The following piece on Augustine's conversion is an excerpt from my article, “Learning from Patristic Evangelism and Discipleship,” in Paul Hartog, ed., The Contemporary Church and the Early Church, 27-49.
In the eighth book of his Confessions (c. 397), Augustine shares one of the most stirring conversion accounts in the early church period. The final stage of his conversion experience includes several intriguing features. First, he vividly relates the psychological and emotional battle that went on within him in the garden near Milan. He writes: “When I was making up my mind to serve the Lord my God . . . I was the one who wanted to follow that course, and I was the one who wanted not to.” Secondly, up until the very end of the garden experience, Augustine was in the company of his friend Alypius; so, the spiritual struggle was not an individual one. In fact, immediately after confessing Christ, Augustine went inside and told his mother what happened. Finally, from the famous “pick it up and read” (tolle lege) narrative, we learn that Scripture—in this case Paul’s letters—played a central role leading up to and encompassing the moment of Augustine’s conversion experience.
In recounting his conversion story in Confessions, Augustine also narrates the faith stories of four other converts. These were testimonies that clearly encouraged him on his journey to faith that Augustine in turn uses to influence his readers toward the Gospel. He begins by declaring that he will “not pass over in silence” how Simplicianus (d. 400) told him the conversion story of the philosopher and rhetor, Marius Victorinus (b. 300). Victorinus, who had been a pagan, became convinced of the Gospel’s veracity through reading the Scriptures. Simplicianus, who personally witnessed to Victorinus, urged him to forsake his public reputation and declare his faith in the context of the church. As a result, he enrolled as a catechumen, was baptized, and publicly confessed his faith before the church assembly.
Augustine interpreted Simplicianus’ intentions for telling the story by writing: “I was fired to imitate Victorinus; indeed it was to this end that your servant Simplicianus had related it.” Indeed, Augustine had much in common with Victorinus, as both men were interested in philosophy, were on a similar career path, had concerns about their public reputation, and had an interest in the Christian Scriptures. Hence, Augustine was encouraged to pursue Christian faith because Victorinus had.
In the middle of Simplicianus’ narrative, including Augustine’s take on Simplicianus’ motives, Augustine pauses and offers a prayerful commentary that seems very much intended for his own readers: “Come, Lord, arouse us and call us back, kindle us and seize us, prove to us how sweet you are in your burning tenderness; let us love you and run to you. Are there not many who return to you from a deeper, blinder pit than did Victorinus, many who draw near to you and are illumined as they become children of God?Could it be that Augustine was also reaching out to his philosophically minded, career-oriented readers who could relate to both Victorinus and Augustine?
In the very next passage, Augustine tells of a visit from Ponticianus, a Roman functionary, who told Augustine and Alypius about the Egyptian monk Antony (c. 251–356). While recounting Antony’s call to the ascetic life, Ponticianus also related the story of two Roman officials from Trier, who after reading Athanasius’ Life of Antony, resigned from their posts in order to pursue an ascetic lifestyle. Augustine, intrigued by the accounts, wrote: “even while he [Ponticianus] spoke, you [God] were wrenching me back toward myself . . . that I might perceive my sin and hate it.”
Ponticianus’ account connected with Augustine for a number of reasons. First, there was probably a cultural connection because Ponticianus was an African who was telling the faith story of another African (Antony) to two other Africans (Augustine and Alypius) in Milan. Second, Antony’s conversion to an ascetic lifestyle—as well as the similar conversion of the officials from Trier—was meaningful for Augustine because one of his biggest obstacles to faith was sexual immorality. In fact, Augustine introduced the entire Ponticianus encounter with this prayerful commentary: “Now I will relate how you set me free from a craving for sexual gratification.” Third, Augustine, who had been quite infatuated with career ambitions, identified with the two officials who set aside their careers for the sake of the Gospel. At the conclusion of his conversion account, Augustine testified that he was “no longer . . . entertaining any worldly hope.” As a result, he also resigned from his imperial post before moving back to Africa to pursue a monastic lifestyle.
While his account of Simplicianus’ story of Marius Victorinus impacted some readers, Augustine’s narrative of Ponticianus telling the story of Antony and the two officials probably reached others with the Gospel. Surely, there were those whose career ambitions were poisoning their spiritual lives, while others struggled like Augustine with sexual immorality. Perhaps Augustine’s African readers were especially attracted to the African angle of Ponticianus’ story. Hence, the example of Antony, the two officials, and now Augustine provided models for imitation.
Augustine’s testimony in Confessions is one of the most celebrated conversion accounts from the early church. Moreover, by narrating faith stories within his own faith story, Augustine does seem to have an evangelistic purpose for his late fourth- and early fifth-century readers, who could probably identify with at least one of the characters mentioned in Augustine’s narrative.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.8.19–12.29.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.10.22; all English translations will be from Boulding, St. Augustine’s Confessions.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.8.19; 8.11.27; 8.12.29.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.12.30.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.12.29.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.2.3.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.2.3–5.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.5.10.
 For a helpful discussion on parallels between the conversion experiences of Victorinus and Augustine, especially regarding the relationship between humility and baptism in both men’s spiritual journeys, see Alexander, Augustine’s Early Theology of the Church, 67–79.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.4.9.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.7.17.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.6.14.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.6.13.
 Augustine, Confessions 8.12.30.
 Augustine, Confessions 9.2.2.
Review of Defending Constantine
Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove: IL: Intervarsity Press, 2010, 373pp., softcover, $27.00.
(note: this review was first published in the Fall of 2011 in the Criswell Theological Review).
Defending Constantine is a recent work by Peter Leithart, a senior fellow in theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. Leithart has authored more than twenty works in the areas of history, theology, literature, and biblical studies and some of his more well-known books include Deep Exegesis (Baylor, 2009) and a commentary on 1 and 2 Kings (Brazos, 2006). Since writing Defending Constantine, Leithart has released another work entitled Athanasius (Baker, 2011). Indeed, given that Leithart is a professor and pastor—not to mention a husband and father to ten children—his scholarly output over the last fifteen years is quite impressive.
Leithart’s stated aim in this work is to bring another perspective to bear on Constantine and Constantianism and answer the criticisms of some twentieth-century historians and theologians about the fourth-century emperor (pp. 9-12). Though he names James Carroll and Stanley Hauerwas, Leithart’s key opponent in this work is the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder whose position of Christian pacificism was largely articulated in the 1972 work The Politics of Jesus. Hence, Leithart seeks to challenge Yoder’s ethical theory—that Constantine’s conversion and inauguration of Christendom set into motion a state + church paradigm that was counter to the values of the earliest followers of Christ. Leithart argues his case by examining the historical foundations and accuracy of Yoder’s claims.
Leithart begins the book (chapters 1-3) by offering a helpful backdrop that includes the reign of Diocletian, the establishment of the Roman tetrarchy, and the ensuing struggle for power— the context in which Constantine rose to power. In chapter 4, Leithart recounts Constantine’s alleged conversion (one that the author argues was authentic) that occurred following his vision of a sign in the sky on the eve of the battle at Milvian Bridge in 312. In chapters 5-6, Leithart discusses how Constantine gave peace to the church, began to “baptize public spaces” through building churches, and how he brought an end to pagan sacrifice in Rome while apparently remaining tolerant of other non-Christian religious practices. The author continues the narrative in chapters 7-8 by showing how the emperor became involved in church matters, particularly the Dontatist and Arian controversies, and of course convened the Council of Nicaea of 325. In chapters 9-11, Leithart endeavors to show how Constantine enacted biblically founded laws that protected the church and brought about social transformation. In chapter 12, Leithart takes Yoder to task on his assertion that the pre-Constantinian church was pacifistic in nature; while in chapter 13, the author discusses the notion of a Christian empire. In chapter 14, Leithart concludes the work by writing a summary, analytical chapter that reiterates his argument for a fresh reading of Constantine against the conclusions of Yoder and others.
What are the strengths of Defending Constantine? First, Leithart has demonstrated in part why he is a prolific writer because this is a very engaging and well-written work. It is stimulating, challenging, and well-researched but does not read like a dull academic monograph. Second, he has offered the reader much colorful insight into the ancient Roman world by demonstrating a clear handle on Roman history (pp. 190-97) and through showing the pagan spiritual worldview of Diocletian and other emperors (pp. 15-51; 233-36). Third, his insights on the art and architecture commissioned by Constantine also offers greater understanding of this period (pp. 112-25). Finally, in chapter 12, he has successfully appealed to primary sources and cast reasonable doubt on Yoder’s often unchallenged argument that the pre-Constantinian church was thoroughly pacifistic. This discussion has stimulated new reflection on the diverse thought about the church and state that existed in the pre-Constantine period.
While I have quite a number of quibbles with this book, I will limit my critique to three areas. First, regarding the question of Constantine’s conversion, Leithart maintains without the best support that the emperor experienced a genuine conversion. Though he does refer to Constantine as “an infant in faith” (p. 96), he cautions the reader against requiring a modern conversion experience for the emperor (p. 79). In my view, we should impose a biblical conversion framework on him in which Constantine responds to Christ in faith and repentance and where every aspect of his life is yielded to Christ for transformation. This would include his clear syncretism (continuing pagan practices and erecting pagan statues) that Leithart has dismissed as “ambiguity” (p. 76) as well as his violent ways. The latter was most clearly evident in his ruthless dealings with his wife, son, and political enemies. Again, “despite the damning evidence” (pp. 227-30), Leithart urges caution when evaluating Constantine’s violent acts that are incompatible with the gospel. Finally, it is truly impossible to draw a conclusion from the sources (Eusebius, Lactantius, or Zosimus) as to whether Constantine was truly converted or not because these sources—regardless of bias—cannot confirm what was in his heart. In sum, Leithart seems to overstate the case that Constantine was a true believer.
Second, Leithart argues that one proof of Constantine’s faith and Christianizing influence on Rome was that he baptized public spaces through building churches and curbing the influence of pagan temples (pp. 303; 326-33). As noted, he did not fully baptize the public sphere because some pagan statues were erected there. Yet, even if he did furnish the forum with just churches, I would argue that the Kingdom of God is not about real estate and buildings but about the hearts of people being converted to Christ and continually transformed to his likeness. Today, many such monuments to Christendom attract more tourists than worshippers while Christian communities are meeting in homes, warehouses, and movie theatres.
Third, while Leithart has made helpful arguments against Yoder and others to vindicate Constantine at least to some extent, the fact remains that once the emperor preferred Christianity, a paradigm was set into motion that united church and state for many centuries and ultimately invited political and church leaders to continually wrestle for power and control over the other. Leithart is correct in noting that “with power, money and prestige came the temptation to accommodate, a problem that nearly every church father after Constantine addressed repeatedly and explicitly” (p. 305). With the establishment of Christendom, Christian expansion flowed from a place of power and wealth and it became difficult (especially for those receiving missions) to distinguish between gospel mission and imperial expansion. This was a reality for Roman Catholic missions in the age of discovery and expansion from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, and for Protestant missions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Modern missiologists such as Orlando Costas and David Bosch have reminded us that authentic Christian mission that reflects the Kingdom of God flows from a place of humility and even vulnerability. After all, the Jesus movement got started when a Nazarene carpenter made disciples of fishermen on the north shore of Galilee and after three years released them to make disciples of all nations.
In summary, I enjoyed Leithart retelling the story of Rome and the life and career of the Emperor Constantine. Though he has challenged through historical reflection the theories of some theologians and ethicists, some of his conclusions appear to be overstated. As the seventeen hundredth anniversary of the so-called Edict of Milan is upon in a few short months, professors and students of Constantine, Christian history, and Christian mission will surely find Leithart’s work very stimulating.
Tentmaking and monasticism?
The following is a brief summary of the longer article: “Lessons from a Tentmaking Ascetic in the Egyptian Desert: The Case of Evagrius of Pontus,” Missiology: An International Review 39:4 (October 2011), 485-496. Subscribe to Missiology to access the entire article.
In his recent book on missionary tentmaking, Patrick Lai asserts that “. . . churches tend to look backward instead of forward for direction. We look backward at what has already been accomplished and limit the opportunities for God to work based on what He has done in the past” (Lai 2005:371). While Lai is warning against a complacent acceptance of traditional thought and practice in mission without a fresh vision for the present or future, I suggest that a healthy interaction with mission and church history will actually humble, inspire, and even instruct modern practitioners. My aim in this article is to consider the case of the fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus (c. 345-399), who, though not a missionary, took an apparent tentmaking approach in his monasticism—that is, he sustained himself and his ministry through labor.
Five major principles have been proposed as key components of Evagrius’ theology of work: (1) work was to be done with excellence; (2) work should be done with integrity; (3) work should render the monk self-sufficient; (4) work was for the sake of providing for others; and (5) work ultimately aided monastic progress. His case has been read and considered in light of his fourth-century monastic context in which voluntary poverty was embraced and manual labor was necessary. Given that, what lessons can modern tentmakers, particularly those from the majority world, learn from Evagrius?
First, today’s tentmakers can learn from Evagrius’ general regard for possessions. Though they may not embrace the level of poverty that Evagrius suggested, they can reflect upon the meaning of simplicity and humility as it relates to worldly goods. Certainly, Evagrius’ warnings about the love of money transcend time, culture, and various economies, and missionaries are not exempt from being tempted by material things. While possessions can cause problems in the missionary’s own spiritual life, they can also place barriers between the transcultural worker and those in the host culture that the missionary desires to reach for Christ. In short, does what we drive, where we live, or what we own create unnecessary obstacles to sharing the gospel with others?
Second, for tentmakers from modest economic backgrounds or for those who are struggling financially, Evagrius’ perspective on poverty seems quite helpful. Feelings of anger, bitterness, and worry over finances can beset people today just as much as they did in the fourth century. Lai asserts, “Money hinders missions by distracting us from evangelism, and keeping us from relying on Jesus to meet our needs” (Lai 376). Will today’s tentmakers trust God for daily bread as Evagrius and his colleagues did?
Third, much can be gleaned from Evagrius’ theology of work. It was an integral part of his monastic theology and practice, aiding him in spiritual growth. He enjoyed his work, carried it out with excellence and integrity, and set a standard for monks after him with his innovative monastic labor. Evagrius did not see work as an annoying task that he had to do so he could remain a monk. Rather, he seemed to identify more with Adam in his pre-Fall garden labor (Gen. 2:15) than in the cursed toil Adam experienced after leaving Eden (Gen. 3:17-19; cf. Evagrius, On Prayer 48). Given Evagrius’ position, how do modern tentmakers view their labor? Is tentmaking work integrally related to other ministries? Is it a means of honoring and worshipping God? Can work be enjoyable for the tentmaker?
Fourth, and very much related to the last point, Evagrius asserted that an important reason for work was caring for others—in his case, the poor and visitors. While work is a form of worship, it is also a means of blessing others. This value has certainly been affirmed by modern proponents of holistic mission—those who proclaim the gospel verbally and also care for human needs. The increasing emphasis on business as mission is a healthy trend and a winsome model for the global church as it ponders mission.
Finally, Evagrius’ ideas on self-sufficiency, which were taken directly from Paul in his tentmaking, church planting context, serve as an important model for majority world missionaries today. While transcultural workers from the non-Western world now outnumber those being sent from North America and Europe, over 80% of the Christian resources remains in the Global North (cf. Laing 2006:165-177; Johnson 2007). As today’s missionaries are getting poorer and the Western “professional ministry model” is being abandoned by non-Western mission leaders, Evagrius’ model should become increasingly relevant (cf. Mordomo 2006:224-225).
I have the privilege to co-present a paper at the 2011 Evangelical Theological Society Meeting in San Francisco this week with Liberty University church history adjunct David Alexander. Our topic deals with the development of Christian orthodoxy within the early North African context. The introduction is below but you can download the entire paper here. It's still in draft mode as we prepare to publish it in a book called Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts (Eugene, OR: Pickwick) edited by Paul Hartog.
Christianity in North Africa (as distinct from Egypt) did not emerge until late in the second century– a genesis period which lies outside the ‘earliest Christianity’ considered by Walter Bauer in his famous research. And the story of North African Christianity, including the thought of its leading Christian theologians (Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine), was generally regarded by Bauer as too late and thus inadmissible evidence for the debate on the emergence of orthodoxy and heresy. Nevertheless, North Africa is an area of early Christianity with well-documented character, conflicts and rapid emergence. As R.A. Kraft acknowledged in the 1971 English edition of Orthodoxy and Heresy, “a fresh approach to the origins of Christianity in North Africa” was among the important explorations “still lacking” from Bauer’s line of research. This chapter is designed as a first step in just such an approach. The basic question is whether the emergence and development of North African Christianity is of any relevance to the Bauer thesis? In answering this question positively it is hoped that North Africa might point to a more general “fresh approach” for understanding the unity and diversity of Christian origins and early Christian “orthodoxy” itself.
In fact, the character and development of early North African Christianity provides a useful case study, or parallel test, on a number of fronts for elements and implications of the Bauer Thesis. It is valid to ask whether the implied interpretative assumptions, methods and conclusions Bauer and others have applied to areas of more sparse earlier evidence of Christian origins would prove historically viable if they were brought to bear on such origins in North Africa. Such an examination reveals weaknesses in several key implications of Bauer’s thesis (and its more recent presentations). In this connection the case of Tertullian, whom Bauer does appropriate for his arguments, is particularly relevant.
Yet even beyond Tertullian, a number of unique aspects of North African Christianity’s emergence, which had they occurred 50-75 years earlier in abstracted form in the evidence would undoubtedly be grist to the mill of Bauer’s arguments, in context actually illuminate that “orthodoxy” was something conceived too narrowly by Bauer and that an “orthodox” penumbra allowed for considerable diversity and even competition. The local flavors which emerged in Roman Africa were not different entities or segments of a broader group competing in terms of essential authority and doctrine. Nor did the distinctives and internal conflicts derive from pluriform or repressed origins. Seen in situ such developments in Africa show that strongly distinctive regional Christianity (singular) and even competition between distinctive regional groups need not imply the existence of different or “lost” Christianities (plural). The distinctive nature of North African Christianity is clear from its earliest moments right through to Augustine. Yet it was not superseded by an authentically different “orthodox” Christianity over time. In sum, Christian emergence in Roman Africa manifests considerable diversity within a core unity; successful resistance to the church at Rome precisely on the issue of right beliefs; and a broad commitment to a Christian experience which centered on the action of the Spirit in the world and both “Apostolic” and Jewish Scriptures. That is, it seems to be a microcosm of what Bauer argued was not the case for earliest Christianity.
 Bauer does draw on Tertullian, as will be discussed below, and extends his discussion in a number of locations to the end of the second century and beyond. However, the bulk of Bauer’s treatment centers on developments before 180. And unlike most areas focused upon by Bauer, there are no clear candidates for a first century Christianity in Roman North Africa.
 Walter Bauer, trans. team Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 315.
 There are certainly elements of the Bauer Thesis that early North African Christianity has a bearing upon, as will be discussed; however, North Africa does not qualify as an example of “earliest Christianity.”
 cf. e.g. D.F. Wright, “The Latin Fathers,” in I. Hazlett, ed. Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600 (1991), 148-150 and R.D. Sider, “Africa,” in E. Ferguson, ed., Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 15.
 Terminology is key in this discussion. When R.A. Kraft’s introduces a citation of Betz by saying: “Clearly there was no ‘pure’ form of Christianity that existed in the beginning and can be called ‘orthodox’”(Bauer, 309 in App. 2), we get an illustration of how essential defining terms is to avoid extremes. Three levels of meaning for “orthodox” are used in this chapter. 1. Conscious connection or perceived dependence on connections to Jesus as Messiah and risen Lord through apostolic Christianity as it was broadly received. 2. Teachings which were held to be consistent with the open, general teaching of the Scriptures in the broader (“catholic”) church. 3. “True” as opposed to “false” teachings labeled as “heresy” in contemporary sources. All three aspects, not just a narrow focus on the last, are important to retain in a consideration of unity and diversity within Christian origins.
 Though the forth century requirement from Rome to support Caecillian’s party only if they renounced the African practice of rebaptism does represent loss of an aspect of African tradition and a portion of Cyprian’s theology it did not constitute a loss of the legacy of Cyprianic theology, cf. J.P. Burns Cyprian the Bishop (2002), 166-177.
Mark A. Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009. 212 pp., hardback, $ 25.00
(note: this review was first published in Evangelical Missions Quarterly in 2010).
The New Shape of World Christianity is the latest work by Mark Noll, one of this generation’s leading scholars on American Christian history. With compelling arguments supported by his characteristic thoroughness, Noll endeavors to place the American evangelical experience within the broader story of global Christianity. In this sense, Noll’s work is conversant with those of Andrew F. Walls Lamin Sanneh, and Phillip Jenkins. Furthermore, it appears that Noll’s intended audience is mainstream American evangelicalism, whose members may not fully understand or appreciate the state of the present global church.
After describing the current state of global Christianity (chapters 1-2), Noll narrates the key points of nineteenth-century mission history (chapter 3) and explores the global impact of American missionary evangelicalism (chapters 4-5), including the alleged damage done by western missionaries (chapter 6). Noll suggests that the American evangelical experience—marked by a high view of Scripture, and a commitment to conversion and evangelical activism—has served as a template of sorts for global Christian expansion (chapter 7). Prior to his conclusion (chapter 10), he attempts to support the argument in chapter 7 by showing how American evangelical regard for the world developed in the twentieth century (chapter 8), and by discussing the correlation between American evangelicalism and its counterparts in Korea and East Africa in the twentieth-century.
What are the book’s major strengths? First, Noll helpfully compares the American evangelical experience to that of the global church. For instance, the parallels between Korea in the twentieth-century and North America in the nineteenth are quite striking. Second, Noll carefully nuances that these parallels are not necessarily on account of evangelical “imperialism” or even the undue global influence of American Christianity. Rather; he states in the final chapter that “correlation is not causation” (p. 189). Thus, Noll affords the American evangelical narrative a healthy, objective, and humble place within the global Christian story.
I have one major critique of the book. In chapter 4, Noll seems to go too far in depicting the Jesus film ministry as a classic product sold by the American evangelical establishment (pp. 68-72). As a film version of Luke’s Gospel (that includes an invitation to embrace Christ) this work greatly parallels Bible translation. Why isn’t the present work of Wycliffe/SIL—not to mention historic efforts by Tatian, Mesrob, Jerome, Henry Martyn and others— also deemed an evangelical product?
The American role in the film’s development and dissemination also seems to be overstated. Though Americans oversaw the making of the film and have raised millions of dollars to sustain the ministry, the work of translating and dubbing the script is necessarily that of national believers. Also, several years ago, a South African woman oversaw 82 dubbings of the film in just one year in West Africa—a “record” that still stands. Due to a great burden for the blind in southern Africa, this same woman and her husband developed the audio-radio version of the film. Learning of this strategy, an Arab Christian leader produced an Arabic audio version to reach North African travelers in Europe. Some of the most innovative ways of showing and distributing the film have come from Sudan, Algeria, and Egypt where no Americans have been involved. These examples are given to show that non-westerners can also believe in an evangelistic tool and may be quite creative and savvy in using it.
This critique aside, Noll’s latest book should be read by church historians, North American pastors, and certainly North American missionaries seeking a healthy understanding of their own Christian history in light of the global church.