A Biblical Theology of the Letters to Timothy and Titus

What Is Biblical Theology?

One of the most promising recent trends in biblical scholarship is the burgeoning field of biblical theology. What is biblical theology? The simplest definition is this: “Biblical theology is the theology of the Bible, that is, the theology of the biblical writers themselves.” This means that as a discipline, biblical theology must be primarily inductive, historical, and descriptive. It must be inductive because we’re initially interested, not so much in getting answers for our own theological questions, but in what convictions the writers of Scripture themselves held and sought to convey in their writings. It must be historical because of necessity such biblical-theological work is asking historical questions and is seeking to understand the biblical writers’ convictions and messages within the framework of their own historical context. It must be descriptive because in biblical theology we are primarily interested in listening to and understanding the convictions of the biblical writers and in representing those as accurately as possible. That’s why biblical theology, properly conceived, must be inductive, historical, and descriptive.

What is the Biblical Theology of Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus?

Let’s now apply the above general insights concerning the nature of biblical theology to one concrete biblical set of writings, Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. First, we should realize that many dispute that these letters are legitimately part of the Pauline corpus in the New Testament. Instead, they argue that these letters were written by a follower of Paul after the apostle’s death, a view called “pseudonymity” (writing under a false name). Of course, it seems counter-intuitive that the church would have accepted a piece of writing into its collection of inspired, authoritative writings (the canon) that it knew was not written by its purported author. This is true especially since Paul himself repeatedly warns against pseudonymous epistles (see, e.g., 2 Thess 2:2) and asserts the authenticity of letters written by him (e.g., Gal 6:11). Not only does each of the letters to Timothy and Titus open with an explicit affirmation that the letter was written by “Paul the apostle,” many of the details surrounding the writing of these letters are inextricably woven into the fabric of the letter (e.g., Paul’s directive to Timothy to bring his warm coat and certain scrolls when he visits him in prison; 2 Tim 4:13). For these and other reasons, we resolutely reject the notion of the pseudonymity of these letters.

The question of authorship is important because when we ask, “What is the Biblical Theology of Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus?” this implies the question, “Whose theology are we talking about?” I contend that the answer is, “We’re talking about the theology of the apostle Paul during the final years of his ministry.” Some point out that in the letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul uses different vocabulary and even conceives of various aspects of theology (soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology) differently than he does in his ten earlier letters (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon). This is true. However, there seems to be no good reason why Paul in his later years could not have communicated some of the same theological truths in different yet complimentary ways to his followers given their own ministry contexts and the cultural contexts in which they ministered. In fact, it would make sense if he did. In the series of posts to follow, I will look at individual themes that are prominent in these letters: (1) mission; (2) teaching; (3) God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and salvation; (4) the church; (5) the Christian life; and (6) the last days. I will conclude with a discussion of interconnections between the letters to Timothy and Titus and the rest of the Bible.

What Are the Most Important Theological Themes in Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus?

How did I arrive at the above-mentioned major themes? First, as mentioned, if Paul is the author of these letters, and if they were written toward the end of his apostolic ministry, it should be obvious that the mission of the apostle Paul and of the early church are the proper place to start. This, in turn, means we should explore entailments of the mission theme, such as the nature of apostolic authority, the role of apostolic delegates (such as Timothy and Titus), the reality of suffering, Paul’s larger mission strategy, and other related subthemes. Closely related is the theme of teaching, which relates to the message of salvation Paul and his delegates proclaimed, including the so-called “trustworthy sayings” and Paul’s use of Scripture. Third, there is the related cluster of references to God and Christ as Savior and several references to the Holy Spirit, mostly in conjunction with salvation. So, we see how the first three themes, in particular – mission, teaching, and salvation – are closely interrelated.

Fourth, Paul casts the church as God’s household. This is one example where he goes a different direction than in his earlier letters where he spoke of the church primarily as the body of Christ with believers being individual members of the body. Here, he presents pastors as heads of God’s spiritual household who are charged with providing for the needs of the diverse members of the church and with protecting them from spiritual predators such as false teachers. Fifth, Paul has quite a bit to say about the nature of the Christian life. In many ways, Timothy and Titus serve as paradigmatic disciples who are urged to pursue a set of Christian virtues such as self-control, patience, and love. This helps us focus on the importance of cultivating Christian character – being as opposed to merely doing. Finally, Paul in these letters provides a distinctive treatment of the last days. In essence, Paul contends, the last days have already arrived in form of false teachers who seek to infiltrate the church and to subvert the apostolic teaching. He writes his letters to his trusted partners so they can stand firm against such threats.

The Contribution of Biblical Theology

Looking at the letters to Timothy and Titus in terms of biblical theology can help us get a better grasp of the contribution of these letters to the biblical teaching. By focusing on their distinctive emphases, we will get a sharper picture of what mattered most to the author of these letters (the apostle Paul) and how these writings form part of the early church’s mission as it is portrayed in other New Testament books such as the book of Acts and Paul’s other letters (not to mention the so-called General Epistles, New Testament letters written by people other than Paul, such as the apostles John and Peter or half-brothers of Jesus such as James and Jude). In this way, we can appreciate the unity in diversity of the Bible and of the New Testament. Just as the different instruments in an orchestra, or the different players on a basketball team, the various biblical writings can thus be seen to work together to present the theology of Scripture in a way that is colorful, complementary, and spiritually nurturing as we seek to understand God’s character and the unfolding of his plan of salvation.

 

For more on this subject, you can also explore my Commentary on 1–2 Timothy and Titus in the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation series published by B&H.


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