Scripture, Tradition, Christ and the Gospel

One of the biggest ecumenical questions that theologians have wrestled with since the early church is the relationship between Scripture and church tradition, including the teachings of past theologians and the authority of counsels. To what degree are Scripture and tradition authoritative, is that authority equal, or does Scripture trump tradition wherever the two are at variance?

Augustine has been appealed to by those who take opposing sides in the debate. There are certainly statements in his corpus that extol the virtues of the tradition and its authoritative nature. This is without dispute. Indeed, as Gillian Evans reminds us, for Augustine, “Christ is the source of all right tradition.”[1]

The question is, how did Augustine understand the relationship between Scripture and tradition? A way to answer this can be found during the heated days of the Pelagian controversy. At a certain point in the controversy, Zosimus, bishop of Rome (417–418), had declared the heretic Pelagius (b. ca. 354) to be orthodox.[2] For Augustine, who had been embroiled in a dispute against the Pelagians by making strong biblical and theological arguments against their understanding of human freedom, this was nothing less than an affront to the gospel, not to mention an overstepping of Rome’s bounds into North African affairs![3]

So in 418, Augustine called the Council of Carthage wherein he reversed Rome’s decision. If Augustine had believed that Scripture and church tradition were on par, would he have had the audacity to challenge Rome with a council of his own? To confirm the obvious answer Augustine himself said, “Neither dare one agree with catholic bishops if by chance they err in anything, with the result that their opinion is against the canonical Scriptures of God.”[4] This is not to say, however, that Augustine divorced his understanding of Scripture from the church, far from it. The Scriptures are the church’s, to be interpreted within the church, for the purpose of calling the community of God to action.

Augustine himself tells his Manichaean opponents that he only came to believe the Scriptures on the authority of the church.[5] Yet, as in his critique of Faustus the Manichaean, Augustine says, “there is a distinct boundary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments…Scripture has a sacredness peculiar to itself.”[6]

Scripture has this pre-eminence because of its relationship to Christ. The written Word and the Eternal Word are inseparably linked. The late Pamela Bright reminds us that “Augustine’s doctrine of scripture was determined by his decades-long contemplation of the Eternal Word of God, incarnate in human history, assuming the lowliness of the human condition—at once, our Way, our Truth, and our Life.”[7]

This is evident in a beautiful argument Augustine makes in his Homilies on the Gospel of John. In a comment on Christ’s High Priestly Prayer for his disciples in John 17, Augustine reminds us that just like their Saviour, Christians are not of the world, because both He and they are born of the Spirit. After this declaration, Christ prays that the Father would “sanctify them in the truth.” Because Christ elsewhere describes himself as “the Truth,” He is in effect asking the Father to sanctify His disciples in Himself. But Jesus also says to the Father, “Thy Word is truth.” Drawing the parallel between the use of Logos in John 1 and here in John 17, Augustine draws a link between Jesus, the Scripture, and the disciples: “The Father therefore sanctifies in the truth, that is, in His own Word, in His Only begotten, His own heirs and His (the Son’s) co-heirs.”[8] Here we see how intimately Christ, the Scriptures, and the church are deeply bound together in the will of the Father.

Any discussion of the authority of Scripture must proceed from this linkage to Christ. Again, as Bright says, “[T]he authority of Scripture is integrally linked with the ministry of scripture, which in turn is linked with the ministry of the Incarnate Word.”[9]

Not only is Scripture tightly connected to the person of Christ, but also his work. As he says in On Christian Teaching “the fulfilment and the end of the Law, and of all Holy Scripture, is the love of an object which is to be enjoyed, and the love an object which can enjoy that other in fellowship with ourselves…The whole temporal dispensation of our salvation, therefore, was framed by the providence of God that we might know this truth and be able to act upon it.”[10]

There is thus a context to Scripture, its role in redemptive history, and a purpose, bringing that salvific history to pass. The Scriptures are given to us that we might love and enjoy God.

About the Author:

Ian Hugh Clary

Ian Hugh Clary (PhD, University of the Free State) is a Senior Fellow for the Center of Ancient Christian Stuies. He also a Teaching and Research Fellow with the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He has taught at Redeemer University College (Canada) and Munster Bible College (Ireland). He is also a minister at West Toronto Baptist Church. His research interests include Patristic theology and history, Reformation and Post-Reformation dogmatics, Baptist studies, and Irish church history.



  • G. R. Evans, “Tradition,” in Fitzgerald, Augustine Through the Centuries, 842. ↩

  • See my forthcoming book that deals with this briefly: Ian Hugh Clary, God Crowns His Own Gifts: Augustine, Grace and the Monks of Hadrumetum (Ancaster, ON: Alev Books, 2016). ↩

  • For Augustine’s use of Scripture against the Pelagians, see Gerald Bonner, “Augustine, the Bible and the Pelagians,” in Bright, ed., Augustine and the Bible, 227–242. ↩

  • This comes from a quote in Ad Catholicos fratres, found in in Martin Chemnitz’s (1522–1586) work on the Council of Trent, and is of disputed authorship. However, Maureen Tilley argues for its authenticity as a genuine letter by Augustine. Cf. Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part I, trans. Fred Kramer (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1971), 157. For Augustine’s authorship of Ad Catholicos fratres, see Maureen A. Tilley, “Catholicos fratres, Ad; or De unitate ecclesiae,” in Allen D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine Through the Centuries: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 150–151. ↩

  • Augustine, Contra ep fund, v. 6. Cited in A. N. S. Lane, “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey,” Vox Evangelica 9 (1975), 41. Lane warns us: “It is important to note that this highly controverted passage concerns the relative authority of church and Scripture, not the status of tradition.” ↩

  • Augustine, Contra Faustum, XI.5. ↩

  • Pamela Bright, “St. Augustine,” in Justin S. Holcomb, ed., Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction (New York and London: New York University Press, 2006), 40.

  • Augustine, “Tractate CVIII,” in Philip Schaff, ed., Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, in NPNF, Volume 7, First Series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 404–405.

  • Bright, “St. Augustine,” 46. See also Michael Cameron, “The Christological Substructure of Augustine’s Figurative Exegesis,” in Bright, ed., Augustine and the Bible, 74–103.

  • Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.35.39. I am indebted to Bright’s essay for this quote.