Faculty Blog | How Are They to Hear Without a Preacher? - Saint John's Seminary
Celebrating 140 Years of Mission!  

Faculty Blog | How Are They to Hear Without a Preacher?

January 16, 2024

One of the hidden gems of St. Augustine’s Confessions that an astute reader will note is that, prior to the beginning of the process of St. Augustine’s conversions, the author does not tell us anyone’s name. It’s for this reason, for example, that we do not know the name of the mother of his son. But as St. Augustine journeys deeper into his relationship with God, names begin to appear. St. Augustine, the author, is trying to make at least two points. First, he is demonstrating – in a literary way – that if one is separated from God, then people can easily become things rather than human beings made in the image and likeness of God. I don’t see Jim, but only the boss who can promote me. I don’t see Jane, only a potential source of pleasure. As St. Augustine would write in another work, people can become means to an end (uti, i.e., things to use), rather than ends in themselves (frui, i.e., people to be treasured). Second, he is reinforcing that “faith comes from what is heard” (Rom 10:17), and “how can [one] believe without a preacher” (Conf. I.1; cf. Rom 10:14)? The Christian faith is relational; both in that the Church’s members are united to one another through Christ, and also in how Christians evangelize. So it should come as no surprise that the more St. Augustine progresses in his conversion the more names we get of people who helped guide him to Christ: St. Monica (whom he does not mention by name until their shared mystical experience in Book IX), St. Ambrose (Book V), and various friends who inspire and support St. Augustine (e.g., Ponticianus, Nebridius, Alypius, Victorinus, and his own son Adeodatus).

But the influence of those who helped bring Christ to St. Augustine is not limited to those whom the saint encountered during his lifetime. The “Books of the Platonists” helped (Conf. VII.13). Perhaps more than anyone, through his writings, St. Paul helped (Conf. VII.26-7). Another saint who helped bring Christ to St. Augustine was St. Antony the Great or St. Antony of Egypt; who died when Augustine was two-years-old and whose memorial we celebrate on January 17th. While St. Augustine and his friend Alypius are in the process of converting, they are visited by Ponticianus –already a Christian – and he finds that Augustine and Alypius are reading the letters of St. Paul. Upon making this discovery, Ponticianus immediately recounts the story of St. Antony to the two of them. The Life of St. Antony, written by St. Athanasius, was one of the first Christian “classics” of the early Church, and was almost immediately translated into Latin. The other major ancient source on St. Antony is a collection of his sayings which was bound together with similar stories from other leading monastic figures in a volume called the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Taken together, they continue to rank high on the list of texts from the Christian spiritual and, in particular, monastic tradition.

Prior to Ponticianus’ telling, Augustine had never heard of St. Antony. Indeed, even though there was a monastery in Milan, Augustine had not even heard of monasticism before that moment (Conf. VIII.15)!!! Ponticianus, relating his own conversion story, told the two that, while he was reading the Life of St. Antony “the flood-tide of his heart leapt on” (Conf. VIII.15). Amazed at how this young man – St. Antony was 18 or 20 at the time – could renounce all of his possessions to become a hermit in the wilderness, Ponticianus stopped reading and immediately committed to abandoning his possessions and following Christ. The Life of St. Antony, and its role in Ponticianus’ own conversion, shows Augustine a way forward for Christian discipleship. Augustine had been telling himself that he was avoiding renunciation of worldly ambition and licentiousness because he had yet to see “certain light by which to steer [his] course” (Conf. VIII.18). After hearing these tales, Augustine knew that he had run out of excuses and, shortly thereafter, experienced his famous conversion in the small garden near his Milan lodgings (Conf. VIII.29). The moral of the story, you ask? It goes right back to the passage from St. Paul which St. Augustine used as the opening meditation for his Confessions. “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Rom 10:14). The Christian faith is relational. It is a gift given from God through the ministry of others. It needs to be preached and shared; and not just by some, but by all the faithful.

Dr. Anthony Coleman

Dr. Coleman brings more than a decade of experience working in higher education as a teacher, administrator, and scholar. Having earned a B.A. in Theology at St. Anselm College, and an M.A. in Theology and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology (with a minor in Historical Theology) at Boston College, he has taught theology at St. Joseph's College of Maine, Anna Maria College (Worcester, MA), St. Gregory's University (Shawnee, OK), and has previously served as an Associate Program Director for St. Joseph's College of Maine and Director of the Albany Campus for St. Bernard's School of Theology & Ministry. He is the author of Lactantius the Theologian (2017) and editor of Leisure and Labor: The Liberal Arts in Catholic Higher Education (2020). He is the most blessed husband of AnneMarie and a father of four. A native of Braintree, MA, Dr. Coleman is excited to be moving back home, near family, and to serve an institution that was pivotal in his own spiritual and intellectual formation.

Profile See all posts