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.

  1. 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.

Resources

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes
  1. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 42–3.
  2. Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), s.v. “Plato, Platonism,” “Plotinus, The Enneads.”

 

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



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