Watch my response video on YouTube.
In his video, Did Augustine Affirm Sola Scriptura and the subsequent follow-up Response to Critics: Augustine on Scripture Dr. Gavin Ortlund invites feedback on his thesis that Augustine affirms the Protestant tenant of Sola Scriptura. I want to be the first to admit that I’m not particularly suited to respond. I’m not a qualified patristic scholar and certainly no match for Dr. Ortlund’s credentials. I have a bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science and another in Education. In my work for the Church, I sit behind the microphone and ask questions of smart Catholics, and run a blog. Ortlund has a degree, in this field of study, and is published many times over. I am not a worthy interlocutor, and I do not count myself as one, but I can’t resist, especially when offered, a chance to gently push back on a thesis which I see some significant problems with. I hope, however, that my approach to this topic is one of humility, in knowing that I am out-matched but hoping to add something to the discussion nonetheless.
And in full knowledge that I could be completely wrong.
Second, I want to affirm something that Dr. Ortlund himself says several times over in these pair of videos but especially clearly in response video: Even if Ortlund’s thesis is correct and Augustine is affirming, clearly, as he says, the Protestant tenant of Sola Scriptura, it really does nothing to impact or weaken the traditional Catholic position of Scripture, Tradition, and a Magisterium.
In other words, this isn’t a debate about the Catholic view of Scripture vs. the Protestant view – and I do not think Dr. Ortlund has ever framed it that way.
To underscore: the fact that one Church Father may have come down on the side of an approach to the Bible that became a pillar of Protestantism has little to no impact on how the Catholic Church understands the Bible. One Church Father does not equal the Church and while the Catholic Church certainly looks back, at the historical faith handed on through apostolic succession of authority, it doesn’t single out individual bishops (like Augustine, for example) to anchor its teachings. There is room for dialogue and debate amongst the Church Fathers as there’s room for dialogue and debate amongst bishops today. Ultimately the Church, through the Magisterium, comes to decide matters like the relationship between Scripture and Tradition or the nature of the Biblical Canon and Dr. Ortlund understands this clearly.
Even if he’s right about Augustine and Sola Scriptura, a single bishop, like St. Augustine, does not the Magisterium make.
Before diving in, it needs to be said exactly what definition of Sola Scriptura Dr. Ortlund is defending. There are, as Protestant and Catholic scholars will admit, many versions of the tenant or doctrine that could be proffered up here. Dr. Ortlund’s is simple: that Scripture is the only infallible rule for faith and morals – a definition which, he says, Augustine “couldn’t be clearer” in defending.
On Baptism, Against the Donatists (Book 2)
While Dr. Ortlund signals that these are only a few of the many quotes which back up his thesis, he presents three pieces of evidence for Augustine affirming the Protestant tenant of Sola Scriptura. First, is Augustine’s discourse with the Donatists, On Baptism, Book 2.
Here the Donatists, a sect of believers, are arguing for a particular understanding of baptism, re-baptism, and who can be admitted into the Church. The Donatists, evidently, were appealing to Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who they thought affirmed their particular understanding of baptism and it’s in this particular context which we find Augustine, as quoted by Ortlund, writing,
“But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth, either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity?” (2.3.4)
Is this case closed for the Protestant tenant of Sola Sriptura? Remember, in context, Augustine is responding to the group of believers who are affirming an understanding of baptism and holding up Cyprian, a bishop, and his comments at a Council, as the support for their position.
Rather than answering a question put to him like, “Are the Scriptures the sole infallible rule for Christian faith and morals?” Augustine is answering a question more like, “Should the writing of one Bishop serve as the infallible rule for faith and morals above other sources?”
And his answer is, clearly, no.
Instead, he outlines a kind of chain of authority which, when carefully studied, does not seem to affirm the Protestant position on Sola Scriptura.
Augustine first outlines two principles about Scripture, that it is “confined within its own limits” and “stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops” in a way that there can be “ no manner of doubt or disputation” that what is in Scripture is right and true. In other words, Scripture is so far above the letters (or arguments) of a single bishop (like Cyprian) that while these may be wrong, what the Scriptures say is right and true.
He then goes on the write, “but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted,” and then begins to show a chain of authority to demonstrate how a letter of a bishop may be, as it were, overruled.
First, other more learned bishops may write something which is closer to the truth, or perhaps a regional Council may rule on a matter or, he says, a plenary (or ecumenical) Council may make a decision or, finally, he says, a subsequent plenary council may even overrule an earlier plenary council when “things are brought to light which were before concealed.” This chain of command, which Dr. Ortlund sees as having Scripture at its head, is held forth as evidence for the claim that Augustine affirms Ortlund’s view of Sola Scriptura, but is this what Augustine was really saying?
It’s obvious, from a close reading of this quote, that Augustine places Scripture over the letter of a bishop but then he turns to demonstrate what else is superior to the letter of a bishop, namely, wiser bishops, then regional councils, and then plenary councils. The chain is clearly not Scripture over everything; it is Scripture over the letter of a bishop and then onto what else is superior to a letter of a bishop.
Notice, upon careful reading, that he doesn’t then go on to say, “and Scripture over plenary councils.” If this is what Augustine meant – that Scripture was over even plenary councils – wouldn’t he have said that? Instead, we find him indicating that Scripture is “absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops,” and going on to indicate, in a chain of authority, what else is superior to bishops’ letters in a chain which ends in the plenary council.
Rather than a kind of chain of authority ending with Scripture, as Dr. Ortlund asserts Augustine as presenting, these are two distinct chains. One of Scripture over bishops’ letters and another as what else is over the letter of a bishop.
In fact, what does Augustine ultimately return to to settle the dispute with the Donatists but plenary councils.
Using Paul’s correcting of Peter as an example he writes,
“Wherefore, if Peter, on doing this, is corrected by his later colleague Paul, and is yet preserved by the bond of peace and unity till he is promoted to martyrdom, how much more readily and constantly should we prefer, either to the authority of a single bishop, or to the Council of a single province, the rule that has been established by the statutes of the universal Church?” (2.1.2)
It is to the “statutes of the universal church” established, as we know, at the first plenary council in the Book of Acts, that Peter, a single bishop, submitted to, thus preserving church unity.
Later, he writes of Cyprian,
“Nor should we ourselves venture to assert anything of the kind, were we not supported by the unanimous authority of the whole Church, to which he himself would unquestionably have yielded, if at that time the truth of this question had been placed beyond dispute by the investigation and decree of a plenary Council.” (2.4.5)
If Augustine is affirming Dr. Ortlund’s tenant of Sola Scriptura, shouldn’t we expect to find him appealing to the ultimate authority of Scripture, rather than the “unanimous authority of the whole Church” which has been placed “beyond dispute” through the decree of a plenary Council.
Most damning, I think, of Ortlund’s thesis is Augustine’s use of the phrase “beyond dispute” to describe the decree of a plenary council. While recognizing, earlier, that subsequent councils can “correct” earlier councils when something new comes to light, he applies this same phrase, you’ll recall, to Scripture, saying that, “no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true.”
If Augustine is establishing a hierarchy of authority, on which Dr. Ortlund rests his thesis here, how can both Scripture and the plenary council be beyond dispute. And if the authority of Scripture, in the framework of Sola Scriptura, rests on its being beyond dispute, what does this framework make of Augustine’s deference towards the councils?
One more quotation clarifies Augustine’s understanding of the authority of councils here,
“Wherefore let the Donatists consider this one point, which surely none can fail to see, that if the authority of Cyprian is to be followed, it is to be followed rather in maintaining unity than in altering the custom of the Church; but if respect is paid to his Council, it must at any rate yield place to the later Council of the universal Church, of which he rejoiced to be a member, often warning his associates that they should all follow his example in upholding the coherence of the whole body. For both later Councils are preferred among later generations to those of earlier date; and the whole is always, with good reason, looked upon as superior to the parts.” (2.9.14)
In other words, the letter or words of a bishop are deferential to a universal, or plenary, council and that universal councils are superior to regional councils and that later councils, as Augustine has already noted, are preferred to earlier councils.
To revisit the argument as a whole. Dr. Ortlund asserts that, in his letter to the Donatists, Augustine is placing Scripture as the sole, infallible rule for Christian faith and morals in a way that should be crystal clear to the reader. I think, based on my arguments here, that this is far from clear and, in fact, misunderstands Augustine’s view of authority.
What Augustine is clearing up is a teaching of the Donatists which they anchor to the words of a single bishop. The words of any bishop, says Augustine, is subservient to the Scripture. That much we can agree upon. But does Augustine then say that Scriptures are the sole rule of faith above all else? No. He goes on to say, “but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted” by other bishops, regional councils, or plenary councils – and that plenary councils can be corrected by later ones when new things come to light.
Augustine is arguing the Scripture is above the letter of a single bishop and that other bishops, councils, and ultimately plenary councils are also above the letter of a bishop. These are two distinct chains of authority, both called beyond dispute.
What’s more, if Augustine is truly signaling that Scripture is above all else by calling it beyond dispute, we should expect him to rest his final dispute with the Donatists on Scripture, shouldn’t we?
Instead, he returns to the councils showing, again and again, that the Donatists should yield to the authority of the plenary councils above a single bishop; a council which he calls, like Scripture, “beyond dispute.”
If nothing else, Dr. Ortlund has shown that Augustine views Scripture as beyond dispute and superior to the authority of all bishops’ letters but, beyond that, as proof that Augustine sees Scripture as also being above the authority of plenary councils, and the sole rule of faith and morals this piece of evidence seems wanting.
Augustine, Letter 82
Next, we’ll turn our attention to another piece of evidence from Augustine. In his videos, Dr. Ortlund makes a point of indicating how clear and obvious Augustine is when he affirms Sola Scriptura in what’s commonly called his Letter 82.
The portion he quotes is here,
“I confess to your Charity that 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.” (82.1.3)
Augustine seems to be speaking very clearly about a belief in the Scriptures as being free from error, a respect and honour that he yields “only to the canonical books of Scripture.” And, as Dr. Ortlund repeatedly asserts, how much more clear could Augustine be?
It seems he couldn’t be clearer.
But what he’s being clear about?
While my first rebuttal rests on Dr. Ortlund’s misunderstanding of dual chains of authority laid out by Augustine in his letter to the Donatists here I will attempt to show that context is the culprit for his misunderstanding.
Out of its proper context, this quotation could be seen to lend support to the Protestant tenant of Sola Scripture: only the Scriptures are free from error. But what exactly is the context of his comment? Is it in reply to a question, “What’s the only infallible guide for faith?” or a question like, “What’s the highest court of appeal for the Christian?” or even, “What’s the ultimate source of authority in the life of the faithful?”
Context matters and here, in my opinion, the context undoes the clarity so strongly asserted by Dr. Ortlund.
The context of Augustine’s Letter 82 comes during a period of time when Augustine was corresponding with St. Jerome, the erudite biblical scholar responsible for the translation of the Latin Vulgate. On balance, the correspondence between Jerome and Augustine is remarkable for its tone – a kind of showmanship demonstrated by the venerated church fathers – and its content. But, to note, what Augustine is responding to when he makes the above quoted remark isn’t a question by Jerome about the highest court of appeal for the Christian or the only infallible guide for faith. Instead, the context is one of a question of a mistake which may have crept into Scripture, a dispute about translation, and gives us a peek into the Fathers of the Church wrestling with the relationship between Scripture, infallibility, and the Holy Spirit. From this context, the proffered quote reads very differently.
The controversy begins with Augustine’s apprehension towards Jerome translating the Bible into Latin. Here, we get a unique picture into how the Church grappled with this strange and unusual task. If the Bible is infallible, what about the infallibility of its translators? If the elements of the Hebrew version of the Scriptures differ from the Greek Septuigant what should we make of that? If some translations of certain books contain one word or phrase and others do not, which is to be preferred? Within the back-and-forth letters of Jerome and Augustine we’re even privy to debate over the translation of singular words – how often do bishops these days quibble over how to translate “gourd”?
These are, without doubt, fascinating discussions and a glimpse into a adolescent Church trying to understand the right place of Scripture within it but this discussion is not, as I aim to demonstrate, a discussion which even intends to touch upon whether Scripture is, as Dr. Ortlund asserts, the sole infallible rule for faith and morals.
While context is hard to prove from an appeal to isolated quotes it would serve the reader to revisit this letter in totality, Jerome’s preceding letters (like Letter 75), and the letters which follow this to confirm my own thesis. As LeVar Burton bid us on Reading Rainbow, “don’t take my word for it!” Nonetheless, I will try to sketch out the context of this precise letter and Augustine’s comments on Scripture as “error free” as best I can here.
What’s at the heart of their discussion, as context shows, isn’t the question of Scripture as the sole infallible source of faith and morals but of Scripture as being free from errors; as translators and transcribers being able to err in their inspired writing. The quote, seated in its proper context, comes right before Augustine jumps into a discourse on how to properly understanding Paul’s dispute with Peter in the Book of Acts. Jerome, the esteemed biblical scholar and translator, evidently held a view, somewhat popular at the time, that perhaps the event between Paul and Peter was misrecorded – scandal, according to Augustine, to imagine that one apostle could lie about rebuking another.
And so, enter a hilarious chain of events that goes like this: one saint disputing with another about whether an apostle could lie about rebuking another apostle.
But this is the context. And don’t take my word for it. Earlier, in Letter 28, Augustine cuts to the core of his dispute with Jerome,
“I have been reading also some writings, ascribed to you, on the Epistles of the Apostle Paul. In reading your exposition of the Epistle to the Galatians, that passage came to my hand in which the Apostle Peter is called back from a course of dangerous dissimulation. To find there the defense of falsehood undertaken, whether by you, a man of such weight, or by any author (if it is the writing of another), causes me, I must confess, great sorrow, until at least those things which decide my opinion in the matter are refuted, if indeed they admit of refutation. For it seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say, that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. It is one question whether it may be at any time the duty of a good man to deceive; but it is another question whether it can have been the duty of a writer of Holy Scripture to deceive: nay, it is not another question — it is no question at all. For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, and under a sense of duty, the author declared what was not true.” (28.3.3)
The dispute isn’t about church authority, it isn’t about how to find the Christian rule of faith, and it doesn’t even touch on the idea of Scripture as the sole guide for the Christian faithful. In context, it’s a debate about whether someone can record something “false” in Scripture. And in a time of turmoil, excitement, and innovation in biblical studies and translation these sorts of debates are to be expected. Here, as in many cases, Jerome and Augustine were at odds. Jerome seems to think that it was possible that Paul lied about confronting Peter or that things like this could be, effectively, misrecorded in the Bible. Augustine saw this differently and, as he asserts in the quote put forth from Dr. Ortlund, believes the authors were “completely free from error.”
That Augustine yields respect and honour to “the canonical books of Scripture” alone, in this context, does not mean he sees only the Scriptures as free from error above any other form of church authority, but that, when it comes to Jerome’s opinion on Scripture, or that of any other commentator, Augustine will side with the Scriptures being error free and Jerome, or any other commentator, as being mistaken.
Again, this is clear from context, as Augustine goes on to write,
“And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. 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 do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error.” (82.1.3)
That Augustine is pushing back against Jerome’s particular understanding of errors in the Bible, here, should be clear. Augustine, in asserting the Bible’s authors were free from error, is arguing that Jerome is wrong in thinking they could record a mistake (or a lie). It’s not Jerome’s commentary – his books – says Augustine, that are beyond dispute, it is the Bible, no matter how hard Jerome may wish his opinions to be infallible!
Here, context is king, and what the context shows is, nowhere, an argument for Scripture as the sole infallible rule of faith, but as something which doesn’t contain errors, where other writings, interpretations, or commentaries may. And, in the very next paragraph, Augustine launches right into the particular dispute between Peter and Paul which prompted this whole discussion to begin with.
Before we sum up the argument as a whole it’s worth asking an important question. Despite the context, can this statement from Augustine be taken as a rule for the Church? Are we to understand, from Augustine’s comments, that Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith? And, if yes, is this how we would expect him to express it?
On the first question, is it at all obvious that, even despite the context, Augustine believed that Scripture was the sole, infallible rule of faith? I would argue it’s not. Augustine nowhere says he believes the Scriptures to be infallible over and above anything else except other authors and books. Note he says, “of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error.” In context, it’s clear he’s talking about errors, mistakes creeping into the books of Scripture and the opinion of learned men like Jerome when they are at odds with what’s recorded there. But, even out of context, is Augustine affirming Scripture above everything else as a rule of faith?
Of note, he fails to mention bishops or councils at all. His statement isn’t, as we might expect it to be, something along the lines of “above councils, bishops, and the commentaries of learned men like Jerome, the books of the Bible are free from error.” Indeed, this is not what we read. Nothing in his statement seems to intend the laying out of an authority structure; nothing suggests he is placing Scripture above the authoritative ruling of a council; in fact, such an appeal would make no sense within the context of the letter at all. Instead, this statement is couched in the context of a series of letters traded back and forth between two theologians debating the nature of mistakes in the Bible, in translation, and the nature of biblical commentary.
Instead, this appeal to Augustine reads like another oft-hurled proof for the Protestant tenant of Sola Scriptura which comes from Scripture itself. In 2 Timothy 3:16 we find Paul writing,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Often held up to show that only Scripture is suitable for teaching, reproof, etc. and that only Scripture is God-breathed this passage is quite easily dispatched with by noting that nowhere does the word “only” appear. This is applied, it seems, only in interpretation. Instead, what Paul can be seen to be arguing is that Scripture is God-breathed and suitable for teaching – not that it is the only thing which meets this test.
Likewise, what Augustine, in context, can be seen to be arguing is that when comparing Scripture, books about Scripture, and the synergy of translation, only the authors of the canonical books of the Bible are truly free from error and when Jerome, or another laudable commentator, argues for an error in Scripture, Augustine comes down on the side of the Bible and its inspired authors every time.
Notably, if Augustine intended this to be a universally applied rule – that Scripture was infallible and nothing else was – shouldn’t we expect him to be much more clear? To not only limit his comments to a single statement, couched in a conversation about a specific passage of Scripture he and Jerome were at odds with – but instead, expand his statement to include other sources of authority? In the same way Paul’s statement that all Scripture is God-breathed is stretched to mean that only Scripture is God-breathed Augustine’s statement that the only books that are infallible are the books of the Bible is expanded to mean only the Bible is infallible.
To give a worthy analogy it might be like saying, “Ratzinger is the best,” in the context of a discussion about theologians. Can my statement be reasonably expanded by a hearer to mean that I think Ratzinger is the best human being without simultaneously removing the comment from its proper category (I’m talking about theologians here) and offending my wife (who is truly the best human being)? Undoubtedly not. In proper context, I’m talking about the best theologian; to try to expand this statement to all of humanity, without context for this kind of expansion, would seem pretty silly. Likewise, to try to inflate Augustine’s particular statement about what kinds of writings are free from error, in the context of a discussion of books, to all sources of authority in the Church would be equally foolish and unwarranted by the context.
To revisit this argument we can sum up as follows. In the context of a very young Church wrestling with how to receive, interpret, and translate the Holy Scriptures, Augustine and Jerome, an up-and-coming bishop and theologian and an erudite biblical scholar, are discussing whether an error can either creep into Scriptures via translation or whether a lie can be mistakenly recorded or an apostle, namely Paul, can be misrepresented.
Again, I urge the reader to revisit the context of these letters.
What Augustine is urging, I argue, in the quote proffered by Dr. Ortlund, is not that Scripture is to be held as the infallible, sole rule of faith for Chrisitan living and morals but that, when compared to other books, interpretations, and authors, it is only the Scriptures which are to be respected as “free from error.” Worth nothing, I think, is the context. This is not a discussion about church authority – nowhere are councils or bishops mentioned – and it would be a stretch to make it so. To apply, as a universal rule, a statement which, in context, is wrestling with books and authors and interpreters, would be to make a categorical error.
What, I argue, Dr. Ortlund inevitably proves is that Augustine viewed the authors of books other than the Bible to be subject to error and that a commentator could make a mistake writing about or interpreting the Bible, but that its authors were, ultimately, divinely protected from making a mistake. To suggest that Augustine was commenting on other sources of authority, I argue, is to rend this quotation entirely out of context.
Contra Faustum, Book 11
The final piece of evidence put forward by Dr. Ortlund comes from Augustine’s reply, a book-length letter, to Faustus, a fourth century bishop, with whom he had several disagreements as recorded in Contra Faustum, Book 11.
The quotation, reads as follows,
“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.” (11.5)
As with Augustine’s treatise against the Donatists, I think a very clear case needs to be made for looking into the context – for seating this letter within its proper place – and for recognizing its deficiencies as a proof for Dr. Ortlund’s version of Sola Scriptura.
Is Augustine here saying that Scripture is the sole, infallible rule for faith and morals? Is this quote, on its own or even supported by the others he recommends, enough to prove that Augustine holds Dr. Ortlund’s historic Protestant view?
First, let’s explore the context. Augustine is writing, here, a posthumous kind of exchange with a Faustus, a disgraced, deceased bishop who held certain heretical ideas about the Catholic faith. Augustine’s treatise systematically addresses some of Faustus’s own writings which he quotes, at length, and attempts to dismantle, demonstrating the falsehoolds in Faustus’ views and confirming the ultimate truth of Christianity. In the passage immediately preceding the quoted section, Augustine is exploring the idea, held by Faustus, that Paul may have corrected himself, been mistaken or, perhaps, not even actually written what’s recorded as his words. It is, to our modern ears, a rather obscure conversation about the difference between the Latin rendering of “born” versus “made” in a passage in one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Again, context in crucial.
It’s in this context, then, that we turn to the quoted passage above.
“As regards our writings,” begins Augustine, clearly indicating that the following comments he will make are in the context of speaking about writings, he goes on to say a few things about the writings of himself and Faustus, namely that they’re not intended as a rule of faith and that they may “fall short of the truth” in what he calls “obscure and recondite matters.” In other words, their writings are subject to fallibility when it comes to difficult to understand things and, he says, may (or may not) be subject to later correction. He continues by noting that the Christian believer isn’t required to believe in their writings and that “in order to leave room for such profitable discussions of difficult questions” there exists a “distinct boundary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments.”
Following this quoted passage, Augustine goes on to say that although the writings of men like himself and Faustus may be profitable for learning and instruction they lack a “sacredness” that is “peculiar,” he says, to Scripture alone. He writes, likewise, that if a one encounters what looks like a mistake or an error in the Scriptures it’s merely the fault of the manuscript, the translator, or the interpretation of the reader. While other books and writings may err; while other authors may make mistakes, “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.” (11.5)
A few observations.
First, the astute reader of these three quotations, in their proper context, should see some striking similarities. What we can see, quite clearly I would argue, is a juvenile Church wrestling with its understanding of the Canon of Scripture. What is Scripture’s place in the Church? How does Scripture relate to other writings from the post-apostolic age? Can the Scriptures record mistakes and errors? Can the authors of the Scriptures misrepresent themselves or others? And, finally, how trustworthy are the manuscripts, translations, and translators of the Bible? It is clearly in this context that Augustine’s remarks to Faustus are seated.
Faustus, you’ll recall, claims that Paul was mistaken, that he corrected himself, and that what’s recorded in Scriptures may be some kind of false representation, ultimately, about the nature of Christ. In this specific context, Augustine turns to speak about Scriptures. He tells us that what’s recorded in Scripture cannot be mistaken; indeed, a clear boundarily line exists between the writings of Scripture, whose authority “has come down to us from the apostles through the successions of bishops and the extension of the Church” and all other kinds of writing. As in the context of Augustine’s remarks to the Jerome, what’s at stake here is writing. The only reference whatsoever that Augustine makes to the authority of the Church, interestingly enough, is only to solidify the authority claim of Scripture; that Scripture has “come down” through the authority of the Church. The reader will notice that nowhere in the context of this letter does he promote a framework for appealing to Scripture alone. Scripture is infallible, according to Augustine, and other writings are not. Full stop.
Second, it’s worth asking, as we’ve done before, that if Augustine truly meant to affirm Scripture as the sole infallible rule for faith and morals is this how he would’ve done so? Does this even make sense?
Unreservedly, I argue no. To suggest that, in the context of writing about which kinds of writings are infallible, Augustine is somehow gesturing to all types of falibility would be to stretch this text far beyond its sensible meaning. Again, I commend the reader to review this passage in its context. The question put to Augustine wasn’t, “What’s the infallible rule of faith and morals?” or even, “How do we know how to be a Christian?” but, effectively, “Could Paul make a mistake or be misrepresented?” It is exclusively in answering this question that Augustine makes the quoted remarks. Yes, we can prove from this passage that Augustine firmly views Scripture as a kind of thing that is above reproach and, amongst writings, the only thing, but to stretch this to try and indicate that he thought it was the only thing bar none would be a mistake; a rending out of context his clear statements.
Never again in this letter does Augustine return to the idea of the Church, of bishops, or attempt to make any comment on what other sources of infallibility may exist. And, in context, it wouldn’t make any sense. He’s writing to show Faustus how to understand the place of Scripture, of writings, and to demonstrate the proper disposition towards the Bible,
“Surely it is better and more reverential to examine the passages of sacred Scripture so as to discover their agreement with one another, than to accept some as true, and condemn others as false, whenever any difficulty occurs beyond the power of our weak intellect to solve.” (11.8)
As with our interaction with the quotation in Augustine’s letter to Jerome we are, again, forced to conceded that what Dr. Ortlund seems to have proven is Augustine’s high view of Scripture, that it is infallible, and nothing more. To stretch Augustine’s words to suggest that a boundary exists between the Bible and all subsequent sources of possible authority is to do violence to the text and Augustine’s clear meaning. It’s worth revisiting this part of the text again,
“there is a distinct boundary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments” (11.5)
The emphasis is mine but demonstrates, I argue, the clear and outright intention of Augustine here. He is speaking exclusively here about writings and, in my opinion, couldn’t be more clear about that intention. Remember, his only mention of bishops, apostolic succession, and the Church anywhere in this text is to highlight the “authority of these books” which, he writes, come exactly from these sources, a very curious idea indeed but not within the scope of this current project.
To revisit this final argument we can sum it up as follows. Much like Augustine’s discourse with Jerome, we find a zealous bishop wrestling with how the young Church ought to understand the place of Scripture in terms of its contents (can it record mistakes?), its priority over other writings (is it supreme?), its transmission (how can it be translated?), and its reliability (can manuscripts be inaccurate?). Here, and elsewhere, Augustine is seen again and again to wrestle with these profound questions. Questions which most certainly seem remote, at best, to a Church who’s come to accept and adopt the proper place of Scripture over the subsequent millenium and a half.
What Augustine is arguing, in context is, at its core, that the Scriptures cannot be mistaken. A boundary exists, he writes, between this kind of infalbility and all subsequent writings which may be produced. He does not, notably, address any other sources of infability. He doesn’t say, as one might expect if he were arguing for the sole infability of Scriptures, the bishops or apostolic succession or the Church. On these he is notably silent.
What Dr. Ortlund set out to prove was that Augustine, the great Doctor of the Church, viewed Scripture as the only infallible rule for Christian faith and practice. He asks us, the viewers, to dig into these quotations in context, to explore them, and to generously offer our feedback. My intention, with all of these remarks, has been precisely to do this. We have painstakingly explored each proffered quotation in its right context, we have picked apart their meanings, and we have, I hope, done so with a measure of grace and generosity. I’m grateful for the opportunity and humble in the knowledge that I may be, in the end, dead wrong. I appreciate, above all else, Dr. Ortlund’s irenic attitude toward these kinds of discussions and sincerely hope that this project will be received accordingly.
That said, I’ve shown, I believe, that Dr. Ortlund is incorrect in his assessment of Augustine’s view on Scripture based on the passages he’s provided.
In the first place, Dr. Ortlund attempts to show that Augustine believed Scripture to be solely infallible above even a plenary (or ecumenical) council of the Church. That Scripture was, in other words, the only infallible source of authority. But is this what Augustine actually said? Plainly, no. Instead, I’ve argued that what Augustine is actually demonstrating is that letters of bishops, like Cyprian, to whom Donatists were appealing, are subservient to Scripture. He then goes on to say what else the letters of bishops are subject to including letters of other, more erudite bishops, regional councils and, ultimately, the plenary council–a meeting of the universal Church. What I’ve argued for here, rather than Dr. Ortlund’s reading, is a reading which sees dual tracks of authority laid out by Augustine. Not that Scripture is infallible and all of these other sources are not but that Scripture is greater when compared to a single bishop, like Cyprian, and all these other things are also greater. Worth noting, in passing, although not a defeater, is that Augustine ultimately rests his conclusions on baptism not with Scripture, in his argument with the Donatists, but in the authority of the plenary council whose definitive ruling, he says, is beyond dispute.
What Dr. Ortlund sets up here, in my opinion, is a kind of false dichotomy, as Augustine never intended to pit council against Scripture but Scripture against the letter of a bishop and councils also against the letter of a bishop. Most damning, I think, is Augustine’s use of the phrase “beyond dispute” to describe both Scripture and plenary councils in this very same letter. If nothing else, what Ortlund must prove here is that Augustine is attempting to show Scripture is over everything, even a universal council of the Church in a single track of authority. That track, I have argued, does not exist. He must, likewise, explain Augustine’s description of both Scripture and Council as being beyond dispute and show that if Augustine truly intended to demonstrate Scripture as the final court of appeal why he, in conclusion, appeals to the authority of plenary councils.
Next, we turn to Augustine’s letter to Jerome. Here, Jerome and Augustine, over the course of several letters, are discussing the possibility of mistakes in Scripture; mistakes by the authors, misrepresentations, and even translation or manuscript errors or issues. With this proffered quotation, Dr. Ortlund attempts to show that Augustine saw Scripture alone as the infallible rule for Christian faith and morals. But is this what Augustine actually said? In context, Augustine and Jerome are specifically talking about writings. Never and nowhere in this exchange does Augustine attempt to place Scripture as the only infallible rule above or in competition whatsoever with other sources of authority. In fact, trying to stretch the meaning of this quotation to include other sources would be to damage its original intention. Augustine simply was not talking about sources of infallible authority but about the infalbility of the Scriptures versus other kinds of writings. While the word “alone” in Augustine’s exchange with Jerome is certainly provocative in light of the tenants of the Protestant Reformation, its apparent strength can only be wielded if presented utterly out of context.
Here, what Dr. Ortlund must show is that, despite the obvious and clear context of the discussion, Augustine was somehow intending to place Scripture over everything else rather than over only other kinds of writings. Dr. Ortlund must show, in other words, that context does not matter and that Augustine intended his statement to be universal rather than specific to the category of writings.
Finally, we can turn to Augustine’s work against Faustus. Striking in its similarities to his arguments against Jerome (and, indeed, against the Donatists) what Augustine turns his attention towards is to show that Scripture cannot err, even while other sources of writing may. Dr. Ortlund, in offering this quote, attempts to show that Augustine is drawing a distinctive boundary between Scriptures and all subsequent sources of authority. However, the intention of Augustine is, as I have shown, obvious. I have demonstrated that Augustine was, again, placing Scripture in a category of its own in comparison to other forms of writing. Scripture is uniquely sacred, argued Augustine, and other kinds of writing are not. Here, and again in context, Augustine’s only mention of other sources of authority, interestingly enough, is to appeal to them, the apostolic Church, to confirm the authority of Scripture. Augustine’s framing words, “in regards our writings,” and his later remarks frame this quotation accurately: he is talking about writing and to stretch his words beyond this would be to lose their meaning entirely.
Here, as with the quotation from Augustine’s letter to Jerome, what Dr. Ortlund must show is that, despite the context (talking about writings) Augustine meant his remarks to be a universal rule. What he must show is that within a disagreement over a specific passage of the Bible, Augustine was actually laying out a rule which he meant to apply not just to the interpretation of the Bible but to all other sources of authority; that he thought the Bible alone was suitable as the infallible rule of life for the Christian.
I believe, in sum, that my position is well stated. While wrestling with these texts in an attempt to show that Augustine affirms the Protestant tenant of Sola Scriptura– that the Scriptures are the only infallible rule for Christian faith and morals – Dr. Ortlund has failed to successfully prove his point. Augustine is, in the first place, misunderstood and, in the subsequent quotations, taken rather out of the context of the discussions he was engaged in. The burden falls now, I argue, with Dr. Ortlund to prove that he was not mistaken in understanding Augustine’s view of authority and that, in the latter examples, context does not matter.
In conclusion, I want to circle around, once again, to how much I appreciate being able to take part in these discussions. I hope my contributions are unique, genuine, and helpful. At the end of the day, we are all interested in the same thing: the truth. I hope, and earnestly pray, that these remarks bring us, together, closer to that goal. It is with humility and in the spirit of cordiality that I submit this project in sum.
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