Augustine for the 21st Century (3): What Can We Learn from Augustine’s Apologetic Strategy?

Augustine teaches 21st century evangelicals how to defend the faith in their respective contexts. Among the many lessons we may learn from him, one is central: We as Christians must “out-narrate the narrators.” In the face of the narratives emerging from naturalist, pantheist, and Muslim worldviews, we must communicate the biblical narrative in such a way as to show that it alone makes sense of the world.

Like Augustine, we must expose the flaws in competing narratives. In City of God, Augustine’s brilliance is on display as he showed the Romans that their narrative failed even on its own grounds. In relation to their gods, he shows that the Romans never could decide which deities were actually in control, and that their own historian of religion, Marcus Varro, didn’t really believe in the gods anyway. In relation to their philosophers, Augustine finds common ground in his admiration for Plato and the Neo-Platonists but exposes the tragic flaw in the Platonists-their-pride, which kept them from believing in the incarnation and resurrection. In relation to their founding historical narrative, Augustine finds common ground in his admiration for Virgil but exposes the fact that the mythical story of Rome’s founding is actually a verdict against Rome. Romans viewed justice as the unique interpretive key to her “glorious” history, but Augustine argued that Rome had never been just and that justice was no more than a veil for her lust for power. Curtis Chang writes, “Augustine…presents a political analysis that was stunningly original for its time and for centuries to come. He takes apart an entire civilization’s ideologies to reveal them as masks for raw power.”[1] Augustine makes clear that the Roman narrative is logically incoherent, empirically inadequate, and existentially unsatisfying.

Like Augustine, we tell the Christian story in such a way as to highlight its explanatory power. As Chang argues ,[2] Augustine’s primary strategy was to proclaim the gospel story. The theologian from Hippo did not find it necessary to build a philosophical system from the ground up (although his books prove that he was capable of powerful, refined, and subtle philosophical argumentation). Instead, he builds common ground with his Roman readers by citing their poets and philosophers and then puts that common ground to whatever use he may while focusing on his central strategy, the proclamation of the Word of God. In proclaiming the Word, Augustine traces the biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, arguing that this narrative explains the world better than the pagan Roman narrative. The biblical narrative has more explanatory power-it alone makes sense of the world.

Like Augustine, we must show how all competing narratives are transcended by the master narrative revealed in Christian Scripture. Augustine is not satisfied to show the tragic flaws in the competing narratives and the superiority of the biblical narrative. He also wants to make abundantly clear the fact that Christ and his church are not “part of” any other larger narrative. In particular Christ and his church are not “characters” in the greater Roman narrative. The truth of the matter is exactly the opposite: Rome herself is only a minor character in the grand sweep of the history of Christ and his people. All of history centers on Christ and his people rather than on Rome and her people.

In particular, we must out-narrate naturalist, Islamic, and Eastern narratives. Because of the limited scope of this blog series, I must set aside the Islamic and Eastern narratives, while providing brief treatment of naturalism. The naturalist worldview is expressed in multiple arenas, but two of the most important are philosophy and science. Naturalists tell the story of science in such a way that it appears naturalism is the hero and Christianity is the villain. This pseudo-history must be exposed-we must argue persuasively that in fact the Designer himself is the one who enables us to do “science.” The gospel is not antithetical to science but rather the very foundation of it.[3] Further, naturalists often tell the story of philosophy in such a way that theism appears absurd and nihilism appears to be the appropriate response. If there is no God, then life surely has no Meaning (and likewise no Truth, Goodness, or Beauty). One can seek meaning and happiness in certain temporal activities (for Nietzsche it was the arts), but for nihilists and others there is no final Meaning. This pseudo-truth must be exposed-although it is true that nothing in the created order can provide Meaning, it is also true that the one who created the world is himself the source of Meaning.[4]


[1] Curtis Chang, Engaging Unbelief (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 74.

[2] Ibid., 66-93.

[3] For a fascinating re-casting of the naturalist story of science, see Stephen Barr, “Retelling the Story of Science,” in First Things 131 (March 2003), 16-25.

[4] For an expose of nihilism as it pervades American culture, see Thomas Hibbs, Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld (Dallas: Spence, 1999).

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 6: Man)


A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 6: Man)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

Apart from the Christian Scriptures, one cannot make sense of humanity. No religion, worldview, or philosophy is able to account for the unique nature, capacities, and ends of human existence. Inevitably, they tend toward either an enthronement or a denigration of humanity, unable to strike a proper balance. The atheists of the early Humanist Manifesto, for example, enthroned man; they spoke of him as if he is a god. Contemporary pagans, such as Peter Singer, denigrate man; they speak of man as if he is a mere animal.

The Scriptures, however, make clear that man has both a great humility and a great dignity. His great humility, on the one hand, is that he is not God; indeed, He is created for the express purpose of worshiping God. His great dignity, on the other hand, is that unlike the animals and the rest of the created order, he is created in God’s image. The significance of this is highlighted in the Genesis narrative. The writer signals to us that something of significance has happened-whereas every other living creature is created ‘according to its kind’ only man is created in the “image of God.”

Creation & Fall

At creation, we see a four-fold excellence in man’s relational capacity. He was in right relationship with God, with others, with the created order, and even with himself. There was shalom-a universal human flourishing, a right ordering of things, a divine peace. It was in this state of shalom that God instructed man to work the ground, to change and even enhance what God had made. Further, He instructed man to multiply and fill the earth. Man, therefore, is made to be both productive and reproductive.

However, after the Fall, man experienced the cataclysmic consequences of his rebellion; he was no longer in right relationship with God, with others, with the created order, or with himself. Beginning with Adam and Eve, every member of the human race has taken up arms and rebelled against God. The results have been devastating, wreaking havoc across the entire fabric of human life. All of our God-given capacities are corrupted by sin. Rationally, we have difficulty discerning the truth. Morally, we have difficulty discerning good and evil, and are unable to do the Good. Socially, we exploit others and seek our own good. Creatively, we use our imagination to create idols. The Fall, therefore, has caused a deep and pervasive distortion of God’s good creation.

One implication of this is that we should minister holistically. If God has given man manifold capacities with which to glorify Him (such as spirituality, morality, rationality, relationality, creativity, etc.) and if the Fall distorted and defaced these capacities, then we can take this into account in forming our understanding of the church’s mission. We may use all of our human capacities to minister to man in the wholeness of his humanity. We may seek to glorify God in the arts, the sciences, education, and the public square, as well as in the four walls where a church meets. We must teach our children to devote their intellectual and creative capacities to Christ, and not merely their spiritual and moral. We must teach them that “pastor” and “missionary” are not the only honorable callings for a godly child, that science, education, law, and journalism are also honorable callings.

As a result of the Fall, we no longer flourish in our relationships with God, with others, with the created order, and with ourselves:

Man and God

First our relationship with God is broken; we are serial idolaters, enemies of God, seeking goodness and happiness on our own, apart from Him. We are incurvatus se (Luther); we love ourselves inordinately (Augustine). Our wills are bent toward sin; we are dead in our trespasses. Of the many implications for our method, here is one:

If we are serial idolaters, enemies of God, and dead in our trespasses, then it will take something deep and powerful to save the people to whom we minister. If we are corrupted by sin “through and through”, then salvation is not a matter merely of intellectual assent. Therefore, we must avoid reductionist methods of evangelism and discipleship. We must proclaim the whole gospel of Christ. Salvation comes through Christ alone, and knowledge of Christ comes through the proclamation of the Scriptures. We must proclaim the Gospel according to the Scriptures as we seek to see God break up the ground of hard hearts.

Man and Others

Second, our relationship with others is broken; rather than serving and loving our fellow man, our relationships are marked by interpersonal and societal ugliness. There is hardly a more proven fact than the human badness found in our world-abuse, divorce, rape, war, incest, gossip, slander, murder, deceit, etc. The church should take note that her mission includes the modeling of a more excellent way; a watching world should know us by our love one for another.

Man and the Created Order

Third, our relationship with the created order is broken; rather than unbroken harmony and delight, there is pain and misery. One implication of this for the church is that we ought to use the brokenness of the created order to minister. Natural disasters are signposts that point to the brokenness of the natural order. We can use this signpost to proclaim the gospel, by teaching the gospel according to the Scriptures. In other words, we don’t simply tell hurting and suffering people “Jesus loves you.” We describe how the world was created without such evil, that such evil entered the world because of sin, and that one day there will be a new heavens and earth where there is no more sin and no more evil. We also act upon the privilege of ministering to the physical needs of our fellow image-bearers, demonstrating the love about which we speak.

Man and Himself

Fourth, we are alienated even from ourselves. We live in direct opposition to the purpose of our own existence, to the good that God has offered us. Man’s alienation from himself is another signpost that points to the brokenness of God’s good creation. Again, we can use this signpost to declare the gospel. Take, for example, the despair that many experience at the apparent meaninglessness of life. The person who despairs may be a philosophical nihilist, a victim of sexual abuse, or merely a person who senses that his life lacks purpose. The gospel answers this concern by showing man that he is created in the image of God, that his purpose in life is to glorify God, and that this purpose is not at odds with his own deepest satisfaction. Happiness, in its deepest sense, comes from being conformed to the image of the Son (Rom 8:29), who Himself is the image of God (Col 1:15). It is only in this manner that man can be fully man, and therefore, fully alive.

Conclusion

We must plant churches that seek to glorify God in every conceivable manner. These churches will realize the deep and pervasive effects of the Fall on the human heart, and preach a deep and powerful gospel message. They will use all of the God-given capacities they possess (moral, relational, rational, creative, etc.) to minister to fallen man. They will proclaim the gospel not only when the church is gathered (the church’s corporate worship) but when it is scattered (through vocation and through the various dimensions of human society and culture). They will seek to minister not only to the common man, but also to the educated, the affluent, and the powerful. And in doing these things, in proclaiming and modeling God’s gospel to His good world, they are glorifying Him and enjoying Him now and forever.