Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Church, Authority, And Infallibility (Part 5): Augustine On Councils

Later in the passage in Augustine I've been discussing, he writes:

"But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth, either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity? Wherefore the holy Cyprian, whose dignity is only increased by his humility, who so loved the pattern set by Peter as to use the words, 'Giving us thereby a pattern of concord and patience, that we should not pertinaciously love our own opinions, but should rather account as our own any true and rightful suggestions of our brethren and colleagues, for the common health and good,' — he, I say, abundantly shows that he was most willing to correct his own opinion, if any one should prove to him that it is as certain that the baptism of Christ can be given by those who have strayed from the fold, as that it could not be lost when they strayed; on which subject we have already said much. Nor should we ourselves venture to assert anything of the kind, were we not supported by the unanimous authority of the whole Church, to which he himself would unquestionably have yielded, if at that time the truth of this question had been placed beyond dispute by the investigation and decree of a plenary Council." (On Baptism, Against The Donatists, 2:3-4)

What are we to make of Augustine's comments, in which he speaks so highly of scripture, and refers to ecumenical councils correcting one another, yet also refers to how an issue can be "placed beyond dispute" by ecumenical councils? The Catholic patristic scholar Robert Eno saw some inconsistencies with Catholicism in this passage, but didn't think Augustine was denying the infallibility of ecumenical councils:

"Catholics, saying that ecumenical councils are infallible, conclude that Augustine, whatever he might have been talking about, could not have meant ecumenical councils. Protestants say: he was talking about ecumenical councils and taught that they could err....Were they [ecumenical councils] doctrinally authoritative in some unerring way? Ultimately, as Sieben concludes, this must remain an open question. Personally I lean to the view that Augustine believed that these universal councils did not err. He believed that Scripture was inerrant and that the universal Church taught the truth. The thrust of Augustine’s thinking points to support for the authority of these councils, under Scripture, to make decisions. Could Augustine envisage such a council making a doctrinal decision contrary to Scripture? It seems unlikely but it must be admitted that he did not say that explicitly....If a plenary council is the ultimate resort for decision making, it is not immediately certain whether he believed such a council capable of error in the strict sense or not. Even the decisions of such councils were subject in the long run to acceptance by the Church as the only means of judging the authority of one council over another." ("Doctrinal Authority In Saint Augustine", Augustinian Studies, Vol. 12 - 1981, pp. 163-164, 172)

I agree with Eno that we don't have much to go by, but I think the evidence we do have leans in the opposite direction of what he suggests. Before I explain why, though, here are some of Dave Armstrong's comments on the subject:

The truth of a question is "placed beyond dispute" by a council? How is that different from infallibility? I don't see any distinction. And this occurs in the passage that Jason brings out supposedly in support of a position supposedly "inconsistent with a Catholic or Orthodox view," as he claims. Later in this same chapter he refers to a doctrinal matter "brought to the full illumination and authoritative decision of a plenary Council."

In a later response to David Waltz, Dave wrote:

The Augustine quote I dealt with in my replies to Jason Engwer. My explanation was that he meant by "correct" not "correct what was dead wrong in earlier councils," but rather, "develop the thought of earlier councils." I suspect that if we were to examine whatever his word in Latin was for "correct" it would allow such an interpretation....

Even in English, "correct" can have such a meaning. Merriam-Webster online gives as a third definition for "correct":

"to alter or adjust so as to bring to some standard or required condition "...

We see that the various related Latin words that start with "emend" can carry the developmental meaning I have posited: "amendment," "improvement," "purifying," "perfect," etc.

Moral of the story: don't hang your argument on one word....

Moreover, I made two additional arguments: from the following context ("things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid") that strongly suggests development rather than contradiction; and St. Augustine's espousal of doctrinal development elsewhere....

What he states in the present citation under consideration ("correct" / Latin, emendari) is quite similar to what he wrote about development in other places.

I want to make several points:

- I wouldn't judge the passage by one word ("corrected").

- However, as far as that one word is concerned, our focus should be on its probable meaning, not a possible one. A development can be referred to as a correction, but that isn't the most natural reading of the term. The translators of Augustine could have chosen other terms that would have expressed the concept of development more effectively.

- I've read a few different English translations of the passage, and all of them, including the one Dave is using, render the Latin term with the English word "corrected".

- In the translation Dave is using, the term "corrected" is used twice just before the reference to ecumenical councils and twice just after. All four times, the term is used in reference to error, not development. The first two (in 2:1) and the fourth (in 2:4) refer to Paul's correction of Peter in Galatians 2. The third (in 2:4) refers to Cyprian's willingness to be corrected in the sense of being shown that his view of baptism was false. At least in the English translation Dave is using, the surrounding uses of the same term suggest correction in relation to error, not development.

- Augustine mentions that scripture is free of error. Then he refers to the fallibility of the writings of bishops. After that, he refers to the fallibility of local councils. He then says that "even" ecumenical councils can be corrected. If the previous two post-Biblical sources are being referred to as capable of error, and Augustine then says that "even" ecumenical councils can be "corrected", doesn't the context leading up to that comment suggest that he's extending the fallibility of bishops and local councils "even" to ecumenical councils?

- Does Dave agree that the writings of Roman bishops are fallible? Sometimes, but not always. He would have to add a qualifier to Augustine's assessment of bishops, a qualifier that Augustine doesn't suggest.

- As Robert Eno mentioned in my citation of him earlier in this series, Augustine didn't believe in the same ecumenical councils Catholicism believes in. The passage of Augustine currently under consideration refers to earlier ecumenical councils (plural) and later ones (plural). And it refers to corrections that "often" occur. Augustine was writing before what's commonly considered the third ecumenical council (Ephesus). The previous two councils, Nicaea and First Constantinople, don't explain Augustine's language well. It's likely that Augustine is defining ecumenical councils differently than Roman Catholics do. At a minimum, he included more in the category of ecumenical councils than a Catholic would.

- He refers to ecumenical councils correcting one another without arrogance, envious hatred, etc. Why would such things be mentioned if all that's being referred to is development without contradiction? If the councils are correcting one another in relation to error, then the references to arrogance, envy, and such make more sense.

- Augustine's next sentence begins with "Wherefore", then refers to Cyprian's willingness to be corrected in relation to error, not in the sense of development. Dave's interpretation would have Augustine giving multiple examples of correction in relation to error (bishops, local councils), only to then refer to correction without error (ecumenical councils), then return to correction in relation to error (Cyprian). It's more likely that Augustine was consistently referring to correction in relation to error throughout.

- Augustine would sometimes make comments such as:

"there is a distinct boundary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. The authority of these books has come down to us from the apostles through the successions of bishops and the extension of the Church, and, from a position of lofty supremacy, claims the submission of every faithful and pious mind. If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood. In the innumerable books that have been written latterly we may sometimes find the same truth as in Scripture, but there is not the same authority. Scripture has a sacredness peculiar to itself." (Reply To Faustus The Manichaean, 11:5)

He places scripture above "all" later works, making scripture's authority "peculiar to itself". I agree with Robert Eno that Augustine was inconsistent on issues of authority. But passages like the one above suggest that a belief in the fallibility of post-Biblical ecumenical councils would be consistent with what Augustine sometimes argued in other places. It's not as though the passage Dave is responding to is the only one that suggests such a conclusion. There's precedent for my conclusion elsewhere in Augustine.

- As Eno mentions, Augustine's opponents were citing conciliar authority against him, so it would have been in his interest to mention the fallibility of such sources, even ecumenical councils:

"He also scorned the overblown language of the [Donatist] council [of Bagai], especially its claim to speak with 'infallible voice' (ore veridico), a phrase he repeated constantly, as well as its 'divine inspiration.' He refused to take such councils seriously and advised Donatist correspondents that they should not be concerned with them either. If the number of 310 bishops at Bagai impressed anyone, that person should consider the size of the world-wide episcopate of the Catholica." ("Doctrinal Authority In Saint Augustine", Augustinian Studies, Vol. 12 - 1981, p. 160)

- On the other hand, Dave makes the significant point that Augustine refers to ecumenical councils putting things "beyond dispute". If comments like the "beyond dispute" reference were all we had to go by, Dave's position would make sense. But other evidence, like what I've outlined above, has to be explained as well.

What did Augustine mean when he referred to placing matters beyond dispute through ecumenical councils? That sort of language could be used to refer to something infallible, as Dave is arguing. But we sometimes use that type of language to refer to something highly probable or widely agreed upon, even if it's not considered infallible. Elsewhere in his writings, Augustine uses "beyond dispute" in that manner (Letter 65:1; Answer To Petilian The Donatist, 3:22). Augustine often refers to matters being "beyond dispute", "settled", etc. without any authority Catholics would consider infallible. Just after his reference to an ecumenical council placing a matter beyond dispute, he comments, regarding Cyprian, "so holy and peaceful a soul would have been most ready to assent to the arguments of any single person who could prove to him the truth" (On Baptism, Against The Donatists, 2:4). Remember, in the previous section Augustine had referred to how a fallible individual bishop is to submit to the authority of a fallible group of bishops or a fallible regional council. Infallibility isn't needed in order for submission to occur or for submission to be appropriate. Augustine's comment that Cyprian would submit to an ecumenical council, even accompanied by his "beyond dispute" comment that follows, can reasonably be taken as a reference to submission to a source that's highly regarded, but fallible.

Later in the same work, Augustine appeals to not only an ecumenical council, but also a lesser council:

"By this witness he gives sufficient proof how much more ready he would have been to bear his testimony, had any Council been held to discuss this matter which either embraced the whole Church, or at least represented our brethren beyond the sea." (On Baptism, Against The Donatists, 2:9)

It seems that Augustine is appealing to the probable correctness of widespread belief represented in a council, not conciliar infallibility.

Later in the same section I just quoted, Augustine offers a practical justification for his reasoning:

"For both later Councils are preferred among later generations to those of earlier date; and the whole is always, with good reason, looked upon as superior to the parts." (On Baptism, Against The Donatists, 2:9)

Augustine does speak highly of ecumenical councils, and he refers at times to how God works through such councils. But we often make such comments about fallible sources. We refer to how God spoke to us through a sermon, how God worked in our lives through the efforts of a friend, etc. Near the close of his work under consideration here, Augustine refers to how God is speaking through that work (On Baptism, Against The Donatists, 7:54), even though he didn't consider it infallible.

Even if we were to conclude that Augustine wasn't referring to the fallibility of ecumenical councils in the passage under consideration, the fact would remain that the passage does support an anti-papal ecclesiology and seems to define ecumenical councils differently than Catholicism does. Contrast Dave's ecclesiology with Augustine's:

- Dave believes that the bishop of Rome has universal jurisdiction. Augustine believed that no bishop has universal jurisdiction.

- Dave believes that there were two ecumenical councils prior to when Augustine wrote. Augustine refers to an ecumenical council that can't be identified as either of those two Dave believes in, and Augustine speaks of ecumenical councils elsewhere in a manner that suggests there had been more than two of them. (Even under the dubious assumption that the events of Acts 15 constitute a third ecumenical council prior to that time, Augustine's language is most naturally taken to refer to more than three as well, not just more than two. And we would still have Augustine referring to a council that can't be identified as the one of Acts 15, Nicaea, or First Constantinople.)

- Dave believes that ecumenical councils are infallible. Augustine believed that they're fallible.

- Dave doesn't think that concepts like Augustine's view of predestination, his view of infant salvation, and his view of whether Mary was immaculately conceived are part of the catholic faith. Augustine believed that the former two were part of the catholic faith, and he believed that the third was consistent with that faith. In other words, the doctrinal content of Dave's notion of the catholic faith differs from, and sometimes contradicts, Augustine's.

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