How does the defense of the faith (apologetics) influence a person’s embracing the Christian faith (conversion)? In historic Christianity the apologetics enterprise is considered a branch of theology. Defenders of the faith have used apologetics as a vehicle to eliminate intellectual obstacles, thereby encouraging serious reflection on the truth of the Christian faith.
In this four-part series we’re looking at the historical case of Augustine of Hippo (354–430) in which six specific apologetics-oriented factors contributed to one of the most famous conversion stories in church history. Augustine would later explain that the Lord sovereignly used these elements to draw him to faith. I think these six factors can be considered a type of broad apologetic model or pattern for how God, through his providential grace, prepares people for conversion.
Part 1 introduced Augustine and his conversion to Christianity, and part 2 addressed the first apologetics factor that helped Augustine move toward the faith. Now we’ll look at two more factors that removed critical obstacles to Augustine’s conversion and made the faith more believable for him.
2. Removing Theological and Exegetical Objections to Christianity
While teaching rhetoric in Milan, Augustine came in contact with Ambrose,1 the distinguished Christian bishop of Milan. Ambrose was known as a great orator. In fact, he is regarded in church history as one of Christianity’s greatest preachers. Initially, Augustine went to hear Ambrose just to observe his oratory skill. However, the two soon developed a friendly dialogue and discussed many issues relating to Christian theology and especially proper biblical interpretation. Ambrose was the first intellectual Christian that Augustine had encountered, and Augustine was impressed with the bishop’s intellectual acumen and personal moral integrity. Augustine marveled at Ambrose’s commitment to the celibate lifestyle. Through their interactions, Ambrose corrected certain misconceptions that Augustine had about the Bible and Christianity overall.
3. The Example of Other Believers
Augustine witnessed not only Ambrose’s testimony to the truth of Christianity, but testimonies of several other prominent individuals as well. Victorinus, the Neoplatonic scholar who had translated the Greek philosopher Plotinus’s work Enneads into Latin, had also converted to Christianity. Victorinus’s conversion was an example of another first-rate intellectual embracing the truth of Christianity. Other people, including St. Athanasius, testified to Augustine about the distinguished moral example of Christians like St. Anthony of Egypt. Augustine was moved when he read Athanasius’s biography entitled Life of St. Antony.2 And, of course, Augustine knew firsthand of his own mother’s abiding commitment to the Christian faith.
Thus, we see that (1) Ambrose’s ability to answer Augustine’s theological and biblical objections, and (2) the prominent Christians Augustine came in contact with in person and through books attracted him to Christianity. There’s only one St. Augustine, but as Christians we never know who we might be influencing for Christ. May this historical example of God’s providential grace help guide our efforts to lead people to faith. Be sure to check in next week as we look at the last three apologetics-oriented factors in the final article of this series.
Reflections: Your Turn
Can you relate to Augustine’s quest? What apologetics factors impacted your coming to know the Lord?
- To read Augustine’s story in his own words, see Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin.
- For more about St. Augustine’s life and thought, see “Augustine: Theologian of Grace” in Kenneth Richard Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction, chap. 3.
- For a comprehensive resource on all things Augustine, see Augustine through the Ages.
- Kenneth Samples, “6 Straight A Christian Thinkers,” Reflections (blog), September 18, 2018, https://reflectionsbyken.wordpress.com/2018/09/18/6-straight-a-christian-thinkers/.
- I review Athanasius’s Life of St. Antony, which influenced Augustine, in my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2019), 46–7.