WHICH TRUTHS ARE CATHOLIC TRUTHS? According To The Second Opinion, It Is Not Always Necessary To Believe What Has Been Said By The Saints ~ WILLIAM OF OCKHAM BOOK 2 CHAPTER 4


According to the second opinion, it is not always necessary to believe what has been said by the saints

Chapter 4

Master They affirm two conclusions about the saints. The first is that it is not the case that just because some saint opines that something should be believed, it should be approved by all believers as in harmony with the truth. The second is that not all opinions which are found in the works of the saints, even those published throughout the church, should be adhered to firmly.

The first conclusion is proved from texts of St. Augustine included in dist. 9, c. Noli [col.17], et c. Negare [col.17] and c. Ego [col. 17] and c. Quis nesciat [col. 17] and c. Noli [col. 18] and c. Neque [col. 18]. Augustine clearly affirms in these that it is permissible for believers without any temerity to condemn by means of a just judgement some things inserted in the works of the saints and in his own works

They also try to show this by argument. For it is not necessary to think that something is true because of the fact that those who can err believe it. For just on the basis of the opinion of those who can approve of the false as true it is not for that reason necessary to approve of something as true which they think to be so. But saints can err even against catholic truth with their sanctity unshaken. Because the saints think that something is true, therefore, it is not necessary to think that it is indeed true. The major [premise] is clear; the minor is proved by example and by argument. By the example, I say, of blessed Augustine who, though a saint, wrote and taught many things against catholic truth which he later retracted. This is also proved by argument. For an error which is not joined to pertinacity does not prevent sanctity. But it is possible for someone to err against catholic truth without any pertinacity. It is not irrational to affirm, therefore, that with their sanctity unshaken saints can err against catholic truth; and so it is not necessary to adhere firmly to everything that the saints say.

[See Significant Variants, para. 4.] The second conclusion they maintain is that not even all the opinions which are found in the works of the saints already published throughout the church should be adhered to firmly, and this they try to prove as follows. No one ought to assent to opposed [views], but in their works already published by the church saints are found to be opposed to each other, even in those matters that are known to pertain to apostolic faith and teaching. For as we find in dist. 26 [c.1 & c.2; col.95] Jerome and Augustine proffered opposing opinions about blessed Paul's teaching that it is proper for a bishop to be the husband of one wife, that is not of many [wives]. Hence the gloss on c. 1 of that distinction [s.v. post baptismum; col.128] says, "Jerome thought wrongly here and so Augustine corrects him in the next chapter."

As is clear in their letters and is recorded in the gloss on Galatians 2, those saints also had opposing opinions about the reproof in which blessed Paul says that blessed Peter was reprehensible.

In addition, blessed Cyprian thought differently from blessed Augustine about the baptism of heretics, and so blessed Augustine contradicted St. Cyprian. For speaking about St. Cyprian and others he says, as we find in De consecratione, dist. 4, c. Quomodo [col.1377], "For no other reason has it seemed even to some distinguished men, priests of Christ, among whom blessed Cyprian is especially prominent, that Christian baptism can not exist among heretics and schismatics except because a sacrament was not distinguished from its effect or use, and because its effect and use were not found free from sin and with uprightness of heart among heretics they thought that the sacrament itself was also not there." This is the opinion of blessed Cyprian about sacraments [administered by] heretics, the opposite of which Augustine asserts in that place.

Clearly therefore saints propound opposing dogmas about the sacraments of the church. Hence we read in dist. 32, para. Ad hoc vero [col.118], "It should indeed be known that the canons of the apostles, to whose authority the eastern church and in part the Roman church yield, and the worthy martyr Cyprian and 80 bishops with him call baptism by heretics the bath of the devil. But Stephen and Cornelius, martyrs and bishops of Rome, and the venerable Augustine in his book On baptism vehemently contradicted Cyprian and those bishops on that account, asserting that a baptism celebrated according to ecclesiastical custom, whether by a heretic or a schismatic, is valid." We gather from these [words] that Cyprian and Augustine handed down opposing opinions about the sacraments of the church, and these [opinins] are indeed found in their writings, as is quite clear from the above and from the chapter from Cyprian which is found in 1, q. 1, c. Si quis [col.382]. It is not the case, therefore, that a catholic must adhere to all the assertions found in the works of the saints.

Student You have proved so clearly of books by saints that they do not have to be approved in their entirety that I can not disagree. It seems to follow from this that no authority remains in them because, just as with instruments so also with writings, whichever of them is found to be partly false is wholly rejected, or at least rendered suspect. Hence Augustine even asserts about the sacred scriptures, as we find in dist. 9, c. Si ad scripturas [col.17], that if even dutiful falsehoods be admitted to be in them nothing authoritative will remain in them. Tell me, therefore, how they reply to what we clearly read in dist. 15 about the approval of the works of saints, among which are certainly numbered the works of Cyprian, Augustine and Jerome

Master They say that not all the works of saints, in respect of everything contained in them, have been approved by the church. For it is certain that many things opposed to the truth are found in the books of blessed Augustine and that he himself in fact later retracted these, and so they should not be approved. And just as it is with blessed Augustine's books, so it is also with the books of many other saints, that they are not approved in their totality. Nevertheless, all the books of the saints of whom mention is made in the aforesaid distinction are approved with respect to everything which is corrected neither by the author nor by others.

Student In that way it would be permissible to approve the books of any heretics at all, because it would be permissible to approve everything in their books in so far as it had not been corrected by catholics. For it is permissible to approve every truth.

Master They say that there is no analogy between the books of heretics and the books of saints, because in the books of heretics it is chiefly falsehoods that are investigated and asserted, while there are few truths incorporated in them. But in the books of saints it is chiefly truths to which attention is paid and there are few things found that are opposed to the truth; and therefore such greatly beneficial things should not be rejected because of a few that are not beneficial.

Student Explain to me further whether they think that all truths found in the books of saints should be considered catholic.

Master They do not think that all the truths treated in the books of saints are catholic. Hence they say that the saints handed down some things as catholic, some things, however, as necessary but not pertaining to faith, and some things indeed as probable; and this last is clearly proved from the texts of Augustine which are included in dist. 9, that is c. Noli [col.17], c. Negare [col.17] and c. Neque [col.18]. Anselm is in accord with this in book 1 of Cur deus homo [ch.2] when he says, "It is on this condition that I want everything I say to be received, that is, let anything I say which a greater authority does not confirm not be received as a certainty, even if I seem to prove it by reason, but only that it seems this way to me for the time, until God in some way gives me a better revelation." We gather from these words that Anselm was intending to say some things as probable only.

William of Ockham, Dialogus,
part 1, book 2, chapters 1-17

Text and translation by John Scott.
Copyright © 1999, The British Academy