“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.
Even Augustine Thinks Scriptures Supports the Church (Not Vice Versa)
Some people object to my argument that the church doesn’t have authority over the Scriptures. In response, they try to use St. Augustine and his writings to prop up the belief that the church determines the authority of the Scriptures. Now, there is quote from Augustine where he says that he wouldn’t believe the gospel unless he was moved by the authority of the church to do so. It’s easy to discover from the context, however, it doesn’t prove the case that the Scriptures are subordinated to the church.
In context, he was reasoning against the Manichees, who believed that they had the truth though they didn’t show that they did. They pretend to appeal to the gospel to support Manes, but Augustine asks them what they would do if they came across someone who didn’t believe the gospel. What argument would they present to try to persuade this person? Augustine later adds, “But I would not believe the gospel…” What he meant was: If he were an unbeliever and stranger to the faith, the something which could induce him to believe the gospel would be the authority of the church.
Augustine, therefore, isn’t saying that the faith of believers is based upon the authority of the church. He also doesn’t mean that the reliability of the gospel depends on the church. He is merely saying that unbelievers could be influenced to believe the gospel through the consent of the church to the truth of Scripture. He shows this to be the meaning of his words by writing this earlier:
“When I have praised my beliefs and ridiculed yours, who is supposed to judge between us? What is to be done except avoid those people who invite us to have certainty and then ask us to believe with uncertainty. Furthermore, what are we to do except follow those who invite us to believe things we cannot comprehend at first, but through faith are able to come to understand what we believe. Eventually, it is God Himself who strengthens and illuminates our minds.”
Augustine was not subjugating Scripture to the determination of the church. All he was trying to do was show that those who don’t yet believe the gospel are often more “pliable” to the gospel when they see the church’s reverence for how she treats the Scriptures. Although the church’s authority helps lead us and even prepares us to believe the gospel, Augustine himself saw that the faith of believers rests upon a different foundation than the church’s authority.
Nevertheless, I admit that Augustine often argues against the Manichees using the consensus of the church, even while supporting the Scriptures which they rejected. He scolds Faustus for not submitting to the truth of the gospel—truth so well founded, so firmly established, so gloriously famous, and handed down by the a certain succession from the days of the apostles. But nowhere does Augustine insinuate that the authority of the Scriptures rests upon the opinions and definitions of men. He only uses the universal consensus of church tradition as a support for his arguments. If you want to see this proved in his writings, just read his short treatise, The Advantages of Believing.