Augustine to Jerome on the inspiration of scripture

An interesting article at ThinkTheology.co.uk draws together some useful quotations from St. Augustine on the inspiration of scripture.

The quotations come from Augustine’s letter 82, addressed to St. Jerome himself.

For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to 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.

As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason.

I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine. I do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error … (82.3)

But you will say it is better to believe that the Apostle Paul wrote what was not true, than to believe that the Apostle Peter did what was not right. On this principle, we must say (which far be it from us to say), that it is better to believe that the gospel history is false, than to believe that Christ was denied by Peter; and better to charge the book of Kings with false statements, than believe that so great a prophet, and one so signally chosen by the Lord God as David was, committed adultery in lusting after and taking away the wife of another, and committed such detestable homicide in procuring the death of her husband.

Better far that I should read with certainty and persuasion of its truth the Holy Scripture, placed on the highest (even the heavenly) pinnacle of authority, and should, without questioning the trustworthiness of its statements, learn from it that men have been either commended, or corrected, or condemned, than that, through fear of believing that by men, who, though of most praiseworthy excellence, were no more than men, actions deserving rebuke might sometimes be done, I should admit suspicions affecting the trustworthiness of the whole oracles of God. (82.5)

The translation is the 19th century one, which may be found online here.

I have never collected ancient statements concerned with the inspiration of scripture; doing so would certainly be an interesting and useful exercise.  But I do recall another passage of Augustine on scripture which deserves quotation here.  It is from De genesim ad litteram (On Genesis, literally expounded), book 2, chapter 9:

It is frequently asked what our belief must be about the form and shape of heaven according to Sacred Scripture. Many scholars engaged in lengthy discussions on these matter, but the sacred writers with their deeper wisdom have omitted them. Such subjects are of no profit for those who seek beatitude, and, what is worse, they take up precious time that ought to be given to what is spiritually beneficial. What concern is it of mine whether heaven is a sphere and the earth is enclosed by it and suspended in the middle of the universe, or whether heaven like a disk above the earth covers it on one side?

But the credibility of Scripture is at stake, and as I have indicated more than once, there is danger that a man uninstructed in divine revelation, discovering something in Scripture or hearing from it something that seems to be at variance with the knowledge that he has acquired, may resolutely withhold his assent in other matters where Scripture presents useful admonitions, narratives, or declarations. Hence, I must say briefly that in the matter of the shape of heaven the sacred writers knew the truth, but that the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men these facts that would be of no avail to their salvation.

This translation is as translated by J.H.Taylor, 1982.

All of this is sensible stuff.

We must always remember that there are only two groups of Christians; those whose ultimate authority is the word of scripture, and those who have come to think it is not the ultimate authority, and so, inevitably, give the last word elsewhere — invariably to the world, then to the flesh, and finally to the devil.  It is not enough to mean well; we must think well also.  It isn’t very clever to be so clever that we talk ourselves out of salvation.

7 Responses to “Augustine to Jerome on the inspiration of scripture”


  1. Tom

    I believe there is a third class, those Christians who through great persecution or impoverishment, have not access to Scripture and hence rely only on the spirit of God. I believe Irenaeus talked about barbarians who do not have the gospel in their language, nor were even literate, but who still were counted as Christians due to their faith in Christ.

  2. Daniel R. Jennings

    The earliest post-New Testament reference that I am aware of is Clement of Rome’s quote “Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas,and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you.” (First Epistle To Corinth, Ch.47).

  3. Roger Pearse

    That is a very interesting comment. I wonder if you locate that passage in Irenaeus?

  4. Roger Pearse

    Thank you – I remember that one, but I hadn’t seen it for some years.

  5. Tom

    Irenaeus “Against Heresies” 3.4.1-2

    “Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?

    2. To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established.”

  6. Andrew Harrington

    However, strange as it sounds, almost every Christian holds the doctrine of the canon above the bible itself. For the bible itself does not tell what books are inspired and what is not, but most Christians contradict themselves by actually upholding something greater than the scriptures in this matter — tradition.

    Andy

  7. Roger Pearse

    @Andy: that takes us into the difficult question of how we know that the bible is from God. The answer seems to be that “we find that it is”.

    We would like to suppose that the bible fell from heaven with a non-falsifiable ID stamped on it. But that is not how the OT came into being — which our Lord endorsed as divine — and I think we have to accept that the NT likewise came into being in the same way.

    That does not mean that the canon is mistaken, or that the contents of the bible are not what God wants them to be: it just means that human hands wrote on the papyrus, and human hands gathered them. We can use the word “tradition” if we like, but I find that it conceals rather than reveals.

    But perhaps we should continue this offline. Do drop me an email and explain what you think.