St. Augustine’s The City of God
analysis by Lindsey Hurd
"There is a river the streams whereof shall make glad the city of our God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved.” Psalm xivi.iv
It was the year 410 A.D. Toppling from the heights of her golden throne, Rome, the great mistress of the world, opened her gates to barbarian invaders. Throughout the civilized world, rumors of the sacked city were greeted with horror or unbelief. Three years later, in response to the pagan’s charge that Christian impiety towards the Roman gods had brought the gods’ wrath upon the city, Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo, took up his pen to defend Christianity from this charge.
These writings were the beginning of his great literary work, which would prove to become one of the most respected and frequently cited books of Church history. Thirteen years of labor completed this work; Augustine called it The City of God. This city, he wrote, is “…surpassingly glorious, whether we view it as it still lives by faith in this fleeting course of time, and sojourns as a stranger in the midst of the ungodly, or as it shall dwell in the fixed stability of its eternal seat . . .”
There is another city of which he also writes: the earthly one. Of it, he says, “though it be mistress of nations, it itself is ruled by its lust of rule. ”Throughout the City of God, he traces the journeys of these two cities, from the time they were founded, to how they relate with one another, the conduct of their life, and finally, their ultimate end.
When God created the world with divine perfection and set man in the midst of His garden, He knew that man would sin. The eating of the fruit brought God’s just retribution as he promised, and not just upon Adam, but upon all of his posterity, for an imperfect nature cannot beget a perfect nature. To those who found God’s punishment harsh, Augustine wrote, “But eternal punishment seems hard and unjust to human perceptions, because in the weakness of our mortal condition there is wanting that highest and purest wisdom by which it can be perceived how great a wickedness was committed in that fist transgression.
The more enjoyment men found in God, the greater was his wickedness in abandoning Him; and he who destroyed in himself a good which might have been eternal, became worthy of eternal evil.” Thus, Adam’s sin left all of mankind in the city of man, from whence it could not be freed except by Christ’s blood. Augustine believed that God chose to redeem His own people so that the world could see the efficacy of earthly grace, and on the other hand, He chose to let the rest continue in condemnation so that the world might also see the severity of retribution.
Of the worldly city, Augustine wrote that Cain was the founder, and of the heavenly city, Abel. Though it could be argued that Adam actually founded the earthly city when he ate of the fruit, Augustine apparently preferred Cain as founder. At the hands of Cain, the earth first swallowed the blood of man, and it was first recorded of him that he arose and built cities. Whoever were the true founders, Augustine was certain that all of humanity is divided into one of these antithical cities.
One consists of those living according to man, while the other lives according to God; “one is predestined to reign eternally with God, and the other to suffer eternal punishment with the devil.” (XV.1) Thus, these the two cities exhibit two loves; the earthly loves itself to the contempt of God, whilst the heavenly city loves God, to the contempt of flesh. The former seeks glory from men, the latter from God, saying, “Thou art my glory. And the lifter up of mine head.” (Ps. 3:3)
That part of the heavenly city which sojourns here on earth is composed of numerous households, and the way these are ruled contributes in a very real way to the function of the whole city. The principles this city must live by, and which must be encouraged on behalf of all household members by the head of the house are the two greatest commandments: Thou shalt love the Lord they God, and thy neighbor as thyself.
In the spiritual life of each individual Christian, Augustine indicated that there must be a balance between living an active Christian life (societal involvement) and a contemplative life (that is, contemplation of God). Not surprisingly, however, Augustine placed more emphasis upon the latter. Influenced as he was by this platonic doctrine of contemplation of the greatest Good, he believed, to some degree, in the encompassing superiority of contemplation in the whole of Christian life. However, he also recognized the importance of active Christian life and the danger of selfishly indulging in contemplation to the detriment of Christian service in the body of Christ.
On the flip side of this, he warned that active life, unaccompanied by contemplation, quickly saps a Christian of the strength to press forward. In his own words, “No man has a right to lead such a life of contemplation as to forget in his own ease the service due to his neighbor; nor has any man a right to be so immersed in active life as to neglect the contemplation of God.” (XIX.17)
In the earthly city, the people thereof receive the rain and food the Father gives them, but their darkened hearts are deprived of His unchangeable light, and they give him not thanks. These citizens prefer their own impious and proud gods and delight in their own strength, which represents itself in the person of their rulers. Oftentimes, the greed and selfishness of these rulers grasp for self-serving privileges and divine honors at the expense of their subjects, so that they lead their people into bondage and make war upon liberty itself.
Besides the physical qualities surrounding the life of the earthly city, there are also the stark spiritual and moral qualities which threaten the people therein. Augustine writes, “where there is no true religion, there are no true virtues . . . For what kind of mistress of the body and the vices can that mind be which is ignorant of the true God, and which, instead of being subject to His authority, is prostituted to the corrupting influences of the most vicious demons?” Though the earthly city may demand strict moral obedience to its law, true virtue will not result because there is no religion other than the true religion which has an absolute law of justice and morality.
Thus, the earthly city’s laws are always open to abuse, ambiguous interpretation, or “progress.” There is no higher law than the leaders of this city. In fact, Augustine believed that the very virtues exhibited by the unbelievers are in actuality vices if they are not exercised within a biblical framework. These, he says, are “inflated with pride, and are therefore reckoned vices.” What he essentially meant is that when sinful man, in the pride of his own might undertakes to live a virtuous life apart from the lordship of Christ, he obviates his stiff-necked refusal of God’s Word all the more.
These two cities, Augustine wrote, share a common desire: peace. However, they have different methods of seeking it. The earthly city seeks earthly peace and an orderly society, but it strives for peace as the product of man’s intelligence and administrative abilities. That part of the heavenly city which dwells on earth seeks earthly peace as well, but only when it complements their ultimate goal of peace under God.
As Augustine writes, they “[make] this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven; for this alone can be truly called and esteemed the peace of the reasonable creatures, consisting as it does in the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God.” (XIX.17) Because of this different view of peace, discord sometimes arises between these two cites.
The eternal lot of the earthly city is eternal death, where they dwell because they forsook their God, after which God forsook them.“Death,” Augustine wrote, “then, of the soul takes place when God forsakes it, as the death of the body when the soul forsakes it.Therefore, the death of both – that is, of the whole man—occurs when the soul, forsaken by God, forsakes man. For in this case, neither is God the life of the soul, nor the soul the life of the body” (XIII.1). The City of God welcomes its citizens to their heavenly home, where they live in eternal rest and blissful joy with God, where all things cry out that He is indeed God.
“Now, when they were come up to the gate, there was written over it in letters of Gold, ‘Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city’” - (Pilgrim’s Progress).