St. Augustine is claimed by protestants as a sort of proto-reformer to add a degree of legitimacy in their claim against the Roman magisterium and the council of Trent about justification and whether it comes sola fide.
But is that view really accurate?
Retractationes 2.38: “In the meantime I received from certain laymen who, however, were learned in the Scriptures, certain writings which so distinguished good works from Christian faith as to say that it was possible to obtain eternal life without the former but not without the latter. In answer to them I wrote a book which is entitled On Faith and Works . . .”
This group of laymen were advancing a sort of antinomianism and advocating that unrepentant sinners be admitted to baptism without changing their way of life. St. Augustine absolutely disagrees: conversion of life is required before the person is admitted to baptism. Here are some quotes from his On Faith and Works (tr. Gregory Lombardo, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 47(?), Paulist Press: 1988) which speak most directly to the Lutheran problem. (This text comes from 413, relatively late in Augustine’s life).
“Let us now consider the question of faith. In the first place, we feel that we should advise the faithful that they would endanger the salvation of their souls if they acted on the false assurance that faith alone is sufficient for salvation or that they need not perform good works in order to be saved.” (Chapter 14, p. 28)
“When St. Paul says, therefore, that man is justified by faith and not by observance of the Law, he does not mean that good works are not necessary or that it is enough to receive and to profess the faith and no more. What he means rather and what he wants us to understand is that man can be justified by faith even though he has not previously performed any works of the law.” (Ibid, pp. 28-29).
It seems to me that St. Augustine’s position is shockingly Catholic! In fact, one can see how the Tridentine anathemas of the protestant position find a lot of support in St. Augustine, for instance:
Canon 19: “If anyone shall say that nothing besides faith is commanded in the Gospel; that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, but free; or that the Ten Commandments in no wise appertain to Christians; let him be anathema.”
One might object that St. Augustine is not an infallible authority and that the value of his theory must be judged against its adequacy as an exposition of holy Scripture. But of course, the same situation obtains about Luther’s disastrous dichotomy between Law and Grace. So, I’ll put this as a challenge to my readers: who’s theology is better supported by exegesis of St. Paul, Luther’s or St. Augustine’s?
The history of recent Pauline scholarship should make any overeager protestants wary of asserting that Luther must be. The case remains to be proved that St. Augustine is right, of course. But his position looks promising to me because it doesn’t postulate this big gap between James and Paul that made Luther want to cut James right out of the canon for being too popish.