Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wisdom from Augustine

I find it to be sometimes beneficial to read the writers of the early church to verify the truism that “there is nothing new under the sun.” How much modern wisdom has been built on the shoulders of giants? I believe that among the post-apostolic writers, Augustine best exemplifies this. Consider his high view of Scripture. He truly believed Scripture is our inspired, supremely authoritative, perspicuous, sufficient, and infallible rule of faith. Many today – professing Christians – would have one believe that Scripture is unable to been discerned or understood, that its authority is subordinate, and that it’s doctrinally insufficient or even fallible. Some wisdom from Saint Augustinealways puts me in a good mood any time I hear such postmodern cynicism, and maybe it will help you too:

“…it is not so much I myself as the inspired Scripture which has spoken to you, in the clearest testimonies of truth…” (On Grace and Free Will, Chapter 41)

“Let them show their church if they can, not by the speeches and mumblings of the Africans, not by the councils of their bishops, not by the writings of any of their champions, not by fraudulent signs and wonders, because we have been prepared and made cautious also against these things by the Word of the Lord; but [let them show their church] by a command of the Law, by the predictions of the prophets, by songs from the Psalms, by the words of the Shepherd Himself, by the preaching and labors of the evangelists; that is, by all the canonical authorities of the sacred books.” (On the Unity of the Church, 16)

“Whatever they may adduce, and wherever they may quote from, let us rather, if we are His sheep, hear the voice of our Shepherd. Therefore let us search for the church in the sacred canonical Scriptures.” (On the Unity of the Church, 3)

“Neither dare one agree with catholic bishops if by chance they err in anything, but the result that their opinion is against the canonical Scriptures of God.” (On the Unity of the Church, 10)

“For among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life.” (On Christian Doctrine, II, 9)

“…whenever a question arises on an unusually obscure subject, on which no assistance can be rendered by clear and certain proofs of the Holy Scriptures, the presumption of man ought to restrain itself; nor should it attempt anything definite by leaning to either side. But if I must indeed be ignorant concerning any points of this sort, as to how they can be explained and proved, this much I should still believe, that from this very circumstance the Holy Scriptures would possess a most clear authority, whenever a point arose which no man could be ignorant of, without imperiling the salvation which has been promised him.” (On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sin)

"Wherever the place has been determined, let us see to it that the canonical codices are on hand and if any proofs can be produced on either side, let us set everything else aside and bring so important a matter to a conclusion." (Letter no. 163)

“What more shall I teach you than what we read in the apostles? For Holy Scripture fixes the rule for our doctrine, lest we dare be wiser than we ought. Therefore I should not teach you anything else except to expound to you the words of the Teacher.” (On the Good of Widowhood)

"If we are perplexed by any 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." (City of God, 11.5)


Blogahon said...


Champion of the Catholic Faith. Catholic bishop in every sense of the word. It was he who said, 'If not for the apostolic succession of the bishops from the see of Peter I would not be a Christian."

"If the lineal succession of bishops is to be considered with how much more benefit to the Church do we reckon from Peter himself, to whom, as bearing in a figure the whole Church, the Lord said: Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not conquer it!' For to Peter succeeded Linus, Clement...Damsus, Sircius, Anastasius. In this order of succession no Donatist bishop is too be found."
Augustine, To Generosus, Epistle 53:2 (A.D. 400).

I agree, a giant in all ways.

Ryan said...

What is your reference for that first quote, if you don't mind my asking?

Blogahon said...


Specifically, "I would not believe in the Gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not influence me to do so."
Against the letter of Mani, 5,6, 397 A.D.

You then need to understand how Augustine defined the Catholic Church.

Really, any extant letter of Augustine proves that Augustine was a Catholic bishop who held to the divine teaching authority of the Catholic Church which is led my the chair of St. Peter who sits in Rome.

For instance, in the same letter, 'Against Mani', he defines 'Catholic Church.'

"I am held in the communion of the Catholic Church by...and by the succession of bishops from the very seat of Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection commended His sheep to be fed up to the present episcopate." Augustine, Against the Letter of Mani, 5 (A.D. 395).

Throughout his writing he defines the Catholic Church as the church of the apostles held together by sacramental apostolic succession.

"The chair of the Roman Church, in which Peter sat, and in which Anastasius sits today."
Augustine, Against the Letters of Petillian, 2:51 (A.D. 402).

Augustine did teach the Catholic doctrine that scripture is without error and materially sufficient but he never preached anything close to Sola Scriptura and always held that scripture must be interpreted by the Church, the church that he defined by the sacramental succession of St. Peter and the bishops joined to him.

"But when proper words make Scripture ambiguous, we must see in the first place that there is nothing wrong in our punctuation or pronunciation. Accordingly, if, when attention is given to the passage, it shall appear to be uncertain in what way it ought to be punctuated or pronounced, let the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of Scripture, and from the authority of the Church, and of which I treated at sufficient length when I was speaking in the first book about things."
Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 3,2:2 (A.D. 397).

“Number the priests even from that seat of Peter. And in that order of fathers see to whom succeeded: that is the rock which the proud gates of hades do not conquer.” Augustine, Psalmus contro Partem Donati (A.D. 393).

Ryan, its best not to do church history by reading isolated quotes in the first place. And it’s certainly not best to get your understanding of church history from internet apologists like Tribalogue, because they clearly have an axe to grind. (I happened on your site by seeing your comment on Tribalogues blog about justification in response to Called to Communion’s blog).

I would ask you to consider to read the fathers with an open mind and open heart. Read their extant writing. If you haven't already done so, pick up a copy of Augustine's Confessions at the book store and read the whole thing. And then, perhaps, read his extant letters against the heresies online.

Blogahon said...

By the way, this post and the comments therein link up and discuss how Luther and the Reformers, while embracing much of Augustine's soteriology, departed from it on the central differences between Catholic and Reformed soteriology.

I bring this up because I noticed your blogs on Augustine's soteriology. Luther even admitted that Augustine was a Catholic on soteriology.

"Ever since I came to an understanding of Paul, I have not been able to think well of any doctor(of the Catholic Church).They have become little value to me. At first I devoured, not merely read, Augustine. But when the door was opened for me in Paul, so that I understood what justification by faith is, it was over with Augustine."
(Luther, LW 54:49).

Ryan said...

I am well aware that the favorite tack of RC laymen is to accuse those who disagree with their interpretations of the ECFs that they are cherry-pickers. What often happens is that the original citations are never addressed, and the end result is a flame war of ECF quotes - which, obviously, doesn't substantiate the accusation. I also notice you actually didn't address the quotes which are pertinent to sola scriptura (even thought that is not what I set out to prove in this post). Notwithstanding...

So the actual quote is different than what you had originally said. Thought so. You cannot be unaware that a great many interpretations of that citation exist which do not contradict - but rather agree with - Protestant theology? TF has listed several:


"For instance, in the same letter, 'Against Mani', he defines 'Catholic Church.'"

That quote isn't even a sentence. How can you tell Augustine was defining the church? By contrast, if you'll look at the blog post I wrote concerning Augustine's thoughts on the Atonement, you'll see that Augustine defined the church as the universal body of believers.

Also, you are aware that Augustine retracted his interpretation of Matthew 16:18, right? And that Augustine said repeatedly that one discerns the church from Scripture rather than vice versa?

With regards to your appeal that Augustinian soteriology departs from Reformed soteriology, I am aware of that. I do not feel the need to cling to every word Augustine said. But to suggest that he is closer to Catholic soteriology than Reformed soteriology is a matter of subjectivity. Just as I would disagree with several facets of Augustine's views on justification, I imagine you would disagree with his determinism.

Blogahon said...


It seemed to me that you were trying to show that Augustine believed something akin to the Reformer's 'sola scriptura.' If you weren't doing that, but only highlighting his high view of scripture than so be it.

I don't have any interest in a flame quote war either. Hence, my suggestion to divorce yourself from the 'bloggers' and stick to the extant sources.

You cannot be unaware that a great many interpretations of that citation exist which do not contradict - but rather agree with - Protestant theology?

Yes, and they are pretty unconvincing. Augustine's definition of the Church is not ambiguous and it ain't Presbyterian. Claiming that Augustine didn't really mean the Catholic Church when he says 'Catholic Church' and defines it by those in communion with the successor to Peter is lame. It takes quite a bit of mental gymnastics to honestly think that Augustine's ecclesiology was not anything but Roman Catholic.

That quote isn't even a sentence. How can you tell Augustine was defining the church? By contrast, if you'll look at the blog post I wrote concerning Augustine's thoughts on the Atonement, you'll see that Augustine defined the church as the universal body of believers.

Yes, and the believers were the ones held in communion to the visible church that comes from the apostles by what Augustine rightly called the sacrament of ordination. To Augustine the ‘universal body of believers’ were those baptized into the only church that existed in his day. There was no such thing as believers outside of the church.

All I am saying is that to truly profit from reading the fathers you need to read them wholly and not iso-textually. If you read Augustine only attempting to isolate snippets that appeal to your Reformed senses than you'll miss the wider breath of his teaching.

I started that process about five years ago as a Reformed Presbyterian cut in the same cloth as your Tribalogue buddies and now I am a Roman Catholic. It wasn't just church history but church history is definately part of it.

Ryan said...

"Catholic" means universal. The church is a reference to the body of believers. Augustine is not referencing some alleged Magisterium when he makes reference to the Catholic Church, he's talking about his brothers in Christ. For instance, in a manner analogous to your citation of "On Christian Doctrine," he writes:

"To be sure, although on this matter, we cannot quote a clear example taken from the canonical Scriptures, at any rate, on this question, we are following the true thought of Scriptures when we observe what has appeared good to the universal Church which the authority of these same Scriptures recommends to you; thus, since Holy Scripture cannot be mistaken, anyone fearing to be misled by the obscurity of this question has only to consult on this same subject this very Church which the Holy Scriptures point out without ambiguity. (Against Cresconius I:33)"

Moreover, the fact that Augustine said here as well as numerous times in "On the Unity of the Church" that we discern the church from Scripture falsifies the RC idea that laymen have no right to interpret Scripture:

“Whether they [i.e. the Donatists] hold the Church, they must show by the Canonical books of the Divine Scriptures alone; for we do not say, that we must be believed because we are in the Church of Christ, because Optatus of Milevi, or Ambrose of Milan, or innumerable other bishops of our communion, commended that Church to which we belong, or because it is extolled by the Councils of our colleagues, or because through the whole world in the holy places which those of our communion frequent such wonderful answers to prayers or cures happen.” (On the Unity of the Church, Chapter 19)

After all, how else would one know that a bishop had erred (cf. the OP)?

"There was no such thing as believers outside of the church."

Unlike Modern RC dogma :)

Anyways, thanks for your suggestion. Although I do not read Augustine "iso-textually," I will take it as a reminder. As church history is not binding upon my conscience, I would not become an RC because a given ECF disagreed with me. But I continue to find encouragement in their words, and they all, in the end, point back to the centrality of God's word.