The Pillar and Ground of Truth
Question: If the church is the "pillar and ground of the truth", as Paul says to Timothy, then how does the doctrine of Sola Scriptura work into this passage? It seems to say that without the church, and its interpretation, then we have no way of really knowing the correct meaning of any given passage of Scripture. How come the Bible is not referred to as the pillar of truth?
Answer: This verse is often quoted - or rather misquoted - by Catholic apologists to bolster the supposed authority and the infallibility of the Roman Catholic magisterium. They seek to impress by quoting Scripture, hoping of course, that the reader would not take a moment of reflection to notice that the verse says nothing about infallible interpretation or that it is not referring to the college of Roman Catholic bishops.
The apostle Paul says to Timothy: "These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:14,15).
The apostle clearly identifies the church as God's household, and therefore it comprises every true Christian, not only their leaders. The whole church - all Christians - are collectively the pillar and ground of truth.
So, what does this passage mean? Paul is using a building imagery. A pillar rests on immoveable ground, and together they support a structure. Thus the church upholds and supports the truth revealed by God. God's people are called to preserve the pure teaching of His Word, which is the truth. It is their duty to be light in this dark world. But that does not imply that the church fulfils this great duty perfectly and infallibly. Even in the New Testament, we read about churches (such as the Corinthian and the Galatian churches) which had embraced some serious mistakes and errors. Similarly, Christian teachers are liable to err. James writes "My brethren, let not many of you become teachers knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgement," and immediately gives the reason for his admonition, "For we stumble in many things" (James3:1,2). St. James humbly admits that even he, who was one of the greatest teachers in the early church, was liable to make many mistakes. We can also mention the apostle Peter who led others astray by his inconsistent behaviour (Galatians 2:11-21).
Yet despite its many shortcomings, the church is called to be the ground and pillar of truth. That is why the apostle Paul writes to Timothy and gives him various instructions about the life and discipline of the church (how to deal with false doctrines, prayer, qualifications for elders and deacons, etc.), so that the church will be strong to fulfill its tremendous responsibility.
You will undoubtedly realize why Paul calls the church, and not the Bible, "the pillar and ground" of truth. Being the Word of God, the Bible is not merely "the pillar and ground," but the "truth" itself. Jesus prayed to the Father: "Sanctify them by Your truth. Your Word is truth" (John 17:17). In other words, the mission of the church is to faithfully uphold, defend and proclaim the teaching of the Bible. It follows that an indispensable mark of the true church is its faithfulness to the Gospel. A "church" that has departed from the truth and is teaching another "gospel" is a cracked pillar and sandy ground.
The next time you read 1 Timothy 3:15 quoted by a Catholic apologist, you must consciously make an assumption and draw an important conclusion. If you assume that "the church" refers to the Roman Catholic bishops and not to all Christians, then "the truth" is whatever the Roman magisterium teaches. But if you assume that "the truth" is the Gospel message recorded infallibly in the Scriptures, then you can check out whether the Roman magisterium (which claims to be "the church") is faithfully teaching God's message.
"The pillar and ground of the truth" is a double-edged sword. If Catholics take hold of it, they will cut to pieces the proud claim of the infallible authority of Rome.
Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A