Did Augustine Believe in Biblical Inerrancy?

One of the most important figures of the Reformation died over a millennium before Luther was even born. B.B. Warfield explains his significance:

It is Augustine who gave us the Reformation. For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church. (The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, IV:130)

As Warfield also points out, everybody wants to claim Augustine—and because he wrote so voluminously and went through certain theological evolutions, many people can. We can find apparent endorsements for many theological ideas in Augustine, ideas which today have formed ecclesiastical camps.

I want to claim him, too—to find support for the evangelical doctrine of scriptural inerrancy. Augustine may say other things that qualify (or contradict—he wasn’t himself inerrant) what I’m about to quote. But I find it striking that he says some of the same basic, major things about the Bible that evangelicals say today about it. Here are three of them.

1. Augustine refuses to blame the Bible for apparent errors in the Bible.

He writes,

I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the [manuscript] is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1:350)

This is what evangelicals do today: if we come across an apparent error or tension in the Bible, we check for textual errors or translation difficulties, and we are prepared to blame our own (fallen, finite) powers of understanding before blaming the Bible.

Nonetheless, there’s a ditch in the appeal to textual criticism (a ditch evangelicals still warn about today): Augustine complains about readers who try to wriggle out from under what the Bible is saying by claiming textual corruption:

When these men are beset by clear testimonies of Scripture, and cannot escape from their grasp, they declare that the passage is spurious. The declaration only shows their aversion to the truth, and their obstinacy in error. Unable to answer these statements of Scripture, they deny their genuineness. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 4:178)

Professing Christians don’t usually use this strategy, but cultic groups do. To this day some of them say that the Bible has been purposefully altered over the centuries. Augustine answered their charge back when my ancestors were Celtic tribesmen.

2. Augustine makes the Bible the standard by which truth is judged.

The basic, intuitive argument for biblical inerrancy has always been that the Bible is God speaking and that God cannot lie. If you admit one error in Scripture, Scripture can no longer be the judge of truth. Perhaps (metaphor alert) not everyone who steps onto this slippery slope lets the whole camel into the tent, but they’re skating on thin ice. So evangelicals generally say.

Augustine, in my judgment, makes the same slippery-slope-camel-in-tent-thin-ice argument. It was not invented by B.B. Warfield and the Princetonians in the 19th century:

It is one thing to reject the books themselves, and to profess no regard for their authority… and it is another thing to say, This holy man wrote only the truth, and this is his epistle, but some verses are his, and some are not. And then, when you are asked for a proof, instead of referring to more correct or more ancient manuscripts, or to a greater number, or to the original text, your reply is, This verse is his, because it makes for me; and this is not his, because it is against me. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 4:178)

Throughout this paragraph, Augustine implies that the original writings of the apostles, accessed through our best efforts at textual criticism (when necessary), are the standard by which truth is judged. He is well aware, all those centuries ago, of the human tendency to try to make the Bible into a wax nose, and he won’t have it.

3. Augustine uses the slippery slope argument for biblical authority.

Augustine openly names the main alternative authority that tends to arise if Scripture loses its rightful spot: me.

Are you, then, the rule of truth? Can nothing be true that is against you? But what answer could you give to an opponent as insane as yourself, if he confronts you by saying, The passage in your favor is spurious, and that against you is genuine? (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 4:178)

Either God is in charge, or people are. Either we are creatures subject to the Creator’s stated norms, or we are autonomous, making our own norms. But if I get to be autonomous, so does the next guy. We have no common ground of truth to stand on. We lose our religion by losing our ability to appeal to a standard we both acknowledge.

Human books can be great—Augustine wrote a lot of them—but they cannot compel belief and obedience.

In the innumerable books that have been written latterly we may sometimes find the same truth as in Scripture, but there is not the same authority. Scripture has a sacredness peculiar to itself. In other books the reader may form his own opinion, and perhaps, from not understanding the writer, may differ from him, and may pronounce in favor of what pleases him, or against what he dislikes. In such cases, a man is at liberty to withhold his belief, unless there is some clear demonstration or some canonical authority to show that the doctrine or statement either must or may be true. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 4:180)

Human books are not the ultimate authority in the Christian church or conscience. They can’t be. Here is something that sounds very like the Reformation’s sola scriptura:

In consequence of the distinctive peculiarity of the sacred writings,we are bound to receive as true whatever the canon shows to have been said by even one prophet, or apostle, or evangelist. Otherwise, not a single page will be left for the guidance of human fallibility, if contempt for the wholesome authority of the canonical books either puts an end to that authority altogether, or involves it in hopeless confusion. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 4:180)

Others might find competing themes in his writings—I am not an Augustine expert by any means. But the Augustine we find in these passages teaches (as someone whom I respect once said) that any decision to distrust God’s words is a decision to trust someone else’s. This is the slippery slope argument for inerrancy, delivered circa the fall of the Roman Empire.

Take up and read.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).

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Comments

  1. George Watson says:

    As usual, Augustine is a far more profound thinker than the rest of us.

    I find it dismaying how quickly/easily members of mainstream Churches
    just dismiss a verse or passage in the Bible they find difficult to follow.

    Why and when did humans decide they were wiser than God ?

  2. Greg Luecht says:

    As with most all comments on the bible from human origin-is not their source from human wisdom? The question of legitimate commentary is the question of it’s source. Either man’s reasoning or that of the (S)spirit.

  3. …but Augustine didn’t claim Scripture was *the* standard by which Truth is judged.

    “I would not believe in the Gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not influence me to do so.”
    Against the letter of Mani, 5,6, 397 A.D.

    • I was actually hoping I’d get some thoughtful feedback like this (with citations—thank you!). Like I said, I believe competing themes can be found in Augustine, and I’m not qualified to enumerate them all.

      I read the section you cited, and I don’t think Augustine is saying that the Catholic Church stands over Scripture, full stop; he’s aware of the competing authorities of “the gospel” (which he appears to equate with the Bible; though I confess this is hard for me to say with certainty), the Manichees, and the Catholic Church—or should I say “catholic church” at this juncture in history? He thinks the Bible and the church cohere against the Manichees. But surely he isn’t talking like modern evangelical Protestants talk, either. I grant that.

      And if your point is that I can’t say Augustine claimed the Bible as “the” standard, only as “a” standard, that’s a weighty point. I think what I said is still fair given the context I set up for it: this is one strain in Augustine’s thought and pretty much one writing I’m quoting (Contra Faustus). But I could imagine myself softening the definite article into an indefinite one (or perhaps we can translate it into Russian, which has no articles, and we can both be satisfied!). Toss me another citation or two and perhaps I will. Seriously. I’d like to explore this topic further than my initial foray.

      • Mark, thanks for the kind words and reply. And I didn’t mention it earlier, but the original article was thoughtful. Now, to address a couple of points.

        First off, I am not claiming (nor would the Catholic church) that the church stands over Scripture. The Catholic church teaches the doctrine of Prima Scriptura. That is that Scripture is the inerrant word of God, and as such it Truth. But it is not the sole source of truth. A far better explanation than mine on the position of the Catholic church’s authority and Sacred Scripture can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 1, Section 1, Chapter 2, Articles 2 and 3 (http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p1s1c2a2.htm although I’m sure you have a copy in Logos as well). You will find, if you go far enough, that the sections referenced reference earlier documents and so on, back to church fathers or Scripture itself. In other words, this attitude is not a modern invention, but would have been doctrine at the time of St. Augustine. In fact, we can trace this doctrine all the way back to Acts 15, where at the Council of Jerusalem both Scripture and the bishops’ authority were used in coming to a decision, and their decision was considered to have the authority of God Himself (Acts 15:28).

        Secondly, St. Augustine was a bishop in the Catholic church, and a member of the Magisterium. To say that he didn’t believe in the basic doctrines of the church that he was a part of, and that he defended, is a claim which I would think would require a great deal of evidence to support.

        But since you asked for more references in St. Augustine’s acceptance of the authority of the Catholic church, let’s consider the rest of the document I mentioned. There are numerous references to the authority of the Catholic church in it (more than I care to quote here), including an entire chapter (chapter 4):

        “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. Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should, though from the slowness of our understanding, or the small attainment of our life, the truth may not yet fully disclose itself. But with you, where there is none of these things to attract or keep me, the promise of truth is the only thing that comes into play. Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the Catholic Church; but if there is only a promise without any fulfillment, no one shall move me from the faith which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion.”

        Or consider the following passage from the document you referenced.

        “The excellence of the canonical authority of the Old and New Testaments is distinct from the books of later writers. This authority was confirmed in the times of the Apostles through the succession of bishops and the propagation of churches, as if it was settled in a heavenly manner in a kind of seat to which every believing and pious mind lives in obedience.” (Against Faustus, 11.5)

        In other words, the authority of Scripture is confirmed by the succession of bishops. Or consider the following passage:

        “Let the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of Scripture, and from the authority of the Church, and of which I treated at sufficient length when I was speaking in the first book about things. But if both readings, or all of them (if there are more than two), give a meaning in harmony with the faith, it remains to consult the context, both what goes before and what comes after, to see which interpretation, out of many that offer themselves, it pronounces for and permits to be dovetailed into itself.” (On Christian Doctrine, 3.2)

        N.B. The Catholic was indeed called Catholic, not just catholic, from at least the second century onward – another bishop of the Catholic Church, Saint Ignatius, writes around 107 A.D. “Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic Church” (To the Smyrnaeans 8:2)

  4. Augustine claims the passing of truth is derived from both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. And you are correct, Augustine is not stating that the. Catholic Church stands over Scripture, the Church is the authority over it’s interpretation. Roman Catholic teaching, along with the other four Patriarchal Catholic Churches, derive their teaching from both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition:

    “Let the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of Scripture, and from the authority of the Church, and of which I treated at sufficient length when I was speaking in the first book about things. But if both readings, or all of them (if there are more than two), give a meaning in harmony with the faith, it remains to consult the context, both what goes before and what comes after, to see which interpretation, out of many that offer themselves, it pronounces for and permits to be dovetailed into itself. (On Christian Doctrine, 3.2)

    Tradition: “[T]he custom [of not rebaptizing converts] . . . may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 5:23[31] [A.D. 400]).

    “But the admonition that he [Cyprian] gives us, ‘that we should go back to the fountain, that is, to apostolic tradition, and thence turn the channel of truth to our times,’ is most excellent, and should be followed without hesitation” (ibid., 5:26[37]).

    “But in regard to those observances which we carefully attend and which the whole world keeps, and which derive not from Scripture but from Tradition, we are given to understand that they are recommended and ordained to be kept, either by the apostles themselves or by plenary [ecumenical] councils, the authority of which is quite vital in the Church” (Letter to Januarius [A.D. 400]

    And a little more concerning Augustine’s rebuttal to the Manicheans: “The excellence of the canonical authority of the Old and New Testaments is distinct from the books of later writers. This authority was confirmed in the times of the Apostles through the succession of bishops and the propagation of churches, as if it was settled in a heavenly manner in a kind of seat to which every believing and pious mind lives in obedience.” (Against Faustus, 11.5)

    Good points in the article and comments. Not sure if I can follow the thread due to work commitments but will watch for further discussion.

  5. Thanks for the post. It helps me to gain a renewed interest in Augustine again. Certainly some food for thoughts.