on 20 April 2017
Augustine’s monumental work was written between 413 and 427AD. It was at a critical point in the Church’s history: Christianity was now the official religion of the Roman empire, but soon after Constantine’s conversion, things were going wrong for the Empire: Rome was sacked in 410.
Was the conversion to Christianity to blame?
City of God is in part Augustine’s response to this crisis, and requires him to tread a fine line. On the one hand, he wants to dismiss the argument that Christianity was bad for the empire, and that paganism should be encouraged again to bring back Rome’s glory days; on the other hand, he does not want to align the truth of the Christian faith with the success of an earthly empire.
What he does is to establish that there are two great cities: the earthly city, and the heavenly city: the latter is the City of God. The City of God is eternal in the sense that it will last forever, but is still now in the process of being populated. At the final judgement, those abiding in the city of God will be those raised at the last day; others will be sent to the fires of hell: and, for Augustine, this is not a metaphor, but a reality as Book 23 makes abundantly clear. However, it is not, for Augustine, superficially obvious who lives where: there are those who right now are insiders to Church life who nonetheless are enemies of the City of God; there are those who are outsiders to the Church at present who will come to be part of God’s city.
Augustine was a prolific writer, but he clearly intends this to be his ultimate compendium. He throws everything into it: philosophy (pagan and Christian), physics (as in his discussion of lodestones), biology, history, geography as well as, of course, theology. With it, he set the standard for the Western Church: City of God provides the base line from which all other theological works are responses, and that is true both of the Catholic and Reformed traditions.
In the first half of the work, Augustine goes to great pains to describe the patterns of pagan faith, both that of the ancient philosophers (and he has some time for Plato and Porphyry in particular) and that of the people on the ground, and he demonstrates they are fundamentally flawed. Along the way, he provides great evidence for the modern reader about what it was like to be ‘inside’ Greco-Roman religion. This section is a must for ancient historians.
In the second half of the work, Augustine traces the growth of the city of God from the dawn of time, as evidenced both in the scriptures and from outer sources. This involves a great deal of commentary on scripture, from which he quotes extensively. By book 19, he has reached the present world, and his discussion on how the Church should interact with the world in this book is probably the part of this work that is studied the most today. In the final books, he takes the story on to the last judgement, and the final state of happy life within the eternal city.
Reading City of God today involves an extended encounter with one of the most brilliant minds in Western civilisation. Part of the fascination is the way Augustine’s thinking elides from modern to medieval to ancient in ways that are unpredictable. Thus, the creation had to have happened in six days, because “six is a perfect number, being the sum of its fractions, a sixth, a third and a half.” (Book XI Chapter 30) Really? This is just wrong-headed on so many levels.
Yet, look at this: “Remove justice and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?” (Book IV, Chapter 4)
Or again, “Although the miracles of the visible world of nature have lost their value for us because we see them continually, still, if we observe them wisely they will be found to be greater miracles than the most extraordinary and unusual events. For man is a greater miracle than any miracle effected by man’s agency.” (Book X, Chapter 12).
Here (and I could give hundreds of other examples), his wisdom slices across the centuries with ease.
He is, though, a man of his time. One thing that is of importance to the work, in my view, is that Augustine is a creationist. He believes that the world is only about five thousand years old and thus in this book he is more or less writing a summary of the entire history of the world. This allows him to view his work as utterly comprehensive.
Furthermore, for him, the Bible is both historically true and symbolically true. One of myriad examples is a rather beautiful comparison between Noah’s ark and Christ’s body on the cross: he compares the door from which the animals exit Noah’s ark (the transport that saves them) with the wound opening up in the side of Christ’s body, which is also the vehicle of salvation. (Book XV, 26), and argues that the former clearly foreshadows the latter.
The problem is that, for those of us who believe there was no such thing as Noah’s ark, this ingenious symbolism is rather pointless. Or again, early on, there are pages and pages about angels, which are wildly speculative, but argued closely. Vast tracts of City of God are based on assumptions that the vast majority of modern readers do not hold.
Nevertheless, this is a magisterial work, deserving of its classic status and surprisingly readable. Its crux contribution is as the core text for Christian theology, especially political theology, but there is much more to it than this. For Christians taking their faith seriously, there is gem after gem, be it a comment on a verse of scripture, or on thinking about miracles. For historians of the Roman empire, the first half of the book gives an utterly compelling description of intellectual history from a relatively ancient source, as well as all sorts of information about ancient religion.
It is not for the squeamish. Augustine’s understanding of salvation is pretty bleak for most of humanity: believing that God’s mercy will outweigh his justice is a mistake, one drawn out of compassion, but a mistake all the same: he believes the majority of his contemporaries are doomed to the fires of hell.
One does not have to buy into all his conclusions, but engaging with him is mightily worthwhile.