Reasons to Believe

The Grace of God Closes In: St. Augustine, Part 5

There are six important apologetics-related factors that can be identified as paving the way for Augustine’s conversion to Christianity.1 Augustine would later credit the sovereign grace of God’s work behind the scenes of his life as the source of these factors. From these six aspects, we can draw a broad apologetics model for how God, through His grace, prepares people for faith.

1. Removing Philosophical Objections to Christianity

Augustine’s materialism, a vestige of Manichaeanism, kept him from envisioning the Christian God as an immaterial reality and he still couldn’t understand how evil could emerge in a world made by a benevolent God. Some philosophical concepts inherent in Neoplatonism helped answer these objections. Distinguished historian of philosophy Fredrick Copleston explains:

At this time Augustine read certain Platonic treatises in the Latin translation of Victorinus, these treatises being most probably the Enneads of Plotinus. The effect of neo-Platonism was to free him from the shackles of materialism and to facilitate his acceptance of the idea of immaterial reality. In addition, the Plotinian conception of evil as privation rather than as something positive showed him how the problem of evil could be met without having to have recourse to the dualism of the Manichaeans. In other words, the function of neo-Platonism at this period was to render it possible for Augustine to see the reasonableness of Christianity, and he began to read the New Testament again, particularly the writings of St. Paul.2

Through the philosophical prism of Neoplatonism, Augustine came to see that materialism fails to account for the necessary conceptual, moral, and spiritual realities of life. He also embraced the Neoplatonic distinctive that while evil is real, it is not a substance or a material, but rather a privation (an absence of something good that should be in an entity). This means evil wasn’t actually some “thing” created by God. Augustine would later use, to a certain degree, Platonic or Neoplatonic concepts as a philosophical apparatus in order to explain and defend Christian truth-claims. While some have called Augustine a Christian Platonist philosopher, the mature Augustine’s thinking was uniquely shaped by Scripture.3

2. Removing Theological and Exegetical Objections to Christianity

While in Milan, Augustine came into contact with Ambrose, a distinguished orator and the distinguished Bishop of Milan. Church history regards Ambrose as one of Christianity’s greatest preachers. Initially, Augustine went to listen to Ambrose only to observe his oratory skill. It was not long, however, before the two engaged in a friendly discussion about issues relating to Christian theology and the interpretation of Scripture. This was Augustine’s first encounter with a Christian intellectual. He was significantly impressed by the orator’s intelligent capabilities and personal moral integrity (Ambrose was committed to a celibate lifestyle). Ambrose was also able to correct certain misconceptions that Augustine had concerning the Bible and Christianity overall.

3. The Example of Other Believers

Augustine witnessed not only Ambrose’s testimony to the truth of Christianity, but that of several other prominent individuals as well. Victorinus, the Neoplatonic scholar who had translated the Greek philosopher Plotinus’s work Enneads into Latin, also converted to Christianity. Victorinus’ conversion was an example of another first-rate intellectual who embraced the truth of Scripture. Other believers testified to Augustine about the distinguished moral example of Christians, such as St. Anthony of Egypt. And, of course, Augustine knew first hand of his own mother’s abiding commitment to the Christian faith.

4. The Existential Reality of Death

Augustine had a close friend who became mortally ill. During the illness, the friend was baptized Catholic. He recovered briefly and then rebuked Augustine for rejecting Christianity. When the friend relapsed and died, Augustine experienced a period of intense grief, depicted powerfully in Confessions (Book IV). This time forced Augustine to face the existential reality of death.

5. Confronting Man’s Sinful Condition

While Augustine became increasingly convinced, intellectually speaking, of Christianity’s truth, he still found his will getting in the way of adopting the faith. He was continually confronted with his glaring lack of moral integrity and, ultimately, with his total inability to live up to God’s moral standards revealed in Scripture. Augustine was embarrassed that he had encountered so many seemingly simple people whose moral lives put his to shame. These were people who couldn’t come close to matching his intellectual brilliance and rhetorical eloquence, but their commitment to living morally upright lives made Augustine truly envious.

6. The Study of Scripture

The writings that Augustine had once regarded as disappointing became the definitive text in his ongoing pursuit of truth. His previously limited study of Scripture was greatly intensified through his interaction with Ambrose. Augustine’s mind was now captive to the Holy Scriptures, “which are able to make you wise for salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15) and the source by which God imparts the gift of faith (Romans 10:17).


Endnotes:

1. See Notre Dame philosophy professor Alfred J. Freddoso’s lecture notes and class handouts available on the web: http://www.nd.edu/~afreddos.

2. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 42–43.

3. Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), s.v.v. “Plato, Platonism,” “Plotinus, The Enneads.”

Subjects: Christian Life, Church Fathers