St. Augustine (d. 430) vs. Sola Scriptura as the Rule of Faith

St. Augustine (d. 430) vs. Sola Scriptura as the Rule of Faith August 8, 2017


St. Augustine, by Antonio Rodríguez (1636-1691) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




For preliminaries concerning my methodology and the burden of proof for showing if a Church Father believed in sola Scriptura, see my paper, Church Fathers & Sola Scriptura. St. Augustine’s words will be in blue.


Anti-Catholic evangelical apologist Jason Engwer produced the following words of St. Augustine, to “prove” that he believed in sola Scriptura:

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. The authority of these books has come down to us from the apostles through the successions of bishops and the extension of the Church, and, from a position of lofty supremacy, claims the submission of every faithful and pious mind….In the innumerable books that have been written latterly we may sometimes find the same truth as in Scripture, but there is not the same authority. Scripture has a sacredness peculiar to itself. (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, 11:5)

This is self-evident: Scripture is inspired; other writings are not. Jason overlooks St. Augustine’s espousal of apostolic succession and the authority of the Church, which suggest that the great Father’s view is exactly as the Catholic Church’s view always has been. So the refutation to the argument is right within the “argument” itself. And elsewhere in the same work we find more of the same:

. . . if you acknowledge the supreme authority of Scripture, you should recognise that authority which from the time of Christ Himself, through the ministry of His apostles, and through a regular succession of bishops in the seats of the apostles, has been preserved to our own day throughout the whole world, with a reputation known to all. (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, 33:9, NPNF I, IV:345)*

The Lord, indeed, had told His disciples to carry a sword; but He did not tell them to use it. But that after this sin Peter should become a pastor of the Church was no more improper than that Moses, after smiting the Egyptian, should become the leader of the congregation. (Reply to Faustus the Manichean, 22:70; in NPNF I, IV:299)

The authority of our books [Scriptures], which is confirmed by agreement of so many nations, supported by a succession of apostles, bishops, and councils, is against you. (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, 13:5, NPNF I, IV:201)

Jason produced another “proof” of his special pleading as regards St. Augustine:

Every sickness of the soul hath in Scripture its proper remedy. (Expositions on the Psalms, 37:2)

Of course. We would fully expect this, but it proves nothing one way or the other, with regard to our present dispute. It is merely a statement of the material sufficiency of Scripture, in matters of spirituality and the soul.

Where does one begin with St. Augustine, concerning his high regard for Tradition, Scripture, and Church (it’s like trying to count the number of grains of salt in a full saltshaker)? I shall now compile several of his more noteworthy and irrefutable statements (categorized by general subject), and also note the opinions of scholars:


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 Christians of Carthage have an excellent name for the sacraments, when they say that baptism is nothing else than “salvation” and the sacrament of the body of Christ nothing else than “life.” Whence, however, was this derived, but from that primitive, as I suppose, and apostolic tradition, by which the Churches of Christ maintain it to be an inherent principle, that without baptism and partaking of the supper of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and everlasting life? (On Forgiveness of Sins and Baptism, 1:34, in NPNF I, V:28)

[F]rom whatever source it was handed down to the Church – although the authority of the canonical Scriptures cannot be brought forward as speaking expressly in its support. (Letter to Evodius of Uzalis, Epistle 164:6, in NPNF I, I:516)

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)


God has placed this authority first of all in his Church. (Explanations of the Psalms, Tract 103:8, PL 37:520-521, in Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and Theological Essay, New York: Macmillan, 1967, 392)
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)

Will you, then, so love your error, into which you have fallen through adolescent overconfidence and human weakness, that you will separate yourself from these leaders of Catholic unity and truth, from so many different parts of the world who are in agreement among themselves on so important a question, one in which the essence of the Christian religion involved . . . ? (Against Julian I:7,34; in Robert B. Eno, Teaching Authority in the Early Church, Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1984, 136)

And thus a man who is resting upon faith, hope, and love, and who keeps a firm hold upon these, does not need the Scriptures except for the purpose of instructing others. Accordingly, many live without copies of the Scriptures, even in solitude, on the strength of these three graces. (On Christian Doctrine, I, 39:43, in NPNF I, II:534)


And if any one seek for divine authority in this matter, though what is held by the whole Church, and that not as instituted by Councils, but as a matter of invariable custom, is rightly held to have been handed down by apostolical authority, still we can form a true conjecture of the value of the sacrament of baptism in the case of infants. (On Baptism, 4, 24, 32; NPNF I, IV:461)*

It is not to be doubted that the dead are aided by prayers of the holy church, and by the salutary sacrifice, and by the alms, which are offered for their spirits . . . For this, which has been handed down by the Fathers, the universal church observes. (Sermon 172, in Joseph Berington and John Kirk, The Faith of Catholics, three volumes, London: Dolman, 1846; I: 439)


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; in Robert B. Eno, Teaching Authority in the Early Church, Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1984, 134)*

[L]et the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of Scripture, and from the authority of the Church . . . (On Christian Doctrine, 3,2:2, NPNF I, II:557)


Let us not listen to those who deny that the Church of God is able to forgive all sins. They are wretched indeed, because they do not recognize in Peter the rock and they refuse to believe that the keys of heaven, lost from their own hands, have been given to the Church. (Christian Combat, 31:33; from William A. Jurgens, editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 volumes, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 3: 51)


For if the lineal succession of bishops is to be taken into account, with how much more certainty and benefit to the Church do we reckon back till we reach Peter himself, to whom, as bearing in a figure the whole Church, the Lord said: ‘Upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it !’ The successor of Peter was Linus, and his successors in unbroken continuity were these: – Clement, Anacletus, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, Telesphorus, Iginus, Anicetus, Pius, Soter, Eleutherius, Victor, Zephirinus, Calixtus, Urbanus, Pontianus, Antherus, Fabianus, Cornelius, Lucius, Stephanus, Xystus, Dionysius, Felix, Eutychianus, Gaius, Marcellinus, Marcellus, Eusebius, Miltiades, Sylvester, Marcus, Julius, Liberius, Damasus, and Siricius, whose successor is the present Bishop Anastasius. In this order of succession no Donatist bishop is found. (Letter to Generosus, 53:2, in NPNF I, I:298)

Among these [apostles] it was only Peter who almost everywhere was given privilege of representing the whole Church. It was in the person of the whole Church, which he alone represented, that he was privileged to hear, ‘To you will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 16:19)… Quite rightly too did the Lord after his resurrection entrust his sheep to Peter to be fed. It’s not, you see, that he alone among the disciples was fit to feed the Lord’s sheep; but when Christ speaks to one man, unity is being commended to us. And he first speaks to Peter, because Peter is first among the apostles. (Sermon 295:2-4, in John Rotelle, editor, The Works of St. Augustine – Sermons, 11 volumes, Part 3, New Rochelle: New City Press, 1993, 197-199)

Here is a passage in which Cyprian records what we also learn in holy Scripture, that the Apostle Peter, in whom the primacy of the apostles shines with such exceeding grace, was corrected by the later Apostle … I suppose that there is no slight to Cyprian in comparing him with Peter in respect to his crown of martyrdom; rather I ought to be afraid lest I am showing disrespect towards Peter. For who can be ignorant that the primacy of his apostleship is to be preferred to any episcopate whatever? (On Baptism 2:1,1, in NPNF I, IV:425-426)

For in the Catholic Church, not to speak of the purest wisdom, to the knowledge of which a few spiritual men attain in this life, so as to know it, in the scantiest measure, deed, because they are but men, . . . – not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should, though from the slowness of our understanding, or the small attainment of our life, the truth may not yet fully disclose itself. But with you, where there is none of these things to attract or keep me, the promise of truth is the only thing that comes into play. Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the Catholic Church; but if there is only a promise without any fulfillment, no one shall move me from the faith which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion. (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus 4:5, in NPNF I, IV:130)

Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichaeus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing in the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to
believe in Manicheus, how can I but consent? (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus 5,6; in NPNF, IV:131)

My brothers and sisters, please share my anxiety and concern. Wherever you find such people, don’t keep quiet about them, don’t be perversely soft-hearted. No question about it, wherever you find such people, don’t keep quiet about them. Argue with them when they speak against grace, and if they persist, bring them to us. You see, there have already been two councils about this matter, and their decisions sent to the Apostolic See; from there rescripts have been sent back here. The case is finished; if only the error were finished too, sometime! So, let us all warn them to take notice of this, teach them to learn the lesson of it, pray for them to change their ideas. (Sermon 131, 10, in John Rotelle, editor, The Works of St. Augustine – Sermons, 11 volumes, Part 3, New Rochelle: New City Press, 1993, Vol. 4:322; the saying, “Rome has spoken; the case is finished” is a paraphrase of part of this sermon)

[H]e [Celestius] should yield his assent to the rescript of the Apostolic See which had been issued by his predecessor [Pope Innocent] of sacred memory. The accused man, however, refused to condemn the objections raised by the deacon, yet he did not dare to hold out against the letter of the blessed Pope Innocent. (On Original Sin, 8 [VII], in NPNF I, V:239)

This was thought to have been the case in him when he replied that he consented to the letters of Pope Innocent of blessed memory, in which all doubt about this matter was removed . . . [link]

[T]he words of the venerable Bishop Innocent concerning this matter to the Carthaginian Council … What could be more clear or more manifest than that judgment of the Apostolical See? (Against Two Letter of the Pelagians, 3:5, in NPNF I, V:393-394)

[T]he Catholic Church, by the mercy of God, has repudiated the poison of the Pelagian heresy. There is an account of the provincial Council of Carthage, written to Pope Innocent, and one of the Council of Numidia; and another, somewhat more detailed, written by five bishops, as well as the answer he [Pope Innocent] wrote to these three; likewise, the report to Pope Zosimus of the Council of Africa, and his answer which was sent to all the bishops of the world. (Letter to Valentine, Epistle 215, in Ludwig Schopp and Roy J. Defarri, editors, The Fathers of the Church, Washington D.C.: CUAP: 1948 – ,32:63-64)

. . . In these words of the Apostolic See the Catholic faith stands out as so ancient and so firmly established, so certain and so clear, that it would be wrong for a Christian to doubt it. (Letter to Optatus, Epistle 190, in Ludwig Schopp and Roy J. Defarri, editors, The Fathers of the Church, Washington D.C.: CUAP: 1948 – , 30:285-286)

And because of this it is unlikely that this case can be closed here while ill feelings and unavoidable necessity require that it be concluded by the judgment of the apostolic see. (Letter to Alpyius, Epistle 22:11, in Ludwig Schopp and Roy J. Defarri, editors, The Fathers of the Church, Washington D.C.: CUAP: 1948 – , 81:161)

Protestant Church historian Heiko Oberman notes concerning St. Augustine:

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

J. N. D. Kelly, the great Anglican patristic scholar, wrote:

According to him [St. Augustine], the Church is the realm of Christ, His mystical body and His bride, the mother of Christians [Ep 34:3; Serm 22:9]. There is no salvation apart from it; schismatics can have the faith and sacraments . . . but cannot put them to a profitable use since the Holy Spirit is only bestowed in the Church [De bapt 4:24; 7:87; Serm ad Caes 6] . . .It goes without saying that Augustine identifies the Church with the universal Catholic Church of his day, with its hierarchy and sacraments, and with its centre at Rome . . . (Early Christian Doctrines, HarperSanFrancisco, revised 1978 edition, 412-413)

The three letters [Epistles 175-177] relating to Pelagianism which the African church sent to innocent I in 416, and of which Augustine was the draughtsman, suggested that he attributed to the Pope a pastoral and teaching authority extending over the whole Church, and found a basis for it in Scripture. (Ibid., 419)

According to Augustine [De doct. christ. 3,2], its [Scripture’s] doubtful or ambiguous passages need to be cleared up by ‘the rule of faith’; it was, moreover, the authority of the Church alone which in his eyes [ C. ep. Manich. 6: cf. de doct. christ. 2,12; c. Faust Manich, 22, 79] guaranteed its veracity. (Ibid., 47)

For Augustine the authority of ‘plenary councils’ was ‘most healthy’, [Ep. 54, 1] (Ibid., 48)

Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff comments on St. Augustine’s views of Scripture and Tradition:

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. (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)
He adopted Cyprian’s doctrine of the church, and completed it in the conflict with Donatism by transferring the predicates of unity, holiness, universality, exclusiveness and maternity, directly to the actual church of the time, which, with a firm episcopal organization, an unbroken succession, and the Apostles’ Creed, triumphantly withstood the eighty or the hundred opposing sects in the heretical catalogue of the day, and had its visible centre in Rome. (Ibid., Chapter X, section 180, “The Influence of Augustine upon Posterity and his Relation to Catholicism and Protestantism,” pp. 1019-1020)

The renowned Lutheran Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan concurs with this general assessment of St. Augustine’s views:

This authority of orthodox catholic Christendom . . . was so powerful as even to validate the very authority of the Bible . . . But between the authority of the Bible and the authority of the catholic church (which was present within, but was more than, the authority of its several bishops past and present) there could not in a real sense be any contradiction. Here one could find repose in “the resting place of authority,” [Bapt. 2.8.13] not in the unknown quantity of the company of the elect, but in the institution of salvation that could claim foundation by Christ and succession from the apostles. (The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Vol. 1 of 5: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971, 303-304)*
Augustine, writing against the Donatists, had coined the formula, “the judgment of the whole world is reliable [securus judicat orbis terrarum].” [Parm. 3.4.24] Catholicity was a mark both of the true church and of the true doctrine, for these were inseparable. (Ibid., 334)

Finally, Catholic patristics scholar Agostino Trape sums up Augustine’s outlook on Scripture, Tradition, and Church:

I. Theological method. . . 1. The first principle is the strict adherence to the authority of the faith which, one in its origins, the authority of Christ (C. acad. 3,20,43) is expressed in Scripture, in tradition and in the church . . .

b) Augustine read the Scriptures in the church and according to tradition . . . he reminded the Donatists of the two qualities of Apostolic tradition: universality and antiquity (De bapt. 4,24,31). He replied to the Pelagians that it was necessary to hold as true that which tradition has passed on even if one does not succeed in explaining it (C. Iul. 6,5,11), because the Fathers “taught the church that which they learned in the church” (C. Iul. op. imp. 1, 117; cf. C. Iul. 2,10,34).

c) It is in fact the church which determines the canon of Scripture (De doct. chr. 2,7,12), which transmits tradition and interprets both of the above (De. Gen. ad litt. op. imp. 1,1), which settles controversies (De bapt. 2,4,5) and prescribes the regula fidei (De doct. chr. 3,1,2). Therefore, “I will rest secure in the church,” writes Augustine, “whatever difficulties arise” (De bapt. 3,2,2), because “God has established the doctrine of truth in the cathedra of unity” (Ep. 105,16) (in Johannes Quasten, Patrology, four volumes, Vol. IV: The Golden Age of Latin Patristic Literature From the Council of Nicea to the Council of Chalcedon, Allen, Texas: Christian Classics; division of Thomas More Publishing, no date, edited by Angelo di Berardino; translated by Placid Solari, 425-426)



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