Augustine: “He Who Is Mature in Faith, No Longer Needs Scripture”

Feb 3rd, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

I was reading Saint Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana today and bumped into a zinger that caused even my own Catholic soul to squirm. In book one, we come to this chapter: Chapter 39.— He Who is Mature in Faith, Hope and Love, Needs Scripture No Longer.

In the very least, it shows that Augustine was not a “religion of the book” sort of a Christian. Scripture instructs in the faith, but it is not the object of our faith. Here’s the full quote:

And thus a man who is resting upon faith, hope and love, and who keeps a firm hold upon these, does not need the Scriptures except for the purpose of instructing others. Accordingly, many live without copies of the Scriptures, even in solitude, on the strength of these three graces [here Augustine seems to refer to hermits like St Antony of Egypt] . So that in their case, I think, the saying is already fulfilled: “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” 1 Corinthians 13:8 Yet by means of these instruments (as they may be called), so great an edifice of faith and love has been built up in them, that, holding to what is perfect, they do not seek for what is only in part perfect— of course, I mean, so far as is possible in this life; for, in comparison with the future life, the life of no just and holy man is perfect here. Therefore the apostle says: “Now abides faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity:” 1 Corinthians 13:13 because, when a man shall have reached the eternal world, while the other two graces will fail, love will remain greater and more assured.

Now when I was at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, we were taught that 1 Cor 13 taught “cessationism” – the doctrine that prophecy and tongues ceased with the arrival of “the perfect” which was assumed to be the canonized text of Scripture. Saint Augustine turns this on its head. Augustine lumps “Scripture” under “prophecies” and thus concludes that when the perfect comes (that is, faith, hope and charity), then Scripture is no longer needed.

Wow. The assumption is that you believe and act perfectly, you don’t need a Bible…

Just for the record, I’m far from giving away my Bible, since I’m a rather poor exemplar of faith, hope, and charity. But still, I’m rather blown away by these words of Augustine.

Any comments?

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11 comments
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  1. Taylor,

    The great doctor, who we know from his writing had a great appreciation of Scripture, took to heart the words of our Lord, “You search the Scriptures thinking that in them you have life, not realizing that these testify of Me.” One of the things I love about being Catholic is the simple devotion of the faithful, going to daily Mass, doing an hour at the Adoration Chapel, praying the Rosary. They could not tell you 2nd Corinthians from 1st Illusions but this much they know, they love Christ, especially in the Eucharist, they love the Mass and they love the Church and the Saints.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Hey Taylor,

    Yes, that’s a very interesting passage! I second Tom’s comment, but a few things come to mind that I’ll add:

    (1) If memory serves (I don’t have my copy of the de doctrina with me), part of St. Augustine’s task in Book 1 is to show that the summa res of Scripture, which is the hermeneutic horizon of all responsible Christian exegesis, is charity—specifically, the love of God in Christ, discursively epitomized in the rule of faith. So if you’re perfectly conformed to Christ in charity, necessarily accompanied in this life by faith and hope, the res of Scripture is perfectly inscribed on your heart and mind, so that you don’t actually “need” a Bible. Also, by the way, I think Augustine believed that St. Antony was illiterate but had memorized the Scriptures from hearing them, so I guess he really wouldn’t need a copy!

    (2) I think another key is the phrase, “except for the purpose of instructing others.” In the context of a work called On Christian Instruction, that’s a pretty huge “except”! And it is precisely the charity of Christ, because it “makes the Church” in the sacramentum caritatis, that will constantly compel (cf. 2 Cor 5:14-15) those who have been perfected therein to instruct their brothers and sisters in the faith—which will often meaning pulling the old Bible off the shelf.

    (3) And even those whom God calls to a life of ascetic solitude are not uninvolved in instructing the Church in faith, hope, and charity. As members of the one Body of Christ, they fulfill a particular function of witness, even if it’s not that of teacher or preacher. The “edifice of faith and love [that] has been built up in them” is ordered for the edification of others in faith and love as well. Even if they don’t need a Bible, they continue to live, breathe, and speak Scripture, insofar as they are “resting on faith, hope and love.”

    I do think that you’re absolutely right: Augustine most certainly did not think Christianity was a “religion of the book.” In fact, I think the Prologue of the de doctrina would be an excellent place to start in making that case, though a few other texts come to mind as well. Thanks for reminding us of this fascinating text!

    in Christ,

    TC
    1 Cor 16:14

  3. Yeah, I think I’ll be toting a Bible for the remainder of my life.

    My guess too is that the theology on this has changed a bit since the advent of the printing press. Still, as it stands, I think Augustine’s on to something (and he’s careful to qualify his sentiments as not sounding akin to what we’d call “perfectionism.”).

  4. Taylor,
    We worship the WORD not the word. The word helps us to see the Face of the Word.

  5. He Who is Mature in Faith, Hope and Love, Needs Scripture No Longer.

    He may not need them, but he may love them all the more :)

    Then the question occurs, how many believers attain to that level of maturity? My husband is a teacher and occasional preacher and writes and studies constantly and says that because he is called to teach, he probably gets more out of it than those who hear it, in convictions and blessings alike. It’s always like as he’s writing or preaching, he’s being taught by it himself. To me, it seems as if there’s always something new and wonderful to be found in scripture that I didn’t know or see before. The thing is not to just enjoy it, or be convicted by it, but to then obey it; that’s the part that we don’t often get to. I often forget that by faith I can ask Christ for the grace to do the things I need to do, grace being the strength and ability to do them.

    It’s true as you said, Taylor, that scripture is not the object of our faith, but it is the revelation of the One who IS the object of our faith. The scriptures are His words to instruct us and I love them for that reason. I think they are close to inexhaustible, if that makes sense, and we can hardly in this lifetime find all the treasures that are in them.

  6. Jennie,

    Indeed, we love and cherish the Sacred Word for the reasons you mention, it points us to the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Of that we are all agreed.

  7. Dear CTCers,

    Are you guys planning on doing a post or two on chastity and celibacy? During my own journey to recognition of the Catholic Church, the fact that both the New Testament and the early Church display a clear love of celibacy was huge for me. It is an area rarely touched upon in Protestant Catholic dialogue, but it is inescapably important. It is really impossible to love the Christ that Paul loved, or that Saint Augustine loved, and yet not celebrate, promote, and love celibacy. Here is a wonderful passage by Saint Augustine’s young disciple and first biographer, a man who was with him even at the end, summing up Augustine’s contributions to the Catholic Church of his day:

    “He bequeathed to the Church a very numerous clergy and also monasteries of men and women full of people who had taken vows of chastity under the obedience of their superiors as well as libraries containing his books and discourses and those of other saints, from which one learns what, through the grace of God, were his merits and greatness in the Church, where the faithful always find him alive” (Possidius, Vita 31, 8).

    What can modern-day reformed protestants learn from their favorite church father’s promotion of “monasteries of men and women full of people who had taken vows of chastity under the obedience of their superiors”? Here is an area where we Catholics can be of great service to our separated brethren! I invite all of you today to meditate on Paul’s words about celibacy, and then pick a Catholic celibate saint whom you have only heard rumors about to study briefly. Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Therese of Lisieux, or indeed Saint Francis de Sales come to mind. Pray about how intentional, institutionalized celibacy — not merely inadvertent single-hood, but celibacy as a spiritual vocation promoted, studied and protected by the Catholic Church — enriched the gift of their life to Christ, and made them more able to give Him to others. Pray about the great witness of consecrated celibate martyrs and confessors of the early Church, the witness of great promoters of vows celibacy and obedience (such as Saint Augustine), and ask God to lead you to wisdom about this witness, and what this witness tells you about what he is asking of each one of us today, those of us whose vocations are already chosen, and those of us whose vocations are yet to be revealed.

    With best wishes to all of you, and to Jeremy who will become our brother more fully tomorrow!

    Sincerely,

    K. Doran

  8. K. Doran stated

    What can modern-day reformed protestants learn from their favorite church father’s promotion of “monasteries of men and women full of people who had taken vows of chastity under the obedience of their superiors”? Here is an area where we Catholics can be of great service to our separated brethren! I invite all of you today to meditate on Paul’s words about celibacy, and then pick a Catholic celibate saint whom you have only heard rumors about to study briefly. Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Therese of Lisieux, or indeed Saint Francis de Sales come to mind. Pray about how intentional, institutionalized celibacy — not merely inadvertent single-hood, but celibacy as a spiritual vocation promoted, studied and protected by the Catholic Church — enriched the gift of their life to Christ, and made them more able to give Him to others. Pray about the great witness of consecrated celibate martyrs and confessors of the early Church, the witness of great promoters of vows celibacy and obedience (such as Saint Augustine), and ask God to lead you to wisdom about this witness, and what this witness tells you about what he is asking of each one of us today, those of us whose vocations are already chosen, and those of us whose vocations are yet to be revealed.

    The lesson of discipline, sacrifice and the reward of service to God and others is a lesson not reserved only for the “reformed protestants”, we Catholics could use a refresher course too. This lost lesson can be seen in the dwindling numbers of priests or people joining orders in general. In the part of the state i live, we have had to close churches due to the lack of priests, and we have to share one priest amongst several churches.

    thanks

  9. I think that a Christian can come to a point in their life where they begin to live the revelation of God naturally and through the Spirit. At this point I think that the Scripture becomes more of a confirmation than it does a guide; a confirmation that one is still on the right track thinking “God’s thoughts after him” (Augustine).

  10. I really ought to work on the virtue of love. I have a very unloving tongue( James 3:5). No, I most certainly need lots of reminders that I must work on love.

  11. Thank GOD for St Agustine and his quote. I believe that it is a restatement of “But you have an unction from the Holy One and you know all things”. 1 John 2:20, provided you have the foundation of the one true Church.

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