St. Augustine and Sola Scriptura

Dr. Kenneth Howell
August 11, 2014 8 Comments

St. Augustine of Hippo (ad 354-430) ranks not only among the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Church but also as the preeminent Father whose influence on western history has been unparalleled. It can be said without fear of contradiction that Augustine was and is the most important Church Father in the history of western Christianity. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, all the major theologies in Christendom appealed to his authority: Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed. John Calvin, for example, appealed to Augustine as a secondary support for his doctrines and interpretations of Scripture as did his greatest Catholic critic, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the theological issues of the Protestant Reformation were as much about the writings of St. Augustine as they were about the Bible. In light of his importance, it is worth asking what St. Augustine thought about the authority of Scripture.

Augustine’s preeminence in the western Church is only matched by his prolific output. While maintaining a busy life as bishop, preacher, reconciler, and disciple, he left us more than any other writer of antiquity, over five million words. Yet in all these words the issue of sola Scriptura never arose. As far as I am aware, Augustine never addressed the issue as it was formulated in the Protestant Reformation. He did, however, reflect on the authority of Scripture, especially the authority of various interpretations of Scripture so that his reflections can be relevant to the issue of sola Scriptura in the modern world.

Did St. Augustine believe in sola Scriptura?

Because Augustine held the Scriptures in high esteem and venerated them as an inerrant authority for the Church, many Protestant theologians and apologists have quoted him as a support for the notion of sola Scriptura. In his famous Letter to Jerome (no. 82 ca. 405) Augustine says:

I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. 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.

Augustine goes on to contrast this infallible authority of the canonical Scriptures with other writings about the same subjects:

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.

Advocates of sola Scriptura like to point out that Augustine even uses the Protestant phrase in the first sentence (solis eis Scripturarum libris “to the books of Scripture alone”) which supports their contention that the great Bishop of Hippo embraced sola Scriptura.

This is a case where careful reading of documents is of paramount importance. The contexts of Augustine’s comments and those of Reformers in the sixteenth century are quite different, not only in time, but in substance. Protestants contrasted the absolute authority of Scripture and what they considered the unjust authority of tradition or the magisterium of the Church. For them, the Scriptures alone were the proper source from which Christian doctrine and morals should be extracted. To add the authority of the Church was to undermine God’s authority by adding human authority to it. But in Augustine’s arguments with Jerome ten centuries earlier, the issue was not about the authority of the canonical Scriptures taken as a whole — Jerome himself affirmed that — but whether one should allow historical mistakes within Scripture. When Paul writes of Peter in Galatians 2:14 he did not act in accord with “the truth of the gospel,” Jerome had supposed that Paul had made a mistake in his writing. Augustine, in the quotations above, is affirming that the Scriptures are inerrant, not that they are the sole authority. Other writings may err but not the Scriptures.

Still, a Protestant may say that even this lesser affirmation by Augustine means that he believed that Church tradition, writings of the Fathers, and Church councils could err while the Scriptures alone could not. They therefore could be the only source of absolute truth for the Church. So the Protestant Reformers saw themselves as justified in appealing to Augustine. And if one limits himself to a few select quotations from Augustine’s writings, that may seem to be true, a fact which would explain how generations of Protestants could see themselves as faithful to the Bishop of Hippo.

Sola Scriptura as a Problem of Interpretation

Many contemporary apologists, both Catholic and Protestant, have limited their debate about the sole authority of Scripture to affirmations or denials about the Scriptures taken as a whole, prior to any interpretation by an individual or the Church. In this framing of the question, Catholic apologists often cite Church Fathers who affirm the necessity of both Scripture and Tradition. And there is an abundance of such texts to be had. Augustine, however, did not face the problem in that form. Rather, his life and work had more to do with how to interpret the Scriptures in the light of schisms and heresies all around him. Three examples in his lifetime were Manicheanism, Donatism, and what may be called simplistic literalism.

In his disputes with Faustus the Manichean bishop, Augustine insisted on the absolute authority of the canonical Scriptures against Faustus’s claim that there were later writings of equal authority.

The excellence of the canonical authority of the Old and New Testaments is distinct from the books of later writers. This authority was confirmed in the times of the Apostles through the succession of bishops and the propagation of churches, as if it was settled in a heavenly manner in a kind of seat to which every believing and pious mind lives in obedience. (Against Faustus, 11.5)

Attending carefully to the wording of this statement reveals three important truths in Augustine’s thinking. Manichean writings (“books of later writers”) cannot be held as of equal authority with the Bible because they lack the confirmation of the historic Church (“through the succession of bishops and the propagation of churches”). Here Augustine says that the Church is the protector of Scripture’s integrity. When he invokes the imagery of a seat, Augustine means the Church as an authority. It is to this seat that every believing Christian must live in obedience. While the Scriptures rightly command the assent and obedience of every Christian, the same Scriptures can only be known by their derivation from and connection with the historic Church.

The Donatist controversy was very different. On the surface, the Donatist controversy does not seem to have anything to do with the authority of Scripture. Here the issue was schism from the Catholic Church. By the time Augustine arrived on the scene of history, the Donatist schism in North Africa was over a century old. What is striking is that most of what the Donatists taught was in accord with Catholic teaching; their great sin was separation or schism. Yet, on at least one crucial doctrinal point, they differed from the Catholics. They wanted to remain separated from the Church because they considered its sacraments invalid. Why invalid? The ministers of the Catholic Church were tainted with sin and apostasy. The Donatist insisted that a priest who conferred Baptism but was himself not a good man could not confer the forgiveness of sins. His immoral life invalidated his sacramental ministry. Augustine’s answer was multifaceted but on one point he was crystal clear. The Scriptures teach that Baptism confers forgiveness even if the man baptizing is himself an immoral man.

But I think that we have sufficiently shown, both from the canon of Scripture, and from the letters of Cyprian himself, that bad men, while by not converted to a better mind, were able to, and in fact do confer and receive baptism, of these it is most clear that they do not belong to the holy Church of God, though they seem to be within it. (On Baptism Against the Donatists, 6.3)

This quotation is significant not only because of what it reveals about the meaning of Baptism but also about scriptural authority. The objective validity of Baptism cannot be nullified by a sinful man. As Augustine says, this truth he demonstrated from the Scriptures. Further, while the Donatists were appealing to the teaching of St. Cyprian, Augustine showed that the earlier bishop’s teaching was not really being upheld by the schismatics. In other words, Augustine sought to read the scriptural meaning of Baptism through the prism of the Church prior to his time. Schism from the Church was associated with schism from the Church’s understanding of Scripture.

The third problem St. Augustine faced was not really heresy or schism but the difficulties which “the little ones” had in understanding the Scriptures. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine’s most theoretical discussion of interpretation, he suggests that interpretation of scriptural passages should attempt to discern the intention of the biblical author had in mind. This meant paying careful attention to the contexts of the text, both immediate and remote, comparing text with text, but it also meant adhering to the rule of faith:

Let the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of Scripture, and from the authority of the Church, and of which I treated at sufficient length when I was speaking in the first book about things. But if both readings, or all of them (if there are more than two), give a meaning in harmony with the faith, it remains to consult the context, both what goes before and what comes after, to see which interpretation, out of many that offer themselves, it pronounces for and permits to be dovetailed into itself. (On Christian Doctrine, 3.2)

Here, Augustine emphasizes that in cases of doubt about the meaning of a scriptural text, one should seek to discern “the rule of faith” from the Scriptures and from “the authority of the Church.” The importance in adhering to the faith handed down (tradition) is emphasized by Augustine elsewhere. In his On Marriage and Concupiscence he discusses original sin and contrasts “the most ancient and firm rule of the catholic faith” with “those who assert new and perverse doctrines.” His appeal is ultimately to the ancient faith transmitted through the Church, “Because all the hearts of the Catholic Church agree in faith which was established and handed down from ancient times and with a clear voice it [the faith] compels us.”

Augustine walked a fine line between too little and too much latitude. In his Literal Commentary on Genesis, he insisted that a Christian should allow differing interpretations when the text seemed obscure. To be too narrow was to sin against charity (cf. Confessions, bk 12). On the other hand, too much latitude in interpretation risked putting oneself outside the faith. But how does one know what is too much or too little? Augustine’s answer lies in the rule of faith and the authority of the Church, both of which meant a humble listening to the past wisdom of the Church.

When Luther, Calvin, and other Protestants began to emphasize sola Scriptura, they believed that the Catholic Church had not only gone astray in the behavior of its members — something true in every generation — but also in its doctrines. The source of those doctrinal errors, according to the Reformers, was placing Church tradition above the authority of Scripture. This, they held, was the root cause of the Catholic Church’s departure from the Faith. Had the Protestant Reformers understood St. Augustine better, they would have had more charity toward the Church in their interpretations and more fidelity to the ancient Faith.  

Dr. Kenneth Howell

Kenneth J. Howell taught for thirty years in various colleges and universities before taking his present position as Resident Theologian of the Coming Home Network. He has published seven books including two on the early Church Fathers.

  • Craig Truglia

    I liked the article, but it appeared to operate under a misunderstanding of what the view of the Reformers was. The Reformers did not believe in abandoning the historical interpretations of the Church. They upheld baptisms, Chalcedon, and other such things. They quoted Church Fathers like Augustine to substantiate that they were within the historical faith, as you pointed out.

    Where they differed was on matters such as indulgences, the treasury of merits, Mary veneration, which while being popular in the Middle Ages are scantily heard from if at all in the ancient Church, and completely absent in the Scriptures.

    Augustine therefore appears to be vocalizing the same exact thing the Reformers did. Scripture is the only authority that is without error, but it must be interpreted within the stream of tradition that the Church has always interpreted an issue. Being that a treasury of merits is not part of this tradition from the beginning, on the grounds of Sola Scriptura t can be rejected.

    I suggest you read the following article on Sola versus Solo Scriptura: Protestants such as I am very deliberate in testing our interpretations against that of Christian tradition. Solo Scriptura guys think that every guy alone in the woods can understand the Bible. This is not what the Reformers believed. And being that Luther said that Popes and Councils can err, but the Scripture cannot, if you are honest about what you quoted from Augustine, there is no contradiction between the two men. Augustine affirms the importance of tradition, but never describes it as inerrant as he does the Scripture.

    • George E. Pierson

      Which Pope and which Council erred in matters of faith and moral teaching? Jesus said to listen to the Church and to the Apostles. Sola Scriptura does not allow that, which is rather ironic.

      • ARB

        I would proffer the demand that faithful Catholics hold to the Marian teachings as one. Ironically, Luther held to the historical Marian teachings, and the RCC only formalized those same teachings in 1854 (the immaculate conception of Mary) and 1950 (the assumption into heaven). For millennia before the Catholic Church taught these as tradition without threat of hellfire for those who weren’t convinced; what changed *suddenly* 15-18 centuries later?

        • Matt Swaim

          Yes, but by the same token, one could say the Church only formalized the teaching that Jesus was consubstantial with the Father at Nicea in 325. Dogmas and creeds are proclaimed as correctives to error, rather than out-of-the blue pronouncements or innovations in doctrine.

    • Ronald Rogers

      Protestants ( which I once was ) do not discus nor teach in the Capital T Traditions in how Authority within the Church is passed down from one to another . This is a major flaw in that one can claim to have authority and actually have it. It was originally Christ who picked the first 12 and one was in error and handed Him over to Chief Priest . Another denied Him three times . The difference was accepting their fallibility and seeking forgiveness and allowing Jesus to lead them . Christ sent the Holy Spirit down who BREATHED on them and they were given Authority to lead without error all others in matters of Faith and Morals , but they were not to removed from the ability to make human mistakes . The matter in which the Pope’s and the Bishops infallibility is put to question.

      Each Priest can trace his lineage of ordination back through the Bishops in the laying of hands ( which is how authority is passed from one to the next , old testament included) .
      This process of ordination was established and handed down to show true authority .

      The Reformers must then believe that they do not need this line of succession in order to be ordained.
      Else they would not have self proclaimed themselves to have authority outside of the Catholic Church .
      It is this self proclaimed authority that they are in error from the start.
      They have taken it upon themselves to declare authority over the Church’s authority in the loosing and binding of that Christ which gave to those He had chosen most certainly Peter . Now known as the seat or chair of Peter in which the Pope resides.
      Authority starts and stops at some point . We make the personal choice to accept it or to deny it .

      So then the question of Testing the Scriptures against Christian traditions comes into question.
      The who’s traditions , who’s authority over these traditions become the first decision to decide before one can test the scriptures to the Christian traditions in the first place.
      In other words which are the true traditions ?
      Those in the Bible alone? There one is caught in a cycle of the bible says back to the traditions say.
      The Devils are no fools in knowing how the minds of men work to rationalize the word of God in order to be correct . This is man’s biggest downfall when it comes to understanding what God intends .
      Go ahead and eat of the tree for God surely knows you will not die, and when they ate their eyes were open.
      This is why Christ left us His Church with His Authority to govern it in hands of fallible men guided by the Holy Spirit and the Gates of hell shall not prevail it.
      In stating that this Church is in error , it is to concede that the gates of hell have prevailed and that Jesus lied.
      All men fail and make mistakes, But Christ swore he would not leave His Bride. Ever , and He has not.

      We must look to her ( the Catholic Church ) for discernment when it comes to interpretation of the scriptures and in matters of faith and morals.
      Who else then decides which traditions we are use for interpretation ?

      There lies the difference in interpretation of scripture between Catholics , Protestants or Reformers ?
      Reformers of what , I never have been able to understand that concept ?
      What needed to be reformed ? Christ Himself founded the Church and left it in the hands of fallible men .

      Wisdom is knowing that the more intimate you become with God , the more you realize how little you actually know about Him. Therefore you seek Him out even more through the Sacraments and Guidance of the Church.
      Unless you eat and drink of my flesh, you have no life in you.

      There is no salvation outside of the Church : meaning it is hard to know the Truth outside of His Bride and one can not receive the True body and Blood of His Flesh outside of her. That right is handed down to His Priest alone through the laying on of hands by His Bishops . A Tradition most forgotten or not known.

      Peace be with you.

  • Jon Xavier

    The one comment about church authority was obviously reading into what Augustine said. He merely said that the true church continued to acknowledge scripture’s unique authority since Apostolic times, not that they determined it in some on-going institutional and abstractly authoritative way.

    • Matt Swaim

      That’s all good and well- except that Augustine himself was a priest, and even a bishop, ordained by apostolic authority as passed down through a concretely organized ecclesial structure.

      • Jon Xavier

        As the article reminded us, apostolic authority and succession were not limited to bishops in the beginning. In fact, the very first mention is of elders.

        Secondly, as Jerome and Chrysostom make clear, the greatest biblical scholars in the Patristic era in West and East respectively, the bishopric as you know it is the result of mere custom. For there is no such distinction between elders and bishops in scripture, nor in earliest post-era documents. Indeed, elder describes office and bishopric function. That is, an elder is one who oversees or superintends within the church.

        Finally, the only times the Greek word for priest is used in the New Testament is in reference to Jewish priests. Christian ministers are always referred to as elders, a different word, but indeed, the only word Peter uses for himself.