Augustine on Inerrancy

I searched for probably two hours for a fantastic Augustine quote I simply cannot believe I didn’t save or blog already. I could not find it anywhere, and I’m pretty OCD with my notes and files. So I resorted to Quora. Thank you, Quora!

I asked,

St. Augustine once used the same “slippery slope” argument for inerrancy that modern-day evangelicals use—I’m sure of it. But where?

As I recall, he said something like, “If we admit errors in one portion of Scripture, by what principle can we determine whether or not there are errors elsewhere?” Can anyone help me find the citation?

I already know that in a letter to Jerome Augustine wrote,

Only to those books of the Scriptures that are now called canonical have I learned to pay such honor and respect as to believe most firmly that not one of Scriptures’ authors has erred in writing anything. If I do find anything in those books that seems contrary to truth, I decide either that the text is corrupt [i.e., there are copyists’ mistakes], or that the translator [Augustine didn’t read Greek] did not follow what was really said, or that I have failed to understand it.

This is NOT the quote I’m looking for. This is not the slippery slope argument.

John Simpson, a Quora user I follow, came through for me in like less than an hour. Thank you, John!

2. Augustin replied: As I said a little ago, when these men are beset by clear testimonies of Scripture, and cannot escape from their grasp, they declare that the passage is spurious. The declaration only shows their aversion to the truth, and their obstinacy in error. Unable to answer these statements of Scripture, they deny their genuineness.

But if this answer is admitted, or allowed to have any weight, it will be useless to quote any book or any passage against your errors. It is one thing to reject the books themselves, and to profess no regard for their authority…and it is another thing to say, This holy man wrote only the truth, and this is his epistle, but some verses are his, and some are not. And then, when you are asked for a proof, instead of referring to more correct or more ancient manuscripts, or to a greater number, or to the original text, your reply is, This verse is his, because it makes for me; and this is not his, because it is against me.

Are you, then, the rule of truth? Can nothing be true that is against you? But what answer could you give to an opponent as insane as yourself, if he confronts you by saying, The passage in your favor is spurious, and that against you is genuine? Perhaps you will produce a book, all of which can be explained so as to support you. Then, instead of rejecting a passage, he will reply by condemning the whole book as spurious. You have no resource against such an opponent. For all the testimony you can bring in favor of your book from antiquity or tradition will avail nothing. In this respect the testimony of the Catholic Church is conspicuous, as supported by a succession of bishops from the original seats of the apostles up to the present time, and by the consent of so many nations. Accordingly, should there be a question about the text of some passage, as there are a few passages with various readings well known to students of the sacred Scriptures, we should first consult the manuscripts of the country where the religion was first taught; and if these still varied, we should take the text of the greater number, or of the more ancient. And if any uncertainty remained, we should consult the original text. This is the method employed by those who, in any question about the Scriptures, do not lose sight of the regard due to their authority, and inquire with the view of gaining information, not of raising disputes….

5. 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. In other books the reader may form his own opinion, and perhaps, from not understanding the writer, may differ from him, and may pronounce in favor of what pleases him, or against what he dislikes. In such cases, a man is at liberty to withhold his belief, unless there is some clear demonstration or some canonical authority to show that the doctrine or statement either must or may be true. But in consequence of the distinctive peculiarity of the sacred writings, we are bound to receive as true whatever the canon shows to have been said by even one prophet, or apostle, or evangelist. Otherwise, not a single page will be left for the guidance of human fallibility, if contempt for the wholesome authority of the canonical books either puts an end to that authority altogether, or involves it in hopeless confusion. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers178179)

I admit to being something less than an expert in Augustine. I’ve got his Peter Brown bio and (I admit it) his Confessions on my reading list, and I’ve dipped into his writings here and there over the years, especially during the dissertation—I was focusing on his views of the will and the affections. So I could be misreading, and I could be missing out on other things he said that would qualify this post. If so, please enlighten me. But it looks to me like Augustine was saying in the fourth or fifth century A.D. what every kid can understand today: if you deny that one part of the Bible is true, what’s to stop you from denying the other parts when it becomes convenient?

People I’m reading right now for a project, Peter Enns preeminent among them, say that there is something that provides a faithful guide to what’s true and what’s not (necessarily) true in Scripture: “science” (including the sciences of historiography and archaeology, etc.). As long as we grasp that the Bible is not a science book or a history book, we’ll be okay. No slippery slope.

But as countless people before me have pointed out, the resurrection of Jesus is history, and science as currently practiced says the resurrection couldn’t happen. So does methodologically naturalistic historiography. Much of the Bible is history. Sure, the ancient writers of Scripture didn’t use footnotes, per se (though they do refer to outside books at times). They didn’t, presumably, take historiography courses. But I think they knew that when you said, “So and so went to such and such place and did this and said that,” you were either representing so and so accurately or you were not.

I think Augustine’s words still need to be heeded. Any decision to mistrust God’s words is a decision to trust someone else’s, as one of my old profs has said recently.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

4 thoughts on “Augustine on Inerrancy”

  1. I presume by “old” you meant merely to imply one of your *former* profs. Good post. Thanks for the source.

  2. Nice post! Great Augustine reference. And I like that last quote from the geriatric professor too. :^)

Leave a Reply