Copies still remain of a version of the Augustinian Constitutions written a little over a decade before the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation.
At the time Martin Luther had joined the Order of Saint Augustine, and would thus have been formed as a friar with the guidance of this document. It is of value to examine a part of this document for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gives insight into the preparation received by newly-joining members of the Order of Saint Augustine in Germany in the decade before the Protestant Reformation; secondly, it is generally representative of the Augustinian formation in other nations and also in previous decades; and, thirdly, it has the potential to throw some light on the thought of Martin Luther.
The author of this edition of the Constitutions was a man who was Luther’s Augustinian superior also initially his supporter and mentor, Johann von Staupitz O.S.A. Between 1504 and 1506, at the time Luther was entering the Order of Saint Augustine, Staupitz was the officially-appointed superior of the observant (i.e., reform) movement in Germany of the Order of Saint Augustine, and Luther’s community at Erfurt was under his jurisdiction.
The document re-worked the 1287-1290 (“Ratisbon”) Constitutions of the Order. Staupitz dated the preface of his work at Nuremburg on the vigil of Pentecost 1504. Possibly it was printed immediately afterwards, although papal approval was not declared until 24th March 1506. The document was named (in an English translation of its Latin title) The Constitutions of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine prepared under apostolic privilege for the reformation of Germany.
There were fifty-one chapters. Of interest here is Chapter 17 on the tasks and goals of the master of novices. The master was to enforce a stipulated code of behaviour. For example, the occasions when and where to bow, genuflect and prostrate. Chapter 17 continued with directives about to handle books and vestments carefully; not to be present in the convent of the professed friars unless invited; not to dispute about the Augustinian Rule and Constitutions; not to join guests or the infirm at their meals; how to hold a cup with both hands and sitting down when taking a drink; not to walk with head high (“with neck outstretched”) but with eyes fixed on the ground; never to talk about somebody absent unless it is something good; never to praise a person to his face; not to send or receive letters without permission. A novice “shall love poverty, stay away from delights, and shatter his own will.”
Chapter 17 continues with the directive that the novice “is to read the Sacred Scriptures eagerly, listen to it devoutly, and learn it fervently. The text continues with the admonition against mentioning the social status of one’s parents, their degree of nobility, wealth or worldly reputation. Even if the directive about Biblical study in surrounded by many other rules and regulations, it is nevertheless significant that Biblical study is a priority.
This fact is taken into account when considering the “sola scriptura” (“the Scriptures alone”) expression that is attributed to the theology of Luther, although Luther did not make explicit use of that actual phrase. In the Staupitz edition of the Augustinians and elsewhere, Martin Luther was formed in the medieval concentration on the Bible. That concentration was certainly not of Luther’s invention. What was “new” was his application of it against certain church practices such as indulgences.
The use of the notion of sola scriptura to debate the relative importance of Scripture and Tradition was discussed at the Council of Trent that began in 1545, which was just before Luther’s death. That debate, however, which further popularised the phrase sola scriptura, was not a question that had occupied Luther’s attention.
For further reading
Sola Scriptura – Martin Luther’s invention? By Franz Posset: Augustiniana, Annus 56 (2006), fasc, 1-2, pp. 123-127. Published by Institutum Historicum Augustinianum Lovanii, Belgium.