Heresy can only be defined as the apostles and Church Fathers defined it, according to the ancient principle of apostolic succession. In a nutshell, heresy is that which has not been passed down from the beginning, from the apostles and our Lord Jesus. If something is novel and cannot be traced back, it is heresy, and to be utterly rejected, according to St. Paul in particular. All other definitions are ultimately circular:
X What is heresy?
Y That which is false and wrong according to the Bible (i.e., as interpreted by Calvin/Luther/whomever)
X And where do they get their authority to state that?
Y From God, but they would trace their beliefs to the early Fathers, particularly St. Augustine.
X But Catholics also trace their beliefs from St. Augustine. Who is correct?
Y If you look at Augustine’s teachings, you will find that the Reformed are his true legatees.
Applying this oft-stated Protestant principle, I then appeal to Protestant scholars Alister McGrath and Norman Geisler, with regard to the historical basis of sola fide (faith alone and extrinsic, imputed justification), one of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation:
Whereas Augustine taught that the sinner is made righteous in justification, Melanchthon taught that he is counted as righteous or pronounced to be righteous. For Augustine, ‘justifying righteousness’ is imparted; for Melanchthon, it is imputed in the sense of being declared or pronounced to be righteous. Melanchthon drew a sharp distinction between the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous, designating the former ‘justification’ and the latter ‘sanctification’ or ‘regeneration.’ For Augustine, these were simply different aspects of the same thing . . .
The importance of this development lies in the fact that it marks a complete break with the teaching of the church up to that point. From the time of Augustine onwards, justification had always been understood to refer to both the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous. . . .
The Council of Trent . . . reaffirmed the views of Augustine on the nature of justification . . . the concept of forensic justification actually represents a development in Luther’s thought . . . .
Trent maintained the medieval tradition, stretching back to Augustine, which saw justification as comprising both an event and a process . . . (Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1993, 108-109, 115; emphasis in original)
This spectacularly confirms that sola fide was a novelty and corruption, and that infused, intrinsic justification was the ongoing tradition, and that of St. Augustine, supposedly the great forerunner of Luther’s “faith alone.” Norman Geisler makes the exact same point:
For Augustine, justification included both the beginnings of one’s righteousness before God and its subsequent perfection — the event and the process. What later became the Reformation concept of ‘sanctification’ then is effectively subsumed under the aegis of justification. Although he believed that God initiated the salvation process, it is incorrect to say that Augustine held to the concept of ‘forensic’ justification. This understanding of justification is a later development of the Reformation . . .
Before Luther, the standard Augustinian position on justification stressed intrinsic justification. Intrinsic justification argues that the believer is made righteous by God’s grace, as compared to extrinsic justification, by which a sinner is forensically declared righteous (at best, a subterranean strain in pre-Reformation Christendom). With Luther the situation changed dramatically . . .
. . . one can be saved without believing that imputed righteousness (or forensic justification) is an essential part of the true gospel. Otherwise, few people were saved between the time of the apostle Paul and the Reformation, since scarcely anyone taught imputed righteousness (or forensic justification) during that period! . . . . . (Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, with Ralph E. MacKenzie, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1995, 502, 85, 222; emphasis in original)
Much the same demonstration can be made with regard to sola Scriptura and other Protestant distinctives. To summarize, then: the only (biblical, logical) way to determine heresy and orthodoxy is the historical criterion of apostolic succession. Any other method is circular, with no way to resolve competing claims.
Sola fide cannot be a legitimate development, because it is different in essence from infused justification. If some Reformed Protestants claim that our view is Pelagianism or a false gospel of works, etc. because of its difference from the Reformed extrinsic, forensic, external, imputed righteousness, then how can their view be said to be merely a “development” of ours, via Augustine and others?
A development cannot proceed from an entirely false view to a true one, or change in its essence. This violates the very definition of development, on any coherent theological view of what the word means. It is not simply random evolution or change, but consistent change: consistent with what has come before it, not radically divergent.
That would be like saying that orthodox Chalcedon trinitarianism could have “developed” from Arianism, Sabellianism, or Monophysitism. Therefore, sola fide must be considered as a corruption of Augustinian (and patristic) soteriology, because it is entirely novel in essential aspects, as my two Protestant citations showed.
St. Augustine rejected double predestination, perseverance, imputed justification, and accepted free will, sacramentalism, baptismal regeneration, the Real Presence of the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the Mass, the central authoritative roles of the Church and Tradition, as well as Scripture, the papacy, purgatory, penance, intercession of the saints, an exalted role of Mary, and human merit. In other words, he was a good Catholic. As if this were some amazing revelation . . . .
How, then, can a Reformed Protestant claim on the one hand that his views are descended from St. Augustine, yet on the other hand assert that Catholics are heretics, Pelagians, and adherents of a false, idolatrous gospel, for believing the same sort of things that St. Augustine also held? If I am a heretic and not a Christian, then neither was Augustine. If he was one, then so am I.
Without too much trouble, one can find Catholic distinctives in St. Augustine’s classic, The City of God. For example, the great Doctor appears to be talking about purgatory in XX, 25-26 (“. . . at the judgment those who are worthy of such purification are to be purified even by fire; and after that there will be found in all the saints no sin at all . . . “). Cf. XXI, 13.
He clearly rejects the Lutheran/Calvinist “bondage of the will” (V, 10 and XII, 7). He teaches the sacrifice of the Mass and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (X, 5, 20; XXI, 25), baptismal regeneration (XIII, 7; XX, 6), development of doctrine (XVI, 2), authoritative Tradition (XVIII, 38), and prayers for the dead (XX, 9; XXI, 24).
How is it “outside” of God’s working to simply reject His working? This is absolutely illogical and nonsensical. How does a prisoner’s refusal to accept a governor’s pardon somehow make the pardon null and void, or change the essence of the fact that the governor does all: all pardon comes from him, but a free agent can reject it if he so chooses? This is what Augustine states in City of God, V, 10:
It does not follow, because God foreknew what would in the future be in our will, that there is nothing in the power of our will.
He doesn’t create a false dichotomy, which is so characteristic of Protestant thought. He accepts the paradox and mystery (not contradiction) of divine sovereignty and human will, as Scripture also does.
Let me put it in capital letters: (in Catholic, Tridentine teaching) GOD DOES THE ENTIRE WORK OF GRACE AND JUSTIFICATION. MAN MERELY GOES ALONG WITH IT, OR REJECTS IT. Even merit is God rewarding His own gifts, as Augustine accurately puts it. God’s grace is always primary and initiatory. Once one is walking in that grace, there is merit, yes, but it must also be understood as ultimately initiated and entirely caused by God.
Photo credit: St Augustine Teaching in Rome (1465), by Benozzo Gozzoli (c. 1421-1497) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]