Augustine on Scripture

I would not believe the holy Gospels if it were not for the authority of the Holy Catholic Church.

Roman Catholic apologists often use this statement of Augustine’s (can’t find the citation) to try to show the protestant doctrine of sola scriptura mistaken. While writing my previous post, I came across the following quote by Augustine, which I liked very much because it shows that Augustine cannot be unambiguously claimed for the Pope’s cause.

5. As regards our writings, which are not a rule of faith or practice, but only a help to edification, we may suppose that they contain some things falling short of the truth in obscure and recondite matters, and that these mistakes may or may not be corrected in subsequent treatises. For we are of those of whom the apostle says: “And if you be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.” Such writings are read with the right of judgment, and without any obligation to believe. In order to leave room for such profitable discussions of difficult questions, there is a distinct boundary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. The authority of these books has come down to us from the apostles through the successions of bishops and the extension of the Church, and, from a position of lofty supremacy, claims the submission of every faithful and pious mind. If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood. In the innumerable books that have been written latterly we may sometimes find the same truth as in Scripture, but there is not the same authority. Scripture has a sacredness peculiar to itself. In other books the reader may form his own opinion, and perhaps, from not understanding the writer, may differ from him, and may pronounce in favor of what pleases him, or against what he dislikes. In such cases, a man is at liberty to withhold his belief, unless there is some clear demonstration or some canonical authority to show that the doctrine or statement either must or may be true. But in consequence of the distinctive peculiarity of the sacred writings, we are bound to receive as true whatever the canon shows to have been said by even one prophet, or apostle, or evangelist. Otherwise, not a single page will be left for the guidance of human fallibility, if contempt for the wholesome authority of the canonical books either puts an end to that authority altogether, or involves it in hopeless confusion. 

English translation. Or read the Latin.

There is also a nice Augustine quote in Thomas Aquinas which has a decidedly protestant ring to it.

Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities [the pagan greek philosophers] as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): “Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning.”

To summarize, Augustine holds:

  1. that Christians have a right to judge non-canonical writings including his own.
  2. that there is a boundary between the canonical scriptures and everything else.
  3. that Scripture enjoys a peculiar sacredness.

Now it is certainly too much to say that Augustine holds something like sola scriptura. However, if there is a boundary between the scriptures and everything else, then shouldn’t we say there is also a boundary between the apostles and the bishops as their successors such that the former were authoritative but the latter are not?


6 Responses to Augustine on Scripture

  1. wtm says:

    Nice, Shane. As I have often said in comments across the theo-blogosphere, recognizing Scriptural authority as higher than that of tradition is a way of granting the apostles their rightful place. Indeed, this is the quintessence of how the Reformed have interpreted apostolic succession from the time of Calvin onward.

  2. robporwoll says:

    And yet this is not the whole story.
    Augustine also suggests, with more or less weight, in De Doctrina Christiana, and various places in De Trinitate that Scripture are divinely-given signs whose interpretation is entrusted to the Church.

    For example: Only from the security of “Peter’s rock” can we assuredly read the Scriptures to find Christ and be led to the Vision of the Father:
    [Of the theophany to Moses on the mountain as image of Christ:]
    “We have to behold Christ’s back…standing upon the solid foundation of faith, which is represented by the rock, and gazing at his flesh from the security of the lookout on the rock, namely the Catholic church, of which it is said, And upon this rock, I will build my church (mt 16:18). ” (De Trin. II. 28, Hill trans.)

    Augustine certainly has a high view of Scriptures but one ought not divorce that from being read within the Catholic-fold. Augustine, of course, was a hardened, anti-Donatist, anti-schismatic campaigner and his exegetical comments, I believe, ought to be read from an ecclesial hermeneutic.

  3. scholasticus says:

    I’m not prepared to claim Augustine is a proto-reformer. I’m simply trying to point out that he isn’t a tridentine catholic either.

  4. Halden says:

    I think on that point, you’re right Shane. We can’t read the controversies of the 16th century back onto Augustine. There was no nascent sola scriptura principle in his thought, but neither was there the idea of traditio sola either. Jaroslav Pelikan makes much the same point about the early Fathers in the first volume of his The Christian Tradition.

  5. nekliw says:

    One might ask, “How then did the Scriptures develop?” If succession is not continuous then where then is the authority to canonize the Scriptures to which Augustine refers?

  6. […] post info By aureliusaugustinus Categories: Augustine, Christianity, Religion, St. Augustine, christian theology, philosophy, reformed theology, scripture and theology Tags: Augustine, Christianity, church, Religion, St. Augustine “I would not believe the holy Gospels if it were not for the authority of the Holy Catholic Church.” Augustine. […]

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