A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy. 1:3-11. 1a). The wrong use of the law (continued).
At the same time the false teachers showed Gnostic as well as Jewish tendencies. For example, they were forbidding marriage and enjoining abstinence from foods (4:3f.). This indicated a false asceticism which was incompatible with the doctrine of creation and symptomatic of the Gnostic rejection of matter as evil. Some of the early church fathers, especially Irenaeus and Tertullian, followed up this clue. Both claimed that Paul was referring in 1 Timothy 1 to the full-blown Gnosticism of their day at the end of the second century, and both mentioned by name the learned Gnostic leader from Egypt, Valentinus. ‘When he [sc. Paul] mentions endless genealogies, we recognize Valentinus,’ writes Tertullian. Both also gave a brief account of the Gnostic system: that matter is evil; that the supreme God could therefore not have been the creator; that the gulf between him and the world was spanned by a succession of intermediaries called ‘aeons’; that one of them was far enough removed from God to create the material world; and that these constituted ‘the fabulous genealogy of thirty aeons’.
There are two main problems with this reconstruction. The first is that Paul was not predicting the future phenomenon of developed second-century Gnosticism, but was describing a reality with which Timothy had to deal in his own day, in which Gnosticism had only begun to develop. Secondly, there is no evidence that the Gnostics ever referred to the aeons as ‘genealogies’, as Irenaeus and Tertullian do. All we can say in conclusion is that Paul’s references suggest a false teaching which combined Jewish and Gnostic elements, either ‘a Gnosticizing Judaism’ or ‘Judaizing forms of Gnosticism’.
Paul now indicates two consequences of the false teaching, which are enough in themselves to condemn it. It obstructs both faith and love. Myths and genealogies *promote controversies* (4), he writes. The word is *ekzetesis* which can mean either ‘controversy’ (NIV, Cf. Tit.1:9) or ‘useless speculation’ (BAGD). In fact, it seems to combine both notions.
On the one hand, false teaching promotes ‘speculation’ *rather than God’s work – which is by faith* (4b). ‘Work’ translates *oikonomia*, which can be rendered either ‘stewardship’ or ‘plan’ (REB). The reference seems to be to God’s revealed plan of salvation, of which we are stewards, and to which we must respond by faith. For speculation raises doubts, while revelation evokes faith.
On the other hand, false teaching promotes ‘controversies’, ‘arguments and quarrels about the law’ (Tit.3:9). Whereas *the goal of this command*, or perhaps ‘the end of all Christian moral preaching’, *is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith* (5). Such love, issuing from the inner springs of our heart, conscience and faith, is uncontaminated by false or even mixed motives. *Some have wandered away from these* (the pure heart, clear conscience and genuine faith) *and turned to meaningless talk*. Both verbs mean either to ‘swerve’ (*astocheo*) or to ‘turn aside’ (*ektrepo*) and indicate the importance of maintaining a straight course.
Thus Paul paints a double contrast, between speculation and faith in God’s revelation, and between controversy and love for one another. Here are two practical tests for us to apply to all teaching. The first is the test of faith: does it come from God, being in agreement with apostolic doctrine (so that it may be received by faith), or is it the product of a fertile human imagination)? The second is the test of love: does it promote unity in the body of Christ, or if not (since truth itself can divide), is it irresponsibly divisive? ‘Faith’ means that we receive it from God; ‘love’ means that it builds up the church. ‘He judges doctrine by its fruit.’ The ultimate criteria by which to judge any teaching are whether it promotes the glory of God and the good of the church. The doctrine of the false teachers did neither. It promoted speculation and controversy instead.
Tomorrow: b). The right use of the law.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.