In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he is speaking more directly and more personally to Timothy than in the prior letter. Where the first letter was aimed more broadly at the saints of the church and then at him (Timothy) in that context, the second was written as a mentor’s last words of encouragement in the understanding that his last days were in sight. Paul is known for his “running the race” metaphors, and in that way he and Timothy had run the race together for a time. As Paul was drawing near to the end of his own race he was making sure to pass the baton on to Timothy. He was using some of the last few moments of his life to encourage Timothy to press on, to run the race faithfully and to not be sidetracked or disqualified from that race.
Paul reminds Timothy not to be hindered by quarrels and irreverent babble; in fact he repeats this several times in several ways. In the midst of this he says “present yourself to God as one approved” “rightly handling the word of truth.” I’m not a Greek scholar, but as I study more I am learning the value of incorporating analysis of the Greek texts during exegesis. The Greek word we translate as “rightly handling” or, as some translations say it, “rightly dividing”, is ορθοτομεω (orthotomeō). As I look through reference after reference of this word and its various uses, the common theme that emerges is the idea of forging or cutting a straight path. Mounce defines it as “to cut straight; to set forth truthfully, without perversion or distortion”. The references (whether explanatory or historically based) all hint at the idea of “cutting” a road or a path. The image that forms in my mind is traveling through a dense jungle and having to hack through brush and vines, having to labor for every inch of progress but at the same time realizing the absolute imperative for maintaining a straight path. Not straying to the left or to the right when an obstacle is in the path, and not simply bypassing it but rather dealing with it then and there. (The full phrase is orthotomeo logos aletheia, and to fully flesh-out the meaning we could see that expounded as “set forth, without perversion or distortion, the message/word of truth” or “in accordance with Gospel Truth”).
This straight path begins with “the testimony about our Lord” (2 Tim. 1:8): God’s covenant faithfulness, which was fulfilled in the Messiah so that we would be justified not by our works but rather because of His faithful obedience to the Father. Continuing in this truth, Timothy is told “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 1:13-15). (Try to think of presenting yourself as “giving yourself as a gift”, not so much as a presentation but rather gift-ing yourself… PRESENT-ing yourself)
So Paul makes this comment about faithfully attaining to the Gospel Truths that he passed on to Timothy and surrounds the comment with a flurry of comments about not getting sidetracked by quarreling about words, irreverent babble, foolish/ignorant controversies (the specifics of what these entail we’ll save for another time). For Timothy, this meant sticking to the verbal teachings from Paul that were inspired of God’s Holy Spirit. He didn’t have the same compilation of spirit-inspired texts and letters that we now refer to as the New Testament (and for that matter, that we each have readily available in paper form en masse and in digital form in our pockets). For us, this directive from Paul to rightly handle the word of truth means that we stick to those teachings of God’s inspired word that have been revealed and preserved. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; our only path to the Father. Both of them are revealed to us today by The Spirit through that inspired word, and so it becomes utterly important for us to take care with how we handle the words of that message.
"We approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world... It is easy to be unaware that it has happened; it is hard even to begin to realize how profoundly tradition in this sense has moulded us." –J.I. Packer
"In order to swim one takes off all one's clothes--in order to aspire to the truth one must undress in a far more inward sense, divest oneself of all one's inward clothes, of thoughts, conceptions, selfishness etc., before one is sufficiently naked." --Soren Kierkegaard
As Michael discussed in his book, Rise of the Time Lords, we are all susceptible to what he titled spiritual gravity [p.29]. He defined it as such:
“It is the tendency of mankind to be selfish and self-centered: the tendency to see the world around us as bending inward toward us. Just as a planet bends the space-time around it creating gravity, so too do we see the world from a self-centered perspective and believe it should form itself to us. We see this in our children, from their very infancy, and unfortunately in all of us as we age. Spiritual gravity, left unchecked, makes our souls collapse inward in selfishness until all that is left is smallness and “me”-ness.”In that same way, our own preconceptions have a distorting effect on everything we encounter. In the same way that the gravity of a planet or a star can affect objects and light, our own assumptions and worldview can distort how we perceive things. It’s in this sense that we can become victims to our own cognitive biases. The most predominant of those being confirmation bias which is "the tendency of the human brain to filter out and ignore evidence which contradicts our preconceived notions, and focus on the things that confirm our notions."An atheist will read the bible differently than a Christian, an Arminian differently than a Calvinist, Catholic differently than an Evangelical, a conservative different than a liberal, and on and on. Where one person will look at an occurrence in the Bible and focus on the response of man/woman, another person will see that same occurrence and focus on the sovereignty of God. We spend so much time approaching the word of God with our own distortions that instead of going to God’s word to shape our knowledge and wisdom, we end up attempting to shape the words of the Spirit according to our own minds. That, instead of repeatedly drawing the fresh, living water from the well, we try pouring our own mottled water into the well. When in reality we should be taking our accumulated understanding, presumptions, and prideful world views and laying them at the feet of the savior as filthy rags.
Every tool in our theological bag should be founded in scripture, shaped by it, and tested continuously by it. We should be growing in the knowledge of the totality of scripture, not just our favorite verses or the ones that best prescribe or confirm our own world view or tradition. As Joshua Harris said, “Truth is not about us. It is about God." We must never lose sight of the fact that we are not infallible people, and that we can never fully know the mind of God or completely understand His plan. No person or organization holds exclusivity on Truth except for God the Son, God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit. This being said, we will always have room to grow in the wisdom and knowledge that is of and from God. So while there are certainly times where it helps to use certain theological thought processes, we should remember that theologians (God-studiers) aren't the ones that have searched "everything, even the depths of God" but rather it was the Holy Spirit who did (1 Cor. 2:10-13). Therefore, since only the Holy Spirit knows the mind of God (Father & Son), and since all scripture was inspired by and through Him (the Holy Spirit), the words of God's inspired scripture should always be at the forefront of our beliefs and our actions. This means that God's inspired scripture always trumps theology, always trumps the theologian, and that every time there is a disagreement with the two scripture wins out every single time.
This means that you don't overemphasize one New Testament verse to the exclusion of another.
This means that when some grandiose theology begins from one Spirit-inspired verse but is contradicted by another "pesky" Spirit-inspired verse, you don't skip that verse or explain/neuter it away.
This means that when scripture continually refers to saints as all people whom Christ's church is composed of, that we don't elevate them or idolize them as "super Christians." (See 1 Cor. 1:2. Saint = ἅγιος; hagios. The word for sanctified, hagiazo, has the same root word)
This means that when Jesus and the Apostles proclaim that all should believe and be baptized into Jesus (in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), that we don't sit there and debate about whether or not doing so robs God of the power/ability to be the one saving us. We say "He commanded it, I'm going to do it."
We need to remember not to apply our own gravity to the scriptures, but let the gravity of the words of The Spirit have total gravity over us. We need to rightly gravitate the word of God.
Dan lives in Texas with his wife Carah and their obnoxious collie Kirra.