I was listening to a Catholic Answers broadcast and heard Tim Staples repeat the oft-quoted words of Augustine, "I would not believe the gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so." I thought about how interesting it was that the same material used today to defend sola ecclesia was used during the time of the Reformation as well.
I would like to provide the answers given by both Luther and Calvin. First, is Luther's answer:
"St Augustine is quoted as having written in the book against the Letter of the Manicheans, "I would not believe the Gospel if I did not believe the Church." Here you see we are to believe the Church more than the Gospel.
I answer: Even if Augustine had used those words, who gave him authority, that we must believe what he says? What Scripture does he quote to prove the statement? What if he erred here, as we know that he frequently did, as did all the fathers? Should one single sentence of Augustine be so mighty as to refute all the texts quoted above [Luther had quoted a variety of texts proving the supreme authority of Scripture]? That is not what God wills; St. Augustine must yield to them.
Further, if that were St. Augustine's meaning he would contradict himself; for in very many places he exalts the HoIy Scriptures above the opinions of all teachers, above the decrees of all councils and churches, and will have men judge of him and of the teachings of all men according to the Scriptures. Why then do the faithful shepherds pass by those sayings of St. Augustine, plain and clear as they are, and light on this lonely one, which is so obscure and sounds so unlike Augustine as we know him from all his writings? It can only be because they want to bolster up their tyranny with idle, empty words.
Furthermore, they are deceivers, in that they not only ascribe to St. Augustine an opinion he did not hold, but they also falsify and pervert his words. For St. Augustine's words really are 'I would not have believed the Gospel if the authority of the whole Church had not moved me.'
Augustine speaks of the whole Church, and says that throughout the world it with one consent preaches the Gospel and not the Letter of the Manicheans; and this unanimous authority of the Church moves him to consider it the true Gospel. But our tyrants apply this name of the Church to themselves, as if the laymen and the common people were not also Christians. And what they teach they want men to consider as the teaching of the Christian Church, although, they are a minority, and we, who are universal Christendom, should also be consulted about what is to be taught in the name of universal Christendom. See, so cleverly do they quote the words of St. Augustine: what he says of the Church throughout all the world, they would have us understand of the Roman See.
But how does it follow from this saying that the doctrines of men are also to be observed? What doctrine of men has ever been devised that has been accepted and preached by all of the universal Church throughout the world? Not one; the Gospel alone is accepted by all Christians everywhere.
But then we must not understand St. Augustine to say that he would not believe the Gospel unless he were moved thereto by the authority of the whole Church. For that were false and unchristian. Every man must believe only because it is God's Word, and because he in convinced in his heart that it is true, although an, angel from heaven and all the world preached the contrary. His meaning is rather, as he himself says, that he finds the Gospel nowhere except in the Church, and that this external proof can be given heretics that their doctrine is not right, but that that is right which all the world has with one accord accepted. For the eunuch in Acts viii, 37, believed on the Gospel as preached by Philip, although he did not know whether many or few believed on it. So also Abraham believed the promise of God all by himself, when no man knew of it, Romans iv, 18. And Mary, Luke i, 38, believed the message of Gabriel by herself, and there was no one on earth who believed with her. In this way Augustine also had to believe, and all the saints, and we too, every one for himself alone.
For this reason St. Augustine's words cannot bear the interpretation they put upon them; but they must be understood of the external proof of faith, by which heretics are refuted and the weak strengthened in faith, when they see that all the world preaches and regards as Gospel that which they believe. And if this meaning cannot be found in St. Augustine's words; for they are contrary to the Scriptures and all to experience if they have that other meaning."
Source: Martin Luther, That Doctrines of Men Are to be Rejected Together With A Reply to Texts Quoted in Defence of the Doctrines of Men (1522), Works of Martin Luther Volume II (The Philadelphia Edition), Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1943, pp. 451-453.
Also, in a Tabletalk entry Luther is reported to have said the following:
Belief in the Gospel Because of the Church? (April 6, 1539)
“In the passage, ‘I would not believe the gospel unless the authority of the church urged me to,’ Augustine never wished to embrace the opinion of the papists. He didn’t want to write what should be believed but what should be judged, as another passage indicates, ‘I do not wish you to believe my writings more than the Holy Scripture.’ But the sophists poked fun at Paul for having written obscurely and confusedly. Ah, dear God, this treasure of the Holy Scriptures belongs only to a contrite heart and a humble and God-fearing spirit. The ungodly must be exposed and their boasting put down. This is what Stephen did in Acts 7 [:2–53], where he spoke against the place of Jerusalem, against the law, against the prosperous people, against a demanding God. Truly it was an excellent and sharp sermon! In the Roman church today the glory of the church is not at all comparable with the glory of Jerusalem and of the people Israel.”
Source: LW 54:344
....Continued sometime next week: Calvin's answer...