Whilst researching the origin of the expression, “In essentials, unity, etc.”, I stumbled upon an intriguing passage (paragraph 2, below) in a letter by St. Augustine. I now provide a few other passages from that letter which I think you’ll find most interesting.
1. … I desire you therefore, in the first place, to hold fast this as the fundamental principle in the present discussion, that our Lord Jesus Christ has appointed to us a “light yoke” and an “easy burden,” as He declares in the Gospel (Matthew 11:30), in accordance with which He has bound His people under the new dispensation together in fellowship by sacraments, which are in number very few, in observance most easy, and in significance most excellent, as baptism solemnized in the name of the Trinity, the communion of His body and blood, and such other things as are prescribed in the canonical Scriptures, with the exception of those enactments which were a yoke of bondage to God’s ancient people, suited to their state of heart and to the times of the prophets, and which are found in the five books of Moses.
As to those other things which we hold on the authority, not of Scripture, but of tradition, and which are observed throughout the whole world, it may be understood that they are held as approved and instituted either by the apostles themselves, or by plenary Councils, whose authority in the Church is most useful, e.g. the annual commemoration, by special solemnities, of the Lord’s passion, resurrection, and ascension, and of the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven, and whatever else is in like manner observed by the whole Church wherever it has been established.
2. There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries: e.g., some fast on Saturday, others do not; some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day. In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live. …
6. … I answer, therefore, that if the authority of Scripture has decided … [what] is right, there is no room for doubting that we should do according to that which is written; and our discussion must be occupied with a question, not of duty, but of interpretation as to the meaning of the divine institution. In like manner, if the universal Church follows any one of these methods [viz. about liturgical practice, though the principle is meant to cover all aspects of the Christian life], there is no room for doubt as to our duty; for it would be the height of arrogant madness to discuss whether or not we should comply with it [i.e. with ecclesial tradition].
But the question which you propose is not decided either by Scripture or by universal [traditional] practice. It must therefore be referred to the third class— as pertaining, namely, to things which are different in different places and countries. Let every man, therefore, conform himself to the usage prevailing in the Church to which he may come. For none of these methods is contrary to the Christian faith or the interests of morality, as favoured by the adoption of one custom more than the other. If … either the faith or sound morality were at stake, it would be necessary either to change what was done amiss, or to appoint the doing of what had been neglected. But mere change of custom, even though it may be of advantage in some respects, unsettles men by reason of the novelty: therefore, if it brings no advantage, it does much harm by unprofitably disturbing the Church.
As to the question whether upon that day it is right to partake of food before either offering or partaking of the Eucharist, these words in the Gospel might go far to decide our minds, “As they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed it;” taken in connection with the words in the preceding context, “When the evening had come, He sat down with the twelve: and as they ate, He said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray Me.” For it was after that that He instituted the sacrament; and it is clear that when the disciples first received the body and blood of the Lord, they had not been fasting.
8. Must we therefore censure the universal Church because [despite a clear Scriptural precedent] the sacrament is everywhere partaken of by persons fasting? Nay, verily, for from that time it pleased the Holy Spirit [By what means? Hold that thought!]* to appoint, for the honour of so great a sacrament, that the body of the Lord should take the precedence of all other food entering the mouth of a Christian; and it is for this reason that the custom referred to is universally observed. For the fact that the Lord instituted the sacrament after other food had been partaken of, does not prove that brethren should [likewise] come together to partake of that sacrament after having dined or supped, or imitate those whom the apostle reproved and corrected for not distinguishing between the Lord’s Supper and an ordinary meal. The Saviour, indeed, in order to commend the depth of that mystery more affectingly to His disciples, was pleased to impress it on their hearts and memories by making its institution His last act before going from them to His Passion. And therefore He did not prescribe the order in which it was to be observed, *reserving this to be done by the apostles, through whom He intended to arrange all things pertaining to the Churches. Had He appointed that the sacrament should be always partaken of after other food, I believe that no one would have departed from that practice. But when the apostle, speaking of this sacrament, says, “Wherefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, tarry one for another: and if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that you come not together unto condemnation,” he immediately adds, “and the rest will I set in order when I come.” (1 Corinthians 11:33-34) Whence we are given to understand that, since it was too much for him to prescribe completely in an epistle the method observed by the universal Church throughout the world, it was one of the things set in order by him in person, for we find its observance uniform amid all the variety of other customs. …
— St. Augustine of Hippo, Letter 54, to Januarius (A.D. 400)
As some of my glosses indicate, I think this is an astounding testimony on behalf of Sacred Tradition and the universal (episcopal) Magisterium. Protestants often like to argue that St. Augustine believed in sola Scriptura, or at least believed in the core elements that comprise that doctrine. Clearly, however, while does give a kerygmatic prevalence to Scripture, so far from opposing them, he puts the authority of Scripture and Tradition on the same footing (“in like manner”, “by Scripture or by universal practice”) as far as the actual life of Christians is concerned. In fact, he goes even further against sola Scriptura by subverting a clear scriptural precedent in favor of the universality of ecclesial tradition as a sign of Apostolic authority.
In the same vein, when discussing I Cor 11, St. Augustine explicitly notes how written letters (i.e. Scriptures) would, in and of themselves, be an insufficient rule for the Church, arguing instead that the living guidance of the Apostles, as perpetuated in ecclesial tradition (and, of course, always connected with Scripture as “The Apostolic Scrapbook”), is a superior rule of faith.
Finally, we must take into consideration the provenance of this letter itself. Augustine begins his response to Januarius like so:
In regard to the questions which you have asked me, I would like to have known what your own answers would have been; for thus I might have made my reply in fewer words, and might most easily confirm or correct your opinions, by approving or amending the answers which you had given. This I would have greatly preferred. But desiring to answer you at once, I think it better to write a long letter than incur loss of time.
This provides a fascinating insight into the letter, since we know that Augustine wrote it quickly, off the top of his head, so to speak. Thus, the claims he makes stem not from a studied, detached solicitude to avoid error and preempt erroneous inferences, but simply from his immediate instincts and formation as a shepherd of Christian orthodoxy. His remarks are, therefore, all the more significant because he composed them so spontaneously, with an unguarded authenticity. Far from charting a new course in the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and Christian piety, he was simply rattling off a reply based on what everybody could take for granted as Christian Catholics.
Indeed, as noted in the opening paragraph, Augustine only felt the need to elaborate on the dynamics of Scriptural and Magisterial authority because he wasn’t sure how much of his reply Januarius would already take for granted. If Januarius already agreed with his account of Scripture and Tradition as being on an equal footing, he could “confirm” Januarius’s opinions. If, by contrast, Januarius held to a faulty view of doctrinal authority (might we call it “proto-sola-Scriptura“?), then Augustine could “correct” his errors. The letter takes either likelihood into account, and thus ends up providing a remarkable catechesis on the Catholic understanding of the unified nature of Scriptural and ecclesial authority.
So, tell me again how Augustine was a proto-Protestant?
P.S. Aren’t you proud of me? I didn’t grind any axes about Vatican II in this post! Although… as you may have realized, some of the passages I emphasized are rich with significance for our own times.
P.P.S. By drawing attention to the fact that I did not whinge about Vatican II, I ended up whinging ever so subtly about Vatican II.
P.P.P.S. Yes, I like Gödel.