Notes on Second Timothy 3:16
Second Timothy 3:16 is often cited as proof of certain views of inspiration, especially those that tend to absolute biblical inerrancy. Often closely related to this perspective is the idea that the Bible has some kind of inherent power on its own to effect salvation. In this view, if someone just reads the Bible its (absolute and inerrant) truth can bring the person to correct belief in God, which is a prerequisite for salvation.
However, a little closer examination raises serious questions as to whether we can develop any specific theology of inspiration of Scripture from this passage, not to mention supporting the idea that the Bible has salvific power on its own by virtue of it being Scripture.
The context of this verse (3:16) is a section of encouragement to the community of faith (through the young pastor) in the face of those who are threatening to pervert the teachings of the apostles to their own ends. The call is to hold fast to the apostles' teaching, along with what they already know from the testimony of the community of faith from childhood, in order to continue living out their salvation without being led astray in the confusion of the clamoring voices who claim to present the truth.
3:14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 3:15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 3:16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 3:17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
Note that the basis on which Timothy (and thereby the community) is to establish a sound basis for confidence and continued growth and instruction in the Faith is not the Bible, nor is it even the "sacred writings" alone. The first thing listed is the instruction of the community of faith and the confidence in their testimony to what is sound and true ("what you have learned . . . from whom you have learned it"). That traditioning in the faith has been an important part of this epistle already (1:5) and is repeated here (3:5). There is also reference to the instruction from the apostles, specifically in the witness of their lives that confirms the truth of the Gospel (3:10-11).
Also note that it is not the "Bible" referenced in this verse, but rather "the sacred writings" (grammata, a different term than is used in verse 16, grapha). Since a formal canon of the Old Testament had not yet been declared or only recently declared in Judaism (Council of Jamnia, AD 90), there did not yet exist a "Bible." So, using these two verses to talk about the "Bible" is anachronistic. The phrase "since childhood" (3:15) identifies the writings as, at the very least, the writings held sacred in Judaism. That is, they are the writings known to Christians now as the Old Testament.
With the Pauline influence on this epistle (whether or not Paul is the author), it would be nearly impossible for the writer to say that the Old Testament writings had the ability to bring one to salvation through Faith in Christ. That would contradict what Paul says rather clearly in Romans, would say something radically different than the Book of Hebrews, and would even challenge the theology of James. So, it cannot be that the writer here is declaring that the Bible can be a vehicle for salvation, as if it had some power apart from the community of Faith and God working in it. This is not any kind of reference to the Bible being able to bring sometime into salvation, in terms of what we mean by "getting people saved." It does not even imply that the Bible alone has "some special ability I don’t have in and of myself to persuade souls." The "sacred writings" here only function within the larger community of faith along with the testimony and teachings of the apostles and other members of the community.
In the context of this epistle, the encouragement is to continue on in the Faith, continue to grow and mature as Christians, without being sidetracked by those who are perverting the testimony of the Gospel and the teachings of the apostles. In very strong terms the traditions of the Old Testament from Judaism are affirmed here. They have the ability to instruct in the Faith, even though they themselves are not Christian writings. This is the importance of the need to recover the authority of the Old Testament without necessarily “Christianizing” it. It is a true confession about God as it stands.
Yet, in this context, the "sacred writings" are teamed with the instruction in the Faith, the traditioning of the Christian by the community of faith. Here, that would mean not only the teaching of the family in the traditions of Judaism, including the Old Testament (1:5), but also the teachings of the apostles who bear witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1:13-14, 2:2, etc.). In other words, "sacred writings" does not here stand alone, but is part of the larger testimony of the community that includes instruction within the community.
This, then, refers to a process of growing in the Faith that began with the instruction of a grandmother and mother, continued with the testimony and teachings of the apostles, and will continue with the "sacred writings" and "scripture." This emphasis on continued stability and growth in the faith fits well with Paul’s conception of salvation as something not yet completed but awaiting final consummation (note the progressive use of "being saved" in 1 Corinthians 1:18; cf 15:2, 2 Cor 2:15, Rom 13:11, 1 Thess 5:8-9, etc.).
The emphasis in verse 15 falls not on "salvation" but on "instruct" ("make wise"). This wisdom is not to lead into salvation (we are not saved by becoming wise; that is Gnosticism!), but to instruct in the faith as a means to help "work out" that salvation (cf. Phil 2:12) in Christian maturity. One mark of that maturity is stability from being swayed by perverted doctrine (cf. 2 Tim 4:3-4, Eph 4:14).
The addition of "through faith in Jesus Christ" serves to clarify that this is a Christian activity. That is, the wisdom concerning salvation is not the wisdom of Judaism, but the completion of the revelation of God through the testimony of the Gospel. The continued use of the "sacred writings" and the "scripture" by Timothy and his community is not for the purpose of "getting people saved" but to make them wise concerning God’s work of salvation proclaimed in the Gospel message, to help them continue to mature in the Faith of which they are already a part. That is still the primary purpose of the Bible today.
So, rather than affirming any particular doctrine of inspiration of Scripture, this passage does almost the opposite. That is, it does not affirm the absolute authority of Scripture as somehow dictated by God and therefore containing some special power in the lives of people. Rather, it places Scripture, inspired though it is, within a larger context of a community of Faith that uses the teachings of Scripture to instruct growing Christians.