Bible & Tradition Issues: Reply to a “Bible Christian” Inquirer

Bible & Tradition Issues: Reply to a “Bible Christian” Inquirer February 8, 2017

. . . Particularly St. Augustine’s Position


Portrait of St. Augustine (c. 1480) by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]



I was made aware of a thread at the blog DeoOmnis 10 Questions for “Bible Christians.” It seems that that venue has been visited as of late (starting on 4 January 2007) by a very inquisitive Protestant who wants to learn more about Catholic beliefs: a person who goes by “”.

I think others are doing a good job there, but “the more the merrier”, so I’ll put in my $00.02 worth too, since attempting some sort of answer to “why do Catholics believe so-and-so?” or “how do you support that from the Bible?” is what apologetics is about, and I do apologetics for a living. Besides, it isn’t often that one runs across someone who is vigorously asking about important questions that divide Protestants and Catholics. It’s a great opportunity for constructive discussion. His words will be in blue.

* * * * *

Now, since RC apologists hold to what early church fathers say over or equally to Scripture, read the following.

We do not. What we believe is that Sacred Apostolic Tradition that has been passed down and confirmed by the Bible and the Church, is authoritative, but it’s not “over” Scripture or opposed to it at all; it is simply alongside it and in harmony with it (and this is itself a quite biblically-explicit concept). The fathers show what this Tradition is when considered as a group. Some fathers get some things wrong. The Church — guided always by Holy Scripture and received Tradition — decides who is ultimately right or wrong.


This Mediator (Jesus Christ), having spoken what He judged sufficient first by the prophets, then by His own lips, and afterwards by the Apostles, has besides produced the Scripture which is called canonical, which has paramount authority, and to which we yield assent in all matters of which we ought not to be ignorant, and yet cannot know of ourselves.

[St. Augustine, City of God, Book XI, Chapter 3]

Here Augustine states that Scripture has paramount authority. Paramount means supreme, as in the very top. Augustine clearly states that Scripture has the highest authority.

Of course it does. But it is not to the exclusion of the authority of Sacred Tradition and the Church.

Added to this commentary is that all matters should to the supreme authority vested in the Scriptures.

But the Scriptures must always be interpreted correctly. This is the problem. And we all know how Protestants cannot agree amongst themselves as to the proper interpretation.

When I previously raised this point, Jay and others would randomly quote Augustine with the hope of convincing themselves as well myself that Augustine gave tradition equal authority to the Scriptures. Now I have found a quote by Augustine in particular that clearly says that Scripture has the highest authority. My question to you is can you find a quote from Augustine that clearly states that tradition is equivalent to the Authority of the Scriptures?

Sure; I’m delighted to be of service:

As to those other things which we hold on the authority, not of Scripture, but of tradition, and which are observed throughout the whole world, it may be understood that they are held as approved and instituted either by the apostles themselves, or by plenary Councils, whose authority in the Church is most useful, . . .

For often have I perceived, with extreme sorrow, many disquietudes caused to weak brethren by the contentious pertinacity or superstitious vacillation of some who, in matters of this kind, which do not admit of final decision by the authority of Holy Scripture, or by the tradition of the universal Church.

(Letter to Januarius, 54, 1, 1; 54, 2, 3; cf. NPNF I, I:301)

I believe that this practice [of not rebaptizing heretics and schismatics] 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 commanded and handed down by the Apostles themselves.

(On Baptism, 2, 7, 12; from William A. Jurgens, editor and translator,The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 volumes, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 3: 66; cf. NPNF I, IV:430)

. . . the custom, which is opposed to Cyprian, may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings.

(On Baptism, 5,23:31, in NPNF I, IV:475)

The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants [is] certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except Apostolic.

(The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 10,23:39, in William A. Jurgens, editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 volumes, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 3: 86)

But those reasons which I have here given, I have either gathered from the authority of the church, according to the tradition of our forefathers, or from the testimony of the divine Scriptures, or from the nature itself of numbers, and of similitudes. No sober person will decide against reason, no Christian against the Scriptures, no peaceable person against the church.

(On the Trinity, 4,6:10; NPNF I, III:75)

It is obvious; the faith allows it; the Catholic Church approves; it is true.

(Sermon 117, 6)


As a Protestant I believe that all Christian doctrines and practices must be supported by the Bible. All things yield to the authority of the Scriptures.

We agree that Christian doctrine must be in harmony with the Bible, and not contradictory to it. What we disagree with is the isolation of the Bible over against the Church and Tradition, because the Bible itself teaches that those things are authoritative and nowhere teaches the Protestant novelty of sola Scriptura (Scripture as the only infallible authority). Nor do we think all things are explicitly stated in the Bible. Yet the Bible is materially sufficient: all things necessary to salvation are contained in it.

According to Jay and others, the early church fathers, including Augustine, supported and the idea of co-authority between Scripture and traditions set by the church. I merely showed that this is not so.

Not at all. One can’t do that by selecting one passage that talks about the authority of Scripture and ignoring many others that talk about Tradition and the Church. One has to consider all of these together to form a proper understanding of the Catholic view of authority. Moreover, many Protestant church historians assert that Augustine did not believe in sola Scriptura. For example:

Augustine’s legacy to the middle ages on the question of Scripture and Tradition is a two-fold one. In the first place, he reflects the early Church principle of the coinherence of Scripture and Tradition. While repeatedly asserting the ultimate authority of Scripture, Augustine does not oppose this at all to the authority of the Church Catholic . . . The Church has a practical priority: her authority as expressed in the direction-giving meaning of commovere is an instrumental authority, the door that leads to the fullness of the Word itself.

But there is another aspect of Augustine’s thought . . . we find mention of an authoritative extrascriptural oral tradition. While on the one hand the Church “moves” the faithful to discover the authority of Scripture, Scripture on the other hand refers the faithful back to the authority of the Church with regard to a series of issues with which the Apostles did not deal in writing. Augustine refers here to the baptism of heretics . . .

(Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, revised edition of 1967, 370-371)

Augustine, therefore, manifestly acknowledges a gradual advancement of the church doctrine, which reaches its corresponding expression from time to time through the general councils; but a progress within the truth, without positive error, for in a certain sense, as against heretics, he made the authority of Holy Scripture dependent on the authority of the catholic church, in his famous dictum against the Manichaean heretics: “I would not believe the gospel, did not the authority of the catholic church compel me.” . . . The Protestant church makes the authority of the general councils, and of all ecclesiastical tradition, depend on the degree of its conformity to the Holy Scriptures; while the Greek and Roman churches make Scripture and tradition coordinate.

(Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 311-600, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1974; reproduction of 5th revised edition of 1910, Chapter V, section 66, “The Synodical System. The Ecumenical Councils,” pp. 344-345)

Sola Scriptura is the following. All that is needed is found in Scriptures, anything that is not supported or founded in Scripture is to be rejected. Again, I have bought this point many at times on this blog.

This is insufficient as a definition. What it describes is the material sufficiency of Scripture (and Catholics agree with that). The classic view of sola Scriptura, held by Luther and Calvin, and their legatees, is that Scripture is the final infallible authority. Catholics disagree, because we believe that Tradition and the Church can also be infallible (and that they are always harmonious with Scripture).

Here Paul writes that the Bible has all that is needed for Christian doctrine.

Exactly. It is materially sufficient. But the same Bible does not rule out the authority of Tradition and Church. That’s the point. Protestants want to rule out infallibility anywhere except in Scripture, but the Bible itself doesn’t teach that.

Not only that, but Paul foresees others turning away from the truth and following unsound doctrine. He even instructs Timothy to be prepared to rebuke and reprove, obviously with the Scriptures, which Paul had just wrote is good for rebuking and correction. Paul does not mention oral tradition. [in 2 Timothy 3 and 4]

He didn’t have to, because he had already done so in the first and second chapter of the same epistle. It was already “on the table” and assumed:

2 Timothy 1:13-14 Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

2 Timothy 2:2 . . . what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Moreover, in his first letter to Timothy, Paul had called the Church (not the Scripture) “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15; RSV, as throughout) . So you cite Paul only when he talks about the authority of Scripture. We add the parts where he acknowledges the authority of Tradition and the Church as well. A half-truth is little better than an untruth.

Furthermore, to back all this up, Paul in Corinthians [1 Cor 4:6] writes do not go beyond what is written. . . . I don’t know what that means to you, but it sounds like, if it is not written in Scriptures, don’t do it or believe it.

The context of 1 Corinthians 4:6 is clearly one of ethics. We cannot transgress (go beyond) the precepts of Scripture concerning relationships. This doesn’t forbid the discussion of ethics outside of Scripture (which itself cannot possibly treat every conceivable ethical dispute and dilemma).

If what is written refers to Scripture, it certainly points to the Old Testament alone (obviously not the Protestant “rule of faith”). Thus, this verse proves too much and too little simultaneously.

Paul’s own frequent references to authoritative tradition (even oral tradition: e.g., 1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thess 2:15, 3:6) and the authority of the Church would contradict such a notion anyway. Either Paul contradicts himself or Protestants do. I opt for the latter.

Once again, I asked you to show where Augustine gives tradition or the church paramount authority or directly says that the tradition has equal authority to the Scriptures. You have not done so.

. . . Again, my challenge is for someone to show a verbatim statement by Augustine in which he says that Scripture and Tradition are equal. None of you have done so yet. You have quoted Augustine giving authority to the church. But Augustine clearly saying that SCRIPTURE and TRADITION are equal in authority has not been proven.

Maybe this other person didn’t, but I certainly did above, from Augustine’s own words and from the opinion of highly-respected, reputable Protestant historians (Oberman and Schaff).

And my point is that Augustine never gave equal authority to tradition and the Scriptures.

I showed that he did, above:

. . . final decision by the authority of Holy Scripture, or by the tradition of the universal Church.

But those reasons which I have here given, I have either gathered from the authority of the church, according to the tradition of our forefathers, or from the testimony of the divine Scriptures . . .Note how the word “or” in both statements (I’ve bolded them) make the authority of Tradition and Church equal to that of the Scriptures.

I could care less about Mr. Schaff. All you did was quote his opinions.

This is obviously one of the problems here. All you’re doing is spouting your opinions, yet if someone cites a learned Protestant historian, you derisively dimiss it, as if you can learn nothing from even a Protestant scholar. In doing so, you cut off the limb you are sitting on. Why should anyone care about your opinions, either? But we all have a right to our opinions, and we ought to accept the opinions of scholars who devote themselves laboriously to learning about their fields.

Matthew cited Schaff with regard to what the early Fathers believed about Tradition and Scripture, which is exactly relevant to the discussion. I cited him expressly regarding Augustine, since you have repeatedly challenged us to prove that he believed something other than sola Scriptura. It’s beyond silly to expect us as laymen to prove something by citation, yet to deny the validity of citing an expert in the field who has studied the matter in great depth. I find this to be a ridiculous “know-nothing” or anti-intellectual approach. There is a long history of it in certain fringe realms of Protestantism.

All I am asking is for you to provide a writing from Augustine that has him clearly stating that Tradition is equal to Scripture in authority. I have shown where he has said that Scripture has the highest authority. Can you show me a statement from Augustine that proves your point? You have not done so.

You are very persistent! What will you do now that I have provided exactly what you were calling for? Will you change your mind about what Augustine believed?

My original post was a challenge to for someone to show where Augustine clearly says that Tradition has equal authority to Scripture. All you have shown are statements from Augustine that you interpret as him equivocating Scripture and Tradition. I however, have shown you a quote where simply says that Scripture has the highest authority. That means there is no equal. It is simple English and simple logic.

Yes it is! You took the words right out of my mouth! Let’s do a little bit of this logic, from the statements above, that were portions of my earlier longer citations from Augustine:

St. Augustine’s words:

. . . final decision by the authority of Holy Scripture, or by the tradition of the universal Church.”

can be re-stated, by the rules of logic and English grammar and syntax, as:

. . . final decision by the authority of Holy Scripture . . .

. . . final decision . . . by the tradition of the universal Church.

Sola Scriptura holds that the Bible always holds the power of the “final decision.” But Augustine believes that the Church and Tradition have the same authority. This precisely provides what you are demanding from us, and expressly proves that Augustine did not hold to sola Scriptura.
Let’s do it again with another statement of his:

But those reasons which I have here given, I have either gathered from the authority of the church, according to the tradition of our forefathers, or from the testimony of the divine Scriptures . . .

can be re-stated, by the rules of logic and English grammar and syntax, as:

But those reasons which I have here given, I have . . . gathered from the authority of the church, . . .

But those reasons which I have here given, I have . . . gathered from the authority of the . . . tradition of our forefathers . . .

But those reasons which I have here given, I have . . . gathered . . . from the testimony of the divine Scriptures . . .

Clearly, according to grammar, “simple English” and reason, he views all three as possessing the same authority (because they can all be appealed to as a “final” authority).They are all of a piece: the “three-legged stool” of Catholic authority. It couldn’t be any clearer than it is. Isn’t logic wonderful?

Our friendly Protestant opponent then appeals to St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Cyril of Jerusalem as supposedly believing in sola Scriptura. I recently devoted an entire paper to Gregory of Nyssa. A Lutheran was arguing in the same fashion, quite passionately and “confidently.” But when I made a reply with lots of documentation, he was nowhere to be found. I’ve also shown how St. Cyril of Jerusalem  and St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom and St. Irenaeus and several other fathers didn’t believe in sola Scriptura, either.

What were you paraphrasing and please show what in Acts 16 shows “the scriptures tell us to submit to the authority of the Church.” Because I do not see it.

I’m delighted that you brought this up, as it is a compelling biblical argument for absolutely binding and infallible Church authority.

In the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:6-30), we see Peter and James speaking with authority. This Council makes an authoritative pronouncement (citing the Holy Spirit) which was binding on all Christians:

Acts 15:28-29: For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity.

In the next chapter, we read that Paul, Timothy, and Silas were traveling around “through the cities,” and Scripture says that:

. . . they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem. (Acts 16:4)

This is Church authority. They simply proclaimed the decree as true and binding — with the sanction of the Holy Spirit Himself! Thus we see in the Bible an instance of the gift of infallibility that the Catholic Church claims for itself when it assembles in a council.

For more on this, see:

Apostolic Succession as Seen in the Jerusalem Council [National Catholic Register, 1-15-17]

* * *

If Calvin or the Roman Catholics have a belief, yet cannot prove it via Scriptures and yet still hold on to that belief, then the answer is no. No they don’t hold Scripture with the highest authority. Like I said, the Bible is not vague. Now, if one has a belief and it is not proven via Scripture, if said person lets go of that belief, then they regard Scripture with the highest authority.

Let me do a play-on-words, to describe the situation you find yourself in:

If Protestants claim that some doctrine cannot be proven via the Scriptures and it is shown them that indeed it can be, yet they still deny that belief, then they don’t hold to Scripture as the highest authority after all. Now, if one disbelieves something but it is proven via Scripture, if said person then accepts that belief and reverses their previously mistaken one, based on false human tradition, then they regard Scripture with the highest authority.

Anyone who believes something that is contradictory to Scripture or not proven by Scripture does not hold Scripture with the highest regard.

Oh, I couldn’t agree more, though the “proven” has to be clarified. There is not explicit proof of all things in Scripture; sometimes there are only kernels and deductions.

Rather I hold to the fact that I can be taught and corrected with the Scriptures, since they are all God Breathed. If you can show me clear proof, then I will believe.

Excellent. I eagerly look forward to your retractions, then.

That is why Roman Catholics always degrade what they understand to be sola scriptura and therefore give all authority to the Pope and the Vatican because if they were too hold Scripture as the ultimate authority, a lot of false doctrines would be found in Roman Catholicism.

We don’t denigrate Scripture at all; we only accept all of it, including the parts that give authority to Church and Tradition; rather than carefully selected portions which appear at first to suggest a certain thing, because other parts are ignored.


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