Augustine on Scripture’s Authority
Now that we have some sense of the context of Augustine’s theology of Scripture, we can look more closely at how he understood scriptural authority. In City of God, Augustine has a fabulous statement about the authority of Scripture that can help us order our thoughts: “This Mediator [Christ], having said to us as much as He judged sufficient, first by the prophets, then in His own person, and later through the apostles, also established the Scriptures which are called canonical. These have the most eminent authority, and we trust them in all matters of which it is not expedient for us to be ignorant but which we are not capable of knowing for ourselves.” In this statement Augustine tells us that Christ speaks through the Old and the New Testaments, in the collection of books known as the canon of Scripture that has supreme authority and is given so that we can trust them to guide our lives. In this section, we will look at these three themes in Augustine: the Scripture’s divine source, its truthfulness, and its use in the Christian life.
The Scriptures are not, as a pre-convert Augustine might have once thought, merely authored by human beings. As Augustine believed in the indivisible works of the Trinity, because the persons share one will, he took the divine authorship of Scripture as a Trinitarian act. For instance, Scriptures were composed by Christ who used His disciples as “hands” to write the text of Scripture:
[W]hen those disciples have written matters which He declared and spake to them, it ought not by any means to be said that He has written nothing Himself; since the truth is, that His members have accomplished only what they became acquainted with by the repeated statements of the Head. For all that He was minded to give for our perusal on the subject of His own doings and sayings, He commanded to be written by those disciples, whom He thus used as if they were His own hands … [I[n the same kind of spirit in which [a person] might look upon the actual hand of the Lord Himself, . . . were he to see it engaged in the act of writing.
Inasmuch as Christ is the author of Scripture, so is the Holy Spirit. He could say that “Scriptures were imparted to mankind by the Spirit.” The implication of this divine authorship is, as A. D. R. Polman says, “[Augustine] thought it inconceivable that the Holy Spirit, the real author of Holy Scripture, should have contradicted himself.” Can the Scriptures deceive? While Augustine obviously believes that a human person can deceive another, it is not the case with the Holy Spirit. Because it is the Spirit who stands behind the text of Scripture, and because he cannot deceive, it is necessary to believe that there is nothing deceptive in Scripture. In a letter to the famed translator of the Latin Vulgate Jerome (347–420) written around 394 or 395, Augustine said:
It is one question whether it may be at any time the duty of a good man to deceive; but it is another question whether it can have been the duty of a writer of Holy Scripture to deceive; nay, it is not another question—it is no question at all. For if once you admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement, as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of these books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, and under a sense of duty, the author declared what was not true.
Because the Scriptures are divine speech, Augustine says they are “holy, they are truthful, they are blameless.” In Confessions he prays, “Lord, surely your Scripture is true, for you, being truthful and Truth itself, have produced it.” Let us consider more deeply, then, how the truthfulness of Scripture works itself out in Augustine.
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.
Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, ed., R. W. Tyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 451. ↩
A key source for modern interpretations of Augustine on Scripture is: R. L. Peterson, “To Behold and Inhabit the Blessed Country: Revelation, Inspiration, Scripture and Infallibility. An Introductory Guide to Reflections Upon Augustine, 1945-80,” Trinity Journal 4.2 (Autumn 1983): 28–81. ↩
A. D. R. Polman, Word of God According to St. Augustine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1961), 44. ↩
Augustine, De consensus evangelistarum in NPNF, First Series, 6:101. ↩
Confessions, 93. ↩
Polman, Word of God, 56. Cited in John D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 37. ↩
Augustine, The Letters of Augustine, 28.3. Cited in Woodbridge, Biblical Authority, 167n28. ↩
Both quotes cited in Toom, “Augustine on Scripture,” 78–79. ↩