The Conversion of a Scholar

On Easter 387, at the age of thirty-three, a professor of rhetoric was baptized in Milan. His public confession of faith was the culmination of years of questioning, arguing, evading, and agonizing as he traveled around the Mediterranean plying his trade near the end of the Roman Empire. The scholar's name was Augustine, and his Confessions provides an unusually intimate window into the process of his conversion to the Catholic faith.

Someone has observed that a majority of American Christians converted before full adulthood, or, for those with a college degree, before graduation from college. Recently I sat with a group of university faculty and staff as they related how each had come to faith. All but two present fit this profile; the other two had converted in graduate school. Although I work as a campus minister among graduate students and faculty, I know personally only one person who has become a Christian after entering the professorate. Furthermore, while many believing professors consider evangelism to be part and parcel of Christian discipleship, they are more likely to participate in witness to students than to their colleagues and rarely are able to articulate any carefully thought-through approach to the evangelization of their fellow scholars. Is it possible to learn anything from the story of Augustine's conversion that would aid us in the task of evangelism among today's scholars? I believe Augustine's autobiography may, in fact, be very helpful, both in revealing something of how the scholarly mind often engages questions of spiritual truth and, by the intensely personal nature of his confession, in restraining us from the attempt to develop a formula applicable to the "generic" scholar.

Childhood Studies

Augustine's father was committed to providing his son with the best education he could afford. His early experience was very unhappy, for "if I was slow at learning, I was beaten." Though "endowed with a strong memory," and apparently very strong in his Latin, he "detested the Greek language" and also "hated Greek literature." But he was nevertheless "acclaimed above so many of my schoolmates and boys of the same age" and "was called a boy of great promise." When he was eleven, he was sent to Madauros for two or three years of further studies, where he read pagan literature, and, by his own account, suffered great moral harm through this study and the influence of the local environment.

When he was sixteen, Augustine enjoyed a year's recess from his studies while Patricius raised the finances to send his son to Carthage to continue his studies. During this year of idleness he kept company with profligate friends who sought to outdo one another with "disgraceful acts," especially sexual promiscuity. His father seemed to regard this as the natural expression of coming of age, but Monica, his mother, was troubled and began to warn him "that I should keep from fornication, and most of all from adultery with any man's wife." Instead, Augustine recalls, "I ran headlong with such great blindness that I was ashamed to be remiss in vice in the midst of my comrades."

Later Youth

At last he came to Carthage in the autumn of 370. There, along with resuming his study of rhetoric, he further indulged his sexual appetites, eventually taking a lover, to whom he remained faithful for years to come and with whom he fathered a son, Adeodatus. His studies "were directed to the practice of law," and he "was already the leading student in the school of rhetoric."

However, in 373 he came upon Cicero's Hortensius, which aroused in him the love of philosophy. He says of this encounter, "All my vain hopes forthwith became worthless to me, and with incredible ardor of heart I desired undying wisdom." He made a limited exploration of the Bible as well, but "it seemed to me unworthy of comparison with the nobility of Cicero's writings. My swelling gaze turned away from its humble style, and my sharp gaze did not penetrate into its inner meaning."

In consequence, Augustine was drawn into the company of the Manichees, a gnostic sect whose philosophical quest for truth he found very appealing. During the next ten years and more, he would enter deeply into the Manichean community and its teachings, first mastering and then challenging its foundational precepts.

Monica was most concerned at the error her son was imbibing and approached a local bishop, whom she implored to talk with Augustine. But "he refused," judging "I was yet lacking in docility . . . and that I had already unsettled many unlearned men with numerous trifling questions." "'But let him be,' he said. 'Only pray to the Lord in his behalf. He will find out by reading what is the character of that error and how great is his impiety.'" Monica did continue to pray faithfully for her son and followed him throughout his career.

Beginning of Teaching Career

Around this time, Augustine began his teaching career, setting up a school back in his hometown of Thagaste. He continued to study as well, diving into Aristotle'sTen Categories. He had longed to study this work ever since hearing it highly praised by his professor of rhetoric, and it is an indication of Augustine's exceptional intelligence that, while others "said they could hardly understand them, although taught by very learned teachers," he "read and understood these writings by myself alone."

Indeed, Augustine recalled that he could "read and understand all the books on the liberal arts . . . whatever of such books I could get to read. . . . Whatever concerned the arts of speaking and reasoning, whatever there was on the dimensions of figures and on music and numbers, I understood without much difficulty and without instruction from men."

In the autumn of 376 he returned to Carthage and began to take students there. During this time he won a poetry contest and published his first books, "On the Beautiful and the Fitting." Toward the end of his time in Carthage, Augustine was excited to learn that Faustus, the leading writer among the western Manichees, was coming to Carthage. He had been waiting for some nine years "with intense longing" to engage this master in person, having heard how eloquent and astute he was reputed to be.

The actual interview proved a great disappointment, however, for "I saw at once that the man was unskilled in the liberal arts, with the exception of grammar, and with that only in an elementary way." Ironically, Augustine actually became this man's teacher, reading with him "books such as he had desired to read, or such as I thought proper to his abilities. But all my efforts by which I had determined to advance in that sect collapsed utterly as I came to know that man . . . . So this Faustus, who had been a fatal snare to so many men, now began . . . to loosen the snare in which I was caught."

In the same year (383), at his wits' end with the lack of discipline among Carthaginian students and having heard that Roman students were better behaved, Augustine decided to go to Rome. There he continued to associate with the Manichees, but also became enamored of the Academic Platonists and their radical skepticism.

He set up his school and began to gain a reputation, but discovered that, while Roman students may be well-behaved, they were altogether unscrupulous in the matter of paying their teachers. Thus Augustine was relieved, within the year, to hear of an opening for a professor of rhetoric in Milan, the seat of the Western empire. He applied for the post and, after passing a public examination, was sent there by the prefect. The year was 384.

Milan and the Influence of Ambrose

Milan was also the parish of Ambrose, called as their bishop ten years earlier. "That man of God," as Augustine later called him, received him "in a fatherly fashion," and Augustine "began to love him, at first not as a teacher of the truth . . . but as a man who was kindly disposed toward me." Augustine freely admits that his early interest in Ambrose’s preaching was not related to its content, but rather "to try out his eloquence," and "with the sweetness of his discourse I was delighted, which, although more learned, was less lively and entertaining than was that of Faustus." Yet "when I opened up my heart to receive the eloquence with which he spoke, there likewise entered, although only by degrees, the truths that he spoke." It did not take long before he resolved that he must abandon the Manicheans, and continued as a catechumen in the Catholic Church.

It would seem to be difficult to overstate Ambrose’s influence upon Augustine. The latter was powerfully impressed with his erudition and godliness, though "his celibacy alone appeared to me to be a hard thing." Yet he continued to struggle against his inner need to be absolutely convinced, "to be made certain of things that I could not see, as I was certain that seven and three make ten." Gradually he came to accept the plausibility of confidence in the scriptures as the true source of knowledge of God. He "made a beginning," reading the scriptures "with the most intense desire." But he could not yet embrace the truth wholeheartedly.

At last Augustine began to despair of the things he had always expected would make him a happy man: honors, wealth, and marriage. By his thirtieth year, he looked back upon his quest for wisdom, begun at nineteen, and realized he had continually been saying to himself, "Tomorrow I will find it!", always deferring, always looking for a time with more leisure to look into his endless questions. Yet the single factor that he later recognized as preventing him turning to the truth was, "I thought I would be too wretched, if I were kept from a woman’s arms."

It appears to have been the personal testimonies of two godly men, related to him by others, that brought Augustine to the threshold of conversion. Simplicianus, described as the spiritual father of Ambrose, told Augustine the story of Gaius Marius Victorinus, the great fourth-century rhetorician, who had been a personal acquaintance of Simplicianus. A scholar of great renown, in Augustine’s own field, and furthermore born in North Africa, Victorinus’ lengthy journey toward faith and eventual public confession was powerfully inspiring to Augustine. That he went so far as to give up his school, rather than repudiate his faith when Julian forbade Christians to teach literature and oratory, set Augustine "on fire to imitate him."

Then Ponticianus, another visiting African, told Augustine and his friend, Nebridius, the story of Anthony, the famous Egyptian monk, and how two friends had been radically converted upon reading his biography and had immediately taken vows of celibacy, as had their fiancées. Augustine relates how, having heard this story, he was made to see "how foul I was, how deformed and defiled." "All arguments were used up, and all had been refuted."

Conversion and Retirement from Teaching

Running into the garden, weeping freely, he heard a child’s voice "chanting and repeating over and over, 'Take up and read. Take up and read.'" Returning to the house, he opened the book of Paul on the table there and read, "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in strife and envying; but put you on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in its concupiscences" (Romans 13:13-14). "Instantly, in truth, at the end of this sentence, as if before a peaceful light streaming into my heart, all the dark shadows of doubt fled away."

Even prior to his baptism in 387, Augustine resolved to end his teaching career, determining that "youths who did not meditate on your law, or on your peace, but on foolish lies and court quarrels, would not longer pry from my mouth weapons for their madness." He was aided in this decision by the discovery that his lungs were weakened and "it was impossible to make clear or extended use of my voice." He made his retreat quietly, waiting until the end of the term, and, "when the vintage vacation was ended, I sent word to the citizens of Milan that they should arrange for another seller of words for their students . . . because I had chosen to serve [God]."

The Conversion of a Scholar: A Pattern for Today?

A preliminary general observation is that Augustine was a scholar of no small brilliance. His abilities were recognized from childhood, and he continued to excel throughout his career. One cannot help wondering to what extent the unnamed bishop to whom Monica appealed was intimidated by his skill at argumentation. Yet there were certainly others along the way who did not allow this to prevent their either discussing spiritual truth with him or relating personal testimony.

In sizing up this professor of rhetoric as a likely candidate for conversion, one might well have been discouraged on other counts. His father apparently cared little for his moral and spiritual development, concerned only to do what he could to make a successful teacher of him. He had fallen in his youth under the influence of pagan literature and in adolescence jumped headlong into every form of immorality in which he could indulge, with the steadfast encouragement of his peers. As he entered his teaching career, he was possessed by the allure of success, acclaim, and wealth, and apparently had good cause to expect them to come his way. Even when he became interested in spiritual matters, he latched onto a cultic group that was particularly seductive to one so interested in philosophy. And finally, he was utterly captivated by his need for sexual companionship. Augustine certainly does not strike us as a good "project" for an evangelist.

Yet the carefully observant might have recognized signs of searching that would only find satisfaction in the true gospel. His love of Cicero indicated a zeal for wisdom, and what appealed to him most in Platonism was that which pointed toward the biblical understanding of God. Then there is his progressive sense of personal dissatisfaction, as his life goals eluded him. But what seems to have had the greatest influence upon his soul were the people who revealed truth to him and prayed for him.

First and foremost was Monica, his devout mother. As she followed him about the Mediterranean, she constantly implored him to turn from his sin and give his life to God. But the pleading seems to have become increasingly calm and reassured as the years passed. Rather than despair as her son wandered further and further from the Catholic Church, she seemed confident that God would not let her child — and his — die apart from grace. The source of this assurance is also the most powerful work she did toward his conversion: her prayers. Augustine had no question, as, together with Monica, he looked back on how God had brought him to salvation, that it was her intercessions which had ensured God’s persistent and effective calling. Her faithfulness should stand as a foundational principle in the work of evangelism for any lost person.

Augustine's experience of finding the Manicheans unable to provide satisfying answers to his probing questions should be another source of encouragement as we engage academics with the gospel. For any person who is truly "zealous for wisdom" — which is itself the product of the activity of God’s Spirit in a person’s life — only God’s truth will satisfy, and all other philosophical systems will be found wanting.

At the right moment, when his dissatisfaction with both the Manicheans and his professional life were coming to a head, Augustine came under the influence of Ambrose. Two characteristics of this great bishop command our attention. First, he was also a scholar. Though not a secular professor of rhetoric or another of the liberal arts, he was adequately schooled in these to merit Augustine's respect. It is doubtful whether, having been so disappointed by his encounter with "the great" Faustus, Augustine would have been tolerant of a similarly ignorant churchman. Second, Ambrose was faithful above all to the scriptures. It was not his refutation of any particular erroneous notions that turned Augustine to the truth; it does not seem to have been apologetics as we normally frame that art that persuaded him. Rather, it was the careful and thorough handling of the scriptures in language Augustine could appreciate that awakened his mind and heart.

We have already noted the timely impact of personal testimonies, both first- and second-hand. It is no small thing that Simplicianus' description of the conversion of a fellow rhetorician, Victorinus, so arrested Augustine’s spiritual imagination. I expect many scholars, often quite insecure people, want to know that other practitioners of their discipline have embraced the Christian gospel before they can venture what must seem a very risky path.

But it wasn’t merely the story of a fellow scholar’s conversion that was needed in Augustine’s case. All along, the greatest stumbling block for him had been the thought of becoming continent — of giving up his addiction to sexual pleasure. So it was, at the last, with the account of Anthony and those who followed his example of asceticism, and especially of celibacy, that "all arguments were used up, and all had been refuted."

Finally, indispensable to Augustine’s spiritual journey was his interaction with the Bible. Having been introduced to the scriptures in early childhood, he returned to them again and again. In the final three years of his struggle, he "made a beginning," reading the Bible "with the most intense desire.: We must not take lightly the importance of the seeker engaging the Bible directly. It is, in truth, the Word of God, and it "will not return void." Many converts have related how the gift of a Bible, an invitation to a Bible study, either one-to-one or in a group, or even simply finding a Bible in a hotel room, was the key turning point in their salvation.

These observations aside, we must not succumb to the temptation to impose Augustine’s story as a kind of template for evangelism among today’s scholars. While some commonalities certainly exist, every individual is unique, and the business of making disciples cannot be reduced to technique. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Augustine’s conversion is that it took time — years of time! In this, Monica is our best model. Her patience and faithfulness in prayer reveals a confidence, not in her ability to persuade the one she loved, but in a greater Lover whose wooing would finally win out.

Christian Anible served with InterVarsity's Graduate & Faculty Ministries at Cornell University until his passing in 2007.

Quotations throughout this article are taken from The Confessions of St. Augustine, Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by John K. Ryan (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960).


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