Augustine’s Soteriolgy and Ecclesiology

Matt Monahan

Monahan 2

Systematic Theology II Douglass Kelly 11/15/11 Recently I heard an RTS professor quote B.B. Warfield saying that there were two children struggling in the mind of Augustine: his ecclesiology and his soteriology, and that the reformation was the victory of the latter. This quote intrigued me, at least partly because I only understood half of it. Reformed Christians are quite familiar with Augustine’s concepts of election, predestination, and grace. What was Augustine’s doctrine of the church? Is it entirely antithetical to reformed ecclesiology? Is Augustine guilty of incoherence? In pursuing these questions I found that Augustine’s ecclesiology is large and complex and that people are often referring to only one aspect of it in academic discussions. Second, even when theologians and church historians refer to the same aspect of Augustine’s doctrine of the church, they often disagree on the meaning because their interpretations of that aspect are shaped by previous doctrinal commitments. Finally, while some particulars of Augustine’s ecclesiology are inconsistent with a biblically grounded reformed ecclesiology, much of Augustine’s ecclesiology is orthodox and certain elements are even in the Westminster standards. In the following, I’ll summarize some of the most important elements of Augustine’s ecclesiology critically commenting on whether or not they are consistent 2

Monahan 3 with Reformed soteriology. Where applicable, I’ll also highlight differences of interpretation among various camps. To begin, though, it seems fitting to read Warfield’s famous quote with a little more context to better define the parameters of the discussion. . . . Augustine was both the founder of Roman Catholicism and the author of that doctrine of grace which it has been the constantly pursued effort of Roman Catholicism to neutralize, and which in very fact either must be neutralized by, or will neutralize, Roman Catholicism. Two children were struggling in the womb of his mind. There can be no doubt which was the child of his heart. His doctrine of the Church he had received whole from his predecessors, and he gave it merely the precision and vitality which insured its persistence. His doctrine of grace was all his own: it represented the very core of his being . . . it was inevitable, had time been allowed, that his inherited doctrine of the Church, too, with all its implications, would have gone down before it, and Augustine would have bequeathed to the Church, not "problems," but a thoroughly worked out system of evangelical religion. . . . The problem which Augustine bequeathed to the Church for solution, the Church required a thousand years to solve. But even so, it is Augustine who gave us the Reformation. For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the Church. 1 Clearly, Warfield believed that Augustine’s ecclesiology was inconsistent with his soteriology. A tour of the reformed blogosphere shows that many Protestants today echo this claim. Typically they as well as Warfield are not referring to the whole of “Augustine’s ecclesiology,” but to particular elements only. Below, we’ll examine some of these elements proposed as representations of Augustine’s ecclesiology. As a heuristic device, the elements are organized under the headings of unity, purity, and role in salvation of the church. We’ll examine these elements, survey various views on them, and evaluate whether or not these are incongruent with Augustinian and Reformed

B.B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine (P&R, 1954), 321-322. 3

Monahan 4 soteriology. The unity of the church was an essential element to Augustinian ecclesiology, and the majority of his writings on church unity were forged in battling the schismatic Donatists. The Donatists were a North African sect who saw themselves as the only “true church.” They maintained stringent standards for individual ethical purity and saw the church as the place of the pure and upright only. They were disgusted with the moral laxity of the Catholic Church and sin they saw among both the laity as well as the priests.2 Augustine tirelessly worked and wrote for church unity. “Catholic” literally means universal, and he saw unity as an essential attribute of the church. On this view, the schism of the Donatists was a much more grievous sin than the venial sins that they worked so hard to keep out of the church. If indeed, the church was the body of Christ, how could it be ripped apart in schism? Catholic Stanislaus Grabowski supports this view by arguing that the most cherished ecclesiological element of Augustine was the mystical body of Christ. “The aspect, however, of the concept of the Church which he cherished most fondly and which he never seems tired of teaching, repeating, emphasizing, and expounding to his listeners

Space limitations forbid a full treatment of the Donatist controversy for a fuller account of the Donatist controversy, see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (U Cal Press, Berkeley, 2000) Ch 19 “Ubi Ecclesia?”


Monahan 5 is the Church considered as the body of Christ.”3 Augustine, according to Grabowski, held to a literal Christocentric view of the church, “Christ is to be taken no longer as an individual, but in his fullness, that is, with the whole Church, with all the members, of whom He is the Head, as constituting one unit, one whole, one person, as it were.”4 Alistair McGrath sees Augustine’s anti-schismatic views as the portion of Augustine’s ecclesiology that was triumphed by the reformation. After explaining how the Council of Trent identified and condemned the leading ideas of the Reformation, he says, “The Protestant churches now had to recognize that their existence as separate entities was permanent, rather than temporary. They had to justify their existence as Christian “churches” alongside a body which seemed to have a much stronger claim to that title – The Roman Catholic church itself.”5 A fair question to ask would be whether or not the magisterial reformers are even guilty of schism, since Luther’s intent all the way to Trent was to reform the church from within, and yet was put out of the church at the council of Trent. Another fair question to ask would be whether Rome was the one guilty of schism with its actions at Trent. Along with Luther, all Christians ought to agree with Augustine’s ecclesiology of unity. Denominationalism is grievous. Believers should long to see the church united. Taken

Stanislaus J. Grabowski, “St. Augustine and the Doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ,” Theological Studies 7 no 1 March (1946): 72 4 Ibid, 75 5 Alistair McGrath, Historical Theology (Blackwell, Malden, 1998), 200-201


Monahan 6 this way, Augustine’s view on the unity of the church seems hard to argue with, let alone “triumph over” since it is biblical. So far we are want to find an aspect of Augustine’s ecclesiology that reformed soteriology would have triumphed over. While McGrath sees the impossibility of schism as the essence of Augustine’s ecclesiology, Paul Johnson argues for a bleaker side of Augustine’s work for unity. He calls him the “dark genius of imperial Christianity, the ideologue of the Church-State alliance, and the fabricator of the medieval mentality.”6 In summary, he portrays Augustine as a relentless crusader for uniformity of belief within, and submission to, the church. Whether Donatists or Pelagians those outside his camp are expected to conform or be crushed. He portrays Augustine enlisting the brutal assistance of the Roman state to stamp out heretics and schismatics, and casts Augustine as the forerunner to the Inquisition. If nothing else, this rings true of the Roman church in Luther’s day. But if any portion of the Reformation triumphed over this it was only the subjective denominationalism of the radical reformation choosing multiplicity over unity. The magisterial reformers had no less passion of the singularity of the truth of the Gospel than the Romanists. One need not look long or hard before realizing that Calvin, or the later puritans were striving for the same type of uniformity as Augustine. So even if Johnson’s account were entirely true, the forceful actions would be deplorable, but the assumptions

Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (Touchstone, Simon and Shuster, 1976), 112 6

Monahan 7 about church unity behind them would be nearly the same held by the magisterial reformers, and thus not something to triumph over. In the final analysis, Augustine’s views on unity were elements of his ecclesiology that Protestants fail to disagree with. Taking Grabowski, McGrath, and Johnson together, we see a view of the church that truly is the Body of Christ, and therefore is not to be torn apart in schism. Additionally, this church holds the deposit of the singular truth of the Gospel, and anything different from it is heresy. Neither Catholic nor reformed protestant would disagree with these views. Next then, we turn to Augustine’s views on the purity of the church to see if there may be the element of his ecclesiology that the reformation triumphed over. Augustine’s views on the purity of the church are also rooted in the Donatist controversy. As mentioned before, Donatists believed that the church was for the pure: sinners were not allowed to attend and the sacraments of sinful priests were ineffectual.7 Augustine responded with a two-prong retort. In terms of the sinfulness of the members of the church, he applied the parables of the wheat and the tares: the church is a societas permixta—a mixture of carnal and spiritual people. Friar Tim Kelly offers a very helpful diagram of this. In an inner circle is the communio sanctorum, those in the church that are actually regenerate. In the outside circle is the communio sacramentorum—those

For further information on these aspects of the Donatist controversy, see McGrath 7278


Monahan 8 professing Christ externally, but without regenerate hearts.8 Surprisingly Tim Kelly, a Catholic theologian, and Douglass Kelly agree on the idea of not assuming that all the members of a church are saved and preaching the Gospel to the congregation as a means of attaining their salvation. Additionally, this is closely related to the visible/invisible distinction Augustine created which is also part of the Westminster Standards. In light of these facts, it was clearly not this aspect of Augustine’s ecclesiology that the Reformation triumphed over. The second prong of Augustine’s reply to the Donatists is also a part of our Westminster Standards. He argued that the efficacy of the sacraments is not dependent on the subjective moral status of the priest, but upon Christ Himself, who is the author and chief minister of the sacrament, “…so that they remained true sacraments even if administered by unworthy people. Yet the sacraments brought no benefit as long as those receiving them remained outside the fold of the Spirit’s unity and love.”9 In conclusion to the area of Augustine’s ecclesiology we’ve labeled purity, we find nothing to disagree with, and so this is clearly not what the reformation triumphed over. The final area of Augustine’s ecclesiology to examine is its role in salvation.

Tim Kelly “Augustinian Ecclesiology”, p 8. Besides being a clear summary of this aspect of Augustine’s ecclesiology, Kelly’s article is also a helpful source on drawing out the pastoral implications of this view. 9 David F. Wright “Augustine of Hippo” in Introduction to The History of Christianity, (Fortress, Minneapolis, 2002) ed. Tim Dowley ed. p 207


Monahan 9 Augustine is often accused of holding a salvific view of the church and sacraments. If true, then it would seem that he holds two mutually exclusive views, i.e. his soteriology being by grace through faith, and his ecclesiology asserting that one is saved by the church or the sacraments. On this view, Warfield’s quote would make perfect sense. Did Augustine believe this? Once again, historical context helps understand Augustine’s thinking. Augustine did not sit down and write a systematic theology. Rather, many of his views were set forth in writing as he combated heretics. His views on ecclesiology came out chiefly in his battles with the Donatists and his strongest writings on soteriology against Pelagius. While writing against the Donatists, Augustine says at points that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church, and that baptism was the act through which sin was forgiven. Against the Pelagians he asserts that justification comes though God’s grace and Christ’s righteousness freely bestowed upon sinners. In his writings, Augustine seems to have no problem maintaining these two seemingly inconsistent beliefs. Some protestants simply downplay this element of his ecclesiology. Others such as Warfield sound it’s death knell at the Reformation. Romanists, of course embrace this element of Augustine, and at the Council of Orange in 529 they brought consistency to Augustine and thus church dogma by downgrading his soteriology to semi-Augustinianism.10

For a more detailed account of this process see Francis Oakley, The Medieval Experience: Foundations of Western Cultural Singularity (Scribner, NYC, 1974), p 64


Monahan 10 Historically, both Protestants and Romanists have attempted to harmonize Augustine by downplaying one side of his beliefs. Nevertheless, one still wonders how a genius like Augustine could have held these seeming incongruent beliefs. To begin with, Augustine’s beliefs are not as simple as some portray. While Augustine clearly states in many places that baptism is the actual act by which sin is forgiven, he states in many others that not all those who have been baptized and lived their lives as a part of the church would be saved on the last day. Clearly then, Augustine could not have believed that the act of being baptized was a sufficient condition for salvation. Along these lines Archibald Robertson says, “The teaching, worship, and sacraments of the Church are means to an end, namely, the salvation of souls; but between that end and the means there is not in Augustine’s theory a true causal connection.”11 The ultimate cause of one’s salvation then is the electing love of God. Or as Noll says, “The relationship in which men stand to God, not the physical Christian community in which they live, determines their eternal destiny.” 12 Augustine himself says no less in his work On Baptism, It is therefore possible that some who have been baptized without may be considered, through the foreknowledge of God, to have been really baptized within, because within the water begins to be profitable to them unto salvation; nor can they be said to have been otherwise saved in the ark except by water. And again, some who seemed to have been baptized within may be considered, through the same Archibald Robertson quoted in Mark A. Noll, “Augustine on the Church” Trinity Journal 5 Spring 1976. p. 58 12 Ibid, 59


Monahan 11 foreknowledge of God, more truly to have been baptized without, since, by making a bad use of baptism, they die by water, which then happened to no one who was not outside the ark. Certainly it is clear that, when we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body, since all who are within in heart are saved in the unity of the ark through the same water, through which all who are in heart without, whether they are also in body without or not, die as enemies of unity.13 In other works, Augustine points to examples of people who are called into His kingdom in spite of the fact that they were neither circumcised nor baptized. He comments, “Job’s salvation, as indeed the salvation of all men, stemmed from his place in “the one Mediator between God and men, The Man Christ Jesus.”14 It seems then that according to Augustine, it is normal for the Lord to sue the church and sacraments as a means to salvation, but that they are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for salvation. Does Calvin say much less? While it may be a salvific view of the church that the Reformation triumphed over as stated by Warfield, it looks like this wasn’t Augustine’s view, but that of the Roman Catholic Church forged in the days after Augustine. Having examined particular components of Augustine’s ecclesiology in comparison to his soteriology, what conclusions can we assert? First, even though reformed Protestants might not agree with certain aspects of Augustine’s ecclesiology,

Augustine of Hippo, On Baptism, 14 Noll, 59 Quoting Augustine, City of God, in Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, Vol II, ed W.J. Oates (New York: Random House, 1948) 456,7


Monahan 12 there is more that we agree with than many think. Much of what we see as “Augustinian ecclesiology” was really the Roman church tweaking and pushing Augustinianism to its unintended extreme ecclesiological conclusions after silencing aspects of his soteriology with semi-Augustinianism at the Council of Orange in 529. (Romanists make a similar, but mirrored argument against the Reformed use of Augustine). Secondly, in light of the Warfield quote, while the heart of it still stands true, namely that the Reformation was the triumph of Augustinian soteriology, it would be fairer to Augustine as a man and theologian to retract the part implying that he had two mutually exclusive ideas struggling in his mind. In the Augustinian mind, these ideas were harmonious, even if not as biblical as we’d like or systemized along the lines of the likes of Berkhof. Augustine is still a father of the church, and Protestants have much to learn from both his soteriology as well as his ecclesiology.


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