March 21, 2007

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Sola Scriptura in Augustine

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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I don't see an 'only' in the first quote. He does say that the scriptures are sufficient for Christian living, but I don't see the uniqueness clause in this particular quote. He does say it in the second quote, so it's clear that he believed it, but I can't see how it appears in that first quote.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at March 21, 2007 4:45 PM

"These are all the books..."

I take that to mean the list just provided is complete, i.e no other books have the qualities listed below.

Posted by: Kenny at March 21, 2007 4:59 PM

Good discussion. Catholics believe in the inerrancy of Scripture as well so its not in the least unCatholic for St. Augustine to say such things.

I agree with you that he is talking about the canon as opposed to any other writings; ie there are no other writings which are Scripture. The council of Trent also agreed.

But it is paramount not to take Augustine's writings out of context (as many others have). Dave Armstrong had an excellent post on this very subject; he took a list of his own writings 'out of context' on the subject of Scripture to prove to others that he believed in sola scriptura. In fact, his own quotes were arguably much more 'pro-scriptura' than any that could be produced from early Church fathers. Yet Armstrong is a devout Catholic and firmly rejects the notion. .

As a Catholic, I have found not a marginalization of Scripture (coming from a reformed background - yes a Calvinist) but rather a deeper reverence and appreciation for it. In deed I have found that Scripture only truly makes sense as a whole when left in it's proper context - the sacred tradition of the Church

When I attended my first mass about 2 years ago, my jaw almost hit the floor as they omitted the last line of the Lord's Prayer. I'm sure you know that the last line was a later addition yet NIV, KJV routinely include it. I was moved by the Catholic's adoration of sacred Scripture.

That is to say nothing against the Protestant tradition to which I am grateful for and respect their love of Scripture as well. They have done a great deal of service for Christianity by it.

Posted by: TheGodFearinFiddler at March 22, 2007 5:42 PM

I've read all of book 2 of De Doctrina Christiana, and I'm pretty sure that, in the context, this is what Augustine means. If there are considerations from the context that argue against this, or if there are other writings of Augustine which show that he thought something else, I would love to see them.

I haven't read the letter to Jerome, but it sounds like the context is saying that Jerome's writings don't have the property ascribed to the Scripture, but based on these quotations I don't see how Augustine could distinguish between written and unwritten sources in this regard. If you would like to explain that I would again be very interested.

Posted by: Kenny at March 22, 2007 5:51 PM

I havent read those documents so I cant comment. Obviously, there are going to be some ambiguities with Augustine since Protestants & Catholics both love him and want to claim him as their own.

However, the other fathers arent nearly as 'ambiguous' thats why only the Catholic Church claims them (by in large). However, just keep in mind while reading Augustine that Catholics call him a saint for a reason... he wasn't a 'reformer' but a defender of the Catholic Church. For every Protestant friendly quote from him you can quote a dozen Catholic friendly ones I'm sure. Here are a few which clearly show he didnt believe in sola scriptura (copied from a site, author added emphasis):

"I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the AUTHORITY of the CATHOLIC CHURCH."
Against the Letter of Mani 5,6, 397 A.D.

"But in regard to those observances which we carefully attend and which the whole world keeps, and which derive not from Scripture BUT FROM TRADITION, we are given to understand that they are recommended and ordained to be kept either by the Apostles themselves or by plenary COUNCILS, THE AUTHORITY OF WHICH IS QUITE VITAL TO THE CHURCH."
Letter of Augustine to Januarius 54,1,1, 400 A.D.

"I believe that this practice comes from apostolic tradition, just as so many other practices NOT FOUND IN THEIR WRITINGS nor in the councils of their successors, but which, because they are kept by the whole Church everywhere, are believed to have been commended and handed down by the Apostles themselves."
St. Augustine, Baptism 1,12,20, 400 A.D.

"What they found in the Church they kept; what they learned, they taught; what they received from the fathers, they handed on to the sons."
St. Augustine, Against Julian, 2,10,33, 421 A.D.

"Since by Christ's favor we are CATHOLIC Christians:"
St. Augustine, Letter to Vitalis, 217,5,16, 427 A.D.

"By the same word, by the same Sacrament you were born, but you will not come to the same inheritance of eternal life, unless you return to the CATHOLIC CHURCH."
St. Augustine, Sermons, 3, 391 A.D.

"This Church is holy, the one Church, the true Church, the Catholic Church, fighting as she does against all heresies. She can fight, but she cannot be beaten. All heresies are expelled from her, like the useless loppings pruned from a vine. She remains fixed in her root, in her vine, in her love. The gates of hell shall NOT conquer her."
St. Augustine, Sermon to Catechumens, on the Creed, 6,14, 395 A.D.

Posted by: TheGodFearinFiddler at March 22, 2007 10:03 PM

Your introductory comments are of course correct. However, the distinction marked by the use of the word 'Catholic' with a capital 'C' did not exist yet, and to use it in that way begs the question (in the technical philosophical sense - that is, your conclusion is assumed in your premises). In Augustine's time, catholic still had it's original meaning - universal. Don't forget that Protestants also use the Nicene and the Apostles' Creed, both of which have wording about the "One Holy Catholic and Apostlic Church" or some such. As to the specific quotations:

(1) The Westminster Confession also says (sect. 1.5) that the testimony of the Church is one of our reasons for believing in the Scripture. I would make much of this, since it is the only one of the criteria mentioned which is objective. So I would agree with Augustine that it is due to the authoritative testimony of the Church that we know (a) what books form the canon, and (b) what to do with said books. This is perfectly consistent with holding something that would count as a Sola Scriptura doctrine as defined above.

(2) The second quote shows that Augustine has great respect for tradition. So do I. Note that the Boice statement recognizes the authority of the Church as well. But Augustine does not claim in this quotation that the tradition or the Church is inerrant.

(3) Same as 2. It is also significant that in both of these cases, he talks about practices, not beliefs (though I do think that there are probably some things we should believe on the authority of the Church - that is, I don't think we can expect this source to establish the Scripture and then just disappear - but this is still consistent with some type of Sola Scriptura doctrine.

(4) This only establishes the existence of a Church tradition, and that is not under dispute.

(5), (6), and (7) beg the question (see above). Protestants too believe in "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church," which is what Augustine refers to.

In order for the argument about tradition to work, you need to show that Augustine accorded to tradition equal or higher status to that he accorded to Scripture.

In order for the argument from the word 'catholic' to succeed, you need to show that what Augustine means by catholic is not consistent with Protestant interpretations of the creeds. Even so, this is, of course, not part of the Sola Scriptura argument.

If you have arguments for either of these points I would be very interested to hear them.

Posted by: Kenny at March 23, 2007 1:21 AM

Protestants use the Nicaean / Apostles creed yes but they dont believe in several of the things which the creeds teach including regenerative baptism & communion of the saints.

1) I'm not the smartest guy in the world, not even close but I dont think Im an idiot and I have absolutely no clue on how to reconcile Church authority (specifically with selecting the canon) with sola scriptura. It literally boggles my mind and Im not being cute. So if you have insight on the logic behind it, I'd be willing to hear it.

2-3) Church tradition can only equal Catholic or Orthodox Churches. The Protestant traditions are objectively absent from history. Furthermore, he calls these traditions "vital" and said they had "authority". He did not use the word inerrancy, and he may very well not have understood them to be inerrant. Indeed- Catholics view Scripture as superior to tradition and even the magisterium IN THAT the words were actually chosen by God (or breathed by God).

Something is either inerrant or it isnt. The statement, "Jesus is God" is inerrant, there are no errors in that statement that I just made (we would all agree). Doesnt mean that it is God breathed though. Its not Scripture. So just because something is "without error" doesnt mean that is Scripture. We teach that Scripture, Church authority & sacred tradition are all equally inerrant - ie there is no error in them.

This is a developmental belief just like the Trinity.

So I think that explanation of our doctrine should hopefully clarify that we in no way see tradition as superior to Scripture. You cant exceed perfection. In no way can tradition or the pope change the Scripture or override it's authority. Scripture is eternally authoritative and inerrant. It can never be overridden according to Christ's own words. This is of course, Catholic dogma.

Its like asking who has SOLE authority over the children, mom or dad? They both do. Its an invalid question.

4) Youre right, I just copied and pasted these I didnt spend due diligence on them. Sorry

Now how about the C.. upper case or lower case.

My position is that the C was capital to begin with. IE - it was never used as an adjective but as a proper noun. Here's why I think that:

The first time the word was used (that we know of) was in St. Ignatius' letter to the Church at Smyrna. I recently wrote a 5 part series on St. Ignatius (107AD) in which I demonstrated these major points (considering all of his writings as a whole):

1. He wrote to an audience which he assumed had full familiarity of a priest - deacon system under the authority of one bishop, just like the Catholic & Orthodox Churches both still have. (He wasnt writing apologetics, he wrote as if it was already accepted and in place)

Perhaps the most pertinent quote to this discussion:

"Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."

2. St. Ignatius did NOT affirm the papacy (but neither did he deny it)

3. He stressed unity under one altar and one Church (the Catholic Church)

4. He stressed repeatedly the absolute necessity for obedience to the bishop.

5. He unequivocally believed in the Real Presence just as taught by Catholic & Orthodox traditions.

6. Tying 1,3,4 & 5 together, he demonstrated a mindset of :

Obedience = Unity = Christ (Real Presence)
Disobedience = Schism = Poison (Heresy)

And laid the theological framework from which all subsequent (orthodox) Church Fathers would more or less follow.

This mindset is: there is ONE true Church (the Catholic Church) and many false ones (Arians, Gnostics, Marcions, Cathars...) Those were the schisms and heretics of the time (all those were after St. Ignatius of course)

But it is clear, the term "Catholic" was not a term used to describe the 'universality' of the Church (as if anyone were wondering 'is the Church local or universal?') but rather, it was certainly referring to a specific, visible entity.

I believe when reading any Church father, it is imperative to understand the dichotomy presented here. Thinking in 21st century American terms of "the Church is just all true believers with Jesus in their heart regardless of denomination" is very anachronistic here.

It is imperative in this discussion to start, therefore, from the earliest writings available.

Sometime ago I responded to an anti-Christian new testament scholar at a university. She wrote that the early Church "did not think in modern terms of orthodoxy/heresy" which is more or less what the "catholic with a lower case c" argument amounts to. But she is badly mistaken, they certainly DID think and write in those terms. In fact, that was the central driving force of nearly every early Church writing! (And Im sure you will agree with me there)

My point is that by trying to deny something which is inconvenient for a person's world view (in her case the notion that the early Christians were honest - accurate historians and in your case the notion that the early Christians were Catholic) certain historical facts are being systematically misinterpreted.

There are inconvenient facts for Catholicism in history as well. It's inconvenient for us that St. Ignatius didn't write anything about the Roman bishop. He didnt even mention him! Not even in his letter to Rome! Thats very inconvenient for us, but its historical fact.

Same with the word Catholic. They wrote to distinguish the one true Church from all others.

Today, we still use the word "Catholic" to distinguish us from all other groups that have broken off from us - Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican etc... It is used in EXACTLY the same manner as the early Church used it.

If there were no other Christian groups, we would stop using the term 'Catholic' as there would be no need.

Posted by: TheGodFearinFiddler at March 23, 2007 6:14 PM

Protestants claim to affirm everything in the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, but disagree on points of interpretation with Catholics. Most Protestants, it is agreed, ignore the idea of the Communion of the Saints, but at least the credal churches (i.e. non-Baptists) believe in it officially. The average Protestant couldn't tell you what it means, but that's another story entirely. Affirming the Communion of Saints needn't mean praying to them. Protestants also believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, but what does this mean? It means that there is only one true Church (with a capital C), it is holy, it encompasses all real Christians (whatever it might mean to be a "real Christian"), and it is the same Church to which the apostles belonged.

(1) Protestants do not generally, except in extreme cases, actually deny that the Church has authority. Most of the statements I cited give place to Church authority. If you read my definition of what constitutes a Sola Scriptura principle, you will see that there is no necessary contradiction. Sola Scriptura requires that Scripture occupy a unique place of authority which is above the authority of the Church. It doesn't require that the Church not have any authority at all. If you think that Sola Scriptura amounts to a denial of the authority of the Church, you don't understand the doctrine.

2-3) You are question-begging again, by assuming that the Church must be some sort of institution, which is exactly what I deny. It is true, and I will not dispute, that Church tradition prior to the 16th century must be found in some context that is historically/institutionally continuous with the RCC, EOC, or one of the minor eastern churches, but I fail to see how this is relevant.

4) I agree with your characterization of the early usage of the word 'catholic,' more or less. The term 'catholic' comes from Greek roots meaning "according to the whole." That is, the 'catholic' church is the entirety of the legitimate Christian church - the one founded by Jesus - rather than (a) some individual congregation, or (b) some heretical sect. It is further true that (b) is treated as the more important distinction. Beyond this, I will grant that Ignatius and most other early fathers see the bishops as a critical part of defining that church. What I emphatically deny is your implicit claim that because the RCC continues to call itself "catholic" it must therefore be the same church the early fathers refered to whenever they said "catholic." That's just absurd. I could easily respond that they were actually refering to one of the many other churches that use the term "catholic" - such as "The Holy, Catholic, Orthodox, and Apostolic Church of the East" (which I believe is the official name of the EOC), or "The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East" (official name of the Assyrian Orthodox Church, which is not in communion with Constantinople). Why shouldn't they be referring to these churches?

In present-day usage, 'Catholic' with a capital C and 'Orthodox' with a capital O are used to distinguish the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople, respectively, from each other and from Protestants. If you want to say that one or the other of these is identical with the "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" of the Fathers and the Creeds, you must actually argue for it, and not just gesture vaguely at the name and point out that there is no easily identifiable point of discontinuity.

Posted by: Kenny at March 23, 2007 6:48 PM

"What I emphatically deny is your implicit claim that because the RCC continues to call itself "catholic" it must therefore be the same church the early fathers refered to whenever they said "catholic." That's just absurd."

You're right that would be absurd. But thats not at all what I intended to imply.

I said we are using the term exactly as they used it. That doesn't prove that we ARE the Catholic Church, it just proves that we're using it in the same way that they did; which is what the argument was about. We both use a 'capital C' so to speak.

I'll leave it up to you and all the other readers to determine who really has heir to the word "Catholic" with a capital C; be it the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist or the invisible collection of all 'saved' souls everywhere regardless of their beliefs.

I'll rest my case here and thank you for the great discussion. You've made me think about a lot of things, I hope I've helped you in some way.

Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

(Im not going anywhere, I'll be ready to pick it up on another discussion I think we've just run this one into the ground)

Posted by: TheGodFearinFiddler at March 23, 2007 8:35 PM

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