Commentary on 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5
Tradition is, of course, very important in many church communities — perhaps in all, even if “tradition” can have various meanings.
“We have always done it this way” can mean anything from the worship of the early church to what a congregation has done for just the past twenty years. The writer to this particular church community, and especially to this follower named Timothy (or perhaps they are also one and the same, the “you” being sometimes singular sometimes plural through the epistle) calls upon tradition. It is not to be ignored! “Continue in what you have learned” and not just recently but since your childhood. (Oh, how essential and yet how undervalued are our Sunday School teachers.)
But, as in last week’s epistle, this tradition and good teaching is not to be simply equated with correct doctrine. The issue at stake is not being able to recite one’s catechism by heart or be able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not about passing an exam! That which is to be continued, that which is to have continual influence on the life of Timothy and the community, is the salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
What is to be continued, cared for, watched over is this faith that was given as a gift, through baptism and the community, through the work of the Holy Spirit. This faith alone defines the tradition. This faith makes of tradition, not something carved out in stone, but something living, in hearts, active today — a living word. Is this not also an echo of the Jeremiah reading that is paired, on this Sunday, with this epistle? Thus says the Lord, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
The tradition to be continued is precisely this new law, written on our hearts! And yet, the text of the epistle does speak about “sacred writing” and “Scripture”… in other words, about a document, a book, perhaps, several writings put together. Not only that, these writings, this Scripture, is to be used for teaching, admonition, training. Are we to understand Scripture then after all as something static that can be uncritically applied to every situation? Will its teaching function equally well in every context?
The descriptive words here are important: teaching, correcting, training. The Scripture invites us into a pattern of gospel living. It does not provide “yes” and “no” answers to every situation, every question, every dilemma. Those who have “confessed” the faith in life-threatening situations understand that there are many gray areas, hard to resolve through Scripture alone (take the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King, Jr.).
The goal of Scripture is not to elicit correct answers from us (as if we could use Bible verses as bullets in our handguns — an image Luther Seminary Professor Patrick Keifert often uses in class). Already Martin Luther, who many would like to think uses Scripture as proof-texts, calls such users “mister-know-it-alls!” How does Luther describe “mister-know-it-all?” He or she is the one who quotes Scripture by heart and knows it down to the minutest detail! For Luther, faithfully continuing what we have learned does not mean quoting Scripture ad infinitum on any subject or controversy until we are blue in the face (or our opponents run away!). Using Scripture as a weapon is obviously not a method of teaching, argumentation, admonition, or prophecy.
The passage in this Sunday’s epistle points us elsewhere. The teaching, admonition, and training lead us somewhere beyond the use of Scripture or tradition as merely identity markers, boundary keepers, and, ultimately, means for self-justification. The proper use of Scripture and tradition leads us to “every good work.” It leads us to a life that is lived in remembrance of Jesus Christ, a life that embodies this remembrance (see last week’s commentary).
All this, the writer urges, is in view of the kingdom. We are to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” This proclamation is not to be confused with contemporary cultural values. The kingdom is not a culturally “Christian” society, one which has all the laws of Scripture faithfully observed with everyone going nicely to church on Sunday morning in their Sunday best, while the poor, hungry and homeless are still forgotten on the streets.
The writer “preaches” precisely against such a culturally appropriated application of faith and Scripture. Do not fall for the myths to which many fall! And what are these myths? They can be many things, but the description here given is simple: anything that suits “their own desires.” Of course, the danger is not that a person or a community chooses something non-scriptural and turns it into a “truth.” The warning is precisely against those who take Scripture itself, the tradition, and turn it around to suit their own desire. Here is the greatest temptation for it can pass by unrecognized and lead many into error.
The one tradition, the one Scripture we are to continue is the one that has been nurtured in us, which points to only one thing: salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. That tradition, that Scripture forms us in a pattern that often begins in or leads to, not prosperity, but suffering. But suffering here is not equated with ministry; rather, despite the suffering, in the midst of it, the evangelist can do her work. A baptismal life can be fully lived.