It’s not even a close call: Augustine is by far the most respected and revered of the Catholic saints among Protestants, at least those in the Reformed tradition.
That’s something that may be surprising to some Catholics—it’s not like Augustine has been pushed off to the fringes of Catholic thought and spirituality. Just how central is Augustine? Well, in the current Catholic catechism, he’s cited more than even Thomas Aquinas: 87 citations to Aquinas’ 61.
So I asked Dr. Carl Trueman, a top evangelical scholar and expert on church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, to explain how Augustine became such a beloved figure in Protestant circles. Here’s what he had to say:
The Princeton theologian, B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) once commented that the Reformation represented the triumph of Augustine’s understanding of grace over his doctrine of the church. Like all such pithy sayings, it is something of an over-simplification but it does contain a significant truth: Augustine is as important to Protestants as to Catholics. His Confessions helped to shape Protestant understandings of the Christian’s inner spiritual conflict; his work on the Trinity was carried over into the Reformation with no significant alteration, beyond a certain skepticism among some about his use of psychological analogies; and his work on predestination was fundamental to Protestant reading of the Apostle Paul. Indeed, one could write a history of the Reformation as an extended debate over the interpretation of Augustine’s works and, indeed, who owns them. Polemically, he was critical: both sides needed him in order to establish key points of historical continuity with past teaching.
Moving beyond the early Reformation, Augustine continued to be the most significant early church Father in Reformed theology. Calvin uses him extensively, as do Bullinger and Vermigli. Then, as Reformed theology established itself within the university context in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Augustine continued to be a significant influence, both directly through primary texts and as mediated through medieval scholastic theologians such as Thomas Bradwardine and Thomas Aquinas. Put simply, the questions he raised about Pauline interpretation, and about grace, predestination and human agency, were hardy perennials for Protestants who had no desire either to reinvent the wheel in such areas nor to innovate where no innovation was necessary.
— Dr. Carl R. Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.
COMING TOMORROW: I weigh in on the value of Augustine for ecumenism.