“Sound Doctrine” and “Health Food”
The notion of Scripture as food lends new insight to the description of teaching as “sound” or “wholesome” that appears frequently in Timothy and Titus. Let’s consider this expression a bit more closely.
Both English terms translating a participle of the Greek verb υγιαινω):
1 Tim 1:10 For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine ;
1 Tim 6:3 If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness;
2 Tim 1:13 Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.
2 Tim 4:3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;
Tit 1:9 Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.
Tit 2:1 But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine:
The verb means literally “to be healthy,” and the phrase is commonly understood to indicate that the teaching in question is orthodox, free from error, rather than “sick” and corrupt. It certainly is important for teachers to present the Scriptures accurately and not present error. But in light of what we have seen about the parallels between teaching and feeding the flock, there may be a deeper meaning.
The participle “sound” υγιαινων comes from the verb meaning “be healthy,” so the phrase is similar to our phrase “health food.” This modern expression means, not food that is itself intrinsically healthy, but rather food that brings health. In the same way, “healthy doctrine” would deserve the name because it yields health in the hearer.
This meaning is consistent with how Paul talks about teaching of which he disapproves, in the same letters.
2Ti 2:16-17 But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. 17 And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus;
1Ti 6:4-5 doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, 5 Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness:
The verses in 1 Tim 6 immediately follow v. 3, which speaks of “healthy words” (translated “wholesome words” in the AV). Paul rejects the contrasting form of doctrine, not just because its contents are false, but because of the spiritual damage it does to the hearers.
Of course, the two expressions are not mutually exclusive. One important reason for staying away from spoiled food (“unhealthy food”) is that it can make the eater sick. Plants and animals that are healthy yield food that helps make us healthy; eating meat from sick animals or vegetables from rotten plants can make us ill. Similarly, doctrine that is true to God’s revelation (the more common understanding of “sound doctrine”) is most likely to engender spiritual health in its hearers, and doctrine that teaches spiritual lies is dangerous, not just because it perverts the revelation of God, but because of its impact on the lives of those who consume it.
The idea that “healthy teaching” includes the idea of the teaching’s effect on the hearer can be found in the Old Testament, and is consistent with the use of the expression in other Greek literature of the first century.
Υγιαινω “to be healthy” does not appear in the LXX, though the related verb υγιαζω “to heal” does appear, as a common translation for the Hebrew verb רפא . רפא also occurs (though translated by derivatives of ιαομαι) in reference to speech, and when it does, it always has the sense of “healing words,” words that bring health.
Pro 15:4 A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.
Pro 12:18 There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health.
Pro 16:24 Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones.
Methodologically, the instances of the expression in the Bible are sufficient to establish its meaning, but it is interesting to note that this meaning is consistent with how it is used in other Greek contemporary with the New Testament. The application of “sound” to “words” to indicate their effect (and not just their own condition) is clearly illustrated in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a Greek-speaking Jewish writer born in 20 BC and active until AD 50. In his book “About Planting” (De Plantatione 1:114), he derives allegorical lessons from Moses’ instruction that fruit from trees in Canaan could not be eaten for three years after the conquest (Lev 19:23), comparing fruit with teaching. He says:
But the fruit which is not purified shall not be eaten; inasmuch as virtuous [αστειος “urban, cultured, civilized”] words λογοι, duly purified and healthful υγιαινοντες, nourish the soul, and give vigor to the mind; but the opposite kinds are not nutritious, but bring disease and destruction on the soul.