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No, Truth Is Not Like a Lion

Source: Catholic Answers via
Reprinted with permission

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Ever since my book What the Saints Never Said was published, people have asked 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,” which is irritating because it reduces evangelism to “random acts of kindness.” The one I detest the most, however, is attributed to St. Augustine: “The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.”

As an apologist dedicated to defending the truth of the Catholic faith, it’s disheartening when people promote the idea that your work is unnecessary. And it’s downright depressing to see people use this quote to justify their refusal to “make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

So, let me be clear: There is no way St. Augustine said this.

When I first heard the “lion” 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 text 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 at the “Fauxtations” blog for this research, who is also a fan of What the Saints Never Said.)

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 while 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 can be confident St. 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 and 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 carefully, to understand them more clearly, and to proclaim them more earnestly; and the question mooted by an adversary becomes the occasion of instruction.

Some people may believe Augustine thought the “truth is like a lion” because they believe another common saying: “The truth is its own defense.” When these people hear that someone accused of a crime refuses to testify in court (or that he pleads the Fifth), they might say, “See, he has something to hide. Why doesn’t he just get up there and tell the truth? After all, the truth needs no defense.”

This kind of attitude gives defense attorneys ulcers. They know that even if their client is innocent, a skilled prosecutor can make them look guilty by asking complicated questions that result in the defendant giving inconsistent or suspicious answers.

Knowing something is true is different than being able to prove it’s true to a skeptical audience. Similarly, when a Christian presents the gospel to nonbelievers, he should also be prepared to answer objections to the truth he is presenting. As I alluded to earlier, in his first letter to the entire Church, St. Peter exhorted persecuted Christians to do just that:

Even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Pet. 3:14-16).

The Greek word St. Peter used to encourage Christians to “make a defense” is apologian. It refers to giving a reason or defense of an action, usually in the context of a court of law. Over five hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Greek philosopher Plato recorded his teacher Socrates’ defense of himself before the rulers of Athens in a work called Apology. 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. As I noted in a previous article in defense of debates:

[I]n 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” (Heb. 4:2). The book of Acts describes how a servant of the queen of Ethiopia was puzzled when he read the prophecies of the Old Testament.

Fortunately, the evangelist Philip came along and asked the servant, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The servant replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (cf. Acts 8:30-31). Philip then showed the servant how the Old Testament’s promised Messiah was Jesus Christ.

The biblical authors never claim that their words would always be understood or that they needed no defense. St. Peter even warned his readers that there are confusing passages in Scripture, whose meaning some people twist to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). If that’s true, then wouldn’t Jesus make sure someone like Philip was still around today to help people understand what they’re reading in God’s word?

The fact is he did do this, through the Church he founded on the apostles.


Header image: Kazuky Akayashi via