Book Review: St. Augustine’s City of God

In the summer of 1972, I was making my transition from being an Episcopalian to a Roman Catholic.  That transition is commonly referred to today as “swimming the Tiber,” but at the time I was also making another water crossing that, for me, was also very significant: we sold our home in Palm Beach and, crossing Lake Worth, moved to Boynton Beach.  That complicated the conversion process, as I found myself changing parishes twice before dropping anchor at a brand new parish not far from the house.

Once my parish priest realised he had his new parish’s first convert on his hands, he spent a little time with me preparing for the event.  (How he found out about me is recounted here.)  When I told him that I had read St. Augustine’s City of God over the summer, he was a little surprised.  That was heavy reading for most converts, but it had been preceded by the Divine Comedy the previous spring, the work which first set forth Roman Catholicism to me in a serious way.  But both of these seminal works turned out to be the bulk of my preparation for conversion.  The parish had no organisation to catechise converts except to make me read a little booklet, and so before Advent I was Roman Catholic.

Over the years I have soaked in many of the Church Fathers, but with recent events it seemed that another look at the City of God was in order.  Those recent events include the unceremonious failure of the Evangelical world to “bring America back to God,” either politically or culturally.  The City of God, a work which details the interplay between the affairs of man and the purposes of God, was written at a time when a) Christianity was in the ascendant in both respects, and b) the Roman Empire (especially in the West) was in dire straits.

Those dire straits precipitated the writing of the book in the first place.  In 410 the Goths under Alaric sacked Rome, the first time this had happened since the Gauls did so during the Republic.  Pagans saw this is as a punishment for Rome having abandoned the old pagan gods and embracing Christianity.  A Roman official named Marcellinus (who himself was executed before the work was finished) asked Augustine to write a refutation of the pagans’ accusation.  The task occupied Augustine until 426.

The City of God is basically in two parts.  The first ten books are a direct refutation of the pagan charges.  In some ways these are a mirror image of what Christians accuse their secularist counterparts of in this country, but Augustine is aided by the inconsistency of classical paganism itself.  Over the centuries it had undergone changes in the structure of its deities, the methods of its worship, and of course the opinions of the philosophers about its own validity.  In many ways it is the easiest of Augustine’s tasks.  In the process he catalogues religious antiquity and comes back to one point time and time again that bears repeating in our own society—that Roman theatre was basically an adjunct to pagan religion, something to keep in mind when watching Hollywood’s next attempt at cinema with meaning.

It is in the second part where he really spreads his wings and expounds on his greater subject: the whole course of history as the interplay of the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man.  The dichotomy of the two, and the crisp distinction he makes between the saved and the lost, is one of the hallmarks of Augustine’s theology.  However, in the course of describing the interaction of the two cities from the creation to the end, he is not simplistic in his presentation or discussion of he two.  The two coexist and commingle in history, and for Augustine it is only at the very end that they will find permanent separation.

One major reason for that is that Augustine, unlike many Evangelicals, does not equate a certain type of state with the City of God.  His view of the state is more practical than we see now.  Roman history has taught him that the state can be a force for evil (in the days of persecution) or one for good (with the Christian, preferably Nicene emperors from Constantine onward.)  But it’s a given for Augustine that the state will be involved in religion, one way or another, and that the Church and its people must deal with it effectively one way or another.  It’s tempting to think that we’re past such involvement with our modern secular states, but both the rise of militant secularism and Islamicism should caution us not to be so smug about our age.  Augustine lived in an age where the Roman state reached into every corner of life, and given the broad (and broadening) role of the state in our own lives, his view of the state deserves another hearing, at least.

If there’s an institution on earth that deserves being equated with the City of God, for Augustine it’s the Catholic Church.  Augustine’s view of both the church and of life in general can be best described as escapist.  His descriptions of the brutal tortures that were part and parcel with Late Roman law enforcement, to say nothing of the barbarian invasions that were tearing the Empire apart, certainly buttressed his view of life, which in turn led to his stress on the importance of eternity.  To be honest, his view of life—which he stresses in the last book—was and is appealing to me.  Evangelical Christianity has traded the “vale of tears” view for triumphalistic theonomy and prosperity teaching, but again given the current trends Evangelicals may find a reversion to a more “Augustinian” view of life—a view that until only recently was strong in some Evangelical circles—more appropriate for the times.

Mentioning the Augustinian view leads us to an important point: his views on predestination.  The City of God isn’t his premier exposition on the subject, but he leaves no doubt that it is his idea that God has foreordained everything, from the Fall onward, and that same fall made man incapable of coming back to God on his own.  Nevertheless he is reluctant to slide into the fatalism that characterises, say, Islam, or to flatly state that same predestination is actively exclusionary of the lost, as the Reformers did.  In one of the most interesting discourses in the City of God, he defends the concept of free will in a theistic context against Cicero’s insistence that free will requires rejecting the whole concept of God.  (Today, we have “the fix is in” concept amongst secularists, whose biological determinism rivals the fatalism of any Muslim, so now we have the worst of both worlds.)  Discourses such as this illustrate that Augustine moves in a world of Greek philosophy.  For all of its weaknesses, Greek philosophy, be it Platonic (Augustine’s preference) or Aristotelian (as is the case with St. Thomas Aquinas or Moses Maimonides) forces theologians to think problems such as causality through, and the Reformation’s greatest loss was to deprive Christianity of the services of such a school of thought.  (Augustine’s own description of the Old vs. New Academy in Greece puts Paul’s experience on Mars Hill, and his reaction to it, in a different light.)

The City of God is an exceedingly long work, full of excursi that the ancients loved and the moderns dread.  The edition reviewed here is abridged to get the reader past some of these, although in some cases I found myself wanting to explore these further.  The translation is a good one, not quite as ponderous as the Victorian ones that one finds online, but it was done before the Roman Catholics got away from the Latin/Septuagint names of Bible books and people, so Protestants may find themselves thrown occasionally by a name which should be familiar.

To journey through this great work—one that has no equal in the Protestant world—once again has been a pleasure.  Augustine’s ancient scholarship sometimes falls flat today, but our task is ultimately to come up with a better construct, something that we have been reluctant to do.  The City of God is a work that all Christians need to take a good hard look at in a world where, like Augustine’s, so many familiar things are passing away.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: St. Augustine’s City of God”

  1. Thanks, Don, for the review. After reading CITY and other works of Augustine’s years ago, I find myself over the years hence often returning periodically to this point or that, always surprised at their contemporary relevance. Even when I disagree, as I sometimes do, I find that I must consider his thought. I find your sublte supposition that contemporary world empire may be parallel or at least comparable to the ancient Roman Empire’s “passing away” startling but suggestive. It is both alarming and encouraging. It is alarming because of what it may signify for our beloved nation. It is encouraging because Christianity can potentially rise to the occasion and come out stronger and smarter than ever. That is, so long as Christianity is not overly identified with that which passes away, as paganism was then the “good old time religion” and Christianity the new upstart. Anyway, thanks for an informative and provocative review.

  2. Militant secularism? What is this? Our best hope for humanity is secularism based on an understanding of what human beings actually are. This starts with the declaration of human rights, a document, and all the conventions etc that have flowed from it – which should not be set in stone like soi-disant divine law [actually entirely human] but which should be modified and adjusted with increasing human knowledge and understanding. In actual fact, secular law [which is all law] has stood us in good stead for millenia. Augustine’s City of God was just another castle in the air, but it should never be forgotten that, as a shaper of orthodoxy, Augustine was also a shaper of persecution. He died drenched in the blood of Christian ‘heretics’, many of whom were far better, more tolerant, more generous of spirit than himself. He it was who developed to a fine pitch the rhetoric that justified murder in the name of love. Just persecution, he termed it. A creature of his time perhaps – I’m just glad his time is up, and may it never return.

  3. People such as you, Stewart, who don’t know what militant secularism is have obviously forgotten the legacy of “scientific socialism,” the name of your blog notwithstanding. And the shrill voices of the New Atheists presage a repeat of this performance, although the New Atheists are a bunch of ninnies who are incapable of even such a construction as Communism.

    Your idea of a declaration of human rights juxtaposed with a secular understanding of what human beings actually are is an oxymoron. I had an adverse commenter on another post (http://www.vulcanhammer.org/2009/03/27/rowan-williams-haunted-england-or-why-europeans-arent-found-in-church/) make this statement:

    “…we’re rubbish, really. We’ve built huge societies, reproduced by the billion and constructed terrible weapons but sometimes we can’t get past being selfish apes.”

    So what kind of rights emanate from this?

    Secularism’s god is the state. And that’s totalitarianism.

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