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).