Friday, March 16, 2012

The Appropriation of the Fathers in Church History: The Use of Augustine in Late Medieval and Reformation Studies

One of the planks of lay Catholic apologetics is the assumption that modern Catholic doctrine is the result of an unbroken tradition of theological reflection stretching back to the Apostles themselves.

Sometimes this view manifests in a simplistic objection to Protestant exegetical claims.1 For example, if a Protestant successfully demonstrates that a certain passage of Scripture cannot reasonably be reconciled with modern Catholic doctrine, the lay Catholic can immediately assert that the Protestant is really a nobody who isn't to be taken seriously. After all, his novel interpretation has no accord with 2,000 years of unbroken, serious reflection on the Scriptures and the fathers by learned, Spirit-filled Catholics.

This kind of response could only be given by someone who isn't aware of the history of the appropriation of the fathers.  The historical record shows that it is hardly such a clean affair; even assuming the implausible lay Catholic view of history--that the modern denomination currently located in Rome is all that existed before the Reformation until the great agitator Luther decided to interpret the Bible for himself--it is clear that the use of the fathers by the medieval church was plagued by problems that render their conclusions and use of these fathers problematic, if not erroneous.2  Given his role in post-patristic thought, the case of Augustine is sufficient to be representative of the general problems here.3  Catholics before and during the Reformation often failed to read Augustine in context, did not study the full extent of his corpus, and attributed to him dozens of spurious works.

Anthological Augustine

Augustine was known to those in the years leading up to the Reformation in several ways. While those wealthy and educated enough could afford both the leisure time and travel expenses (to say nothing of the right ecclesiastical connections) to gain access to and read hand-copied, Latin manuscripts (which could not be moved without threat of crumbling), or even printed copies, the general method was through education.  For those training to religious vocation, it seems Augustine was learned primarily through Peter Lombard's Sentences, the standard patristic anthology of the middle ages.

Lombard's work was problematic for at least a few reasons.  First, as a compilation of quotations from the fathers, they were given without broader context.  Second, these snippets were given without adequate reference or citation for those who wished to read the quote in a broader context.4  Third, Lombard "had no direct knowledge of more than a limited number of books by Augustine, four to be precise: the De doctrina christiana, the Enchiridion, the De diversis quaestionibus 83, the Retractationes.  He had no knowledge of other works by Augustine except through the Glossa ordinaria or the Expositio of Florus of Lyons."5

This lack of primary source documents included a failure to read important theological works, such as Augustine's anti-Pelagian texts.  Even the arrival of the printing press did not provide access to the whole of Augustine’s materials, as "[m]ost of the anti-Manichaean works...were unavailable in print until Amerbach's collected edition.  What is more, most anti-Pelagian works, concerned with human sinfulness and the nature of the divine grace in response to the followers of Pelagius, had never been printed before."6

Patristic Pseudepigrapha

Those who managed to read Augustine unmediated (a term used with appropriate qualification) at the monastery, library or other similar location, were not always achieving access to Augustine himself. Many of the works attributed to Augustine during this time were spurious.  For example, during the time of early printing, of "all incunables published under Augustine's name, in fact, almost two-thirds (116 out of 187) were spurious,"7  this itself being merely representative of the medieval growth of pseudo-Augustine works.

Sometimes nobody seemed to know that a work was spurious, as in the case of the Hypomnesticon, which, in at least one era, was seen to be authoritative by all those who argued over its use.  In other cases, the spurious works affected the development of doctrine, such as the rather Pelagian De vita Christiana.  This was particularly the case with De vera et falsa poenitentia, and the work came to play a significant role in Reformation debates over penance.8

(A caveat: while this would require its own post, it is important to remember that not all appropriation of the fathers was poor during this time period.  There were moments of renaissance (to say nothing of the Renaissance and the humanist, cultural shifts to ad fontes); for example, one 1345 compilation of Augustine's work was remarkably accurate, the author gave references were possible [and apologized when he could not!], and the material was based on Augustine's own list of works given in Retractationes, which perhaps inoculated it from spurious attributions.9  However, it was not until Amerbach's work during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries that the Augustinian canon was truly purged.)

To make matters worse, printers knew that certain "Augustine" works were spurious, but due to their function as "popular devotional treaties" and their use in "theological manuals, such as Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologia, or Gratian's Decretum," refused to remove them, even if they did tacitly acknowledge their questionable status.10  In fact, the foundational works of the Summa and Decretum "were full of references to pseudo-Augustinian writings."11  Sometimes these works were even known to be spurious by those who used them for theological purposes, and such behavior was defended as legitimate due to the usefulness of the works in question.12

Implications for Development Narratives

Given the reception of the sources in the medieval period, any extended theological reflection on Augustine would likely have been warped and distorted to at least some extent, and often corrupted, especially in important areas such as his theology of grace.  Far from an ever increasing, careful and reasoned development of theology and doctrine, medieval and even Reformation theological reflection often enough based its conclusions on falsely attributed works, with not all of the legitimate works readily available, and being screened through the editorial choices manifest in the available anthologies.

The Perspicuity of the Fathers in Debate

Studying the use of the fathers in history also suggests that they are not perspicuous--at least if we assume the current lay Catholic assumptions about how the meaning of texts cannot be discerned in light of interpretive conflict and division.  Not only was Augustine appropriated by both Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation, sometimes even the very same texts would be used and analyzed, with different interpretations applied to those texts.  This was, at least in part, due to the nature of quotations during the medieval and Reformation eras, as through their collection in anthologies, written or printed, "it was possible for one author to be used in support of strikingly different ideas."13  In fact, these "anthologies reveal...the fundamental instrumental nature of intellectual authority.  Their thematic organization, especially, exemplifies how Augustine was mined for proof texts about topical arguments, rather than as an independent source of intellectual inspiration."14

If the division of interpretation over a text demonstrates that it is unclear, as is asserted with Protestant interpretations over Scripture, then it follows that Augustine is unclear.15 So what purpose is there in citing Augustine in a debate with a Protestant?  And what hope does the lay Catholic have in properly interpreting Augustine for himself and successfully employing his texts against Protestants in polemical discourse?

As with many other Catholic assertions, a study of history does far from confirming Roman Catholicism as right and true; such a study overturns simplistic development narratives and even calls into question the coherence of the apologetic strategies used by its defenders.

Recommended Reading

Irena Backus, The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997).

Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004).

Arnoud Vesser, Reading Augustine in the Reformation: The Flexibility of Intellectual Authority in Europe, 1500-1620 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).


1. This is the second stage of capitulation in the typical Roman Catholic apologetic.  Once the exegetical ground is lost, historical claims are made.  And, once those historical claims are shown for what they are, the final defense is to specious philosophical assumptions.

2. To say nothing of the fact that each generation must restudy the Scriptures.  It is likely that many good and important interpretive insights have been completely lost to the sands of time.

3. Concerning Augustine in the medieval period, the "influence of the patristic heritage, and supremely the thought of Augustine of Hippo, upon the development of Christian thought during the medieval period is beyond dispute.  Indeed, the theology of the medieval period may be regarded as thoroughly Augustinian to the extent that it was virtually a series of footnotes to Augustine...In every major sphere of theological debate, the point of departure appears to have been the views of Augustine." Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 168.

4. Arnoud Vesser, Reading Augustine in the Reformation: The Flexibility of Intellectual Authority in Europe, 1500-1620 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 17.

5. Jacques-Guy Bougerol, "The Church Fathers and the Sentences of Peter Lombard," in The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West, ed., Irena Backus (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997), 115.

6. Arnoud Vesser, Reading Augustine in the Reformation, 15.

7. Ibid.

8. Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation, 170.

9. Eric Saak, "Augustine in the Later Middle Ages," The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West, ed., Irena Backus (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997), 381-382.

10. Arnoud Vesser, Reading Augustine in the Reformation, 21-22, 24.

11. Ibid., 40.

12. Ibid., 91.

13. Ibid., 80.

14. Ibid., 91.

15. Technically, this would be limited only to those texts that had their meaning contested.


  1. Quite a scholarly post. Thanks, Matt. :-)

  2. Once the exegetical ground is lost, historical claims are made. And, once those historical claims are shown for what they are, the final defense is to specious philosophical assumptions.

    Nuh uh!!!!