Due to all the talk in the blogosphere about Jason Stellman's announcement that he is converting to Rome, I felt that it was a good time to answer a question posed by one of my readers regarding a text frequently used by Roman apologists, 1 Timothy 3:15.
"if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth." (NIV)
The claim made regarding this particular passage is that if it is the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, then sola scriptura cannot possibly be true. If Paul held to sola scriptura, surely he would have labeled scripture the pillar and foundation of the truth rather than the church. This is then assumed to be the case only in the Roman church, rendering all Protestants, Anglicans and Lutherans wrong. I find this argument unpersuasive. Here are a couple reasons why:
First, notice what the text doesn't say. A comment made in passing about the church is hardly grounds for assuming an infallible magisterium under the Roman Papacy. This text says nothing about any magisterium or Pope. There is no definition of the church given in this text at all. Does it refer to the church in the apostolic era? The Eastern Orthodox church? The Coptic church? For a Roman Catholic to simply assume that it refers to what would become the modern Roman Church is highly isogetical. The text does not say anything about the infallibility of the Church. It doesn't give justification for the convening of infallible church councils. It doesn't give the Roman bishop authority to establish dogma by decree when speaking ex cathedra.
Second, the text doesn't state that the Church is the sole foundation of the truth. Look at the way the text is translated in the ESV:
"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." (ESV)
Here is the Greek text:
"ἐὰν δὲ βραδύνω, ἵνα εἰδῇς πῶς δεῖ ἐν οἴκῳ θεοῦ ἀναστρέφεσθαι, ἥτις ἐστὶν ἐκκλησία θεοῦ ζῶντος, στῦλος καὶ ἑδραίωμα τῆς ἀληθείας·" (SBL)
Both translations of the text are possible renderings. Paul could either be saying that the church is the foundation of the truth or a foundation of the truth. The absence of a definite article leaves either translation as a possibility. Irenaeus for example is just as willing to call scripture the "ground and pillar of our faith." (Against Heresies 31:1.2) He did not assume exclusivity to the claim that the church is the foundation of the truth.
All of that being said, neither translation renders the Lutheran approach to sola scriptura false. I can't imagine any Lutheran shying away from the statement that the church is the pillar and foundation of truth. The church is where the gospel comes to God's people. It is where the Scripture is proclaimed with boldness. The church is where faith exists, and where the sacraments come to God's people. Surely, there is nowhere else on earth other than in the church where the truth of the gospel is proclaimed. If someone were to ask where the truth is in American society, I could easily answer, "not the government, not in the broader culture, certainly not in the public school system, but in the church!" To assume anything beyond this of one statement made in passing without any broader explanation is reading far too much into the text.