered these things to Timothy;
-Timothy is to commend these things to "faithful men";
-These men are to teach others.

Count 'em... that's five links in a chain, an unbroken chain by which the Gospel is transmitted from apostle to the far reaches of the Church via those appointed to teach.

We've already seen in the book of Acts how, after he was called by Jesus, Paul was visibly appointed to the office of apostle through the imposition of hands. And we have seen Paul speak of how he appointed Timothy to a similar role -also through the imposition of hands.

Now we see the bigger picture. Paul and the other apostles can't preach the Gospel to the whole world alone. They recognize that they have received a divine commission and have teaching authority, but they also recognize that they have the power to appoint other men to share in this same office. Timothy has received this office and ministry through the imposition of hands, as have so many others before and after him.