Augustine for the 21st Century (3): What Can We Learn from Augustine’s Apologetic Strategy?

Augustine teaches 21st century evangelicals how to defend the faith in their respective contexts. Among the many lessons we may learn from him, one is central: We as Christians must “out-narrate the narrators.” In the face of the narratives emerging from naturalist, pantheist, and Muslim worldviews, we must communicate the biblical narrative in such a way as to show that it alone makes sense of the world.

Like Augustine, we must expose the flaws in competing narratives. In City of God, Augustine’s brilliance is on display as he showed the Romans that their narrative failed even on its own grounds. In relation to their gods, he shows that the Romans never could decide which deities were actually in control, and that their own historian of religion, Marcus Varro, didn’t really believe in the gods anyway. In relation to their philosophers, Augustine finds common ground in his admiration for Plato and the Neo-Platonists but exposes the tragic flaw in the Platonists-their-pride, which kept them from believing in the incarnation and resurrection. In relation to their founding historical narrative, Augustine finds common ground in his admiration for Virgil but exposes the fact that the mythical story of Rome’s founding is actually a verdict against Rome. Romans viewed justice as the unique interpretive key to her “glorious” history, but Augustine argued that Rome had never been just and that justice was no more than a veil for her lust for power. Curtis Chang writes, “Augustine…presents a political analysis that was stunningly original for its time and for centuries to come. He takes apart an entire civilization’s ideologies to reveal them as masks for raw power.”[1] Augustine makes clear that the Roman narrative is logically incoherent, empirically inadequate, and existentially unsatisfying.

Like Augustine, we tell the Christian story in such a way as to highlight its explanatory power. As Chang argues ,[2] Augustine’s primary strategy was to proclaim the gospel story. The theologian from Hippo did not find it necessary to build a philosophical system from the ground up (although his books prove that he was capable of powerful, refined, and subtle philosophical argumentation). Instead, he builds common ground with his Roman readers by citing their poets and philosophers and then puts that common ground to whatever use he may while focusing on his central strategy, the proclamation of the Word of God. In proclaiming the Word, Augustine traces the biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, arguing that this narrative explains the world better than the pagan Roman narrative. The biblical narrative has more explanatory power-it alone makes sense of the world.

Like Augustine, we must show how all competing narratives are transcended by the master narrative revealed in Christian Scripture. Augustine is not satisfied to show the tragic flaws in the competing narratives and the superiority of the biblical narrative. He also wants to make abundantly clear the fact that Christ and his church are not “part of” any other larger narrative. In particular Christ and his church are not “characters” in the greater Roman narrative. The truth of the matter is exactly the opposite: Rome herself is only a minor character in the grand sweep of the history of Christ and his people. All of history centers on Christ and his people rather than on Rome and her people.

In particular, we must out-narrate naturalist, Islamic, and Eastern narratives. Because of the limited scope of this blog series, I must set aside the Islamic and Eastern narratives, while providing brief treatment of naturalism. The naturalist worldview is expressed in multiple arenas, but two of the most important are philosophy and science. Naturalists tell the story of science in such a way that it appears naturalism is the hero and Christianity is the villain. This pseudo-history must be exposed-we must argue persuasively that in fact the Designer himself is the one who enables us to do “science.” The gospel is not antithetical to science but rather the very foundation of it.[3] Further, naturalists often tell the story of philosophy in such a way that theism appears absurd and nihilism appears to be the appropriate response. If there is no God, then life surely has no Meaning (and likewise no Truth, Goodness, or Beauty). One can seek meaning and happiness in certain temporal activities (for Nietzsche it was the arts), but for nihilists and others there is no final Meaning. This pseudo-truth must be exposed-although it is true that nothing in the created order can provide Meaning, it is also true that the one who created the world is himself the source of Meaning.[4]

[1] Curtis Chang, Engaging Unbelief (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 74.

[2] Ibid., 66-93.

[3] For a fascinating re-casting of the naturalist story of science, see Stephen Barr, “Retelling the Story of Science,” in First Things 131 (March 2003), 16-25.

[4] For an expose of nihilism as it pervades American culture, see Thomas Hibbs, Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld (Dallas: Spence, 1999).

Augustine for the 21st Century (2): What is Augustine’s Argument in The City of God?

Augustine used theology, philosophy, and history to hoist the cultured despisers of Christianity by their own petard.

These cultured despisers were Roman. On August 24, 410, Alaric and the Goths had sacked Rome. For the Romans this event was devastating and needed interpretation. What had weakened Rome and brought her to her knees? Why was she now being dominated after centuries of being the dominator?

Volusianus and other pagan intellectuals speculated that Christianity caused the downfall of Rome. The Roman emperor Constantine had adopted Christianity, after which time Christianity experienced explosive growth culminating in the eventual outlawing of the pagan gods and enshrinement of the Christian faith. For this reason, Volusianus and other pagans waged a public intellectual war against Christianity. Rome had been beaten to her knees, they argued, because the Romans had forsaken their gods, their founding narrative, and their philosophers.

Rome had forsaken her gods, they argued-her patron deities had been abandoned and their verdict was that Rome should fall. Further, she had forsaken her founding narrative-rather than locating her identity in the mythical narrative given by Virgil and others she now had replaced that narrative by an alien Hebrew narrative. Finally, Rome had forgotten her philosophers-she had departed from Plato and the Neo-Platonists by claiming the need for a Christ in order to obtain Eternal Truth.

Roman Christians, including one Marcellinus (Augustine’s friend, Roman proconsul to Africa, and an opinion leader among Rome’s cultural elite) sought to counter this pagan narrative. Marcellinus himself sought to convert Volusianus and toward that end penned a letter to Augustine of Hippo (modern-day Algeria), asking for his help in answering Volusianus and the pagans. City of God is Augustine’s 1,000 page letter in response.

Augustine’s letter is divided into five parts. The first two parts consist of his treatment of the pagan narrative, including Rome’s history, her gods, and her philosophers. He provides a survey of the history of philosophy, beginning with Thales, and concludes that the philosophers discovered many truths but in the end failed to discover Truth. Further, he provides a survey of the Roman gods, essentially mocking their character and actions. These “gods,” Augustine argued, had proven themselves to be immoral, unable to save the Romans from disaster, and in fact demonic in nature.

His refutation of Rome’s founding narrative finds its main treatment in the last three parts of Augustine’s letter in which he propounds his “Two City” argument. This argument can be distilled into six points. First, Augustine argued, all of human society can be divided into two cities-the City of Man and the City of God. Second, these twin cities are divided by two basic loves-the love of God and the love of idols. Third, the first man, Adam, embodied the dispositions of both of these cities which soon became implicit in Cain and Abel (which story is paralleled by that of Romulus’ murder of Remus). Fourth, man is drawn toward what he truly loves-either God or goods-and his chosen love locates him in either the City of Man or the City of God. Fifth, each of the two cities has a final destination, either eternal life or eternal death. Those persons in the City of Man seek their happiness in temporal things while those in the City of God seek theirs in an eternal Kingdom. Sixth, Jesus Christ will destroy the Beast and bring an end to history as we know it, at which time citizens of the City of God receive eternal life and citizens of the City of Man receive eternal torment.

Augustine’s argument is, of course, much deeper and broader than what can be communicated in the space of the previous few paragraphs. He was a theologian of enormous erudition whose arguments (and digressions) hold forth many ideas worthy of extended reflection. For those of our readership who like to be challenged theologically and devotionally, you should refuse to be content with the mini-distillation I have provided, and instead purchase and read City of God for yourself. (I recommend the Image Books edition, abridged for modern readers, with a foreword by Vernon J. Bourke.)

Augustine for the 21st Century (1): Why Should We Read Old Books?

I have never been trampled by a herd of evangelicals on their way to the Augustine section of the local bookstore. Perhaps one reason for this is chronological snobbery, our tendency to believe that the new books are better than the old ones. Another reason might be that the local bookstores don’t even have an Augustine section (True, Barnes & Noble and Borders carry books by Augustine, but Christian bookstores rarely do. The Christian stores are up to their necks in sales of Precious Moments figurines, tester tubes of anointing oil, boxes of Test-a-mints, and tee-shirts with inscriptions like “I’m Cross-Eyed.”)

Either way, the point remains. We rarely read old books. We tend to limit ourselves by era, tribe, and category-we read books written in our day, but people just like us, and that can be placed in one or two limited genres. But this sort of epistolary reductionism is to our detriment-the older books are precisely the ones that will help us to escape the limitations of our current era, learn from those who are not a part of our local tribe, and transcend the categories to which we have become accustomed.

We benefit from reading great authors from eras past more than from reading a great number of books. In Christian theology and related fields, this means that we want to pick a handful of theologians who have influenced the church and make sure that we have read at least a little bit of what they wrote. If you are a seminarian, you want to read Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth, the towering figures in church history. (Frank Peretti is not a towering figure in church history.) In fact, you may want to choose one or two of these authors and read everything they’ve written, and read some of their books multiple times.

The City of God is one of those books. Its author, Augustine, over the course of his lifetime penned more than five million words which would become the backdrop for the next millennium of Western theological and philosophical thought. At the apex of his writings stands The City of God.

The present blogpost is the first installation of a series of posts reflecting upon Augustine, his book, and its relevance for Christians living in a 21st century context. The particular occasion for writing the series is a seminar I am teaching this semester, entitled “History of Ideas III.” Each student at The College at Southeastern is required to take four seminars in the History of Ideas. In these seminars we read books written by the titans of theology, philosophy, history, and literature (Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Machiavelli, Pascal, Descartes, Locke, Milton, Nietzsche, etc.). We read the books and then reflect, from a confessionally Christian point of view, on the ideas contained in those books. The seminar is not only a course in intellectual history but hopefully also an act of worship as we submit these books to theological and philosophical analysis in the light of God’s revelation.

In forthcoming posts, we will discuss (1) Augustine’s thesis in City of God; (2) what we can learn from Augustine’s apologetic strategy; (3) how we share certain of Augustine’s presuppositions and can put them to use in the 21st century; (4) what we can learn from Augustine’s person; and (5) a few selected passages by Augustine, as well as a handful of reading recommendations and concluding thoughts.