A Question about Sola Scriptura

A reader writes:

Lately, for the last six months or so, I have been “down in the trenches” doing the best I can do defend the Catholic Church against the stunning amount of ignorance and prejudice thrown against Her by the fundamentalist Protestant sects. I know, of course, that I don’t need to explain what I’m talking about at all. (I have debated some of them before, starting out in person when I dabbled myself in a “Bible Christian” church about eight years ago - that’s actually when & why I started writing my “lil essays”, as I call them, when I began to see the major errors of their ways.)

After stumbling upon a staggering amount of pure anti-Catholic spite on a particular forum, I have been posting there. Being a part of a tiny minority that is met mostly with nothing but the same old Protestant myths repeated again and again, and with lots of spite (I’ve been calling many times “not a Christian”, an “atheist”, told I “hate Scripture”, told I am responsible for the Holocaust because Pius XII signed and accord with Hitler to help kill the Jews, etc.), it is trying. Here is one of my threads

(My wife is “Homemaker07” who is there as well.)

I have a question for you now! It is rare for me to find anything at all new or even slightly challenging in anti-Catholic apologetics, but I have come across something I feel I cannot address completely. I was challenged by one of the forum members here to refute this.

Now, of course, it’s full of blatant misrepresentations of Catholic teaching, appalling logic, and so on, but it contains one thing I had not seen before. Apparently St. Augustine made this statement:

“I ought not to adduce the Council of Nice, nor ought you to adduce the Council of Ariminum, for I am not bound by the authority of the one, nor are you bound by the authority of the other. Let the question be determined by the authority of the Scriptures…”

It really does sound like he is preaching sola-scriptura there.

Now, we know he also made famous statements such as “I would not believe the Gospel if the Catholic Church did not tell me it was true”, so overall that is clearly not the case, but do you happen to know if there is more to his statement? Was his theology still evolving, etc? I cannot find a serious Catholic commentary on this quote anywhere online or in any of my books.

What Augustine is doing is appealing to a common authority in a dispute where the Church Universal has not yet arrived at a consensus. The councils he is referring to are local synods. He regards himself as bound by the teaching and discipline of the synod whose jurisdiction is over his local geographic region, and the person he is writing to likewise feels bound by his local synod. A similar situation obtained during the controversy about when to celebrate Easter in the late second century. Eusebius outlines the quarrel:

A question of no small importance arose at that time [i.e. the time of Pope Victor, about A.D. 190]. The dioceses of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should always be observed as the feast of the life-giving pasch [epi tes tou soteriou Pascha heortes], contending that the fast ought to end on that day, whatever day of the week it might happen to be. However it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this point, as they observed the practice, which from Apostolic tradition has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the Resurrection of our Saviour. Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all with one consent through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree that the mystery of the Resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other day but the Sunday and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on that day only.

Note that the quarrel centered on two variant traditions of how to date Easter.  And (if you read up on the whole extremely complex matter), the last thing in the world that settled the question was an appeal to Scripture Alone.

With Augustine’s particular question the issue is this, lacking a verdict from the Church universal, and faced with differing rulings from different local councils, he is attempting to come to concensus by appeal to Scripture, since it is an authority appealed to by both him and his correspondent. This is, by no means, not the only approach taken in matters of differing local practices.  Augustine’s great mentor, St. Ambrose of Milan, for instance, was once asked what he did about the different fasting regulations between the Church in Milan and the Church in Rome.  Rather than berate the Romans or try to get Milan to alter their ancient practices, he settled on the eminently practical solution of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.  When in Milan, do what they do in Milan”.  This is a tonic that many Catholics today could learn from as we obsess over nitnoid differences in local practice from one diocese to the next.

But (getting back to your question) the point is this: Augustine is attempting “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” in a particular discussion centering different juridical differences between two local councils.  Since the Church universal has not addressed the matter via either an ecumenical council, nor via the Holy Father, he appeals to the authority that both he and his correspondent hold in common: Scripture.  He is not trying to make any point at all about sola but is, instead, assuming a thoroughly Catholic backdrop to the whole discussion.  Be careful of importing post-Reformation categories into patristic arguments.  For a very fun and well-written prophylactic against the tendency of some Protestants to do this, Fr. Hugh Barbour’s delightful “‘Ancient Baptists’ and Other Myths”.

Also, Newman really sums things up when he writes in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:

[W]hatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.

And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every writer on the Protestant side has felt it; for it was the fashion at first, at least as a rhetorical argument against Rome, to appeal to past ages, or to some of them; but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. It is shown by the long neglect of ecclesiastical history in England, which prevails even in the English Church. Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicæa and Trent, except as affording one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophesies of St. Paul and St. John. It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon. To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

And this utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether the latter be regarded in its earlier or in its later centuries. Protestants can as little bear its Ante-nicene as its Post-tridentine period. I have elsewhere observed on this circumstance: “So much must the Protestant grant that, if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial; by a deluge coming in a night, and utterly soaking, rotting, heaving up, and hurrying off every vestige of what it found in the Church, before cock-crowing: so that ‘when they rose in the morning’ her true seed ‘were all dead corpses’—Nay dead and buried—and without grave-stone. ‘The waters went over them; there was not one of them left; they sunk like lead in the mighty waters.’ Strange antitype, indeed, to the early fortunes of Israel!—then the enemy was drowned, and ‘Israel saw them dead upon the sea-shore.’ But now, it would seem, water proceeded as a flood ‘out of the serpent’s mouth, and covered all the witnesses, so that not even their dead bodies lay in the streets of the great city.’ Let him take which of his doctrines he will, his peculiar view of self-righteousness, of formality, of superstition; his notion of faith, or of spirituality in religious worship; his denial {9} of the virtue of the sacraments, or of the ministerial commission, or of the visible Church; or his doctrine of the divine efficacy of the Scriptures as the one appointed instrument of religious teaching; and let him consider how far Antiquity, as it has come down to us, will countenance him in it. No; he must allow that the alleged deluge has done its work; yes, and has in turn disappeared itself; it has been swallowed up by the earth, mercilessly as itself was merciless.”