Since I wrote my book What the Saints Never Said, people often ask me, “What is your least favorite apocryphal saint quote?” Some people expect me to answer with the classic faux Franciscan quote “Preach the gospel, use words if necessary.” Although that is an irritating one—it reduces evangelism to “random acts of kindness”—as an apologist, the one I detest the most is this one attributed to St. Augustine:
“The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.”
If you’re an apologist who dedicates his life to defending the truth of the Catholic faith, you might find it disheartening to see people promote the idea that your work is unnecessary . . . and you might be downright depressed to see people use this quote to justify their refusal to “make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
So let’s get one thing right out of the way: there is no way Augustine said this.
When I first heard this quote, I was immediately suspicious of its authenticity. It sounds more like a modern writer’s attempt to come up with a clever saying than something from Augustine’s writings. One clue that confirmed my suspicions is that the quote does not appear in any internet searches of Augustine’s works.
Even a search of his entire body of writings in their original Latin fails to produce any passages in which the words lion (leo) and truth (veritas) are found in close proximity to one another. (I’m grateful to Fr. Horton, a fan of What the Saints Never Said, at the “Fauxtations” blog for this research.)
Finally, I could not locate a single book attributing this saying to Augustine that was written before the twenty-first century. If Augustine had actually penned these words, then we would expect some writer to have quoted him between the fifth and twentieth centuries.
Although it may not be the origin of this quote, a strikingly similar passage can be found in the writings of Protestant pastor Charles Spurgeon. In one of his sermons, he said, “Let the pure gospel go forth in all its lion-like majesty and it will soon clear its own way and ease itself of its adversaries.” In an address he gave to the British and Foreign Bible Society, Spurgeon used a similar illustration, comparing the Bible to a magnificent lion. He said that whereas some would attack the lion and others rush to its defense, he thought it would be better to do this:
Open the door and let the lion out; he will take care of himself. Why, they are gone! He no sooner goes forth in his strength than his assailants flee. The way to meet infidelity is to spread the Bible. The answer to every objection against the Bible is the Bible.
Another reason we know that Augustine didn’t say this is because he didn’t take that approach in his own writings. For example, Augustine’s City of God is a defense of Christian civilization. It includes this description of how apologetics can become a means to evangelize those who attack the Faith:
For while the hot restlessness of heretics stirs questions about many articles of the Catholic faith, the necessity of defending them forces us both to investigate them more accurately, to understand them more clearly, and to proclaim them more earnestly; and the question mooted by an adversary becomes the occasion of instruction.
The modern word apologetics comes from apologian and refers not to apologizing for wrongdoing, but to presenting reasons and evidence in favor of a certain belief system. Throughout Christian history, saints and Christian scholars understood that the truth couldn’t always be “its own defense.” As I noted in a previous article in defense of debates:
In the early Church, the truth about grace had to be defended against the Pelagians, the truth about Christ’s divinity had to be defended against the Arians, and the truth about the value of human life had to be defended against the barbarians. In the modern world, the truth about faith has to be defended against atheists, the truth about the Church has to be defended against Protestants, and the truth about the value of unborn children has to be defended against advocates of abortion.
The truth isn’t always capable of persuading people on its own. The letter to the Hebrews teaches that there were some people in the author’s time who heard the preaching of God’s promises, but it “did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers” (4:2). The book of Acts describes how a servant of the queen of Ethiopia is puzzled when he reads the prophecies of the Old Testament. Fortunately, the evangelist Philip comes along and asks the servant, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The servant replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (see Acts 8:30-31). Philip then shows the servant how the Old Testament’s promised Messiah is Jesus Christ.
The biblical authors never claim that their words willl always be understood or that they need no defense. St. Peter even warns his readers that there are confusing passages in Scripture, whose meaning some people twist to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16). If that’s true, then wouldn’t Jesus make sure someone like Philip is still around today to help people understand what they’re reading in God’s word?
The fact is, he did . . . through the Church he founded on the apostles.