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.
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