This October, Protestants from around the globe will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the church at Wittenberg Castle, the event that marked the unofficial beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It is therefore natural to assume that Luther, the German friar who dared to challenge the Pope in matters of indulgences and sacraments, was the central figure of the Protestant Reformation. However such a misconception ignores the gigantic part played by yet another theologian, a church father who lived an entire millennium before Luther. According to Alister McGrath, Martin Luther’s “program of reform at the University of Wittenberg around 1519 could be summed up in a simple phrase: ‘the Bible and St. Augustine.’” (Reformation Thought, 21)
Behind the theology of the Reformers stood the shadow of the bishop from North Africa. Augustine (354-430AD), otherwise known as St. Augustine of Hippo, influenced not only Martin Luther (an Augustinian monk) and the Reformers; he also served as the seminal thinker for the entire medieval era. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, “there was no important doctrinal issue in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that was unaffected by the study of Augustine, and on many of the issues his influence was decisive.” (The Christian Tradition Vol. 4, 22)
Pelikan has identified an “Augustinian synthesis” that was held in tension during the late Medieval era, one that would eventually become “unraveled” during the Reformation. For example, his anti-Donatist ecclesiology upheld the absolute authority of the church for centuries afterward, including the validity of the sacraments on objective grounds, irrespective of the virtue or wickedness of the administering priest. The foundation was hence laid for the eventual Roman Catholic doctrine of totus Christus and the ex opere operato view of the sacraments. Conversely, his anti-Pelagian soteriology affirmed salvation by faith through God’s sovereign grace, laying the foundation for the doctrines of sola fide and sola gratia for theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. This Medieval “synthesis” of Augustine was so comprehensive that Carl Trueman asserts, “as all medieval theology was to some extent a dialogue with Augustine, one might say that all medieval theology could be categorized as broadly Augustinian.” (Luther on the Christian Life, 32) In 1517, this dialogue with Augustine became an argument between Protestants and Roman Catholics, each appealing to the titanic church father.
B.B. Warfield once famously summarized the Protestant Reformation as “the triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church.” In other words, Roman Catholic doctrines of tradition and church authority (derived in Augustine, not necessarily held by him) were challenged by Reformers’ likewise touting Augustine’s view of salvation and Scripture. John Calvin, for example, in his defense of predestination, claimed “Augustine completely on our side.” (Praed.) Today there is perhaps no greater testament to the extent of Augustine’s influence over the Western church than the fact that both sides of the Protestant-Catholic rift looked to the bishop of Hippo in their respective apologetics. In a very real sense, everyone was an “Augustinian.” Hence the underlying issue wasn’t of allegiance, but of hermeneutic. In defense of the authority of the Church, Roman Catholic theologians consistently cited Augustine’s testimony that “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.” In response, Protestants insisted that Augustine was not insinuating that the authority of the church was greater than the Word; he was simply pointing to the authority of the church in distinguishing authentic from inauthentic Scripture.
Sacraments were another important Augustinian battleground. For example, advocating for a Eucharist of one kind (bread only), Roman Catholics appealed to Augustine…as did Protestants who advocated for both kinds (bread and wine). Even Augustinian quotes themselves were often debated and seemingly spliced in half, with different emphases upon different clauses. For example, Augustine asserted, “The word is added to the element, and it becomes a sacrament, indeed, a kind of visible word.” The first half of this famous phrase was widely claimed by Catholics in order to contend for the nature of the sacrament. Conversely, the second half was cited by Protestants (especially Calvin) to accentuate the primacy of God’s Word in the efficacy of the sacrament. In addition, Augustine’s dictum “Believe, and you have already eaten” was often used by Protestants to advocate their sola fide principle against the faithless sacramentalism of the Roman church. Meanwhile each side appealed to Augustine for the apostolic authority of infant baptism, each for different theological reasons.
Issues like the relationship between nature and grace were also Augustinian syntheses that unraveled at the Reformation. While Roman Catholics tended toward a high Thomistic natural theology, they also cited Augustine against the likes of Reformers who appealed to Augustine’s anti-Pelagian definition of salvation. In his exposition of sin, John Calvin wrote, “the doctrine which I deliver is not new, but the doctrine which of old Augustine delivered with the consent of all the godly, and which was afterward shut up in the cloisters of monks for almost a thousand years.” (Institutes) Marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the endeavors of men like Martin Luther and John Calvin, it is appropriate to do exactly as the Reformers did: look to Augustine. In so doing, we better understand the origin and context of the Protestant Reformation.