Tuesday, October 06, 2020

What To Make Of 1 Timothy 3:15 And Catholic Claims About It

Roman Catholics often cite 1 Timothy 3:15 in support of their view of their denomination. But:

- The context makes it more likely that Paul is referring to the local church than that he's referring to a worldwide denomination, like the Roman Catholic Church. He's writing to Timothy about the latter's work in Ephesus (1:3).

- What we read about the Ephesian church elsewhere, such as in Acts 20:17-38 and Revelation 2:1-7, suggests that there was no assurance that the Ephesian church would remain faithful, have an unbroken succession from the apostles in perpetuity, or any other such thing. In Acts 20, Paul expects wolves to come in among the Ephesian leadership and calls on them to remember the teaching they'd received from Jesus and Paul. He says nothing of an assurance that they'll maintain the faith or how they can look to the infallible church teachings of their day, in addition to remembering the teaching of the past. Even an apostolic church as prominent as Ephesus, one that had the principles of 1 Timothy 3:15 applied so directly to it, could also be addressed in the terms of Acts 20 and Revelation 2.

- 1 Timothy 3:15 is addressing a function the church has. There's no reason within the text or nearby context to think that the church will infallibly carry out that function. Similarly, the people of Israel are referred to as God's witnesses (Isaiah 43:10-12), Christians are called salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14), etc., but it doesn't follow that they'll infallibly fulfill that role or that they'll have the other relevant characteristics Catholics associate with the 1 Timothy 3 passage.

- Even if the church were sure to always fulfill the function described in the passage, the church wouldn't have to be infallible in the particular way Roman Catholicism claims to be. For example, if there were always a church holding a set of beliefs with some degree of overlap with Roman Catholicism, but not identical to it (Trinitarianism, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, etc.), that wouldn't be equivalent to the church always fulfilling 1 Timothy 3:15 in the form of Roman Catholicism. You could believe that the function of the 1 Timothy passage has been fulfilled in every generation since the time of the apostles without believing that Catholicism has fulfilled it. Catholicism isn't the only candidate available, and there are other candidates that are superior.

- We normally think of multiple pillars, not just one, supporting a structure (e.g., Judges 16:29, Galatians 2:9). But the passage uses the singular, "pillar". The implication is that at least one other entity has the same role the church is described as having.

- The theme of the last part of 1 Timothy 3:15 (upholding the truth) is so broadly applicable that you can't limit it to the local church, some worldwide denomination like Roman Catholicism, or any other concept of the church. There are many individuals and groups throughout history who have been called on to be a pillar and support of the truth in some sense. Many individuals and groups outside of any church hierarchy are referred to as having some sort of supporting role, comparable to a pillar, a support, a foundation, or whatever term you want to use (e.g., Luke 8:3, Romans 11:18, 2 Corinthians 8:4, Revelation 3:12). In the Romans 11 passage just cited, Paul is addressing the Roman Christians in particular, warning them not to be arrogant in light of their dependence on the Jewish people. Later in 1 Timothy, Paul refers to wealthy Christians building a foundation for their future through good works (6:17-19). The concept of some entity serving as a support of some other entity, communicated by using architectural terms (a pillar, a foundation, a rock, a bulwark, etc.) or communicated in some other way, is commonplace. The idea that an individual, group, or object has to have attributes like the relevant ones Roman Catholicism claims to have in order to serve as something like a pillar or support of the truth doesn't make sense, and it would lead to absurd conclusions if applied to other passages. The language Paul uses in 1 Timothy 3:15 is too vague, making it open to a variety of applications, to justify the Catholic use of the passage. We see the same sort of variability with the metaphors used in other contexts. God is referred to as a light (Isaiah 60:19, Micah 7:8, John 8:12), and so are other entities (Isaiah 62:1, Matthew 5:14, Philippians 2:15). But they're lights in a variety of ways. When metaphors like these are used, involving architecture, light, or whatever else, there isn't much you can derive from them. That kind of metaphor typically isn't meant to convey as much as Catholics want it to in the context of 1 Timothy 3:15. You have to bring in other evidence if you want to justify the sort of conclusions Catholics often claim to be deriving from 1 Timothy 3. But, then, it's no longer just a matter of what that 1 Timothy 3 passage tells us. And if Catholics are going to bring in other considerations, so can their opponents.

- The wide applicability of the language is illustrated in some second-century sources. Eusebius quotes a document providing an account of some martyrs in Irenaeus' day, and that document refers to a man named Attalus as "a native of Pergamos where he had always been a pillar and foundation" (Church History 5:1:17). Irenaeus wrote, "We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith." (Against Heresies, 3:1:1) He refers to how "the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life" (3:11:8).

- In Paul's letter to the Ephesians (recall what I said above about the relationship between 1 Timothy and Ephesus), he refers to how Christians in general, not just a church hierarchy, a Pope, or ecumenical councils, for example, are to uphold the truth in various ways. They're to "speak the truth" (4:15), for example. In fact, relative to how short the letter is, there are a lot of references to truth in Paul's letter to the Ephesians (1:13, 4:15, 4:21, 4:24, 4:25, 5:9, 6:14). All of those references to truth are applicable to Christians in general, not just a church hierarchy or an allegedly infallible portion of the hierarchy.

- The language Paul uses to describe the church in 1 Timothy 3:15 ("the household of God", "the church of the living God") and his reference to "how one ought to conduct himself in" that church make more sense if his focus is on the congregation in general. See the similar concepts in Ephesians 2:19-22, for example. The language is less likely to be referring only to the hierarchy, to some portion of the hierarchy that allegedly is infallible, or some such thing. And just as laymen aren't infallible in their role of upholding the truth, neither are those serving in the hierarchy. Furthermore, Paul's references to the Ephesians in general upholding the truth in his letter to the Ephesians (as discussed above) offer another line of evidence that he had the church in general in mind. Even if we assumed that Paul was using the language of the church in general as shorthand for a particular portion of the church, there would be no way to justify the conclusion that the portion of the church Paul was thinking of is the portion Catholicism has in mind. But, again, the most sensible way to take the passage is that the church in general is being referred to, and Catholics don't want to assign attributes like an unbroken succession and infallibility to the church in general.


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  2. "The word pillar (στῦλος, stylos) would have special significance to the Ephesians in that their city was the site of the Temple of Diana which had 127 marble pillars upon which announcements were regularly affixed. The local church was a pillar upon which the truth was to be held up that all might see it. By “truth” (ἀληθεία, alētheia) Paul means the full revelation of God in Christ as [1 Timothy] verse 16 makes clear...The church is a household called to manifest the truth in its message and to conform to it in its conduct. Paul adds that the church is the “support” or buttress (ἑδραίωμα, hedraiōma) of the truth. The church, the Apostle implies, exists to maintain the faith and protect it from all danger."

    Understanding the Church, by Joseph M. Vogl and John H. Fish III, p. 49