How Apologetics Impacts Conversion: A Historical Case Study, Part 2
How does the defense of the faith (apologetics) impact a person’s coming to embrace the faith (conversion)? As mentioned in part 1 of this four-part series, in historic Christianity the apologetics enterprise is often viewed as a tool to remove intellectual obstacles that may stand in the way of a person’s consideration and possible acceptance of the faith.
We’re examining the historical case of Augustine of Hippo (354–430) in which six specific apologetics-related factors contributed to one of the most famous conversions to the Christian faith ever. Augustine would later ascribe all of these elements to the providential grace of God at work behind the scenes of his life. These six features can be considered a broad apologetic model for how God, through his sovereign grace, prepares people for faith.
Let’s now introduce the first factor that removed a critical obstacle and thus paved the way for Augustine’s conversion to the Christian faith.
- Removing Philosophical Objections to Christianity
Augustine’s interaction with the philosophy of Neoplatonism (a strand of Platonic philosophy popular in the third century AD and associated with the philosopher Plotinus) helped him overcome the last vestiges of Manichaeism (a cultic religion that mixed pagan and Christian elements) in his thinking. Augustine’s materialism, which was part of Manichaean belief, kept him from envisioning the Christian God as an immaterial reality, and he struggled to understand how evil could emerge in a world made by such a supposedly benevolent God. Some philosophical concepts inherent in Neoplatonism helped answer these objections. The distinguished historian of philosophy, Frederick 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.1
So 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 came to embrace the Neoplatonic distinctive that while evil is real, it is not a substance or a stuff, but rather a privation (an absence of something good that should be in an entity). Thus, evil was not some “thing” created by God.
Augustine would later use Platonic or Neoplatonic concepts—to a certain degree—as a philosophical apparatus in order to explain and defend Christian truth claims. Though some have called Augustine a Christian Platonist philosopher and have criticized him for introducing Neoplatonic ideas into Christianity, the mature Augustine’s thinking was progressively transformed by Scripture and, thus, far less by Greek philosophy.2
As we consider Augustine’s experience as a case study, we see that elements of Neoplatonic philosophy helped remove philosophical difficulties that Augustine initially had with viewing Christianity as viably true. This shows that some aspects of pagan philosophy can serve as allies of sorts to some Christian truth claims. Thus, Augustine’s experience encourages us to become equipped to address philosophical objections to the faith.
In part 3 of this series we’ll examine other specific apologetics factors that facilitated Augustine’s move toward Christianity. Again, these factors can serve as a general model for how apologetics impacts evangelism.
Be sure to return next week to learn more about Augustine’s intellectual and spiritual transformation.
Reflections: Your Turn
Did apologetics factors impact your coming to faith in Christ? If so, visit Reflections on WordPress to share your experience in the comments.
- To read Augustine’s story in his own words, see Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961).
- For more about St. Augustine’s life and thought, see “Augustine: Theologian of Grace” in Kenneth Richard Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2019), chap. 3.
- For a comprehensive resource on all things Augustine, see Augustine through the Ages.
- For more on how historic Christianity relates to pagan philosophy, see my blog article “A Christian Perspective on Pagan and Secular Belief Systems.”
- Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 42–3.
- Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), s.v. “Plato, Platonism,” “Plotinus, The Enneads.”