There is an oft repeated quote from Augustine which is frequently used in Roman polemics against the Protestantism:

For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.

-Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus

Suppose we ignore the entirely question begging point as to whether the “Catholic Church” here refers to the Roman Church. Nevertheless I would argue that a close reading of the structure of Augustine’s argument in this passage does not bear out the Romnist’s desired conclusions. The basic divergence could be described in these terms:

(1) Whereas contemporary Romanist apologists appeal to the sheer divine institution of the Petrine See by Christ as the source of the Roman Church’s “authority”,

(2) Augustine does not appeal to such theological principles to ground the authority of the Roman Church but instead he employs the criteria of classical rhetoric as the basis for the adhering to the authority of the Roman Church.

Before we can make our case however we do need to sketch out, briefly, the rough outlines of the classical tradition on “authority”.

The Classical Tradition on Testimony and Authority

In contemporary parlance “authority” almost always refers to the idea of political power to legislate or command an action. However that was not the sense in which “authority” was employed in the classical rhetorical tradition, first given systematic expression by Aristotle and then subsequently developed by other Latin thinkers like Cicero and continued all the way through the Medieval times. Its meaning is closer to “testimony” where a proposition or claim acquires epistemic value by virtue of being certified or confirmed by a credible witness or expert. Thus an “authority”, in this epistemic sense, referred to someone who was a reliable source of information for something. To get a better sense of this it would be useful to quote at some length from Cicero’s Topica concerning what he means by “authority”:

Well then, the argumentation which is called ‘without art’ rests on testimony. ‘Testimony’ in the present context we call everything which is brought in from some outside area to create belief. It is not just anyone who has the weight to provide a testimony; to create belief authority is needed, and authority is conferred either by nature or by time. The greatest authority belonging to nature lies in virtue; in the field of time there are many things which can confer authority: talent, power, age, one’s fortune, skill, practice, necessity, occasionally also the fortuitous combination of events. For people think that men of talent or wealth, or those whom time has tested, are worthy of credit; perhaps this is not right, but the opinion of the many can hardly be changed, and those who judge as well as those who make assessments form all their views with reference to it. For everyone who excels in the respects I have mentioned is believed to excel through virtue itself.


We may also put in this class public opinion, which is a kind of testimony of the multitude.


In a man it is the impression of virtue that has the strongest force. But the impression is not only that those have virtue who do actually possess it, but also those who seem to possess it. Therefore people believe that those whom they see to be gifted with talent, zeal and learning, and whose life they perceive as principled and good, like Cato, Laelius, Scipio and many others, are the sort of people they want to be themselves; and they hold the view that this group includes not only those who enjoy the appreciation of the people and play a leading role in the state, but also orators, philosophers, poets, and historians from whose sayings and writings authority is often sought for the creation of belief.

Thus when Aquinas speaks of the “authority of philosophers”, he was not referring to philosopher kings with political power but instead he is speaking of the truth of reason which has been certified by philosophical experts. In English we still do use “authority” in this sense when we say things like “He is an authority on the Han dynasty”, meaning, that such a person has expert knowledge on the Han dynasty and as such is a reliable source of information on that time period. In English law “Books of Authority” do not refer to books which contained binding laws or precedent, but are books which are considered, for the purposes of English law, to be reliable or established statements of the state of English law as it existed in the distant past where often the original sources are no longer extent.

In classical rhetoric some of the features which makes for testimonial authority are pretty common sense and still employed in our law courts, for example, the more virtuous and honest a person obviously the more reliable his testimony is. An expert who has long experience and learning in a subject matter has “more authority” compared to someone who is new to the field. But even this appeal to “age” is not something we consider rhetorically persuasive today. Just because a scientist has been in a field for a long time does not grand him special authority over some new ground breaking discoveries which he has not thought of. Even the appeal to the “multitude” is suspect to us. What is important however is not whether the criteria given by Cicero is or is not epistemically plausible today, what is important for the purpose of this discussion is that those criteria formed the background for the Church Fathers and the Middle Ages when they spoke about the “authority” of the Church or Fathers.

Having sketched the outlines of what “authority” meant in the classical rhetorical/epistemological tradition, we can proceed to do a close reading of the structure of Augustine’s argument and what his phrase meant in that specific context.

The Ground of the Authority of the Catholic Church

Augustine’s letter was written specifically against the Manichaen heretics who claimed to follow the Apostle Manichaeus. To refute the claims of the Manichaens, and to justify his own continued adherence to the Catholic Church, he appeals to a number of reasons, amongst which includes the “authority” of the Catholic Church. However we must pay very careful attention to how Augustine grounds such an “authority”:

The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age.

(italics mine)

The “authority” here is not grounded on the fact that Christ authorised some petrine see or some sort of church ordinance or institution. To be sure Augustine next speaks of the “succession of priests”, “beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate” as a reason which “keeps” him in the Catholic Church. But that is a distinct and separate point from the grounds for the “authority” of the Catholic Church, just as the “consent of the peoples and nations”, mentioned above as a reason which keeps him in the Church, does not ground the authority of the Catholic Church, as if the authority of the Catholic Church stem from the mandate of the demos, but it is a separate point in favour for remaining in the Catholic Church.

The “authority” appeals to features of classical rhetoric, a moral life, long age, and signs and wonders confirming the bearer of divine revelation as a genuine messenger from God. Moral credibility in particular was an important criteria for assessing the reliability of a witness and its testimony; someone of notorious reputation or who is infamous for leading an immoral life would find the credibility of their testimony crippled in both the forum of public discourse and the courts (this will be an important point when we analyse a later portion of Augustine’s argument). However the Roman Church today simply does not appeal to its morality or miracles to ground its authority. They have not appealed to morality since the validity of the official ecclesiasical offices was severed from morality and they have not appealed to miracles ever since the Jansenists had their own “confirmatory” miracles against the authority of Roman condemnations. Today they almost exclusively refer to some divine institution ordained by Christ in St Peter which transmits some sort of charismatic power all the way down through tactile succession as the source of the “authority” of the Roman Church. And even in this sense of succession is not the same as that of the Patristics, who held that apostolic succession meant a literal oral transmission of unwritten tradition from bishop to bishop who would personally learn under their predecessors. Needless to say such a “succession” of personal oral study under predecessors have ceased to be the case for a very long time.

The Epistemic Arguments of Augustine Concerning the Authority of the Catholic Church

We can discern the epistemic-credibility arguments of Augustine concerning the “authority” of the Catholic Church much more clearly when we go to the next chapter where the quote occurs.

Therefore I ask, who is this Manichæus? You will reply, An apostle of Christ. I do not believe it. Now you are at a loss what to say or do; for you promised to give knowledge of the truth, and here you are forcing me to believe what I have no knowledge of. Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichæus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichæus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you— If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichæus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel

The argument which precedes the famous quote is critical for understanding the rhetorical and epistemic context for Augustine’s use of “authority”. Augustine’s first argument against the apostleship of Manichaeus is premised on an ex hypothesi ignorance of the Gospel. He argues, assuming that he does not believe the Gospel, he simply has no grounds or knowledge for believing that Manichaeus is an apostle. So the Manichean can attempt to appeal to the gospel, and here is where the famous quote comes in, but the ground for believing the Gospel is the authority of the Catholic Church. Yet that same authority also instructs him not to believe Manichaeus. So Augustine has forced the Manichean into an either-or, either he appeals to the Gospel to ground the claims of Manichaeus, in which case he must also accept the authority which grounds the Gospel, which same authority also tells him to reject Manichaeus, or he rejects the authority of the Catholic Church and along with it the authority of the Gospel, the only ground for the apostleship of Manichaeus.

It is critical that one sees that nowhere here does Augustine appeal to the authority of the Petrine see or succession, or some sort of divine guarantee that the Magisterium or Pope is divinely protected from error and whose authority is inerrant or infallible, etc. Augustine’s argument is simply rhetorical, in the classical sense, not theological. The “authority” or epistemic credibility which grounds the Gospel also commands him to reject Manichaeus. In the next few arguments the epistemic/rhetorical point can clearly be seen to be emphasised when Augustine considers the possibility that the Catholic Church could be right about the Gospel but wrong about Manichaeus.

But if haply you should succeed in finding in the gospel an incontrovertible testimony to the apostleship of Manichæus, you will weaken my regard for the authority of the Catholics who bid me not to believe you; and the effect of that will be, that I shall no longer be able to believe the gospel either, for it was through the Catholics that I got my faith in it; and so, whatever you bring from the gospel will no longer have any weight with me… But if you read thence some passage clearly in favor of Manichæus, I will believe neither them nor you: not them, for they lied to me about you; nor you, for you quote to me that Scripture which I had believed on the authority of those liars.

Note well that Augustine does not say anywhere that the Catholic Church’s command to reject the Manichean is grounded upon some divine guiding or inspiration from the Holy Spirit by virtue of some charism promised to St Peter and his successors or bishops in communion with him and is as such infallible and cannot be in error. There are no theological arguments here at all and Augustine doesn’t reject tout court the possibility that the Manichaen maybe correct. Rather, should the Manichean’s contention be true, that indeed there is incontroverstible proof from the Gospels that Manichaeus was an apostle, then the moral credibility of Catholic Church would be destroyed because they lied about the apostleship of Manichaeus and as such, if they are an unreliable epistemic authority about Manichaeus, they would be unreliable about the preservation and transmission of the gospels as well, and therefore he would still not believe the Manicheans.

Conclusion: Testimony and Authority Today

Despite a superficial resemblance to the contemporary Roman Catholic claims to be able to “authoritatively” settle doctrinal claims, the background for Augustine’s deployment of “authority” cannot be more different. Augustine’s authority is the classical rhetorical authority, the authority of epistemic credibility and reliability, grounded upon a moral life, confirmed by miracles. No Roman Catholic today appeals to the morality of the clergy to ground their doctrinal authority, nor do they appeal to miracles and signs and wonders for the same ends. Rather, it is the Roman Church which is now the judge of morals and miracles.

The authority of the Roman Church is today grounded on some sort of supposed divine guarantee from error given by Christ to Peter and his successors, and this occurs, not because of the sanctity of the clerics, but inspite of their sins and errors via some sort of mechanical institutional process. Thus if papal supremacy became the predominant teaching because of forgeries and lies about the Donation of Constantine, while that would be decisive proof against the authority of the Roman Church for Augustine, the Roman Catholic apologist would shrug that off as an irrelevance to the authority of the Roman Church which is a matter of divine institution and not moral credibility. It is clear therefore that such a premise and ground for the authority of the Roman Church exists nowhere for Augustine whose arguments concerning the authority of the Catholic Church is purely on the classical rhetorical plane to do with epistemic and moral credibility.

For the Protestant, at least the classical Magisterial ones, it is vital that we retain the concept of “authority” in its proper classical sense and affirm it in the strongest possible terms. The twin pillars of the Reformation were Scripture and Reason (let’s recall Luther’s declaration that only Scripture or evident reason would induce him to recant). Although Scripture remain the supreme infallible authority, Protestants do not, and indeed should not, despise lesser authorities and testimonies concerning the composition of Scripture as well as its interpretation. Protestantism as such must affirm authorities in its proper classical sense: We shall always be in need of good exegetes, experts in Greek and Hebrew and learned scholars in church history, to be able to both establish the credibility of the Scriptures as well as to determine its present application. Rather than pretending that there exists clerics with a key of knowledge whereby they are privy to the direct whisperings of the Holy Ghost; the Protestant affirms that grace completes nature and that God will restore our rational faculties to both defend and discern the meaning of Scripture.

This acceptance of the classical rhetoric sense of authority also places us in continuity with the long tradition of Catholic apologetics and argumentation concerning the reliability of the Gospels and the Bible. Not only does Augustine appeal to the classical rhetorical understanding of authority to ground the authority of the Catholic Church, we see many other Church Fathers and learned doctors like Aquinas and John Duns Scotus continuing in this great tradition. In the Prologue to Scotus’s Ordinatio Part 2 he devotes the entire part to demonstrating the truth of the Scriptures using arguments which are drawn from classical rhetoric and some of them even bear a striking resemblance to contemporary Evangelical apologetics for the reliability of the New Testament.

It is important as such that we affirm this use of classical rhetoric and testimonial authority known to our reason, which although not infallible, can lead us to morally certain truth. So let me end off with a passage from Thomas Aquinas who sets forth the proper ordering of the hierarchy of epistemic authorities in these words:

…sacred doctrine makes use even of human reason, not, indeed, to prove faith (for thereby the merit of faith would come to an end), but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine. Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: “Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus: “As some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring” (Acts 17:28). Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): “Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning.”

– Summa Theologica, The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine, Q8. Whether Sacred Doctrine Is A Matter of Argument?

2 thought on ““Moved by the authority of the Catholic Church”; An Analysis of what Augustine Said and the Classical Meaning of “Authority””
  1. […] To develop this distinction, a theoretical authority is someone who is more reliable in his judgement of propositions within his field of expertise for various social epistemological reasons, such as amount of epistemic labour invested in understanding that field, his intellectual powers, certification by trusted academic institutions or other theoretical authorities, etc. The most common and basic example is that we generally trust a medical doctor for medical advice because of his medical training and education. As such the judgements of a theoretical authority gives some weight, although not absolute, to determining a proposition as true or false. (For an extended discussion on the social epistemological problems of weighing between different theoretical authorities, I would recommend Alvin Goldman’s Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?) For a deeper discussion on the classical rhetorical tradition on “authority” as applied in a passage by Augustine, see here. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *