A Reformed blogger, TurretinFan, rejects the authority of the early Ecumenical Councils, and suggests that every dispute needs to be resolved through Scripture, which is allegedly independent of the Catholic Church, the property of all. He cites to this passage from St. Augustine for support, which he suggests shows that Augustine “sounded exactly like a Sola Scriptura Christian.” It’s from Augustine’s discourse against the Arian heretic Maximus:
Holy Trinity icon (Moscow, Russia) (19th c.)
The Father and the Son are, then, of one and the same substance. This is the meaning of that “homoousios” that was confirmed against the Arian heretics in the Council of Nicaea by the Catholic fathers with the authority of the truth and the truth of authority. Afterward, in the Council of Ariminum it was understood less than it should have been because of the novelty of the word, even though the ancient faith had given rise to it. There the impiety of the heretics under the heretical Emperor Constantius tried to weaken its force, when many were deceived by the fraudulence of a few. But not long after that, the freedom of the Catholic faith prevailed, and after the meaning of the word was understood as it should be, that “homoousios” was defended far and wide by the soundness of the Catholic faith. After all, what does “homoousios” mean but “of one and the same substance”? What does “homoousios” mean, I ask, but the Father and I are one (Jn 10:30)?
I should not, however, introduce the Council of Nicaea to prejudice the case in my favor, nor should you introduce the Council of Ariminum that way. I am not bound by the authority of Ariminum, and you are not bound by that of Nicaea. By the authority of the scriptures that are not the property of anyone, but the common witnesses for both of us, let position do battle with position, case with case, reason with reason.
So what is (and isn’t) Augustine saying here?
|Council of Nicea icon (18th c.)|
If you ran into a Christian who accepted the Gospel of Matthew, but rejected the Gospel of Luke, and rejected the Virgin Birth, would you prove the Virgin Birth using Matthew 1-2, or Luke 1-2? Obviously, Matthew 1-2. And why? Because both sides accept it. Does that mean you think Matthew is a higher authority than Luke? Of course not.
So Augustine’s point isn’t that Scripture alone should be used to settle disputes. Far from it. In fact, he begins the passage by explicitly acknowledging that the Council of Nicea has binding authority. But Augustine realizes that it makes more sense to argue from Scripture (which Maximus accepts) than from the Council of Nicea (which Maximus rejects). Compare this to Jesus using the Pharasaic canon to argue against the Pharisees, or the Sadducean canon to argue against the Sadducees. Or compare this to Catholics using Scriptural arguments (rather than relying upon Ineffabilis Deus) to defend the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary from Protestant attacks. Or compare this to Christian apologists like William Lane Craig debating atheists while building his case from science (which both Christians and atheists recognize as authority) rather than relying primarily upon Scripture (which atheists don’t believe in).
No reasonable person would deduce from these examples that Christ denied the fullness of the Biblical canon, or that Catholics reject the authority of the papacy, or that Craig rejects the authority of Scripture. Rather, they’re just doing what Augustine is doing here. Namely, each of these examples involves a person using what both sides agree upon to prove a particular point. In this way, they prevent a debate on one thing (in Augustine’s case, the Trinity) from devolving into a series of side-debates over the papacy, or conciliar authority, or the canon of Scripture.
If you want clear proof that TurretinFan is perverting Augustine’s teachings, look at how Augustine argued against the Manicheans. The Manicheans, like Protestants today, tried to prove their false doctrines from Scripture. Augustine pointed out that since we only have Scripture because of the Catholic Church, this is absurd: either accept the Church and Scripture, or reject them both:
St. Augustine of Hippo
Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichæus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing 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 as 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 Manichæus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you—If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichæus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel;— Again, if you say, You were right in believing the Catholics when they praised the gospel, but wrong in believing their vituperation of Manichæus: do you think me such a fool as to believe or not to believe as you like or dislike, without any reason?
It is therefore fairer and safer by far for me, having in one instance put faith in the Catholics, not to go over to you, till, instead of bidding me believe, you make me understand something in the clearest and most open manner. To convince me, then, you must put aside the gospel. If you keep to the gospel, I will keep to those who commanded me to believe the gospel; and, in obedience to them, I will not believe you at all. But if haply you should succeed in finding in the gospel an incontrovertible testimony to the apostleship of Manichæus, you will weaken my regard for the authority of the Catholics who bid me not to believe you; and the effect of that will be, that I shall no longer be able to believe the gospel either, for it was through the Catholics that I got my faith in it; and so, whatever you bring from the gospel will no longer have any weight with me.
So let’s apply Augustine’s point to Protestantism. The Bible comes to us solely through the Catholic Church. If Protestants succeed in proving that we Catholics are wrong about the truth of Christianity, that doesn’t just disprove the authority of the Church, but the authority of Scripture. So you can’t use the Bible to “prove” Protestantism, since why would we accept the Bible, absent the Church?
To put it differently, it isn’t particularly coherent for Protestants to try to argue for Protestantism using the Bible (which comes to them solely through the Catholic Church). But if they’re going to acknowledge the authority of the Bible, nothing prevent us, as Catholics, from pointing out that the Bible supports Catholicism, rather than Protestantism.
One final point. In both the passage I just quoted, and in the passage TurretinFan quoted against the Catholic Church above, Augustine repeatedly describes the true faith as that held by the Catholic Church. In the quote TurretinFan provides, Augustine appeals to the Council of Nicaea, governed “by the Catholic fathers with the authority of the truth and the truth of authority.” He rejoices that “the freedom of the Catholic faith” prevailed, and he appeals to “the soundness of the Catholic faith.” So instead of disproving Catholicism, Augustine repeatedly affirms Catholicism, even in the passage TurretinFan cites.
Pope St. Siricus
And what else have many good and faithful men among our brethren done? Do we not see with what a quantity of gold and silver and garments Cyprian, that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, was loaded when he came out of Egypt? How much Lactantius brought with him? And Victorious, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of living men!
You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim—-each for himself—-separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner. Well then, on the one Cathedra, which is the first of the Endowments, Peter was the first to sit.
The Living Successor of the Apostle Peter
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, indeed, because they are but men, still without any uncertainty (since the rest of the multitude derive their entire security not from acuteness of intellect, but from simplicity of faith,)— 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.
Now, which Church does that sound like? Which Church today is globally accepted by a variety of peoples and nations, governed by the successor of St. Peter, and commonly called the Catholic Church?
So no, Augustine wasn’t some sort of sola Scriptura Christian who would have been a Protestant if he were alive today. He painstakingly spelled out why he was a Catholic, and it’s either ignorant, dishonest, or delusional to pervert his writings to suggest otherwise.