It would seem, from this quote, that Augustine has not only affirmed the absolute authority of Scripture, but has actually opposed biblical authority to that of ecclesiastical tradition, even 'to all later letters of the bishops', which for their part are denied any sort of infallibility. Oh dear. Out the window, apparently, goes the authority of not only bishops, but that of the bishops gathered in council, and that of the bishop of Rome, along with any sort of infallibility any of these might claim. The Bible alone, it seems, is infallible and authoritative for the good doctor, and no Pope or bishop has any business claiming otherwise.
Or so it seems. But then, dear readers, when you face any patristic quotation cited in the defense of a polemical point, you will remember Ad Limina Apostolorum
's first two rules of inquiry:Rule 1: Finish the Quote
It seems that the quotation above has managed to end with a period only by uprooting a comma:
[...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; (Ibid., emphasis added)
Oops. It looks like our 'Bible versus Church' dichotomy was a bit premature. It seems, after completing his train of thought, that Augustine is not trying to degrade the authority of the whole Church, throwing the rhetorical baby out with the bathwater. On the other hand, it seems he has something much more modest in mind. He opposes the authority of Holy Writ only to the supposed authority of a mere letter from a single bishop. He is only concerned that some scribbled note from any lone ranger in a mitre might be taken as Revealed Truth, subject to no higher authority or court of appeal.
But such an episcopal letter, says Augustine, is not the last word on doctrinal matters - it is subject, not only to Sacred Scripture, but also to the scrutiny of more authoritative bishops, to the jurisdiction of provincial councils, and even more, to the solemn and final authority of ecumenical councils. It seems Augustine is not so hostile to ecclesiastical prerogative as we thought.Rule 2: Read Your Chadwick
Not only Chadwick
, of course, who is deficient in more than one respect, but he's the best start for a working knowledge of Church history. If all else fails, simply read the translator's introduction
to the work in question: these days, they usually aren't half-bad.
The slightest study of the background of this work will tell you its occasion, which weighs heavily on the question we are discussing. Looming behind the Donatists, to whom Augustine addresses this letter, is the massive authority of St. Cyprian
, the saint-martyr-bishop of greater Africa. The international prestige of Cyprian, unfortunately, made all the more devastating the fact that, on a crucial matter of theology, he was horribly, horribly wrong. I refer to the question of the rebaptism of heretics
, on which question Cyprian came down firmly in the positive - that is, on requiring heretics reconciled to the Church to be rebaptized, their former baptism in schism presumed to be null and void. As brighter luminaries in the Church saw at the time, this position deftly undercut the Church's understanding of the efficacy of the sacraments, an efficacy derived from the Lord Himself. Yet the Donatists built an entire theological superstructure atop Cyprian's error, and soon all of Africa had gone astray. When courted by the Catholics, the Donatists would simply toss up quotes from the esteemed master, Cyprian, solidifying their own position.
And this is the occasion of Augustine's work, not to defend Cyprian (who was, clearly, indefensible on this point), but to convince the Donatists that they needn't follow him into his error. A bishop, even so great a bishop as Cyprian, is only one lone bishop. It helped Augustine's case that Cyprian had been rebuffed in his error, during his own lifetime, by the Bishop of Rome, Pope Stephen I
. And with Stephen, the whole Church stood arrayed against the good Cyprian, who promptly and angrily retired to his library to re-edit all of the nice things he had said about the Papacy
My point is that Augustine's On Baptism Against the Donatists
is no systematic treatise on the absolute supremacy of Scripture to all other comers. It is a four-volume tract whose central thesis is that a lone, renegade bishop from the corner of Africa, when he stands alone against the Pope, councils, all the world's bishops, and even against Holy Writ itself, needn't be thought to be infallible. Augustine is far from encouraging the Donatists to forsake ecclesiastical authority. Rather, he is beseeching them, by all means, to acknowledge it and submit to it, for the good of their own souls.