In continuing our response to 21 Reasons to Reject Sola Scriptura we turn our attention to role of the church. Objection #3 states,
“The Bible Calls the Church and not the Bible the ‘Pillar and Ground of the Truth.'”
No objection there; the Bible does say that: but the devil is in the details.
Reductio Ad Absurdem
The article defines the church as “the living community of believers founded upon St. Peter and the Apostles and headed by their successors.” Individual believers are said to be part of the Church. However, the Roman Catholic understanding of an “infallible church” does not extend to the individual members of the church, but to the Magesterium and the Roman Pontiff alone. Thus, if we accept that the term “pillar and foundation of the truth” is synonymous for “infallible authority,” then that would make every individual catholic an infallible authority.
Context, Context, Context
Paul writes to Timothy and does tell Timothy that the church is the pillar and foundation of truth. However, there is a pesky little thing called context which gets in the way of our personal desires so often. What needs to be remembered is that when Paul penned what we now call “1 Timothy 3:15,” he expected Timothy to read all the words prior to that point first. When examining the context it becomes clear Paul is not saying what the article suggests. 1 Timothy 3:14-15,
“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” (emphasis mine)
Paul’s goal is obvious: he wants Timothy to know how to behave in Church. How does he plan on instructing Timothy in this? Well, Paul would like to tell his beloved brother in person. However, what if Paul is unable to? What if Paul delays? How could Timothy possibly know how to behave? Paul says that is the very purpose for his… writing.
Paul planned on accomplishing his goal of revealing further truth to Timothy by committing him to what has been written. This very letter was Timothy’s infallible authority on this issue; not the church that was receiving it (which, by the way, was a small local church, and contextually Paul’s use of the word.)
If what the Catholic claims about Paul’s understanding of the Church is true, why did Paul commit Timothy to his letter? Why did Paul write at all? Timothy was already in and a leader of the “pillar and foundation of the truth.” Certainly Timothy already knew how to behave. Was not the infallible, foundation and pillar of truth capable of teaching and defining this? Clearly, Paul believed the church was not sufficient for Timothy; Paul was sufficient for Timothy. And since Paul foresaw potential delay, he wrote. And since Paul is not around anymore, we do what Timothy did: commit ourselves to Paul’s writings.
Fallacy of Equivocation
Another very important thing that needs to be addressed is the assumption that the words “Pillar/Foundation” are synonymous with “infallibe.” In many of the other objections, the author utilizes basic understandings of Greek to make his point. Where is the Greek evidence for this equivocation? Does the context suggest this? Does the definition of the English words suggest this? I would argue “no” for all three. The article equivocates “pillar” with “infallible” without any warrant for doing so.
The Scriptures are in fact said to be infallible. 2nd Timothy 3:14-17 teaches they are “inspired,” or more literally “theopneustos,” most literally, “God-breathed.” Where is the church ever said to be “inspired?” We hoist the Scriptures up as an “infallible authority” because God has said they belong there. Where is the church ever said to be “God-breathed?” Do the Greek words behind “inspired” and “pillar” really suggest that they have synonymous definitions? If not, the Scriptures have a different nature than the church.
The logical reasoning for the equivocation was provided:
“It is also evident from these passages that this same Church would be infallible, for if at any time in its history it would definitively teach error to the Church as a whole in matters of faith or morals – even temporarily – it would cease being this ‘pillar and ground of the truth.’ Since a ‘ground’ or foundation by its very nature is meant to be a permanent support, and since the above-mentioned passages do not allow for the possibility of the Church ever definitively teaching doctrinal or moral error.“
The idea that Rome has never changed or shifted on moral and theological issues is laughable, especially given the “development hypothesis.” However, the real issue here is, yet again, presuppositions are being smuggled in. Where does Paul clarify the “kind” of truth that the church is a pillar for? From the article’s perspective, “the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth” actually means the following:
“[One small portion of] the Church (the teaching magesterium) is the pillar (which actually means infallible authority) of (a particular portion of) truth (namely, faith and morals).”
This is an exegetical butcher job that would make Steven Furtick blush. If “the Church” is the pillar (i.e. infallible authority) of truth, why limit that truth to a particular realm? What exegetical grounds is there for doing so in this text? This is necessary to do because the Roman Catholic church, as well as many of its popes, have a horrendous history of gross errors, but the text does not define “truth” so narrowly.
The author of this made much of the fact that Protestantism has had theological issues and controversies, but the Roman Catholicism cannot measure up to its own standard without arbitrary qualifications.
What Did Paul Mean?
The article does ask an important question though:
“In what capacity, then, is the Church the ‘pillar and ground of the truth’ if it is not to serve as an infallible authority established by Christ?“
Allow me to answer by quoting a portion from the article itself, “[A] ‘ground’ or foundation by its very nature is meant to be a permanent support...” The emphasis was mine, because in it lies the answer: a support.
Unlike the article, protestants don’t play fast and loose with the English use of “pillar/foundation.” A pillar/foundation holds something else up. It supports something else, and it does so without becoming that which it holds up.
A foundation which supports a brick wall is not a brick wall. A pillar which holds up a ceiling is not a ceiling. The church which supports the truth is not the truth. The church is the means by which God’s truth (that which is written) is supported, held up, and proclaimed to the nations.
Contextually, Paul is only talking about the local church Timothy led. If this passage was written to teach the church could not teach error, only Timothy’s church fits the bill; the church in Rome would not. However, since a local church is in view, Paul’s perspective is that each local church has the responsibility to proclaim the light of the Gospel to a dark world. By making the church the infallible interpreter of truth itself, we place it on a level much higher than a “pillar,” as it becomes truth itself.
The protestant position, contrary to the straw man of the article, is that the church is an authority. The Church and its ordained teachers/elders/bishops/pastors are authoritative. They, with their congregation, are the pillar of God’s truth; they hold it up and support it.
They are not “infallible” however. They are not “God-breathed,” they are not “inspired,” and they don’t claim to be, for by doing so, they would effectively be taking on the very nature of the truth they are supposed to be underneath supporting.