Historical theologian and Protestant pastor Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary; author of books including Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future and Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation) has a unique YouTube channel, called Truth Unites, that every reader of this post should subscribe to. It’s a fascinating mixture of apologetics and theology, with an irenic focus. (Of course it should go without saying that I don’t necessarily endorse every view that might be articulated on someone’s else site.)
Here’s the thesis of his latest video:
Augustine affirmed sola Scriptura.
In fact, he could not have been clearer in affirming it.
I will embed the video below for him to make his case, followed by notes on his presentation:
Ortlund provides three clarifications or framing remarks:
- The goal of this video is not prove that sola Scriptura is right. The goal is simply historical accuracy. What Augustine believed is interesting and relevant, but it’s not decisive for sola Scriptura. Someone who rejects sola Scriptura could simply say that Augustine was wrong.
- I do not believe that I am taking these quotes out of context. If you have a concern about that, read these quotes in context for yourself.
- We need to define sola Scriptura, because obviously we have to know what we are talking about in order to know be able to recognize it in Augustine or anywhere else.
Ortlund offers the following definition of sola Scriptura:
Scripture is the only infallible rule for faith and practice.
Tradition has a place. Creeds and councils can be binding and authoritative. But all that is subsequent to Scripture is reformable in light of Scripture.
Ortlund points out at least four alternative caricatures are ruled out by this definition. Sola Scripture does not mean that:
- the Bible is the exclusive source of all theological knowledge;
- the Bible is the infallible rule for every subject (whether chemistry, geometry, etc.);
- the Bible is the only authority for each individual Christian, regardless of their historical circumstances;
- it can be amalgamated with other Protestant doctrines concerning Scripture (such as perspicuity, sufficiency, etc.).
The bottom line?
We must avoid defining sola Scriptura by its street-level practice, and instead define it by its official articulations. The fact that something is visible at the street level does not mean it isn’t a caricature.
(He recommends a few theologians to read on this: Francis Turretin, William Whitaker, Martin Chemnitz, Richard Hooker.)
Quote #1 from Augustine
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; 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, 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, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity? (On Baptism 2.3.4)
Ortlund makes two observations about this quote:
- Augustine draws a clear distinction between Scripture and all subsequent writings with respect to their authority and truthfulness.
- Augustine maintains that councils, even plenary (ecumenical) councils, can err and be corrected by later ones.
Quote #2 from Augustine
As regards our writings, which are not a rule of faith or practice, but only a help to edification, we may suppose that they contain some things falling short of the truth in obscure and recondite matters, and that these mistakes may or may not be corrected in subsequent treatises. For we are of those of whom the apostle says: “And if you be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you” (Philippians 3:15). Such writings are read with the right of judgment, and without any obligation to believe. In order to leave room for such profitable discussions of difficult questions, there is a distinct boundary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. (Reply to Faustus 11.5)
Augustine continues to observe the church’s role in the preservation of Scripture, but to distinguish Scripture from everything subsequent to the apostolic times in terms of infallible vs. fallible.
Quote #3 from Augustine
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. . . . 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. (Letter to Jerome [no. 82])
Augustine maintains that he believes Jerome held the same view.
But What about Other Quotes from Augustine?
In some passages, Augustine even goes further, coming close to the Reformed idea of the sufficiency of Scripture:
Among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life. (On Christian Doctrine 2.9)
Some people try to evade the force of these statements by pointing to other things Augustine said, and he certainly did have a high view of the church. For example, he wrote:
for my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.
Ortlund argues that this statement is not at odds with elevation of Scripture over councils and bishops. It comes from his Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, where he is arguing with a Manichee, who sought to enforce a gospel of his own. That is in no way at odds with saying the Scripture is of unique authority.
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.
Is Augustine Unique among the Fathers in His Understanding of Scripture?
John Chrysostom, in his 33rd homily on Acts, poses a scenario along these lines:
What about when a pagan wishes to become a Christian, but he sees all these rival groups in the church, and doesn’t know which one to pick?
What then shall we say to the heathen? There comes a heathen and says, ‘I wish to become a Christian, but I know not whom to join: there is much fighting and faction among you, much confusion: which doctrine am I to choose?’ How shall we answer him? ‘Each of you’ (says he) ‘asserts, “I speak the truth.”’
No doubt: this is in our favor. For if we told you to be persuaded by arguments, you might well be perplexed: but if we bid you believe the Scriptures, and these are simple and true, the decision is easy for you. If any agree with the Scriptures, he is the Christian; if any fight against them, he is far from this rule.
Three observations from Ortlund:
- John erects the Scriptures as the ultimate test by which to measure these competing claims.
- John distinguishes the Scriptures from arguments because they are “simple and true,” whereas arguments simply cause confusion.
- John nowhere appeals to an infallible magisterium.
In fact, John anticipates the challenge of interpretative pluralism next:
“But which am I to believe, knowing as I do nothing at all of the Scriptures? The others also allege the same thing for themselves. What then if the other come, and say that the Scripture has this, and you that it has something different, and you interpret the Scriptures diversely, dragging their sense (each his own way)?” And you then, I ask, have you no understanding, no judgment?
John assumes that you have the ability to convince this person of the truth by the Scripture. At one point he even questions their sincerity if they cannot!
If he should say what you say about the Christians — ‘There is such a multitude of men, and they have different doctrines; this a heathen, that a Jew, the other a Christian: no need to accept any doctrine whatever, for they are at variance one with another; but I am a learner, and do not wish to be a judge’ — but if you have yielded (so far as) to pronounce against one doctrine, this pretext no longer has place for you. For just as you were able to reject the spurious, so here also, having come, you shall be able to prove what is profitable. . . . Let us not make pretexts and excuses, and all will be easy.
John argues that the heathen maneuvers the conversation into that level of skepticism, that person is basically making excuses. He assumes that the truth can be discerned among competing options by the Scriptures functioning as paramount.
“None of this is a defeater for non-Protestant views of Scripture and tradition. Augustine (and John) are not infallible. But they certainly show the reasonableness of sola Scriptura. My hope is that these patristic testimonies will at least encourage people not to dismiss the idea so quickly, or to caricature it.”