I’m sure we’ve all heard of Augustine of Hippo, famous writer of the Confessions and City of God, among many others. Why is the City of God still read 1600 years later and is it still relevant for us today? What’s it all about?
Augustine of Hippo was born in 354 AD in Hippo, in the Roman province of Africa, modern-day Tunisia. His parents were upper-middle-class pagans, although Augustine’s mother, but not his father, later became a believer. Augustine received an education in grammar and philosophy in Madaurus, also in Africa. When he had learnt all that his tutors in Madaurus could teach him, he went to Milan, in northern Italy, which was considered much more cultured than the comparative backwater of Africa. While studying there, he took a concubine and had a son by her. All the while his mother Monica prayed for his conversion. Around the age of 35, hearing the instruction in a vision to take up and read, he read Romans 13:13 and following. As a result, he became convinced of his sin and need for salvation. Over the next several years he became increasingly convinced of the truth and necessity of Christianity. Upon his return to Africa in 391, he was baptised and became the bishop of the town of Hippo in 395.
In 410, Alaric and the Goths sacked Rome, the eternal city. The city of Rome had not succumbed to foreign armies since the Gauls sacked it in 390 BC and this had become the stuff of legend, much as the battle of Hastings in 1066 is for many of us today. This sacking in 410 really shook the Roman world. Rome was the centre of the world. We see this thinking in a number of places in the New Testament, where the assumption is that there was nothing much beyond the influence of Rome, which emanated from the city. Indeed, Romans dated events from the foundation of the city of Rome in 753 BC.
While there had been serious barbarian invasions since about 170 AD, none had got near the city of Rome, much less sacked it. The result was great uncertainty about the world, and particularly about the new religion that the emperor Constantine had made the official religion of the empire in 325. While many had converted to Christianity since then, the majority of the empire was still pagan. Every emperor after Constantine made at least a passing profession of Christian faith, with the sole exception of the emperor Julian the Apostate. In his short reign from 361 – 3, he had attempted and failed to replace Christianity with classical paganism as the official religion of the empire.
As far back as the emperor Valerian in 260 AD, worship of the pagan gods had been enforced in order to secure their favour against the plagues and barbarian invasions which then ravaged the empire. Many pagans concluded that the increasing number of converts to Christianity had reduced the worship of the gods to the extent that the gods had decided to punish the Romans by sacking the city of Rome. The church father Tertullian (145 – 220) boasted then that Christians filled all the public places of the empire and had left to the pagans only their temples.
Socially and politically things seemed tenuous for the long-term future of Christianity. We must bear in mind also, that although the Roman army had Christians and some would even say was instrumental in spreading Christianity to the four corners of the empire so quickly, it remained overwhelmingly pagan. The army made and unmade most emperors. Any emperor, secure in his position or not, was well-advised to keep the army loyal. Equally, the faith of many Christians was shaken by the sacking. Augustine had written a few letters defending Christianity from blame for the sacking, but his friend urged him to extend this apology beyond these.
There is a long tradition in early church history of writing apologies for the faith, starting with Justin Martyr in about 120. The City of God is the last major such work in this tradition. However, earlier apologies such as those by Justin, Tertullian, or Origen (180 – 255), were limited to particular issues, such as the persecution in Lyons in modern-day southern France or the allegations of Celsus, an influential anti-Christian writer. The City of God is a comprehensive exposition of the Christian principles to which pagans objected and could therefore be viewed as the culmination of this antique genre of Christian apologetic.
It’s hard to say what, if any, effect the City of God had at the time, particularly as it was published in pieces. By contrast, probably if people today think of any Christian work from the ancient world, it would be the City of God. Only four years after Augustine spent the years 413 – 26 writing it, he died while his city Hippo was besieged by the Vandals, who brought Roman Africa to an end.
Before we look at what Augustine says in the City of God against the Pagans, to use its full title, it will be useful to outline a few things. It is written in 22 books. An ancient book is not the same as a modern book; an ancient book is more like a chapter in length. As a whole, English translations of the City of God from Latin range from about 500 pages to close to 1000, so it’s a serious piece of literature. It’s called the City of God because it’s divided into two sections, the first, the “City of Man”, and the second, the “City of God”. Augustine contrasts the perishing city of man with the enduring city of God. In doing so, Augustine makes allusions to numerous passages of Scripture such as the Tower of Babel, Babylon as depicted in Revelation, and the New Jerusalem.
While books 1 – 10 deal with the failure of the city of man, that is, human thought and civilization without reference to God, Augustine also addresses believers as they too struggled to deal with the sack of Rome. Augustine points out that a faith in God that lasts only so long as he blesses us is no good. We need to have faith in God when things are difficult, for that is when faith is exercised most. But, above all, our hope is not for this life, but for the life to come. After all, as the apostle Paul says, ‘if we have hoped in Christ only in this life, we are of all men most to be pitied’ (I Cor 15:19). Furthermore, to demand that God supply all our wants in this life is to misunderstand God. We must accept what God sends here and now, with an eye to the perfection that is to come [further, God has higher purposes for us than only to bless us even with eternal salvation].
One of Augustine’s arguments is that Rome had never been protected by the pagan gods. He spends the first 10 books writing about the many disasters that the Roman world had suffered while still worshipping them. Indeed, Augustine claims that it was only in churches that pagans as well as Christians found sanctuary against the Visigoths (CD, i, 1).1 Furthermore, there were pagans who had criticised the worship of the gods, given their immoral behaviour (such as Plato, much studied for many centuries after his death). It must be said at this point also that Alaric was an Arian Christian who spared the catholic Christians and pagans and kept his troops from sacking any church.2
The ancient world struggled to deal with the apparently random nature of the destruction and pain that was inflicted during the sack of Rome. Believers and pagans seemed to suffer equally, with no apparent distinction between the just and the unjust. Augustine responds to this by pointing out that God saving those who served him and not those who didn’t would suggest that he was bound to favour those who served him. They would then serve him not because he is God but because he blessed them. Satan alleges of Job, certainly one of the greatest men of the ancient near east of his day, ‘Does Job serve God for nothing? … you have blessed the work of his hands…’ (Job 1:9, 10). God wants us to serve him because he is God, not for any benefit we might obtain. Augustine further puts the question, in light of the obvious wickedness and triviality of Rome, whether responsibility for its sack could indeed fairly be laid at the feet of Christianity.
Augustine was arguably intellectually the greatest of the early church fathers and even of all history. At least a passing acquaintance with Augustine’s thought is needed really to get to grips with western culture and it is the City of God which was his greatest work, written at the culmination of his intellectual ability. Augustine also sums up earlier Christian apologetic, some of which was not particularly eloquent or well-reasoned or much too strident in its condemnation of pagan culture to obtain a hearing among unbelievers. Apologetics itself is theology applied to ordinary life and should therefore attract our attention. Theology unapplied is as good as a sermon without application – not very useful and of little benefit to its hearers.
How does this all apply to us today? We need to understand our world and what makes it tick. We need therefore to understand how it has come to be what it is, because our past shapes the present. This includes knowing about history that’s dishonourable or unhappy, because that’s reality. Those who don’t know their past are prone to the influence of the unscrupulous and there are plenty of such people active today.
For us to identify our culture, the Western church, even our denomination, exactly with the kingdom of God, is a mistake and will lead to disappointment if not disillusionment. God is not bound by anything on earth, not even by the faithful service of his faithful servants. After all, aren’t even the best of us unprofitable servants? The gates of Hades will not prevail over the Lord’s church and we see this borne out through history. Even the sad story of the destruction of the church in North Africa that began with the Vandal invasion of Augustine’s time and has remained, largely, to the present day, is part of God’s will. God’s will is inscrutable and he will not be cross-examined by us. Let’s leave Him up to running the universe and ensure that we serve him faithfully, each of us in our little corner of the world, and he will reward us in the age to come.
1 CD is the usual abbreviation for Civitas Dei, the Latin name for the City of God.
2 Arians didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, while catholic Christians did. This distinction is important for early church history from the mid-fourth century onwards, as there were outbreaks of violence between the two parties.
Mr Josh Rogers is a member of the Reformed Church in Pukekohe and a theological student.
Augustine censures the pagans, who attributed the calamities of the world, and especially the recent sack of Rome by the Goths, to the Christian religion, and its prohibition of the worship of the gods. He speaks of the blessings and ills of life, which then, as always, happened to good and bad men alike.