One of the most fascinating topics I’ve studied this semester has been the apologists of the early church. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Polycarp and St. Augustine are fascinating case studies as to how the church was able to spread so quickly among the intellectual elite.
What’s especially interesting is the way each of these apologists uses Greco-Roman culture against itself. In fact, in the “City of God” alone you’ll find St. Augustine quoting Cicero, Plato and Aristotle more often than you’ll find him quoting the Bible. And yet, he’s widely considered one of the greatest theologians of all time. How can this be?
Here are the theological underpinnings for Augustine’s heavy use of culture-quoting when speaking to Romans:
It continues what God started. Augustine places himself squarely in Romans 1 when he references philosophers, playwrights and poets. Romans 1:20 says: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Augustine refers to this verse time and again, asserting that God has revealed some true things to the culture-creators of his day. By quoting the best of current culture to reach culture, St. Augustine believed he was continuing the work God had already started in men’s hearts.
It demonstrates thoughtfulness. St. Augustine was concerned that his case against the Romans would be weakened if he didn’t demonstrate familiarity with their words. In the “City of God”, he appeals to his knowledge, which is “not based on hearsay”. Early Christians were well-familiar with charges based on hearsay, and the results weren’t pretty. St. Augustine demonstrates that he has thought long and hard about the opinions of the Romans…and they’re still wrong.
It clarifies inconsistencies. Rather than say, “You say this, but the BIBLE says THIS!” Augustine uses the Greco-Roman world’s own words against them. For example, an argument from St. Augustine might go something like this: “1.) Your deified philosophers believe that actors ought to be outlawed. 2.) The actors are only portraying what your gods have done. 3.) Either your philosophers are wrong, or your gods are wrong. Pick.” The beauty of this kind of pre-suppositional apologetic is that Augustine was able to skip over tedious arguments about the authority of scripture and simply say, “You don’t make sense.”
It hits home. Finally, when Augustine illustrates a point, he often uses a quote from a playwright or a story from mythology to demonstrate. Why? Because he was well aware of the power of these images. Augustine had grown up under the powerful influence of his culture, and rather than writing it off as “evil”, he had a rather more complex idea, taken straight from Romans 1:25: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised.” This enabled St. Augustine to say: “What you worship is good; but it’s not ultimate.” By using culture to illustrate divine truth, Augustine was able to re-channel the idolatry of his hearers into the power of the gospel.