14 February 2009

Wisdom! St. Augustine on Scripture and the Right of Judgment

5. 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." Philippians 3:15 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. 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. If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood. 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. In other books the reader may form his own opinion, and perhaps, from not understanding the writer, may differ from him, and may pronounce in favor of what pleases him, or against what he dislikes. In such cases, a man is at liberty to withhold his belief, unless there is some clear demonstration or some canonical authority to show that the doctrine or statement either must or may be true. But 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. Otherwise, not a single page will be left for the guidance of human fallibility, if contempt for the wholesome authority of the canonical books either puts an end to that authority altogether, or involves it in hopeless confusion. -- St. Augustine, Contra Faustum, XI


Scott Larkins said...

Hear! Hear!

MG said...

Pr Weedon--

In this part of the statement by St. Augustine's that you quoted:

"In such cases, a man is at liberty to withhold his belief, unless there is some clear demonstration or some canonical authority to show that the doctrine or statement either must or may be true."

What do you think he means by "unless there is... some canonical authority to show that the doctrine or statement either must or may be true."?

Also, what do you think Augustine means in the following quotes:

"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, e.g. the annual commemoration, by special solemnities, of the Lord's passion, resurrection, and ascension, and of the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven, and whatever else is in like manner observed by the whole Church wherever it has been established."

"[H]e, I say, abundantly shows that he was most willing to correct his own opinion, if any one should prove to him that it is as certain that the baptism of Christ can be given by those who have strayed from the fold, as that it could not he lost when they strayed; on which subject we have already said much. 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. For if he quotes Peter as an example for his allowing himself quietly and peacefully to be corrected by one junior colleague, how much more readily would he himself, with the Council of his province, have yielded to the authority of the whole world, when the truth had been thus brought to light?"

"What the custom of the Church has always held, what this argument has failed to prove false, and what a plenary Council has confirmed, this we follow!"

William Weedon said...


Regarding canonical authority, I think he defines in the whole paragraph what he is referring to: the canonical Scriptures (which, of course, in his region included the Apocrypha; unlike in Cappadocia where St. Gregory Nazianzus excludes them).

As for the other quotes, I don't think he means any differently than what he says: we may indeed have apostolic custom which is not preserved in the Scripture which we do well to hold, exactly as the observance of Easter and such things that we ourselves do follow. I'd add the sign of the cross, the practice of baptizing children, and so on. He regarded universality of a custom as an indicator of apostolicity. But he nevertheless was clear that when it came to setting forth the Church's dogma, she rests that upon the Sacred Scriptures.

Perhaps the greatest student of St. Augustine was St. Thomas Aquinas, and he understood him on this point to say:

"Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): "Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning."--St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia, Part 1, Question 1, Article 8

William Weedon said...

P.S. You might want to compare Augustine's words with Martin Chemnitz', that great Lutheran Divine:

"We also hold that no dogma that is new in the churches and in conflict with all of antiquity should be accepted."

And yet

"Let the reader observe that the opinion of these fathers is that a things should not be believed or accepted because someone of the fathers either thought or said so, unless he proves what he says from the canonical Scriptures, that the fathers could have thought differently than truth demands, and that we have been called by the Lord to that liberty that we may freely judge about the writings of any and all persons according to the canonical writings, and that when we disapprove of anything in the writings of the fathers which does not agree with the Scripture, and reject it, this is done without rashness but by a just judgment, without injury or disgrace to the fathers, without prejudice to their honor, and with their consent, and that this is done by those who are incomparably inferior to the fathers."

MG said...

Pr Weedon--

I must admit that upon re-reading the quotation, it is clear that you are correct--the canonical authority referred to is Scripture. Shame on me for thinking it was referring to something else!

I agree that St. Augustine denies the infallibility of any single post-Apostolic Christian author, and that he urges us to use private judgment in discerning whether what they teach is from the Scriptures or not. But this does not mean that Augustine denies the ultimate, binding normativity of Church councils. What do you take to be his meaning specifically when he says that the unanimous authority of the whole Church puts the answer to a dispute beyond question? He says that the authority of the whole world brings the truth to light. Doesn't that seem to imply that the consensus of the Church can bind human consciences--even if the judgment of no particular Father is sufficient?

William Weedon said...

Quite true. St. Augustine recognizes the authority of the Church's council. I'm not sure what he'd say in the situation we're confronted with since the Schism and then the Reformation, where the possibility of the whole Church gathering in council has not seemed possible. At least in the Augustana, the Lutherans appeal to a council to settle the difficulties that had arisen within the Western Church, but when Trent met, they were excluded already from being present, and the East had no representation at Trent either, I don't believe.