An Unexpected Defense of Christian Faith
Christian apologists today typically gather evidences from history or science to make their case. One fourth-century apologist found his evidence in a very different place.
A young North African had convinced one of his best friends to join a cult — but, then, he found a new faith. Convinced that this new faith was the only true faith, he penned a plea to change his friend’s mind.
The treatise was entitled On True Religion.
The author’s name was Aurelius Augustine.
One day, Augustine would become overseer of the church in Hippo Regius and the most influential theologian in the history of Christianity. For now, however, he was a simple layperson, seeking to turn his friend away from a cult.
Penned shortly before Augustine was ordained as a priest in the year 390, On True Religion was one of the first apologetics treatises to flow from the North African’s lips. His hope was to show his friend Romanianus that Christianity alone was the true religion. In the process, the future overseer of Hippo developed an argument for the truthfulness of Christian faith that’s quite different from the sorts of arguments that a modern apologist employ — which is precisely why this argument is important for us to consider today, at a moment when secularity has unmasked the weaknesses in so many arguments.
An Apologetic of Liturgies and Lives
The argument in the opening chapters of On True Religion is simply this: there is a unity between what Christians teach, how Christians live, and how Christians worship that cannot be explained unless the Christian religion is true. According to Augustine, the congruity of theology, habits, and liturgy provides evidence for the validity of the Christian faith.
Augustine sharply critiqued the philosophers of earlier generations because the beliefs they professed in their worship contradicted everything that they personally practiced and taught. “They take part in religious rites with their fellow-citizens,” Augustine pointed out, “but in their schools they teach divergent and contrary opinions about the gods” (5, 8).
Plato and other ancient philosophers had — at least in Augustine’s reconstruction of their mindset — longed for congruity between lives and liturgies. And yet, these same sages were too timid to change their own religious liturgies to match their personal professions. Even though the philosophers didn’t believe in the venerable gods and goddesses, they didn’t challenge the hegemony of these false deities by refusing to worship in their temples.
For Augustine, this inconsistency provided evidence that the teachings of the philosophers were false. What made Christianity unique was that the lives of Christians did not contradict their liturgies. The truths that Christians confessed in weekly worship were the same truths that they trusted, practiced, and professed in their daily lives.
Christianity didn’t merely profess that the old gods and goddesses were not the true rulers of the cosmos. Christians were so consistent that they had refused to participate in the rites that celebrated these deities, even when their refusals resulted in marginalization and persecution.
Thus Augustine could declare,
If Plato and the rest of the philosophers … were to come to life again and find churches full and temples empty, … they would say, ‘This is what we didn’t dare teach to the people! We preferred to yield to popular custom.’ … With the change of a few words and sentiments, they would become Christians” (4, 6–7).
The philosophers had dreamed of a moral community that they were never able to actualize, but now this dream of a community had burst into reality. The center of this community was not, however, the teaching of any sage from Athens. It was a Jewish teacher from Galilee whose works revealed him to be God enfleshed and who had now sent his Spirit to create the kind of community that Plato never could.
Self-Denial for Everyone, Not Just Philosophers
The liturgy and the lifestyle of the Christian community gave ordinary people the opportunity to practice extraordinary self-denial. The self-denial of Christians rose to a level that — according to Augustine — only philosophers had previously pursued. But no more. These patterns of life were now happening among ordinary people
scattered throughout the earth. … After all the shedding of Christian blood, after all the burnings and crucifixions of Christian martyrs, churches fertilized by these things have sprung up even in barbarian nations (3, 5).
What Did Augustine Mean When He Wrote “True Religion” ?
This was Augustine’s evidence that Christianity and Christianity alone was a “true religion.”
But what exactly did Augustine mean when he spoke of Christianity as a “religion” that is “true”?
In the ancient Roman Empire, the words “true” and “religion” didn’t mean precisely what they mean to people today — and, to comprehend Augustine’s point, it’s crucial to see how these terms functioned in his world.
What Is “True”?
Today, “true” typically has to do with testimony that accurately describes an actual event or state of affairs. But that’s not at all what the Latin adjective vera (“true”) meant in the late fourth century. The meaning of vera in Christian and non-Christian writers of this era tended more toward “something that actually does what it says it will do.”
What Is “Religion”?
“Religion” in Augustine’s context differed from the function of the term today even more than the meaning of “true”! Religio (“religion”) never referred to a set of doctrines or beliefs, which is often how we use the word; religio referred instead to the pattern of liturgies by which a deity was propitiated and revered.
Augustine does modify this term somewhat in On True Religion. Near the end, Augustine described religio as “directing ourselves … toward one God and … binding [religantes] ourselves tightly to him alone” (55, 111). Thus, in contrast to the worshipers of the gods and goddesses of Rome, Augustine applied religio in ways that were exclusive to one God. Nevertheless, to contend that Christianity was the “true religion” was still to argue that the soul-shaping habits and liturgies of Christianity actually produced people who lived the Christian life consistently. Near the end of his life, Augustine still used the phrase “true religion” to describe how the church’s life and worship produced a particular type of person, although some of the meanings had already begun to shift by this point: “This is the worship of God,” the North African pastor wrote in The City of God, “this true religion [haec vera religio]” (De civitate dei 10:3).
To speak of Christianity as the “true religion” was not to contend that Christian doctrine was correct — though Augustine certainly believed that the Christian creeds were true in this sense as well, and he saw these doctrinal affirmations as essential. To say that Christianity was the “true religion” was to affirm that the liturgies of the faith did what they claimed to do and produced a particular type of people.
This consistency between Christian liturgy, Christian confession, and Christian lives played a crucial role in Augustine’s argument for the truthfulness of Christian faith. Internal doctrinal faithfulness was essential from Augustine’s perspective, but what provided the strongest outward evidence for Christianity was a character of life and faith that was consistent with Christian liturgy.
Throughout the half-millennium that followed Augustine, the distinction began to blur between the lived liturgies that constituted religio and the lived beliefs that constituted philosophia. By the ninth century, John Scotus Erigena could write a sentence that would have left people in Augustine’s context shaking their heads in confusion: “True philosophy is true religion [veram religionem] and, when converted, true religion is true philosophy” (De divina praedestinatione 1).
Does The Argument Still Work?
According to Augustine, the liturgies of the Christian community produce people who — among other practices — proclaim salvation to every nation, give generously, deny their own desires, practice nonviolence, and refuse to give themselves over to rage and anger (De vera religione 3, 4 — 3, 6).
Here’s what is most crucial when we consider these bold claims: For Augustine to stake his argument for his religion on these patterns of life, such behaviors must have been known to be generally accurate descriptions of Christians. Which brings us to a vital question: Do the liturgies and habits that Christians practice today produce this same type of people? If not, what’s missing?