WHICH TRUTHS ARE CATHOLIC TRUTHS? First Opinion: Catholic Truth Is Found In The Bible Alone ~ WILLIAM OF OCKHAM BOOK 2 CHAPTER 1


First opinion: Catholic truth is found in the Bible alone


Student What you have recited about the things I asked about is enough for me at the moment, and so I hasten on to other matters that I have more at heart. For I want to ask many things about heresies; but because sometimes knowledge of one of [two] contraries is known to provide knowledge of the other, I want to know first which truths should be considered catholic.

Master Your question seems to suppose one thing and to seek to know another. For it seems to suppose that not all truths should be adjudged catholic, which blessed Augustine expressly lays down in his Enchiridion. It seeks to know, however, which are those truths that should be considered catholic.

Student Let us, with blessed Augustine, firmly hold what the question supposes, and tell me one opinion, or more, about what I seek to know.

Master There are different and opposing opinions about what you seek to know. One of these is that only those truths should be regarded as catholic and as requiring belief out of necessity for salvation which are asserted explicitly or implicitly in the canon of the bible, so that if some truths are not contained in the bible in that exact form, yet can be inferred by necessary and formal inference from matters contained solely in it, they should be counted as catholic, just as the truth, "Christ is true God and true man", is not found in this sequence of words anywhere in divine scripture, yet because it is a conclusion by necessary and formal inference from things contained in sacred scripture it is to be considered catholic and belief in it is necessary for salvation. All other truths, however, which are neither inserted in the bible nor can be inferred from what is contained in it as a formal and necessary consequence, even if they are asserted in the writings of the saints or in the definitions of the highest pontiffs or even if they are held by all the faithful, should not be regarded as catholic, and it is not necessary for salvation firmly to cling to them through faith or on account of them to take captive reason and human ingenuity. [Cf. Marsilius, DP II.xix. However, Marsilius also holds that the scriptural interpretations of general councils must also be believed.]

They try to confirm this opinion of theirs by [citing] texts and by arguments. The first text is from the Proverbs of Solomon 30:[5-6] which says, "Every word of God is fire tried; he is a buckler to them that hope in him. Add not anything to his words, lest thou be reproved and found a liar." We gather from these words that nothing at all should be added, as though it were necessary that it be believed, to the divine words that are found in divine scripture. Moses also seems to attest to this in Deuteronomy 4 and blessed John in the last chapter of Revelation, whose words were adduced above in chapter 2 [of the first book]. We are given to understand from these that, just as nothing at all should be removed from sacred scripture, so nothing at all should be added to it as necessary for salvation.

They also try to make this opinion known by texts of blessed Augustine. For in a certain letter to Jerome, recorded also in the decretals, dist. 9, c. Ego [c. 5, col.17], Augustine says, "I have learnt to offer this fear and honour only to those works of writers who are now called canonical, so that I dare to believe that none of them has erred in writing; and I do not doubt that if I come upon anything in them which seems contrary to the truth it is nothing but either a faulty codex or that the expounder has not comprehended what has been said or that I have not understood it. I read other [writers], however, in such a way that however greatly enriched they are in sanctity or learning I do not as a result think something true because they have believed it to be so but because they have been able to persuade me by other authors or by canonical or probable arguments that it is not inconsistent with the truth." We gather from these words that it is necessary to offer the most certain trust only to those canonical books which are contained in the bible and that it is not necessary to salvation to cling firmly to the assertions of other [books].

Again, Augustine seems clearly to believe this in his book, De unico baptismo, as recorded in the same dist. 9, c. Quis nesciat [c. 8, col. 17]. For he says, "Who does not know that holy canonical scripture, both of the Old and the New Testament, contains its own fixed limits and that it is so preferred to all the later letters of bishops that there can not be any doubt or dispute about it at all, about whether whatever has been written in it is true or right? [Who does not know], however, that if there is anything in the letters of bishops, which have been written or will be written after the canon was confirmed, that has by chance deviated from the truth, it is permissible for them to be reproved by the perhaps wiser discourse of anyone more expert in the matter at hand and by the weightier authority and more learned prudence of other bishops and by councils?" We gather from these words that only about Scripture in the New and Old Testament is it impermissible to doubt whether whatever has been written in it is true or right. About all that has been written and published after the confirmation of the canon, therefore, whether by general councils, by any other expositors of divine scripture, even by Roman pontiffs and by any historians at all it is not impermissible to doubt and discuss, before they are shown to be in accord with the New and Old Testament of sacred scripture, whether anything written in them deviates from the truth.

Again, speaking about writings later than the New and Old Testament in a letter to Vincent cited in the same distinction [9], c. Noli [c. 9, col. 18], Augustine says, "This sort of writing should be distinguished from the authority of the canon; for we do not read them as though the evidence put forward from them is such that it is not permissible to think the contrary, if by chance they suggest something other than what the truth demands." We find from this that it is permissible to think contrary to every sort of writing after the canon of the bible.

Augustine seems to agree with this in his letter to Fortunatus which we find in the aforesaid distinction [9], c. Neque [c. 10, col.18] where he says, "And we should not consider the disputations," that is expositions according to the gloss, "of any men at all, even if they are catholic and praiseworthy, as canonical writings, as if we were not permitted, saving the honour that is owed those men, to condemn and reject anything in their writings, if by chance we find that they have thought otherwise than what the truth holds, as understood with divine assistance either by others or by ourselves." We conclude from these [words] that no one is bound to assent firmly to anyone's assertions which are not found in the canonical scriptures.

Again, they show through Augustine that no one is bound to accept as necessary for salvation the truths which he himself taught unless they are found in the canonical scriptures. For in his book On the trinity, as recorded in dist. 9, c. Noli [c. 3, col.17], he says, "Do not attend to my writings as to the canonical scriptures. But believe the latter unhesitatingly, even what you did not believe when you came across it; do not hold firmly, however, to what you did not consider as certain in the former unless you judge it to be certain." And in book 2 of his letter to Vincent Victor, as found in the same distinction [9] c. Negare [c. 4, col.17], he says, "I can not and ought not deny that there are many things in many works of mine, as in those of our forefathers, which can be censured with just judgement and without temerity." We conclude from these that it is not necessary to adhere unhesitatingly to the writings of blessed Augustine. By the same argument therefore [this is not necessary] with regard to the writings of any others at all who are not found among the writers of the bible.

They try to show the above opinion by arguments too, of which the first is this. No catholic truth is found outside that writing in which every truth useful for salvation is contained and every falsity inimical to salvation is condemned; but according to Augustine [at the end of book 2 of De doctrina christiana] it is in divine scripture that whatever is useful is found and whatever is harmful is condemned; therefore no catholic truth is found outside sacred scripture.

A second argument is this. The New Testament together with the Old is not less sufficient for believing christians than was the Old Testament alone for the Hebrews; but the whole faith to which the Hebrews were bound was expressed in the Old Testament; it is also the case therefore that the whole faith to which christians are bound out of necessity for salvation is contained in the New and Old Testament. Therefore a christian is not bound out of necessity for salvation to believe anything which neither is contained in the bible nor can be inferred as a necessary and clear consequence solely from things contained in the bible.

A third [argument] is as follows. That which is condemned with the same readiness with which it is approved does not pertain to catholic faith and, even if it is true, should not be counted among catholic truths; but according to blessed Jerome, speaking about the divine scriptures, what does not have authority from those scriptures is condemned with the same readiness with which it is approved; therefore no truth which does not have authority from the divine scriptures should be counted among catholic truths.

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

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