Archive for the ‘Donatists’ Category

Augustine on the "We Gave You the Scriptures" Argument

October 12, 2009

One argument that we sometimes hear from Roman Catholic apologists is an argument that Roman Catholicism gave us the Scriptures, in the sense of preserving them for us over the centuries. This claim is, of course, anachronistic (the folks who preserved the Scriptures from the 4th decade to the 4th century, for example, could hardly be called “Roman Catholic” in their doctrines and practices). Nevertheless, for some folks the argument seems to have some bite.

Like so many arguments, though, it is not a new argument. In the times of persecution there were times when the government attempted to destroy the Scriptures and commanded Christians to hand over the sacred writings for destruction. Christians, viewing the Scripture as inspired by God and absolutely necessary, did not willingly cooperate with these commands.

In fact, many were persecuted and even martyred for failing to turn over their Bibles to the government. Not everyone was equally willing to suffer and die for the Word of God. Some folks turned over the Scriptures to the government, and these were known as traditores (meaning someone who hands over), from which we get our word “traitor.”

Later, in theological disputes, some folks attempted to use the faithfulness of their spiritual forebearers against the spiritual unfaithfulness of their oponenents’ spiritual forebearers with respect to the preservation of Scripture. They essentially would say that theirs preserved Scripture, while their opponents’ turned it over. Augustine addresses this argument in a powerful way in the following quotation that Pastor King brought to my attention.

Augustine (354-430) commenting on Psalm 58:3:

But they [i.e., the Donatists] grow too deaf to hear the gospel, and will not allow us to read them the words of God. How ironic: they boast of having saved those words from the fire, but try to delete them with their tongues! Instead they speak words that are their own, and therefore empty. “That fellow handed over the books,” they say, “and that other one too.” Yes, all right; I will say the same: “That fellow handed them over, and so did that other,” and I am speaking the truth. But what has that to do with me? You can’t find the names of those you accuse in the gospel, can you? Nor can I read out to you from the gospel the names of those I mentioned. Let our documents be moved out of the way and God’s book take center stage. Listen to what Christ says, listen to truth speaking: And for repentance and forgiveness of sins to be preached in his name throughout all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. “No,” they reply, “listen to what we have to say. We don’t want to hear what the gospel says.” Sinners have been alienated even from the womb, they have gone astray even from the belly, they have spoken falsehoods. Let us speak the truth, because we have heard the truth, the truth that the Lord speaks, not what humans tell us. A human being can lie, but it is not possible for Truth to lie. From the womb of truth I recognize Christ, who is Truth itself, and from the words of Truth I recognize the Church, which participates in the Truth. Let no one who has strayed away from that matrix in the bowels of the Church speak falsehoods to me; I would wish to find out first what he wants to teach me. I see him as alienated from the womb, astray even from the belly; so what am I likely to hear from him, except falsehoods? They have gone astray even from the belly, they have spoken falsehoods.

John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., Works of Saint Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 51-72, Part 3, Vol. 17, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B. (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2001), Exposition of Psalm 57 (58), p. 128 (editor’s footnotes omitted)(read for yourself here).

I realize that there will be many Roman Catholics who would like to focus only on the womb/church analogy. Furthermore, it should be noted that Augustine viewed himself as “Catholic” (not Roman Catholic) as distinct from the sectarian Donatists. He viewed them as having left the Catholic church and consequently as having spoken lies. That is the context for this discussion, and we realize that Rome would like to assert that the Reformed churches are in the same position as the Donatists (although there are numerous reasons to reject such a comparison).

Nevertheless, note that Augustine is quite willing to set aside the personalities (since they are not mentioned in Scripture) and to focus on the Scripture. Let Scripture take center stage, and let all the other things stand aside. Another friend of mine has stated that “I happen to agree with Warfield when, evaluating Augustine’s theology, he concluded that the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the victory of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church.” That may be the case (I’m less convinced that Augustine’s doctrine of the church was accurately represented by the Romanists), but it should be noted that Augustine was willing to submit his doctrine of the church to the authority of Scripture: to let Scripture take precedence over history and to let the issue be “what does the Scripture say,” as opposed to “who preserved the Scriptures.”


%d bloggers like this: