Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is arguably the most significant post-biblical theologian in the history of Christianity and, as one recent historian has put it, the “greatest apologist of the Latin west.” Hence it was a surprise to us years ago when doing research for our textbook on apologetics to find that Augustine was almost entirely absent from modern debates on apologetic methodology. A question arose: what would happen if we retrieved Augustine to aid the church’s apologetic witness within post-Christendom?
To answer this question, we focused on his two most enduring books. With the reception history of The City of God, which has paid so much attention to its political and theological implications, it is important to not miss that Augustine’s stated purpose is to persuade skeptics and reassure doubters. He made clear in a letter, penned after City of God’s completion, that he wanted the work distributed to those who despise Christians and to the pagan seekers. Moreover, we also found that Confessions should be read as a work of persuasion–a story-shaped prayer, leading readers through competing philosophies before holding up the cross-shaped path to the good life. Retrieving both books together can help us address the individual and societal challenges of our present age.
Who might Augustine want to speak with today?
Before getting to the specifics of how, Augustine might want to speak to the who. Many present-day pastors and theologians, though inheritors of the Augustinian tradition, have sold off their apologetic birthright, mistakenly assuming apologetics is synonymous with a flattened Enlightenment-style rationality and seeing it as irrelevant to their ministry. This is a fair criticism of some forms of apologetics, but not of apologetics per se.
Long before the Enlightenment set the terms of so many debates, Augustine set out in The City of God to “persuad[e] a person either to enter the city of God without hesitation or to remain there with perseverance.” Mindful of the pronounced changes taking place in society and the challenges Christians felt, Augustine believed it was his pastoral calling to interact with these tectonic shifts and pour himself into the task of persuading the anxious, the doubting, and the skeptical. We can only imagine Augustine instructing pastors and theologians today to do the same.
Augustine would likely also want to have a long conversation with modern-day apologists. While he would almost certainly be pleased to observe how some of his apologetic seeds have blossomed through the ages, he would probably raise some concerns. Over the past century, at least in the United States, debate about apologetics has largely consisted of back-and-forths between evidential and presuppositional apologists regarding methodology. Though both sides have much to offer, the ways these methodological debates have often been framed have left our apologetic imaginations entrenched inside certain systems; meanwhile, the cultural winds outside have been rapidly changing. As Charles Taylor has highlighted with his use of the term “social imaginaries,” our late-modern communities have been inhaling ways of thinking, believing, and living—not mostly by way of syllogisms or analytic argument, but through stories, symbols, and artifacts—which have made Christianity seem not only irrational but oppressive and dangerous. Our cultural air is far different from what it was even fifty years ago. A changing culture, however, would not surprise Augustine; he saw it in his own time. But the idea that we would be unwilling to adapt how we attempt to persuade likely would surprise him.
In his book Territories of Human Reason, Alister McGrath has aptly summarized the work of scholars who study what is considered “rational” in different contexts. Basic logic is an important aspect of rationality, which is universally accepted. However, it is what is added to the laws of logic that does the heavy lifting in perceptions of rationality. And what is added to the laws of logic includes the available evidence for a particular person or community and the prevailing social imaginary. Hence, when we neglect to train ministers, evangelists, and apologists in how to evaluate and diagnose our culture’s dominant stories, symbols, and artifacts we risk neglecting the larger assumed frameworks within which people reason.
Moreover, in both teaching and in practice, contemporary apologetics has not sufficiently recognized the importance of humans as doxological creatures. Our desires shape how we reason and what we believe. This Augustinian insight is now being affirmed from a variety of different disciplines.
These two problems—namely, a lack of training in cultural analysis and at least a functionally reductionistic anthropology—go hand in hand. When we fail to integrate sociocultural analysis into our discipleship, we are left flatfooted when we attempt to engage the doubt and unbelief as well as the hearts and minds of those in our communities and parishes.
How might Augustine help us?
In Confessions, we read of a boy raised in church by his mother, only to walk away from the faith and pursue intellectual maturity. Confessions is an account of his truly growing up, which can help us counter contemporary secular coming of age stories.
Charles Taylor describes how many today assume they have come of age by simply subtracting religion from their lives and rooting themselves in science and common-sense reasoning. Augustine spins a similar bildungsroman, narrating how he left what seemed like a childish religion to embrace a macho-Manichean rationalism. But then comes the plot twist: he only really came of age when he was humbled enough to confess his rationalism as naïve and to accept his dependence on others to bear witness to the truth. In Confessions, he tells a better and more rational story about reason, interweaving how our thinking depends on trust, how our deepest desires move us along through life, and how disordered loves misalign our intellectual quests for the truth. And he does this all while layering his account with the Scriptures; most notably the Psalms, Luke’s story of the prodigal, and the opening chapters of Genesis. Confessions is thus suggestive for how we might integrate various disciplines—exegesis, theology, counseling, and preaching—together to witness in a secular age in which “coming of age” is highly prized.
Confessions and The City of God also offer an approach for gospel persuasion in what Tara Isabella Burton refers to as an era of the “remixing” of religion. In her book Strange Rites, Burton explains how the religiously unaffiliated, the “nones,” are the fastest-growing demographic in America. And yet, despite what the label might suggest, this group is anything but nonreligious. They aren’t, as it turns out, actually shunning religion in the Durkheimian sense. They are instead “remixing” religion—creating their “own bespoke religions, mixing and matching spiritual and aesthetic and experiential and philosophical traditions.” These are the new pagans, who, like those in Augustine’s day, seek ultimate fulfillment in the present through trusting in many different kinds of immanent “gods.” As Burton describes them:
“Today’s Remixed reject authority, institution, creed, and moral universalism. They value intuition, personal feeling, and experiences. They demand to rewrite their own scripts about how the universe, and human beings, operate….They want to choose—and more often than not, purchase—the spiritual path that feels more authentic, more meaningful, to them.”
For Augustine, apologetics and soul care go hand in hand. In this way, he can help us challenge assumptions and witness to the goodness of the gospel in our consumeristic, therapeutic age when people are searching for a “fullness” and peace that late-capitalism’s visions of the good life promise, but fail to deliver.
The evidence for this failure is all around us. We live in an age where we have cast off ancient wisdom for the logic of self-expression. Now personal freedom functions as a salvific end to itself. Consumerism and pop psychotherapy have imitated the means of grace. And yet, these modern prescriptions have often not worked out so well for us. The pursuit of individual freedom as an end to itself has meant the loss of a moral logic for sacrificial love. Our consumerism has resulted in a frenzy of superficial activity, which in moments of despondency has left many wondering: “Is this all there is?” In response, our pop psychology has removed neither our despair nor our anger. And the research is indicating that our screens have left a generationnot “bowling alone” as Robert Putnam famously wrote but scrolling alone on their iPhones, anxiously searching for identity and true community. And, as William McClay has shown, with the absence of the biblical doctrines of sin and atonement, our culture has also lost the resources needed to truly forgive and be forgiven. People still feel shame–but in an attempt to escape this discomfort, they shame others.
This is where Augustine’s eudemonistic vision, his approach to Christian philosophy as a way of life, his rhetorical strategy, and his moral psychology combine to offer us a language and a model that can both speak with, against, and ultimately for today’s “Remixed” demographic. By apprenticing ourselves to Augustine’s way, we can learn to diagnose the ravaging effects of idolatry and disordered loves for our time while prescribing Christ as the Great Physician.
In Books 1–10 of the City of God, Augustine offers a devastating critique of Christianity’s critics, using their own sources, authorities, and terms against them. From Book 11 onwards, Augustine invites his readers to try on the Christian story; the language and authorities of his apologetic approach are now explicitly drawn from the Scriptures. Along the way, Augustine converts the popular pagan language of his day—including concepts such as “peace,” “happiness,” and “justice”—so that it fits within the Christian narrative and testifies to how these ideals are ultimately fulfilled only in Christ and his eschatological community. For instance, he doesn’t ask his reader to cease striving for happiness. Rather, he asks them to reconsider what happiness in our world means and how it should be pursued. He asks his readers to try on for size—intellectually and experientially—the story of Christ and the hope his gospel secures. Curtis Chang aptly sums up Augustine’s approach:
“In City of God Augustine seeks to move pagans by showing them that their story properly belongs at a wider table. Like the master in Jesus’ parable of the great banquet, he ‘compel[s] people to come in’ to his metanarrative. He compels by demonstrating that the pagans’ deepest hungers, properly understood, can be satisfied only in this wider story. Thus for all his deconstruction of the challenger’s story, Augustine does not obliterate it totally. He seeks to redeem it.”
In both Confessions and The City of God, Augustine models a nimble and holistic approach to persuasion. This is not what today we would call an evidential apologetic, though he does give logical and historical arguments in response to defeaters and in support of the faith. Neither is his approach simply narrative-based or aesthetic, though he leverages narrative apologetically. Augustine narrates the biblical story and shows how his opponents’ longings make better rational and existential sense within the scriptural narrative. He offers ad hoc arguments—drawing on metaphors, analogies, history, logic, and evidence from nature—in support of his claims and in response to the critics. His approach to persuasion is multidimensional, as is his theological anthropology and his diagnosis of sin.
One of the key unifying aspects of Augustine’s approach is his aim. He is not out to bury the dead but to heal the sick. Rather than a battlefield with assassins or a morgue with undertakers, Augustine envisions the church as a mission hospital and himself as being in service to the Great Physician. Augustinian apologists go into surgery knowing they must cut, and they therefore bring along, as any skilled surgeon would, many different instruments—but the incisions are carefully made so the wounds are accessible to the healing balm of Christ.
In our therapeutic consumeristic age, Augustine would have us dig deeper than the standard apologetic approaches have recently done, so that we might understand the pagans of our age, including the psychological appeal of their idols and how these false gods ravage souls and destroy communities. Yet Augustine would remind us that our pagans are still searching for peace, rest, and love—just in all the wrong places. With their hope in a secularized shalom, they are clinging to new myths and strange gods, packaged with hyper-sexualized marketing and pseudo-transcendent branding. Faithful witness in post-Christendom will mean learning to critique the false worship that characterizes our age and contrast it with true worship to the living God.
At a time when many in the church were panicking over the fall of Rome and an uncertain future, Augustine went to work reassuring the fragilized faithful and persuading the skeptical to enter the heavenly city. As we experience angst over our own cultural breakdowns and find ourselves at a loss for what Gospel-persuasion should look like today—or even wondering if evangelism should be a priority—our wager is that the way forward is to first travel back. It might just be that Augustine has been patiently waiting for us to return so that he can help us to put one foot in front of the other again.
This article was adapted from sections of the authors’ new book The Augustine Way: Retrieving a Vision for the Church’s Apologetic Witness (Baker Academic, 2023), which is now available for purchase.
Joshua D. Chatraw is the Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism and Cultural Engagement at Beeson Divinity School. He lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
Mark D. Allen is professor of biblical and theological studies at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He has served as a pastor and church planter for over twenty years.