As previously promised, this post will treat the presence of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura in Augustine. First, let me state that by Sola Scriptura I do not necessarily mean a particular formulation by Luther or Calvin or any particular church, but rather I mean to show that the cluster of doctrinal positions into which all of these fall exists in the early church. So I really mean the doctrines (plural) of Sola Scriptura, and not some particular doctrine. I define these as follows:
A teaching is a Sola Scriptura doctrine if and only if it asserts that the contents of the canonical books of Scripture possess divine authority* and/or sufficiency for Christian faith and practice in a manner and/or to a degree which is unique and which exceeds, excells, or is otherwise superior to any other religious authority.
*By "authority" I mean "the quality of being authoritative," not "the right to command." God has the right to command, and the Scriptures are the authoritative source as to what it is he commands.
I mentioned two Sola Scriptura doctrines, one of which I think is good but incomplete and in general need of refinement, and the other of which I think is totally indefensible, in my post on Church dogma. The good but incomplete one says "Scripture alone is binding on the believer." The indefensible one says "Scripture alone is the source of all our knowledge of God." Another example of a Sola Scriptura doctrine is this excerpt from James Montgomery Boice's Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace, which I got off a bulletin from Tenth Pres.:
the Bible alone is our ultimate authority - not the pope, not the church, not the traditions of the church or church councils, still less personal intimations or subjective feelings, but Scripture only. Other sources of authority may have an important role to play. Some are even established by God - such as the authority of church elders, the authority of the state, or the authority of parents over children. But Scripture alone is truly ultimate. Therefore, if any of these other authorities depart from Bible teaching, they are to be judged by the Bible and rejected.
I would want to change this, as you will have noticed from my footnote above, to "God alone is our ultimate authority, and only the Bible is the ultimate authoritative source as to what he has commanded" (so as not to give the Bible authority separate from God's authority), but this is nit-picky. Let me give one more example of a Sola Scriptura doctrine, this time from the Westminster Confession (note: I like to cite the Westminster Confession because on issues other than soteriology it usually provides succinct and precise summaries of standard Protestant positions on issues. I'm not actually a Clavinist):
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men ... All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them ... The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (1.6-7, 10)
Now, my question at present is very restricted in scope: it is whether Augustine' teaches a doctrine somewhere in this general cluster. I do not propose in this post to examine whether any of these doctrines is precisely the same as Augustine's, whether they occur elsewhere in Church history, or even whether they are true. All these things should be examined diligently, but I'm trying to do one thing at a time.
De Doctrina Christiana 2.24-29 famously discusses the contents of the canon. Augustine is one of the first to describe a canon nearly identical to our present-day canon. (He of course includes the deuterocanon ["Apocrypha"] and doesn't distinguish it from the protocanon, but the contents of the canon is a separate question from how those contents should be treated.) After this, Augustine says:
These are all the books in which those who fear God and are made docile by their holiness seek God's will ... the matters which are clearly stated in them, whether ethical precepts or articles of belief, should be examined carefully and intelligently. The greater a person's intellectual capacity, the more he finds. In clearly expressed passages of scripture one can find all the things that concern faith and moral life. (2.30, tr. R. P. H. Green)
This already is a Sola Scriptura doctrine by our definition. Augustine says first that the canonical books are unique among all books in that they are the only ones in which we are to seek God's will. Secondly, he says that the canonical books are totally sufficient (even if we only consider the "clearly expressed passages") for our religious and moral instruction. It might, however, still be disputed whether this is really "to a degree which is unique and which exceeds, excells, or is otherwise superior to any other religious authority" because Augustine only explicitly says that it is unique among books and that it is sufficient.
Jeremy Pierce recently had a post on Augustine's belief in the doctrine of inerrancy which quoted a letter Augustine wrote to Jerome:
I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error ... As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason. I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine.
I don't have a copy of this in Latin (nor can I read Latin well enough to do me any good in this discussion) but the English translation of this passage makes a stronger statement than the English translation of the other: it says that only the authors of Scripture (and not anybody else!) are free from error. The Scripture we believe because it is the word of God. Any other person or text must make an argument from Scripture or from reason in order to gain our assent. Surely this qualifies as a Sola Scriptura doctrine. Augustine has claimed something like the following: Scripture alone is inerrant and the proper source of knowledge about God's will for our lives, and the clear statements of Scripture are sufficient as a rule of faith and practice.Posted by Kenny at March 21, 2007 1:11 PM
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