Thursday, December 03, 2009

Didn't Augustine Say That He Wouldn't Believe the Gospel but for the Catholic Church?

I anticipate a response to my post on the Augustinian approach of seeking the Church through Scripture. The response is to provide the following quotation:
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.
- Augustine, Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental, Chapter 5

Lots of folks have provided responses to this already:
Augustine, therefore, does not here say that the faith of the godly is founded on the authority of the Church; nor does he mean that the certainty of the gospel depends upon it; he merely says that unbelievers would have no certainty of the gospel, so as thereby to win Christ, were they not influenced by the consent of the Church. And he clearly shows this to be his meaning, by thus expressing himself a little before: “When I have praised my own creed, and ridiculed yours, who do you suppose is to judge between us; or what more is to be done than to quit those who, inviting us to certainty, afterwards command us to believe uncertainty, and follow those who invite us, in the first instance, to believe what we are not yet able to comprehend, that waxing stronger through faith itself, we may become able to understand what we believe—no longer men, but God himself internally strengthening and illuminating our minds? These unquestionably are the words of Augustine (August. Cont. Epist. Fundament. chap. 4); and the obvious inference from them is, that this holy man had no intention to suspend our faith in Scripture on the nod or decision of the Church, but only to intimate (what we too admit to be true) that those who are not yet enlightened by the Spirit of God, become teachable by reverence for the Church, and thus submit to learn the faith of Christ from the gospel. In this way, though the authority of the Church leads us on, and prepares us to believe in the gospel, it is plain that Augustine would have the certainty of the godly to rest on a very different foundation.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.3

Whenever Augustine speaks of the Church, Roman controversialists at once conclude that he refers to the local Roman Church. For instance, when he said " I should not have believed the Gospel except the authority of the Church had moved me thereunto,"[FN: Cont. Ep. Fund., c. v. Tom. viii. p. 154. Edit, as above.] they would have us believe that he looked to the Roman Church as that authority. What possible reference can these words have to the Roman Church more than to his own Church in Africa, to the Greek Church, or any other Church ? Augustine was arguing with a Manichee, who sought to enforce a gospel of his own without dispute. Augustine opposed that gospel as not acknowledged by the Universal Church. The Romish Bishop Canus has himself given the explanation. In this case he says Augustine puts the question : " What if you find one who doth not believe the Gospel ? What motive would you use to such a one to bring him to your belief ? I, for my part (he adds), should not have been brought to embrace the Gospel if the Church's authority had not swayed me to it." [FN: Canus, Loc. TbeoL, Lib. 2, c. 8, p. 52. Colon. 1605.] We have it sufficiently clear what Augustine meant by the Church from the extracts I have already given, and on that head lie adds the further testimony :—"By the mouth of God, which is the truth, I know the Church of God, which is partaker of the Truth."[FN: In Pslm. Ivii., p. 545, Tom. iv. Paris, 1681.] Let the Roman Church bring herself to that test!


I have already referred to the oft quoted saying that Augustine would not believe the Gospel, but that the authority of the Church moved him. Bellarmine quotes this also. Having the concurrent authority of the entire Christian world, Augustine believed, and such concurrent authority induced him to believe, the Gospel. He was converted to Christianity. Christianity was founded on the Gospel, which the entire Church accepted. What better motive could a man have, in passing from Paganism or other heresy to Christianity ? Religion is a matter of education, not a spontaneous inspiration. Bellarmine desired us to believe that Augustine pointed to the authority of the Roman Church as his inducement to accept the Gospel. Rome was but a small part of the whole of Christendom. Had the Roman Church never existed, Augustine would have had the same motives for belief in the Gospel.


It will now be my task to examine every single quotation as from Augustine's writings cited by Dr. Wiseman in these Lectures, and I venture to state that the reader will be satisfied that the appeal results in a lamentable failure.

I. The first passage quoted is in Lecture V., on " The Catholic Rule of Faith" (p. 140): — "Disputing with a Manichee — he says expressly, as it should be rendered from the peculiarity of the style — ' I should not have believed the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church had not led or moved me.' "

I have already fully examined this citation, and it is only necessary to add that Augustine nowhere gives us to understand that the Catholic Church was localized in the communion over which the Bishop of Rome presided, or that he derived his knowledge of, or belief in, the Gospel from that quarter.
- Charles Hastings Collette, Saint Augustine (Aurelius Augustinus, episcopus Hipponiensis), pp. 41, 103, and 106, respectively.

And this leads me to notice the famous passage so frequently objected to our views from Augustine. Writing against the Manichees, he says, "But I would not believe the Gospel, if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so."

But that "the authority of the Catholic Church" was not the sole motive that induced him to believe the Gospel, is evident from what we have already quoted above from his Confessions; nor does the passage imply as much, but only that "the authority of the Catholic Church" was one necessary ground upon which his belief rested; and that that "authority" was not absolute in his view, is evident, not only from other passages, but from the words that precede, where, after enumerating the motives which induced him to prefer the Catholic Church, and remarking that none of these were to be found with the Manichees, but only the promise of the truth, he adds,—"which indeed, if it is so manifestly exhibited as not to be doubtful, is to be preferred to all those things by which I am retained in the Catholic Church."

This passage, therefore, if explained so as to be consistent with Augustine's own statements elsewhere, means no more than that the witness of the Church to the Scriptures is an important and necessary part of the grounds upon which we believe the Scriptures. And if the construction of the argument seems to imply more, it is an inconsistency in which we must judge of Augustine's real sentiments by the general tenor of his statements, rather than by a casual argument in a controversial work, and an argument which, if I mistake not, savours more of the ingenuity of the sophist than the simplicity and force of truth.
- William Goode, The Divine Rule of Faith and Practice, pp. 437-48 of volume 2 the 1842 edition.

We could, of course, provide more (and perhaps, at a later date, we shall). For now, however, this collection should suffice.

And what is their reason in Augustine's writings? It is comments from Augustine like this one, from the same work as the first quotation above:
You can find nothing better than to praise your own faith and ridicule mine. So, after having in my turn praised my belief and ridiculed yours, what result do you think we shall arrive at as regards our judgment and our conduct, but to part company with those who promise the knowledge of indubitable things, and then demand from us faith in doubtful things? while we shall follow those who invite us to begin with believing what we cannot yet fully perceive, that, strengthened by this very faith, we may come into a position to know what we believe by the inward illumination and confirmation of our minds, due no longer to men, but to God Himself.
- Augustine, Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental, Chapter 14



Matthew Bellisario said...

When are you going to debate Paul Hoffer?

Turretinfan said...

Good question. We have something in the works, although my review of some introductory materials has slowed the process down considerably.