Augustine's City of God

Thursday, July 5th 2007
Sep/Oct 2000

Largely written in response to the charge that Rome was being destroyed by the barbarians because the former had just officially embraced Christianity, the Bishop of Hippo (a city in northern Africa) responded with his classic, The City of God. In that work, Augustine (354-430) announced that he had hereby “taken upon myself the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of that City. I treat of it both as it exists in this world of time, a stranger among the ungodly, living by faith, and as it stands in the security of its everlasting seat” (Preface to Book 1).

The earthly cities, taking their cue from the history of human rebellion from the fall to Babel to pagan Rome, know only power, not grace. They all belong to “the city of this world, a city which aims at dominion” and is itself dominated by a lust for power. Because of God’s providential restraint, however, even this earthly city is capable of generating culture, civic morality and justice, as well as other essential characteristics of human community.

With this perspective, clearly distinguishing between the nature, goals, and methods of both kingdoms, Augustine was able to hold out optimism about what Christians could do in the fallen world around them while not confusing the heavenly kingdom and its earthly manifestation in the present (the Church) with the kingdoms of this world.

What a different approach this was from Jerome, Augustine’s famous contemporary, who exclaimed, “What is to become of the Church now that Rome has fallen?” There was for Jerome a certain correspondence between Rome and the kingdom of God. Hadn’t Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion? Here, the big difference between pagan and “Christian” Rome was that idols were worshiped in the former and God alone was worshiped in the latter.

But for Augustine, the differences were much greater. Although he himself doesn’t seem to have recognized the full implications of his message, Augustine said that even a “Christian” nation is still a kingdom under judgment, a kingdom of power and domination to be sharply distinguished from the kingdom of Christ and its progress through grace rather than glory.

Augustine’s theological conviction at this point made him view sacked Rome as a mission field rather than a battlefield. Viewed in terms of the latter, one such as Jerome could only conclude that a devastating blow had been dealt to Christ’s cause. But viewed from Augustine’s perspective, God had brought the pagans to the missionaries!

In North America today (as in many other formerly “Christian” parts of the world), this issue is as acute as it was in the fourth and fifth centuries. “Christendom” is over-and for those of us who worry that this very notion is bad theology leading to horrible consequences for the “Canaanites” among us, that’s terribly exciting news. No, it isn’t good news that life (beginning with the unborn) is so cheap, that neighbor-love is so weak, that greed and sexual immorality are championed as virtues instead of vices. But for those who believe that the greatest crisis in the world concerns the issues of everlasting importance, they are free in a sense to say in the face of Christendom’s demise, “Fine. We’ll cope. We’ve done this before. Now Christianity will be strange and can have its own voice back at last-and not be exploited as a prop to hold up a tower of national interests.” So we can either run off to Bethlehem and start a monastery, as Jerome ended up doing, or we can stay in the earthly city while indwelling the City of God by the Spirit of Christ, citizens of two distinct empires.

Abraham and his heirs of promise have always “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” It is not a geo-political homeland here on earth that is in view, not even Jerusalem. “But, as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:14-16).

Ironically, this makes us more effective both as witnesses on behalf of the City of God and as citizens of our nations. First, we are no longer perceived as those who want to play the power game with our religious commitments, since the heavenly kingdom progresses by God’s grace alone through the means of grace. Second, our participation in this world is affirmed without having to buy into a triumphalism about “capturing the culture for Christ” that alienates our pagan neighbors even as it corrupts the distinctiveness of the Gospel (see Eberly’s article, page 14.). While individual Christians will, as citizens of the heavenly kingdom, participate in the public sphere and defend particular views alongside other citizens who may not be Christians at all, the Church must never be identified with a political movement. When it does, it loses its credibility before the watching world just as it loses its confidence in the power of the Gospel to complete the mission for which the Church was created.

Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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