410 years after the birth of Christ a general of the Roman army marched his troops, mainly composed of barbarian-born Romans, into Rome and sacked it as part of one of the never-ending civil wars that racked the empire. The general's name was Alaric, and he had done something nobody else had succeeded in doing for the last 800 years of the city's existence. As the civilised world reeled from the shock, the pagans of the Roman world pointed with bitter triumph to the cause of all their woes: Christianity. This was clearly the work of angry gods, they argued, and had it not been for the heresy of Christianity the empire would have remained as strong as ever.
The Christians were already traumatised by the horrific events of the sack, and to be attacked by the pagans must have made some of them wonder if what they believed was in vain. To their defence came one of the most brilliant minds and one of the most devout Christians of all time. For them he wrote one of the greatest and most influential books of all time. In it he first attacked and destroyed the arguments of the pagans, demonstrating that paganism had never made Rome great to begin with; and then he exposited the Christian worldview with its beauty, truth, and goodness.
The world recovered from the sack of Rome. It is still staggering under the glorious weight of The City of God.
Daniel Williams, in A Companion to the Study of St Augustine, said:
Wherever men discuss the meaning of good and evil, or human love and the love of God, or the nature of justice, or the unity of the Church and relations of church and state, the argument often turns on references to Augustine’s thought. … A reading of Augustine belongs to the discovery of our own intellectual and spiritual ancestry. It was he who in the fourth century gave to Western civilisation the formative ideas which have guided it for centuries. Whoever would know the structural ideas of the Christian tradition and Western philosophy, which have shaped our minds for fifteen centuries, must know Augustine.
Colin White “Without Augustine, there would have been no Western civilisation. If anything, Western civilisation is a comment on Augustine.”
Francis Bacon: “If but one book might be had for the edification of the mind, the encouragement of the heart, the satisfaction of the soul, Augustine’s City of God would of necessity be it.”
Cornelius van Til: “I can hardly think of a more relevant book than the City of God.”
This was why I had to read this book.
The City of God is ultimately about antithesis. The world, the cosmos, and everything in it from angels to men to demons is divided into two bodies. The seed of the woman versus the seed of the serpent; those who love God and have contempt for themselves versus those who hate God and love themselves; the City of God and the City of Man. In Augustine's words,
We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried to the point of contempt for self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of a good conscience. The earthly lifts up its head in its own glory, the Heavenly City says to its God: 'My glory; you lift up my head.' In the former, the lust for domination lords it over its princes as over the nations it subjugates; in the other both those put in authority and those subject to them serve one another in love, the rulers by their counsel, the subjects by obedience. The one city loves its own strength shown in its powerful leaders; the other says to its God, 'I will love you, my Lord, my strength.'
This forms the framework for the whole twenty-two-volume book, first in its discussion of the abject failures of the earthly city to find truth and salvation and second in its glorious vision of the City of God.
A Sketchy Overview
Book I: God's providence "constantly uses war to correct and chasten the corrupt morals of mankind, as it also uses such afflictions to train men in a righteous and laudable way of life."
Books II - VII: The aim of religion is happiness or felicity, which the Roman gods failed spectacularly to give to pagan Rome. Kingdoms without justice are nothing more than criminal gangs. Kingdoms rule by God's permission and will; He ordains how long they endure. God allowed Rome to continue as long as it did in order to teach Christians what love they owe to their own City, the City of God, though in far greater (because eternal) measure. The true felicity of Christian emperors comes from God. Discussions of pagan theology. Much witty mockery of the Roman gods.
Books VIII - X: Pagan philosophers such as the Neoplatonists also fail to guarantee eternal felicity. Neither gods, angels, nor demons can mediate between God and man. Only Christ can do this. "The good and true Mediator has shown that it is sin which is evil, not the substance or nature of the flesh."
Books XI - XIV: The creation of angels and time. God is His attributes. The purpose of evil is to make the good appear greater by contrast. Evil is a perversion; it cannot exist without good, whereas good can exist without evil. Since Christ died once and for all, history cannot be cyclical--it must be linear. The twofold nature of death: of the soul, and of the body. Pride is the essence of sin; humility of goodness.. "The choice of the will, then, is genuinely free only when it is not subservient to faults and sins."
Books XV - XVIII: The history of the City of God and of the earthly city from the Fall to the time of Christ. Typological interpretation of redemptive history. Interpretation of Old Testament prophecies concerning Christ.
Books XIX - XXII: The supreme good is peace; peace is eternal life. Peace cannot be had on earth. Eschatology: we are currently in the 1000-year reign of the saints; the City "has been coming down from heaven since its beginning." Eternal punishment of the wicked; the resurrection of the saints, and the City's final beatific vision of God.
I can only fail to convey all the richness packed into this marvellous book. When I read it, I missed the major themes and am only now beginning to grasp them, looking back over the book for this review. On the other hand, if I simply give you the major themes, you will miss all the wonderful sidelines. Let me attempt to give you a little bit of both.
A Resounding Legacy
The overriding theme of the City of God, as I mentioned above, is the antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Like just about everything else in this book, the idea of the antithesis doesn't really get pulses races today. The true greatness of the City of God emerges only when you begin to realise how new all these doctrines were to the Roman world. In the previous century, for example, Christians had only just laid the building blocks of a theology this big and this complex by reluctantly arriving at solid orthodox definitions of the Trinity and the Incarnation at Nicaea, Chalcedon, and the other councils.
While previous works, such as (for example) Saint Athanasius's On the Incarnation had been mainly concerned with Christian doctrine, the City of God must have been the first book concerned with the question of what Christian doctrine means for the world. The reason why Western civilisation was built on this book was, if I am correct, that this book told Christians how to apply their faith to two major areas: history and culture.
While huge portions of the City of God are devoted to history, Augustine's main focus on the subject comes in Book XII, in which he argues against the pagan conception of history as a series of cyclical trends beyond man's control. Because Christ died once and for all, says Augustine, then all history must be a progression in one irreversible direction. For the City of God, that progression is towards greater and greater faithfulness and glory culminating in the beatific vision of God when we finally see Him as He is. For the earthly city, the trajectory runs from the first death of the body, to the second, eternal death. Not only this, but history is sovereignly guided by God, Who determines how long men shall hold power, and when they shall lose it (Book IV). We can learn how God deals with men in history. We can learn to hope for His deliverance.
The result of this linear view of history stood in stark contrast to the pagan world. It taught Christians to hold a multi-generational vision, to delay their cultural gratification, to invest everything they had in generations they'd never get to meet. Because history was aimed at the glory of God in His Church over time, men had something to build towards.
According to George Grant, Saint Augustine was one of the first men to insist that his disciples, students, and successors not only could but would surpass him.
Culturally, the City of God enunciated an astonishing vision of antithesis, a vision of objective right and wrong in a relativistic culture. This meant that what is right at one time does not become wrong at another time. George Grant attributes the idea of the rule of law--the rule of an objective and indentifiable standard--to Augustine's vision of antithesis.
Instead of the pagans' random fate and chaotic forces, Augustine said, we have an all-powerful God upon Whom we can rely. The importance of the doctrine of the grace and predestinating will of God cannot be underestimated. In Western civilisation, this doctrine breathed out in all the hopeful and daring enterprises of Christendom from Outremer to Robert E Lee's Southern Confederacy, from adventure and discovery to entrepreneurship and invention. Because God could be relied upon to bless the humble, because God sovereignly directed all the doings of His City with grace and favour, then obedient citizens of the Heavenly City could know that their enterprises were blessed. "It is history that teaches us to hope," said Robert E Lee, grieving the destruction of the free South. Yes; and Augustine was the one who taught us to see how history teaches us to hope.
In the Biblical, Augustinian view of history, culture is the result of faith, not of ethnicities, movements, political parties, elections, judicial appointments, or New York Times bestsellers. And spiritual warfare isn't really about any of these things. It's about citizens of the City of God living their life of covenant faithfulness in the community.
I wish I could tell you all the wonderful things I found in the City of God, because there are endlessly fascinating tidbits to enjoy. I do want to look at the section on Neoplatonism in a little more depth in a minute, but right now I'll pick just a few things to mention briefly.
Augustine's treatment of civil government is basically the reason why I read the book, as the area of law and politics is a hobby of mine. Augustine's - I could say revolutionary, although I detest the word and what it stands for - theory of civil government is one which must have boggled the minds of many Late Romans. The discussion is started in Books IV and V and finished off in Book XIX, hundreds of pages later.
Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention.If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralised that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.For it was a witty and a truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, 'What is your idea, in infesting the sea?' And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, 'The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I'm called a pirate: because you have a mighty navy, you're called an emperor.'
According to Augustine, the ideal civic order is not an empire ruled by iron-fisted despots, but a commonwealth, a res publica, a covenanting-together for the common good of all. In Book V he sketches the portrait of a truly blessed ruler:
We Christians call rulers happy, if they rule with justice; if amid the voices of exalted praise and the reverent salutations of excessive humility, they are not inflated with pride, but remember that they are but men; if they put their power at the service of God's majesty, to extend his worship far and wide; if they fear God, love him and worship him; if, more than their earthly kingdom, they love that realm where they do not fear to share the kingship; [...] and if they do all this not for a burning desire for empty glory, but for the love of eternal blessedness; and if they do not fail to offer to their true God, as a sacrifice for their sins, the oblation of humility, compassion, and prayer.
For Augustine--and soon, for all the men who read him--the idea of a happy and blessed ruler was indistinguishable from the idea of a Christian ruler who "puts his power at the service of God's majesty, to extend his worship far and wide." This dedication to the worship of God was not simply an optional extra for Augustine: it was central to his very concept of justice. In Book XIX, he deals the knockout blow to the totalitarian paganism of the Empire:
If, therefore, a commonwealth is the 'weal of the people', and if a people does not exist where there is no 'association by a common sense of right', and there is no right where there is no justice, the irresistible conclusion is that where there is no justice there is no commonwealth. Moreover, justice is that virtue which assigns to everyone his due. Then what kind of justice is it that takes a man away from the true God and subjects him to unclean demons? Is this to assign to every man his due? Or are we to say that a man is unjust when he takes an estate from a man who has bought it and hands it over to someone who has no right to it, while we give the name of just to a man who takes himself away from the Lord God who made him, and becomes the servant of malignant spirits?
This is the only foundation of human justice. Have you ever felt angry about the corrupt justice systems in modern-day Western civilisation? Augustine wouldn't have been surprised. "What do you expect?" he would say, "when your rulers don't put their power at the service of God's majesty, to extend his worship far and wide?"
One of my favourite books of the City of God was Book XX, Augustine's work on eschatology. Eschatology, or the doctrines of the end times, is probably the biggest subject on which Christians differ most widely and with the most wrangling. Ambrose Bierce in his Devil's Dictionary famously defined the usual lynchpin text, Revelation, as "A book in which St John concealed everything he knew." Holding, as I do, the minority view of postmillenialism, I was surprised and rather chuffed to find Augustine supporting a similar view. In his comments on the Last Judgement, Augustine explains that God is and always has been judging through history, although there will one day be a final judgement. This puts him at odds with some Christians I've spoken to who believe that since we live in the age of grace, God's judgements have been put on hold till the end of time while He waits for us to muddle through history. Augustine then caught my attention by stating that the difficulty of determining what passages refer to the Last Judgement of All, and which do not, is compounded by the fact that many passages actually speak not of the Last Judgement but of the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. His doctrine of the end times is firmly built upon the opinion that the binding of Satan and the thousand year reign of the saints, in heaven and on earth, is currently taking place. "In the end," he says, "the Omnipotent will loose [the Devil], so that the City of God may behold how powerful a foe it has overcome, to the immense glory of its Redeemer, its Helper, its Deliverer." This suggests that, in common with current-day postmillenial thinking, Augustine envisaged the Church's temporal victory on earth over the earthly city and the Devil himself.
"The church even now is the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Heaven," says Augustine. It "has been coming down from heaven since its beginning."
Today I listened to a lecture on Augustine from Joe Morecraft at Vision Forum's History of the World Mega-Conference, in my effort to step back and look at the City of God from the wide angle. A major point of the very interesting lecture, quoting extensively from BB Warfield, was that within Augustine's work lay the seeds of two very different movements: the Papist church and the Reformation. Morecraft, with Warfield, argues that while medieval Romanism was the ossifying of Augustine's teachings on the sacramental authority of the Church, Reformed Protestantism was the rediscovery of his teachings on grace. Whether this is correct or not, I had definitely noticed a kind of ecumenical quality to the City of God, where doctrines championed fiercely by the Reformers rubbed shoulders with doctrines held equally enthusiastically by the Romanists.
On the "Romanist" side of the ledger one could list such things as a degraded view of marriage as an ultimately flawed institution inextricably bound to sin, accompanied by a Platonist-influenced elevation of celibacy. Augustine seems to have simply taken for granted the idea that the marriage bed is innately dishonourable, without attempting to justify the view from Scripture. On the other hand, his discussion of the possibility of the forgiveness of sins after death at the Last Judgement did draw upon Scripture to explain the later emergence of the doctrine of Purgatory.
Then again, much of what he says sounds classically "Protestant". In Book XX, for example, he pauses briefly to explain the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, one of the doctrines that fuelled the Reformation. In Book XIV, his discussion of the freedom of the will sounds classically Calvinistic: "The choice of the will, then, is genuinely free only when it is not subservient to faults and sins."
Another of the delightful things I found in the City of God was something that has almost been lost to the Church since the so-called Enlightenment. As Augustine goes through the age-long history of the City of God, from the Fall to the Resurrection, he discusses and interprets the events of redemptive history in an allegorical, typological manner. In other words, he discusses what the events signified about Christ and salvation, rather than simply adopting a surface reading of the text. In doing so he dares more and delves deeper than any modern-day commentator, reared with the Enlightenment insistence against metaphor and signification, ever would. However, this (to us) iconoclastic approach has some pretty good justification in Scripture. Like the apostles themselves, Augustine discusses Noah's Ark as a symbol of the redemption of humanity on the Cross; and Sarah and Hagar as symbols of the New and Old Covenant people, respectively. But then, Augustine takes the typological interpretation further than the apostles ever did. At times, it's hard to feel that Augustine is on the right track; and having read recent developments in typological reading of the Bible from scholars like David Chilton and James Jordan, I felt I could put my finger on a couple of places where Augustine failed to get the right interpretation. However, in many cases and in the most astonishing ways, it was impossible to feel that he was wrong. Augustine's typological reading of Scripture is not just a delight to read. It also laid a wonderful foundation for a rich, layered, and largely forgotten medieval hermeneutic that did not just take the surface reading, but also the deeper significance of redemptive history, as the Word of God.
There were a couple of places where Augustine's vision felt stunningly beautiful. In Book V, he tells us what he thought God's purpose in the domination of Rome was: so that citizens of the City of God might learn from the noble and self-sacrificing examples of the great men of ancient Rome what was due to their own City. After recounting story after story of these great pagans (such as Regulus, who willingly submitted himself to a horrible death in order to warn Rome not to agree to the demands of his Carthaginian captors), Augustine tells us: "If we do not display, in the service of the most glorious City of God, the qualities of which the Romans, after their fashion, gave us something of a model, in their pursuit of the glory of their earthly city, then we ought to feel the prick of shame." I cannot resist noting that Augustine did not deny the heroism of these men; indeed, he clearly thought that Christians should study them and take note!
Another moment of awe came in Book XIX, in which Augustine argues that the ultimate aim of human existence is to find peace. God's peace, argues Augustine, is sought not just in the soul but also in the natural order: even gravity is a "coming to rest". Peace is "ordered agreement." This immediately put me in mind of something CS Lewis says in The Discarded Image, a book on medieval cosmology, about the planets "kindly inclining." In God's universe, gravity is a moral force which orders and beautifies the world. And this in turn put me in mind of the passage in Lewis's Perelandra about the Great Dance of all things in the cosmos in glory of God. And (fittingly) this passage was influenced by Charles Williams, who wrote so much about the City and its co-inherent life.
And I thought, Huh. So that's where it all came from.
Cosmology in Augustine
Indeed, one of the most unexpected things I found in Augustine was just that explanation of medieval cosmology that I'd been looking for for the last few years. And while I learned a lot about the medieval mind and Western Christendom as a whole, I think what fascinated me most was what I learned about two authors who turn out to have been saturated in Augustinianism all along: Charles Williams and CS Lewis.
Unfortunately, I'm going to have to leave Williams aside for today, because I want to talk about CS Lewis. When I read Michael Ward's book Planet Narnia I became convinced that CS Lewis had used the seven planets of medieval cosmology to inform the imagery of his stories. While this discovery was thoroughly exciting, I couldn't help wondering what on earth CS Lewis was doing, using the pagan imagery of Jove and Joviality, for instance, or Venus, or Mars, as a vehicle for telling the truth about the True God. This was something that Lewis remained focused on throughout his works, from the Cosmic Trilogy to Till We Have Faces.
I could understand that this wasn't an innovation of Lewis's; the medievals had done it long before him. I could also understand that the pagan gods could theoretically be redeemed of all their bad connotations and turned into angelic beings like Perelandra and Malacandra. I just didn't see how it had happened.
The answer lay right where I never expected to find it: in Books VIII - X of the City of God!
In these books Augustine debates the Neoplatonists, and what I'm about to say has almost nothing to do with his main points in these books. But what he said on the side--his obiter dicta, so to speak--was hugely influential and showed exactly how the medievals had redeemed the pagan gods.
Augustine first sketches the Neoplatonist cosmology. In that worldview, the lowest element was the earth, inhabited by earthly bodies; then the water, inhabited by watery bodies; then the air, inhabited by airy bodies (demons); finally the aether (what today we call Space, the region of the stars) inhabited by aetherial bodies (gods). The lowercase gods were those known to the classical pantheon--Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and the rest. They had some influence over human affairs, but had not created the universe. That had been made when the Platonic version of God had imposed Form upon Matter to create the universe--or at least, that's how Augustine explains it.
In the Neoplatonist worldview, the gods lived in bliss and were totally blessed and sinless beings, incapable of evil and totally unconcerned with the sordid affairs of men and their tainted, inferior earthly bodies. All the scandalous stories we have of the gods and goddesses visiting the earth to chase women around or murder their unfaithful boyfriends are fabrications, lies, or simply accounts of the actions of demons who disguise themselves as the gods and pass off their actions as belonging to the gods; for the demons, although airy in body and thus not physically inferior to men, nevertheless are cursed, incapable of goodness, and even further from bliss than men.
Augustine then goes on to critique and gently ridicule the Neoplatonist belief that these cursed demons could be any kind of reliable mediators between men and the gods, as well as demolishing several other aspects of Platonist thought. But in passing, he refers to these Platonic gods, these blessed and remote and entirely righteous gods who worship their true Creator--he refers to them as "the good gods--whom we Christians call holy angels." He returns to them at a later point in his reasoning, arguing that the angels, or (in Platonist language) gods, do not want our worship for themselves, but for the God Whom they know as the only One worthy of worship.
So, are the stars we see blazing in the heavens the fiery bodies of "the good gods--whom we Christians call holy angels"? That seems to have been Augustine's view; it was also the view CS Lewis depicted in his Chronicles of Narnia. Wacky as this sounds to the post-Enlightenment ear, Augustine actually argues from Scripture that "the gods" may in some cases be used in reference to angels.
As for the actual title, the fact that [the Platonists] give the name 'gods' to creatures who are immortal and blessed in the above sense, there is here no dispute between us, simply because one can find in our sacred Scriptures such quotations as 'The Lord, the Lord of gods, has spoken,' [Ps 50:1] and, in another place: 'Give thanks to the God of gods,' [Ps 136:2] and 'a great king above all gods' [Ps 95:3]. [...] 'God of gods' cannot be understood as meaning 'God of demons'; and it is unthinkable that 'a great king above all gods' should mean 'a great king above all demons'. The Scriptures also use the name 'gods' to describe men who belong to the people of God. 'I have said, "You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Highest" [Ps 82:6].'
I am also put in mind of various passages in the Bible where stars and angels are identified. In Job 38:7 the Lord mentions a time "When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy." Then in Luke 2:13, the angels who sing the Gloria in excelsis are spoken of ambiguously as "a multitude of the heavenly host"--words used previously in Scripture to refer to stars.
All this is not to say that Augustine's cosmology is correct. I can think of alternate interpretations of most of these passages. However, it is to say that his cosmology is not unjustifiable. And it shows exactly how the pagan gods were redeemed. All their evil deeds and greed for God's glory is stripped away when we consider them as having been done by demons. To Augustine and the medievals, the demon-gods had been mimicking and twisting the personalities of holy and blessed angels. Once the former were gotten rid of, men were free to appreciate the personalities of the unfallen originals. And so, the demonic Jove having been exorcised, the character and attributes of the starry, angelic Jove--kingliness, Joviality, and magnanimity--could be appreciated and enjoyed as the personality of an angel who did not seek his own glory but yearned to see God glorified; and who, in those aspects of his personality that echoed his Maker, served in some way to symbolise Him.
This fitted in the last piece of the cosmological puzzle. This is exactly how the medievals, and their heirs and imitators like Edmund Spenser and CS Lewis, were able to use pagan imagery in their works to point to the true God.
Augustine and the Funny Side of It All
Long as this review is, I can hardly end without mentioning that Augustine, a trained rhetorician, is a truly wonderful stylist. Over the course of my life I've spent about nine years studying Latin, including a recent two with the venerable textbook of Frederick Wheelock. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that the Romans and their current-day students were awfully keen on a style they called Ciceronian Latin: the most distinguished and advanced Latin style from the classic era. When I began reading the City of God, I was amazed by how much it sounded like the translation exercises in old Wheelock. As I read on, I occasionally amused myself by translating short passages back into Latin in my head, because I could almost sense what the original must have been. It was no surprise to me, when I looked it up later, to discover that indeed the City of God is the last major work written in the Ciceronian style. The flavour is graceful and well suited to debate.
One thing I certainly wasn't expecting was all the humour. Augustine attacks the pagans with lashings of satire earlier on (I'm still laughing at his "giggling goddesses", a parody of some venerable line from Virgil or someone) then mellows to a more benevolent humour as he exposits Christianity. I very much enjoyed his tartness in Book XXII, where after he discusses the miracles done by God through angels and martyrs, he mentions the pagan objection that their gods do miracles too: "Well then, it is all to the good, if the pagans are ready to put their gods on the same level as our dead men."
My favourite bit occurs when his discussion of the nature and origins of evil in Book XII leads to this epistemological gem: "No one therefore must try to get to know from me what I know that I do not know, unless, it may be, in order to learn not to know what must be known to be incapable of being known!" And I like less than half of you half as much as you deserve, and...wait, wrong author.
Another thing I simply can't let go without mentioning is something I stumbled upon unexpectedly in Book XVI...Augustine is speaking about prodigies and mutations (and breaking, incidentally, new ground in disabled rights; since, unlike the pagans who would leave 'blemished' children out to die, he argues that God makes no mistakes, and that regarding them as such 'would be to regard the works of God's wisdom as the products of an imperfectly skilled craftsman') such as Herodotus and others spoke of:
There is also a story of a race who have a single leg attached to their feet; they cannot bend their knee, and yet have a remarkable turn of speed. They are called Sciopods ('shadow-feet') because in hot weather they lie on their backs on the ground and take shelter in the shade of their feet.
Yes, dear readers. The City of God: an incredible work of genius, the second most important book in Western Christendom, and a book about everything, including--Dufflepuds.