Preformed Material in the Pastoral Epistles

One of the fascinating aspects of the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) is Paul’s use of preformed matter.  Preformed material is a fixed expression or formulaic saying that is quoted by the author, but is not original to the work in which you read it.  Examples of these in the New Testament include “trustworthy sayings,” confessional, hymnic, or creedal statements, vice lists, and connections to or quotations from the Old Testament.

In the pastoral epistles they are especially common.  E. E. Ellis argues that 41% of 1 Timothy, 16% of 2 Timothy, and 46% of Titus is preformed material.1  This is important because one of the reasons why some scholars doubt that Paul wrote these letters is due to their unique vocabulary compared to the rest of Paul’s writings.  Compared to the rest of Paul’s letters, these have differences in word choice, sentence length, word order, and use of particles and conjunctions.  However, two things should be noted:

  1. These letters were written to individual persons with whom Paul had worked closely.  These are personal correspondences and the emphasis is on passing on his apostolic legacy rather than instructing or correcting a church body.
  2. The large use of preformed material can make up for many of these discrepancies.  If a large portion of the letters comes from other sources which Paul is quoting, it is to be expected that a large portion of the grammar will be different.

For these reasons, uniqueness of these letters among the rest of the Pauline corpus need not cause us worry with respect to authenticity. Let us now take a look at some of Paul’s use of preformed materials.

Trustworthy Saying:

11 The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

2 Timothy 2:11-13

This passage clearly is a “trustworthy saying” since that is how Paul himself introduces it, although it may have been part of an early hymn as well, and it is the only one in 2 Timothy.  It comes immediately after Paul is exhorting Timothy to be strong in Christ, work hard, and compete well and reminds him of Paul’s own suffering for the sake of the Gospel.  Up until v11 Paul is using singular pronouns (“I endure all things…”) but switches to plural for this saying (“If we have died…”) which enforces that this trustworthy saying applies to all believers and he is no longer talking only about his own experiences.

Andreas Kostenberger, in his new commentary on these epistles, argues that this saying is original to Paul, even if it was preformed.  The theology that it teaches is thoroughly Pauline and has parallels to other writings of Paul, for example Romans 6:8 “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him”.

This saying is composed of four clauses, the first two dealing with our obedience and the last two with our disobedience.  The first clause is likely talking about life and death in a spiritual sense here on Earth.  We die to ourselves with Christ and find newness of life.  Similarly, the second clause is about the believer’s current reign with Christ.  There certainly is a future element to both of these clauses, but we should not forget the present application of these verses.

The last two clauses are quite interesting, in my opinion.  The third clause is probably the main reason why Paul quoted this saying: he is trying to encourage and motivate Timothy to endure hardships and to not fall away.  

The last of these clauses is fairly startling to read at first.  The first three follow a similar pattern: We do something, then something of the same kind happens.  Yet in this last one, we fall, but are not counted as worse for it.  Based on the first three, the expectation would be that when we stumble in our faith, then Christ will drop us.  But this is not what happens!  When we are weak, he is strong; we are faithless and Christ remains faithful!  This again echoes Romans 3:3-4 “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar”.

Confession:

16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
    vindicated by the Spirit,
        seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
    believed on in the world,
        taken up in glory.

1 Timothy 3:16

This marks the turning point in the letter between the first part referring to how the church should operate and be structured and the second part about the church’s relationship to the broader culture.  It is a confession, but it may also be part of a hymn, possibly titled “The Mystery of Godliness.”

It is composed of three “couplets”, each connecting an aspect of the spiritual world to the natural world.  The first one shows Christ’s work as accomplished, the second as made known, and the third as acknowledged.  Although the passage does not explicitly state the that “He” of v16 is Christ, it is strongly implied and is the best reading of the passage.

Vice List:

 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

2 Timothy 3:1-5

This section also marks a turning point in the letter as it ends the first half of encouragement to Timothy and begins the latter half focused on enduring hardship.  Although this may not strike you as preformed matter, it is argued that the formulaic phrase “avoid such men as these”2 serves to mark off the end of traditional materials.  Another indicator that it likely comes from a tradition is that at least seven words in the passage are found no where else in the entire N.T. and six words appear only once elsewhere.

As is common to many of Paul’s letters, he shifts to an eschatological outlook (“in the last days…”).  This vice list serves as a scathing description of the last days, describing the depths to which the culture and society will fall.  As Christians, we know that these times will come and that we will have to take a stand against the culture in which we find ourselves, one that is increasingly hostile to the Gospel.

Paul himself reinforces this just a few verses later with “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived”.  However, we should keep in mind Paul’s command to Timothy immediately after this: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed…”

Hymn:

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Titus 2:11-14

This passage, especially verses 13-14, reads much like a fragment from a hymn or creed.  In this respect, it is similar to 1 Timothy 3:16, in that labeling it as either a hymn or a confession is possible and we do not know which it actually was.

This section serves as encouragement and motivation to follow the commands that preceded it.  The chapters before this passage give guidance for how the church is to be led and how the members should behave, and much of this is difficult to follow.  If verses 11-14 truly are part of a tradition, then Paul is likely appealing to common knowledge at this point to motivate the believers.

Significance

What is the importance of Paul’s use of preformed material?  Is it significant that the letters intended to guide the operations of the local church are also those that have some of the highest concentration of preformed material?

First we should note that there is never a command for the local church to incorporate materials such as creeds into it’s daily workings.  We are not commanded to use catechisms and creeds in our services and there are very little Biblical commands on how a church service ought to be run.  In this regard, both traditional, liturgical churches and contemporary churches both fall within the Biblical examples.

However, Paul did not shy away from the use of these types of materials and was an active user of them, to the point that many of them (as we’ve seen) have been incorporated into Scripture itself.  They are used to instruct, encourage, motivate, and correct the believer as well as serving as a common reference point for doctrine and practice.  They draw lines in the sand and are easily taught and remembered.

Therefore, while I would never argue that it is a Biblical command, I believe that these sorts of materials (such as creeds) have a natural place in the lives of believers as well as in the local church and the church should not be fearful of adopting them.

1. See here.

2. See here.

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