Augustine on Apostolic Tradition

While listening to Dr. White discuss the Marian doctrines the other day, I was reminded of a post that I wrote a couple of years ago. My original post was a longer response to Dr. R. Scott Clark who was, it would appear, attempting to use a quote by Augustine to prove that infant baptism was rooted in Scripture – as it was “handed down by apostolical authority.” I will not be getting into that discussion here, but I do want to take a look at two passages from Augustine’s On Baptism, Against the Donatists (which is what Dr. Clark cited).

The first passage below is from Book IV, Chapter 24. It is the quote that was used by someone who holds to Sola Scriptura in order to defend a supposed Biblical authority of infant baptism (a practice in search of a theology which was not truly discovered until Calvin and others during the Reformation). This is germane to Dr. White’s Dividing Line episodes over the past week which are related to a defense of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Here is the passage from Augustine.

And if any one seek for divine authority in this matter, though what is held by the whole Church, and that not as instituted by Councils, but as a matter of invariable custom, is rightly held to have been handed down by apostolical authority…. when others take the vows for them, that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete in their behalf, it is unquestionably of avail for their dedication to God, because they cannot answer for themselves. But if another were to answer for one who could answer for himself, it would not be of the same avail. In accordance with which rule, we find in the gospel what strikes every one as natural when he reads it, “He is of age, he shall speak for himself.”

Augustine’s On Baptism, Against the Donatists, IV.24

As you can see, Augustine does believe that this was a custom that was handed down under the authority of the Apostles – it was not something that was practiced due to institution by Councils. Some, without proper context, might try to use that passage alongside their belief in Sola Scriptura to prove the Biblical nature of infant baptism. However, as we have seen through our discussions of Dr. Wilson’s thesis, one has to be very careful when reading the Early Church Fathers. Quite often they do not mean what we think they mean, especially when taken out of context.

To support that, let us look at what Augustine would write in the next book in the same work.

Cyprian writes also to Pompeius about this selfsame matter, and clearly shows in that letter that Stephen, who, as we learn, was then bishop of the Roman Church, not only did not agree with him upon the points before us, but even wrote and taught the opposite views. But Stephen certainly did not “communicate with heretics,” merely because he did not dare to impugn the baptism of Christ, which he knew remained perfect in the midst of their perversity. For if none have baptism who entertain false views about God, it has been proved sufficiently, in my opinion, that this may happen even within the Church. “The apostles,” indeed, “gave no injunctions on the point;” but the custom, which is opposed to Cyprian, may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings.

Augustine, On Baptism: Against the Donatists Book V.23.13

As you can clearly see, for Augustine “Apostolic tradition” included customs and practices that were “not mentioned in the writings” of the Apostles. The writings of the Apostles are Scripture – as we don’t have any extant Apostolic writings which are not in the Canon of Scripture. Sola Scriptura, that wonderful Reformation principle, runs counter to what Augustine wrote above. The God-breathed words of Scripture may have helped inform church practices and custom, but we do a great injustice to Sola Scriptura when we begin relying on “apostolic tradition” that is not necessarily contained in Holy Scripture.

This post is ultimately about reading the Early Church Fathers properly. I could, in turn, provide multiple passages from Augustine that would make him sound proto-Reformed and a believer in Sola Scriptura. But it would be leaving out his beliefs laid out above regarding Apostolic Tradition. It would also be leaving out the fact that Augustine also believed that the Apocrypha was Holy Scripture. Likely because it was handed down by Apostolic authority!

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