Augustine, the Manichees, and providing a ready defense

In his Confessions, St. Augustine tells us about the Manichees and their inability to answer a man named Elpidius.

Even before I left Carthage, I had listened to the speeches of a man named Elpidius, who used to join in open controversy with the Manichees, and I had been impressed when he put foward arguments from Scripture which were not easy to demolish. I thought that the Manichees’ answer was weak and, in fact, they were chary of giving it in public and only mentioned it in private to adherents of the sect. They claimed that the books of the New Testament had been tampered with by unnamed persons who wished to impose the Jewish law upon the Christian faith, but they could produce no uncorrupted copies. (V, 11, R.S. Pine-Coffin’s translation)

This passage piques my interest for a couple of reasons. For one, I too am guilty of “preaching to the choir” instead of “providing a ready defense to all who ask” on more questions than I can remember. It’s easy to surround oneself with people who are likeminded and all pat each other on the back.

Secondly, this interests me because of my interests in the transmission of the New Testament. Augustine suggests that the Manichees could find no copies of the Scriptures that were “uncorrupted”. One would imagine the Manichees could have altered some of the NT documents to suit their needs – I wonder why they didn’t.

Third, this passage is interesting because it convinces me even more that Ecclesiastes is right – there is nothing new under the sun. Studying Church history is interesting in that so many things seem to repeat itself. So many expressions of Christianity that arose in antiquity find themselves in modernity, just under new names. Arguments used by the ancients are used by moderns.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Augustine, the Manichees, and providing a ready defense

  1. ‘Pine-Coffin’? Seriously?

  2. jmcmanaway

    I thought it was a pretty unfortunate last name myself.

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