Peter Canisius and the "Truly Catholic" Augustine

By Pabel, Hilmar M. | Theological Studies, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Peter Canisius and the "Truly Catholic" Augustine


Pabel, Hilmar M., Theological Studies


AUGUSTINE USUALLY RECEIVES no more than an honorable mention in the discussion of the theological origins and underpinnings of the Reformation in surveys of Reformation history, at least those written in English. Discussing the revival of patristic scholarship, Owen Chadwick asserted: "The advance of scholarship put St Augustine in a new perspective. As the colossus among the early expounders of St Paul, he dominated the Reformation. In 1600 or 1630 he was still the greatest of the Fathers." (1) Steven Ozment expressed Augustine's significance as grandiloquently as Chadwick: "In the century of Rome's fall lived the single most influential thinker in the Western intellectual tradition--Saint Augustine (354-430). Augustine was to the intellectual history of the Middle Ages what classical civilization was to its political and cultural history: a creative source, whose recovery and study spurred new directions of thought and controversy down through the Reformation of the sixteenth century." (2) Ozment, however, was more interested in Augustine's influence on medieval theology and, to a lesser extent, on medieval piety than in the role he played in the Reformation.

Scholarship has signaled Augustine's influence on Protestant reformers, especially Martin Luther. His embrace of Augustine compelled him to reject Scholastic theology. In 1517, after formulating the doctrine of justification by faith alone through a reading of St. Paul supported by a study of Augustine, Luther equated his own theology with Augustine's. (3) Ulinka Rublack not only saw Augustine as Luther's antidote to Scholasticism; she also reminds us that Luther used both the Bible and Augustine to argue at the Leipzig Debate of 1518 that Christ, not the pope, was head of the church, and that Luther, in his esteem for preaching, "followed an Augustinian epistemology of the senses, which placed hearing above seeing." (4) James Tracy struck a different note when he observed that Luther's concept of sola scriptura was incompatible with dependence on church councils or the Church Fathers, including Augustine; yet Tracy recognized that Luther was a devoted student of Augustine on the soteriological question of human freedom and divine grace. (5)

Diarmaid MacCulloch's recent survey is innovative on several fronts, including the prominence it accords Augustine, a feature it broadly shares with Alister McGrath's treatment of the Reformation's intellectual origins, although McGrath is more discriminating about the intensity of Augustine's influence on various Protestant leaders. (6) For MacCulloch, Augustine is an intellectual giant who deserves more than a reverent mention, for it is in "the shadow of Augustine"--the subtitle of MacCulloch's chapter on nascent Protestantism--that Luther's theology developed. The "playful optimism" of Renaissance humanism was irreconcilable with Augustine's theology, which found only one remedy for "the bleak picture of human worthlessness" presented in Paul's letter to the Romans: the equally Pauline concept of God's "gracious gift of salvation." (7) In the introduction to his book, MacCulloch maintains: "The power of ideas explains why the Reformation was such a continent-wide event." He returns to this theme when he writes that the pre-Reformation church "was immensely strong, and that strength could only have been overcome by the explosive power of an idea. The idea proved to be a new statement of Augustine's ideas on salvation." Why did that restatement have to wait until Luther in the second decade of the 16th century? Other aspects of Augustine's writings, such as his ecclesiology and his concept of sacrament, exercised the minds of theologians. Ultimately, however, the Reformation represented--and MacCulloch quotes B. B. Warfield here--the "triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the Church." MacCulloch concludes: "So from one perspective, a century or more of turmoil in the Western Church from 1517 was a debate in the mind of a long-dead Augustine. …

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