It is difficult to trace the entire Christian conversation about the nature of Scripture in so short a space. A wise course is to look at a representative figure, one whose influence casts a large shadow over the rest of the Christian tradition. We could choose from a number of such, but it is not hyperbole to say that Augustine of Hippo (354–430) is, after the biblical authors, the single most influential theologian in the history of the church.
While focusing on one such figure might narrow things, it is not by much when it comes to the Doctor of Grace. His collection of writings is massive when you factor in his dense theological treatises, his commentaries, sermons, and letters; a scholar could easily spend an entire career immersed in him and still not come out the other end! What we can do here is only touch on aspects of his doctrine of Scripture, with an eye towards understanding him on Scripture’s authority.
Before we progress into Augustine’s bibliology, a couple of terminological issues should be noted. As text-critic Peter J. Williams has recently pointed out, the word “Scripture” is to be preferred over the word “Bible” in discussions of authority and inerrancy. Without delving into the reasons he gives as to why Scripture is less confusing than Bible, Williams makes the point that the ancient church most commonly referred to Holy Writ as “Scripture.” So this series follows the more appropriate term.
Relatedly, when speaking about the relationship between the term “inerrancy” and church history, we run into problems of anachronism. While the concept of a canon of Scripture that is without error is common in the history of the church, the concept most commonly employed was one of “authority” and not inerrancy. The later word has taken on a more restricted and technical meaning that comes out of twentieth-century debates.
So, for the sake of this series on Augustine, I will discuss the broader issue of scriptural authority in the thought of Augustine. It is important to note, however, that Augustine, of all the ancients, has a view that can in be considered “inerrantist.” As Peter T. Sanlon tells us, “when stating that Scripture is completely free from error, [Augustine] uses the word from which inerrant is derived: ‘errasse.’”
In what follows we will look briefly at his theology of Scripture, which will help us tease out the nuances of his understanding of its trustworthiness. Also, we will look more specifically at his understanding of the authority of Scripture and what that entails for modern questions of an inerrant bible. If, as Carol Harrison says, Augustine “stands at a watershed in the history of western thought, between the classical world of the Roman empire and the Middle Ages,” then what we can determine about Augustine’s theology of Scripture will give us some sense of the general view in much of Christian history about Scripture. For the twenty-first-century church, we must then ask, what lessons can we derive from this important ancient theologian for our concept of Scripture today?
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.
Peter J. Williams, “Erhman’s Equivocation and the Inerrancy of the Original Text,” in D. A. Carson, ed., The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 391–393. ↩
Williams argues that the word “Bible” is multivalent and so makes equivocation, as in the case of Bart Ehrman, easier than does “Scripture.” Williams, “Ehrman’s Equivocation,” 392. ↩
For instance, Thomas Aquinas could say in his Summa Theologica “Only to those books or writings which are called canonical have I learnt to pay such honour that I firmly believe that none of their authors have erred in composing them.” ST 1a.1.8. ↩
Cf. John Warwick Montgomery, ed., God’s Inerrant Word: An International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1974). ↩
Peter T. Sanlon, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 89–90. Greg Beale comments, “It is important to recall that the doctrine of inerrancy was espoused as an orthodox notion long before the Enlightenment and modernism, from the time of the early fathers up through the Reformers and until the end of the twentieth century.” G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 42. ↩
Carol Harrison, “Augustine (353–430)” in Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason and Hugh Pyper, eds., Key Thinkers in Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 24. ↩