By Prof. Renihan
The Scriptures and Confessions
The Word of God has much to teach us about confessions and the act of confessing.One crucial passage, 1 Timothy 6:12-13, will serve as a helpful guide for our consideration.
A. The Act of Confessing
In these two verses, Paul speaks of two men, Timothy and our Lord Jesus, each of whom made the good confession before many witnesses. What does he mean by these words?
It may be good to begin with verse 13, as we have some Scripture with which we may compare this idea. Paul tells us that the Lord Jesus “witnessed the good confession” before Pontius Pilate. In John 18:33-38, this incident is fleshed out for us. There, we notice two things: 1. Pilate asked Jesus publicly if he was king of the Jews. Our savior did not answer this immediately and directly, because to do so would have been misleading. Pilate would have understood him in political terms, and this was not Jesus’ intention for himself and his followers. 2. Pilate followed this question with another, seeking to determine why it was that Jesus had been delivered up by his fellow countrymen. At this point, Jesus instructs Pilate plainly about the nature of his person and mission. When the circumstance was right and proper, Jesus spoke plainly and truthfully about these two most fundamental aspects of his person and work. In this case, the “good confession” was both accurate and true. It was good because it was accurate: faithful to the necessity of the circumstance-it did not withhold-it testified. And it was good because it was true: in content and intention it reflected the realities of Christ’s person and work. Jesus gave to Pilate a precise statement intended to give plain expression to the subject at hand.
In verse 12, Paul speaks of Timothy’s confession. Notice that he uses a different verb; this is significant. While Jesus “witnessed,” Timothy “confessed.” This probably points to a distinction between these two acts. The verb witness implies statement; the verb confess implies belief. Timothy could not “witness” the good confession in the way that Jesus uniquely could. Timothy confessed this good confession publicly: “before many witnesses,” probably at his baptism. Timothy’s act was like that of Jesus, a “good confession.” While the verb points to the act, the noun points to the thing confessed-as with Jesus, the content of that which was spoken. Timothy’s confession was like Jesus’-it was good. It must have been true in content and intention; it must have been faithful to the necessity of the circumstance; it must have given plain and precise expression to the subject at hand. It is even possible that the first phrase in verse 12 “fight the good fight of faith” gives us a clue to Timothy’s confession. “Faith” is often shorthand for the body of apostolic doctrine contained in the Scriptures. Whatever Timothy confessed, it was a true and accurate expression of his convictions.
B. The Content of the Confession
It is certain that when Timothy made his confession, he was not simply quoting Scripture. He must have, in some way, expressed in his own words the truths that he believed. But what would the content be?
If we set this notion into its scriptural context we may see clearly that it is the body of doctrine contained in the Word of God. The Bible is full of references to the existence of such a thing. It is not to be equated with any one passage of scripture, but with the teaching of all of scripture; it is the system of truth maintained throughout the pages of Holy Writ.
Paul, for example, makes reference to this in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. He instructs the recipients of his letter to “stand fast and hold the traditions” they were taught. These would be the basis for their lives as believers. But what does Paul mean by the term “tradition?”
In the New Testament, the word for tradition (paradosis) is used 11 times, in the sense of a received practice or belief with its origin in an authoritative source. It is not simply a custom; it is something that must be followed. It has two different senses: negative and positive; i.e. there is good tradition and bad tradition.
Notice Mark 7:1-9. In this passage, the traditions of the elders are the established and accepted teachings of the Jewish Rabbis. As they studied Scripture and applied it to their lives and culture, they believed that God’s Law required certain practices. These became “traditions.” They did not merely come into accepted practice over a period of time; they were prescribed by an authoritative source: the Rabbis.
Paul employed the word in the same way. Notice for example, how the term is used in the following texts: Galatians 1:14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers; Colossians. 2:8 Beware lest any one cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. In each of these cases, tradition = something received as it was authoritatively taught. It was not a mere custom, but a belief bearing the weight of authority. Now in these verses, tradition is bad, because the authority behind it has misunderstood God’s revelation, so that the original concept is obscured. The result is that the people of God are expected to submit to this teaching, as if it were God’s, when in fact it is man’s invention. The tradition itself was authoritative.
This is not, however, the only sense in which we find the word tradition in the Pauline corpus. We need to consider its good sense as well in the following places: 1 Corinthians 11:2 Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things, and keep the traditions, as I delivered them to you; 2 Thessalonians 3:6 But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly, and not according to the tradition which he received from us. In these places, tradition is good. The Corinthians are praised for their adherence to it, and the Thessalonians are to use it as a standard by which to judge behavior.
In all of these cases, tradition is a pattern of life originating in an authoritative source, and this is exactly its meaning in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Tradition is a belief or practice sanctioned by authoritative teaching and received as an essential part of religion. Whether it is good or bad depends on the source! This idea is confirmed by our verse-three phrases make this clear:
a. “Which you were taught”-the source of these traditions was teaching-not habitual practice. They were the fruit and product of instruction.
b. “whether by word”-Tradition may have its source in verbal communication.
c. “or by our epistle”-Tradition may have its source in written communication from Paul, although verse 2 contributes an important caveat for written communication: the source must be genuine.
To summarize, tradition is apostolic doctrine, which is tradition in the sense that, resting on divine authority, it is passed on by God’s messengers and received by His servants. It therefore does not, and cannot, refer to human teachings sanctioned by some type of religious hierarchy. It refers solely to the doctrines and practices of the apostles as they were delivered, passed on and practiced by the churches.
3. There are a whole host of similar ideas in the Bible. We will simply mention several, limiting ourselves to the Pastoral Epistles : In 1 Timothy 6:20, and 2 Timothy 1:12&14 Paul uses the phrase “Guard the deposit”, referring to the truth Timothy had received. In 1 Timothy 1:10, 2 Timothy 4:3, Titus 1:9 and 2:1 the apostle speaks of “sound doctrine”; and using a similar adjective speaks of “sound words” in 1 Timothy 6:3, and the “pattern of sound words” in 2 Timothy 1:13. The same idea is conveyed when he urges Titus to ensure that the Cretans are “sound in the faith” in Titus 1:13, 2:2; and in 1 Timothy 6:3 uses the phrase “the doctrine which is according to godliness”. In all of these cases, Paul refers to a cohesive standard of doctrine, and the men addressed are to hold it, guard it, and live by it. It is not just the words of Scripture in themselves, but the doctrine taught by those words, and even more, the system of doctrine taught by those words. He doesn’t tell them to guard the Scriptures, but to guard the doctrine. It is silly to think of the matter in any other terms. This is our warrant for the practice of confessing the faith. We must understand the system of doctrine contained in Holy Scripture, and guard it, defend it, propagate it-confess it-to the glory of God.
See for example John R.W. Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001), 157; William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary 46 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 356-57; I. Howard Marshall, Pastoral Epistles, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 660-61; Jerome D. Quinn and William C. Wacker, The First and Second Letters to Timothy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 519; William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1957), 204.