“Sacred Scripture … is placed high on a throne”: Augustine on the Bible

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Augustine, like other Patristic authors, believed without hesitation that God had caused the Bible to be written. He accepted both its inspiration and its inerrancy. He thus used such terms as inspirare and dictare to stress that in the writing of Scripture the initiative is God’s alone and that he determined what was to be written in the pages of Holy Writ.

Augustine also consistently used the ablative case when referring to the work of the Holy Spirit in writing Scripture and the preposition per when referring to the role of the biblical authors. By this means he made the same point: Scripture is God’s Word.

Where he encountered individual difficulties, he either suspended judgment or sought an explanation that would preserve biblical infallibility. Thus, he could state:

Only to those books which are called canonical have I learned to give honour so that I believe most firmly that no author in these books made any error in writing (Letter 82.1.3).

Again, in his work against the Manichaean Faustus (c.340–c.390), Augustine wrote:

A distinction has been made between the books written after the apostles and the authentic canon of the Old and New Testament. Sacred Scripture … is placed high on a throne where it receives the submission of all pious and faithful intelligence. There, if one finds something absurd, it is not permissible to say “The author of this book has strayed from the truth” but rather “This manuscript is false” or “The translator has made an error” or finally that “You do not grasp what is said” (Against Faustus 11.5).

His overall attitude to Scripture is well expressed by the following statement in a letter written to Jerome in 405:

I confess … that … I believe most firmly that only the authors [of the canonical books of Scripture] were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me contrary to the truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. But, when I read other authors, however eminent they may be in sanctity and learning, I do not necessarily believe a thing is true because they think so, but because they have been able to convince me, either on the authority of the canonical writers or by a probable reasons which is not inconsistent with the truth (Letter 82.3).

For Augustine, as for the rest of the early Christian authors, biblical inerrancy was a common persuasion. As Hans Küng, certainly no friend to biblical infallibility, has commented: for Augustine, “the whole Bible was free of contradictions, mistakes and errors.” And the reason for this was pneumatological.

Within two years of his conversion, in 388, Augustine could write that one must “be aware that everything in the Old as well as the New Testament has been written and entrusted by one Holy Spirit.”

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