Martin Luther said during the Diet of Worms:
Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason — I cannot accept the authority of popes and councils because they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God.
Is this the innovative ravings of a mad-man? No. He might have been mad, but he was hardly innovative. Augustine covered all the same points in Chapter Three of his second book On Baptism, Against the Donatists:
But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true;
Hmmm, that does not sound like Augustine thought there was an authoritative oral tradition, Magesterium of the Church, or anything else. But, just in case you think we are taking Augustine out of context he continues:
but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth
Anything written since the closing of the Canon, according to Augustine, is liable to be refuted. How is this consistent with modern Roman Catholic Dogma that the Ecunemical Councils and the Pope can make statements that, like Scripture, are inerrant? Augustine continues:
either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them…
What?!?! Ecumenical Councils can err and be corrected by ones that follow them?
“Objection,” says Mr. Catholic. “He said ‘plenary,’ not ‘ecumenical.'”
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
The ecumenical councils or synods of the Universal Church are called plenary council[s] by St. Augustine (C. illa, xi, Dist. 12), as they form a compete representation of the entire Church.
Wow, Augustine must really hold a much higher view of Scripture than do many modern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, who compare Scripture’s authority as equivalent to Councils, Bishops, and Apostolic Tradition reported second hand by them.
Libosus also of Vaga says: “The Lord says in the gospel, ‘I am the Truth.’ John 14:6 He does not say, ‘I am custom.’ Therefore, when the truth is made manifest, custom must give way to truth.” Clearly, no one could doubt that custom must give way to truth where it is made manifest (Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists Book III, Chapter 6).
So, do I agree with Augustine on everything? No. But, being that his high view of Scripture and relatively low view of Church authority was not considered heretical in his day, I would say that the Reformed Protestant view of Scripture and tradition accords much better with early church thought than both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
It may be worth noting that in Augustine’s day, there had only been 2 ecumenical councils, one of which (Constantinople) would only be confirmed by Rome many years down the line. In between these two, there had been any number of councils (and certainly letters by bishops) filled with errors. Given that Catholics accept the authority of councils as definitive inasmuch as they are confirmed by the Pope, I do not think Augustine’s word about bishops’ letters or councils necessarily derogate from the Catholic claim.
Some searching around turned up a claim that Augustine does uphold Papal authority in Sermon 131, so I dug around and found it. The text in question:
“Quod ergo dictum est de Iudaeis, hoc omnino in istis videmus. Zelum Dei habent. Testimonium illis perhibeo, quia zelum Dei habent, sed non secundum scientiam. Quid est: Non secundum scientiam? Ignorantes enim Dei iustitiam, et suam volentes constituere, iustitiae Dei non sunt subiecti. Fratres mei, compatimini mecum. Ubi tales inveneritis, occultare nolite, non sit in vobis perversa misericordia: prorsus ubi tales inveneritis, occultare nolite. Redarguite contradicentes, et resistentes ad nos perducite. Iam enim de hac causa duo concilia missa sunt ad Sedem Apostolicam: inde etiam rescripta venerunt. Causa finita est: utinam aliquando finiatur error! Ergo ut advertant monemus, ut instruantur docemus, ut mutentur oremus. Conversi ad Dominum…”
The very last lines are the ones quoted in this matter: “Refute those speaking against, and lead the resisting ones to us. For about this case there were now sent two councils to the Apostolic See. Thereupon they came back in reply. The case is finished. If only their error would be finished at some point! Therefore we admonish that they may turn, we teach that they may be instructed, we pray that they may change. Turn to the Lord…”
The sermon is about the errors of the Pelagians, so the councils in question would be local synods about those matters. But indeed, local or ecumenical, if approved by Rome, we can be confident that they contain the true faith. Perhaps Augustine need not be read as saying Rome is always the final word, but in this case he is.
And none of this is said with prejudice to Sacred Scripture. I agree that even the best among Catholics can at times take comfort in the certitude of papal to such a degree that they forget the beauty and sweetness of the waters the flow from Scripture, our chief and most secure source of knowledge regarding Christ and his mysteries. God bless!
What Augustine wrote obviously cannot be reconciled with the idea that Ecumenical Councils, or any council, is by necessity inerrant. Only the Scripture can lay claim to this.
I appreciate your additional comments on Augustine.
So, I’m looking through Augustine’s letters for references to the “Apostolic See”, and I intend to put together a little collection, but with respect to one point in your article: You say that the bishop of Rome was not called Pope in his time, but I have found numerous spots where Augustine does use this title. To cite one, Letter 190, par. 22, “…etiam a duobus venerabilibus antistitibus apostolicae Sedis, papa Innocentio et papa Zosimo…”
Papa, of course, being the Latin word now translated as “Pope”. This is certainly nothing against your argument, but one small point. It is interesting that most of these letters I’m finding are not included in the Ante-Nicene and Nicene Fathers collection. God bless!
I thought only the Patriarch of Alexandria had the title at the time and that it was not until the late 5th century it was adopted. I was misinformed.