Paul uses an economic metaphor in 1-2 Timothy to describe the content of the Gospel. This faith is a “deposit” (παραθήκη) which has been entrusted to Paul and Timothy to guard until the day when Christ returns as judge.
A problem for us in reading 2 Timothy is the use of the word ‘tradition.” This is not a tradition in the sense of a longstanding practice that we have “always done,” but rather a body of beliefs and behavioral expectations that define what it means to be a Christian (as opposed to a pagan or a Jew). The tradition to be guarded is “an unchangeable deposit. Whether the church stands or falls depends upon leaders who are qualified to guard this deposit” (Towner, 294).
What is the Source of this “Deposit”? Paul was “appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher” of the Gospel (2 Tim 1:11). This description of Paul’s ministry is similar to 1 Timothy 2:7. The “preacher” in the ESV is better a “herald,” or “proclaimer.” This is a person who is appointed to deliver a particular message, in Paul’s case, from God. The language is a little different in 1 Timothy 1:18, 6:20 and 2 Timothy 2:2. In these later books, Timothy is encouraged to guard or protect the deposit given to him.
Paul mentions things passed down to him in his earlier letters: Two traditional elements were handed down to him from the apostles, such as 1 Cor 11:2 (the Lord’s table) and 15:1 (witnesses to the resurrection). In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul encourages the congregation to “stand firm” in the traditions which Paul delivered to them. Even in his earliest letter, Paul considers his gospel a tradition which cannot be modified (Gal 1:14). Paul is clear, however, that much of what he preached he received directly from Jesus through a special revelation.
For some doctrines, this is a direct revelation that could not be deduced from the Hebrew Bible. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul says the Lord himself gave him his teaching on the future resurrection. That Jews and Gentiles are saved into a single body without requiring the Gentiles to keep the Law is a “mystery” which was unrevealed in the Hebrew Bible. In other cases the tradition is handed down from the apostles through Paul, to Timothy and then to the qualified elders in Ephesus. Sometimes Paul is the source, but in either case Paul commands Timothy to guard this tradition carefully.
For some of Paul’s teaching, he may have been led by the Holy Spirit to interpret biblical texts differently, or to combine texts from the Hebrew Bible in unique ways which supported the idea that Jesus is the Messiah or that salvation is apart from works. Romans 4 implies the story of Abraham could be interpreted in a way that supported Paul’s gospel. This is exegesis guided by the Spirit of God. (Spirit-led exegesis and scholarship which applies Scripture to new situations is in fact a source of proper teaching!)
In any case, the body “tradition” which Paul handed on to Timothy is to be guarded and invested, and passed on to the next generation of Christian leaders.
Bibliography: Philip H. Towner, “Pauline Theology Or Pauline Tradition In The Pastoral Epistles: The Question Of Method,” Tyndale Bulletin 46 (1995): 285-314. See also P. H. Towner, The Goal of Our Instruction: The Structure of Theology and Ethics in the Pastoral Epistles (JSNTSupp 34; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1989).