The word of the day is “imposter.” From his earliest letters onward, Paul had to include a warning against interlopers who would lead the faithful astray. In our reading of 2 Timothy 3:10-15, Paul cautions his apprentice Timothy that these pretenders are bound to increase. He writes, “But evil men and imposters will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (vs. 13). In today’s study, we learn how to identify these charlatans and to guard against their deception.
False Christs and False Prophets Will Keep Appearing
The Lord warned that “false Christ’s” and “false prophets” would appear and attempt to lead many astray (Matthew 24:24). His warning has applied to the Church throughout the ages. They have ranged from Hymenaeus and Philetus in Timothy’s day (2 Timothy 2:17, to the arch-heretic Arius in Constantine’s time, to the latest preacher of the “Prosperity Gospel” in our day.
This continuing threat of deception in the Church raises the question of how we are to identify these phonies before they can gain a foothold among us. In Timothy, Paul suggests they babble about trifles (vs. 2:16) and quarrel about foolish things (vs. 2:22). They “creep into households and make captives of vulnerable women” (vs. 6). They are full of lust, pride, and ungodliness (3:1-9). They have no love of God but love pleasure (vs. 3). They are always learning something new but never arrive at the truth (3:7). They impress people with their piety, but their observance of the practices of religion lack spiritual power (3:5).
In his time in the 4th Century, St. John Chrysostom described how such phonies were fooling the ignorant and naive. They claimed to be able to predict future earthshaking events. They claimed to have the clairvoyance to find lost objects. They taught new spiritual knowledge beyond what God has revealed. By these means, the imposters sought control of the hearts and minds of the gullible, not for their benefit but for their own (NfPf 13.8, 508-509).
The Safeguard Against Deceivers
How then are the faithful to escape the clutches of these pretenders? Paul suggests that one thing stands between these deceivers and the truth of salvation in Christ. That safeguard is teaching grounded in “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Accordingly, Timothy is to “instruct the brethren in these things… in the words of faith and of good doctrine which you carefully followed” (1 Timothy 4:6).
What doctrine and faith? “Doctrine” refers to the teachings that Paul taught and reinforced with His example (Strong’s #1319, 68). The apostle describes this instruction as the “pattern of sound words” that Timothy “heard” (2 Timothy 1:13). Note that Timothy “heard” it from Paul. Therefore, it was oral teaching. Moreover, “faith” refers to the body of beliefs and practices that he learned from childhood (vs. 15) from his pious grandmother Lois and mother Eunice (2 Timothy 1:5). To this end, while he was still an infant, they made him familiar with the Holy Scriptures.[i]
Not Only What is Taught But Who Teaches It Matters
Paul urges Timothy to “continue in [these] things which you have learned” (vs14). Then Paul adds that Timothy is assured of the truth of these things because he knows from whom he has learned them” (vs. 14). This comment reveals that it is important not only to know the faith but to know who taught it to you. Yes, Scripture is the heart of the Holy Tradition, and Holy Tradition is the witness to Christ that came from the apostles. But unless one knows its original languages, the Bible must be translated. Furthermore, that translation must be interpreted.
Consequently, what the Scriptures teach depends on who is teaching them. When it is taught rightly, the Bible makes one “wise to salvation.” Furthermore, it can be used to teach, reprove, correct, and train others in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). Yet, if its interpretation is in error, then it has no wisdom and its counsel is in error.
Let’s return to the question of imposters. In our study, we can identify three marks of the deceivers who would lead us from the truth of the Gospel. First, they set out a message that is “new,” a revelation of “truths” never heard or elaborated before. To make this claim, they try to demonstrate a greater knowledge and higher wisdom than others. And they rely on this novelty for the basis of their authority. A second trait follows. They or their teachings generally come from outside the circle of the faith as tradition has taught it. All are self-appointed. Many are self-governed and permit no one to oversee their programs or teachings. Third, they put on a spell-binding show. For instance, in Chrysostom’s time, they used claims of clairvoyance and fortune-telling to attract their audience. At other times they have faked miracles or devised clever timelines to predict Christ’s return. Generally, however, they capture the attention of their hearers with fancy words and the pretension of newly discovered secrets of supernatural knowledge.
Against these techniques of deception, St. Paul said, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1-2). On this Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, we hear of the clear difference between hypocrisy and humility. If the center of the message is not the Crucified Christ that is spoken in sincerity and humility, then we can tell that it is not the Gospel but spiritual deceit.
As we prepare for Great Lent, let us makes plans to include the rigorous study of the Holy Scriptures and the doctrine and faith of the church in our Lenten disciples. This is the best way to guard against spiritual imposters.
[i] The Orthodox Study Bible clarifies that as the New Testament did not exist yet, the “sacred writings” signifies the Old Testament. (OSB fn. on 2 Timothy 3:14-17).