Timothy and Titus: Passing the Torch

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.

The letters to Timothy and Titus are known as the “pastoral epistles” because they are directed to church leaders rather than to entire congregations. Timothy and Titus were both protégés of Paul and accompanied him on several of his missionary journeys. If actually written by Paul (there is some dispute among Biblical scholars), 2 Timothy was likely the last letter Paul wrote, as apparently he had lost of all of his appeals to Caesar, and was awaiting execution. “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus serve as a bridge between the first generation of Christians and the next, a kind of “passing of the torch” if you will. Many of the original apostles had already died for their faith, and even the last survivors would not make it into the second century. Soon there would be no eyewitnesses left. If Christianity was to survive and thrive, it would be up to the next generation of spiritual leaders. Already distortions of the original gospel were beginning to creep into the churches. One of the earliest of these distortions was Gnosticism, which promoted a number of ideas that differed substantially from the gospel the Biblical writers proclaimed. Gnostic teachers held that there was a great deal of secret knowledge about spiritual matters that was only available to a select few. In addition to unsubstantiated speculation about the nature of Jesus that reminds me quite a bit of The Da Vinci Code, it often led to inappropriate behavior- extreme asceticism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other hand. Furthermore, more than a few of these false teachers took advantage of gullible people, both financially and sexually. Paul was quite concerned about the future of the church. Would the next generation of Christians build on his legacy, or demolish it? Soon it would be no longer up to him.

Paul warned Timothy and Titus to beware of false teachers who perseverated on myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith”.He advised that they “avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Those words of advice are just as relevant now as they were then, and it makes me sad and angry because I think such distractions tend to have the effect of making faith look even more silly and pointless to those without it than they already think it is.  It’s easier and perhaps more entertaining to speculate about apocryphal passages in the Bible  than it is to wrestle with the personal implications of Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s easier and perhaps more reassuring to pick parts of the Bible out and apply them to other people, than it is to think about the parts that imply that I might need to change myself.

In terms of human evolution, the invention of writing was a quantum leap forward. Knowledge could now be passed on from generation to generation without lossiness, making it easier for each generation to build on what the previous generation had learned. This principle could be applied to all kinds of learning, theological as well as technological. The Jewish exiles seemed to grasp this concept exceptionally well, which led most Jewish communities throughout history to place a high value on literacy.   I think that’s what Paul must have been thinking when he wrote his often-quoted words about the inspiration of Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  Thoughts that are spoken may be misquoted or forgotten. Thoughts that are written down endure.

But I think this passage is often misunderstood and misapplied. Often only the first part of Paul’s sentence is quoted, “all scripture is inspired by God”, ignoring the phrases which follow and which I think are of critical importance. That mistaken truncation leads to the kind of thinking promoted by biblical inerrantists who insist that every word in the Bible is straight from God’s mind to the writer’s quill. I have a few problems with that. First of all, what does Paul mean by “all Scripture”? It’s hard to believe he was bold enough to be talking about his own letters as he was writing them: much less the gospels, which were written later: much, much less books like the letters of John and Revelation, which were written after Paul’s death. Second, what does he mean by “inspired” or “God-breathed”? Is that meant to be taken literally, or figuratively? Did God choose the exact words the writers used, as God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets with his own fingers? Or does Paul mean that, as we read and study and even wrestle with the Bible, God breathes life into it and we find that its words come alive and seem to speak directly to us?

For me, the most important part of Paul’s sentence is what comes after the “and” of the clause. God breathes life into Scriptures for a purpose. Scripture is “ useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.” The Bible is not a history book, a science book, or even a rule book for the game of life. That isn’t its purpose. Its purpose is to serve as a catalyst for change, so that we open ourselves up to God, and allow him to begin the process of transformation into the kind of people we were created to be. We were created “in the image of God” to live in love with other human beings and in harmony with all creation. We messed up, and continue to do so. But God hasn’t given up on us.

And that’s good news to me.