An Appeal to Augustine
In this argument, Stapleton appeals to one of the most popular early church father quotations used by Catholics against Protestants today, where Augustine claims:
I would not believe the gospel, if the authority of the catholic church did not move me.1
Interestingly enough, it seems the quotation was quite popular in Whitaker's day as well (and in Calvin's, as we will see):
These words of Augustine, says Stapleton, have distressed the protestants. Doubtless they have, and no wonder, since, as he confesses, in the same place, they have deceived even some of the schoolmen also. They are indeed special favourites, and always in the mouths of the papists generally; so that a papist can scarce exchange three words with you without presently objecting this testimony of Augustine.2
(We would do well to remember Ecclesiastes 1:9. Many of the arguments we have with Roman Catholics today are merely recycled from earlier generations. This should remind us of the benefit of consulting historical theology; chances are that some far greater thinker has already considered the general form of any particular Roman Catholic argument we are trying to answer.)
Whitaker's response is to cite Calvin, who had already dealt with the same quotation in the Institutes. His citation leads to the following passage, where Calvin argues that Augustine is being ripped out of context:
I am aware it is usual to quote a sentence of Augustine in which he says that he would not believe the gospel, were he not moved by the authority of the Church, (Aug. Cont. Epist. Fundament.c. 5.) But it is easy to discover from the context, how inaccurate and unfair it is to give it such a meaning. He was reasoning against the Manichees, who insisted on being implicitly believed, alleging that they had the truth, though they did not show they had. But as they pretended to appeal to the gospel in support of Manes, he asks what they would do if they fell in with a man who did not even believe the gospel - what kind of argument they would use to bring him over to their opinion. He afterwards adds, "But I would not believe the gospel," &c.; meaning, that were he a stranger to the faith, the only thing which could induce him to embrace the gospel would be the authority of the Church. And is it any thing wonderful,that one who does not know Christ should pay respect to men?
Augustine, therefore, does not here say that the faith of the godly is founded on the authority of the Church; nor does he mean that the certainty of the gospel depends upon it; he merely says that unbelievers would have no certainty of the gospel, so as thereby to win Christ, were they not influenced by the consent of the Church. And he clearly shows this to be his meaning, by thus expressing himself a little before: "When I have praised my own creed, and ridiculed yours, who do you suppose is to judge between us; or what more is to be done than to quit those who, inviting us to certainty, afterwards command us to believe uncertainty, and follow those who invite us, in the first instance, to believe what we are not yet able to comprehend, that waxing stronger through faith itself, we may become able to understand what we believe - no longer men, but God himself internally strengthening and illuminating our minds?"
These unquestionably are the words of Augustine, (August. Cont. Epist. Fundament. cap. 4;) and the obvious inference from them is, that this holy man had no intention to suspend our faith in Scripture on the nod or decision of the Church, but only to intimate (what we too admit to be true) that those who are not yet enlightened by the Spirit of God, become teachable by reverence for the Church, and thus submit to learn the faith of Christ from the gospel. In this way, though the authority of the Church leads us on, and prepares us to believe in the gospel, it is plain that Augustine would have the certainty of the godly to rest on a very different foundation. At the same time, I deny not that he often presses the Manichees with the consent of the whole Church, while arguing in support of the Scriptures, which they rejected. Hence he upbraids Faustus (lib. 32) for not submitting to evangelical truth - truth so well founded, so firmly established, so gloriously renowned, and handed down by sure succession from the days of the apostles. But he nowhere insinuates that the authority which we give to the Scriptures depends on the definitions or devices of men. He only brings forward the universal judgement of the Church, as a point most pertinent to the cause, and one, moreover, in which he had the advantage of his opponents. Any one who desires to see this morefully proved may read his short treatises De Utilitate Credendi,(The Advantages of Believing,) where it will be found that the only facility of believing which he recommends is that which affords an introduction, and forms a fit commencement to inquiry; while he declares that we ought not to be satisfied with opinion, but to strive after substantial truth.3
David King also discusses this passage from Augustine. After quoting some of the same material from Calvin (although a different translation), King adds:
Augustine often spoke of the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit, revealing truth directly to human hearts independent of human aid:...we may continue to know what we believe by the inward illumination and confirmation of our minds, due no longer to men, but to God Himself.4So, then, it is the Reformed position, and not the Roman Catholic, that expresses the Augustinian perspective. Augustine's epistemology regarding spiritual truth is rooted in the immediate and eternal influence of light that only God can give. Yet, it is the practice of today's Roman apologists to dismiss the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in confirming the heart of believers, or say it was a novel concept initiated by the Reformers.
We acknowledge with Augustine that the Church is most often the initial and outward means by which men are called to faith in Christ. With respect to the above quote from Augustine, Heiko Oberman explains that he never exalted the authority of the Church over the Scriptures:5While repeatedly asserting the primacy of Scripture, Augustine himself does not contrast this at all with the authority of the Catholic Church [as Roman apologists assert]: '...I would not believe the Gospel unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me.' The Church has a practical priority; her authority as expressed in the direction-giving meaning of commovere, to move, is an instrumental authority, the door which leads to the fullness of the Word itself.6
1. Whitaker cites contra Epist. Fund. c. 5. The equivalent passage can be found in Schaff's collection here.
2. William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1894; reprint, Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2005), 319-320.
3. John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, 1.7.3.
4. NPNF1: Vol. IV, Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental, Chapter 14. King, in his footnote, cites a number of other passages from Augustine supporting his interpretation.
5. David T. King, Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith Vol. 1 (Battle Ground, WA: Christian Resources, 2001), 80-81.
6. Heiko Oberman, "Quo Vadis? Tradition from Irenaeus to Humani Generis," Scottish Journal of Theology 16 (1963): 234-235.