Book Write-Up: City of God, by Augustine

I read Augustine’s City of God over the last four months.  Here are some things that I found interesting (not that this post does justice to this mammoth work):

A.  The back cover of my Penguin Classics edition states:

“Augustine discusses first the ancient polytheistic religion of Rome; secondly, the arguments of the Greek philosophers, with emphasis on the Neo-Platonists; last, creation, time and eternity as presented in the Bible.  His thesis is that Rome, as the earthly City of God, should bring together the revelation of the Bible, the wisdom of Greek philosophy and the honour and dignity of her own tradition, and so enable the members of her church to enter into the eternal City of Heaven through regeneration in Christ.”

I definitely saw in the City of God the first point that this quotation makes: that Augustine critiques pagan polytheism and philosophy.  I did not see the second point, at least not entirely.  That is not to say that it’s not there, but that I do not recall it.

Augustine is responding to the pagan argument that Rome fell because it converted to Christianity and thus displeased the gods.  Augustine mounts many arguments against Greco-Roman pagan religion in City of God, such that he was practically the Robert Ingersoll of his day, at least when it came to pagan religions.  One argument that Augustine makes is that paganism fails even on its own assumptions.  Is misfortune a sign of displeasing the gods, according to Greco-Roman religion?  Then, Augustine inquires, what about the misfortunes that pagan Rome suffered back when it was pagan, and piously pagan, at that?  Christianity, by contrast, has a way to account for suffering, even of the righteous.  According to Augustine, suffering encourages people to be humble and to value eternity.  Moreover, Augustine believes that God gives and withholds temporal blessings for a reason: God gives them to show that divine providence actually exists, while God withholds them to encourage people not to worship God primarily for temporal rewards.  Augustine asks other questions, as well: If the Greek and Roman gods are not as immoral as they are depicted, as some pagans argue, then why did these gods (according to pagan writings) demand that cities put on plays depicting the gods’ immoral acts?  For Augustine, the answer is that these gods are demons, perversely delighting in such plays about them.  If the entire world is God or indwelt by a divine World Soul, does that mean that anything we trample underfoot is God?  Augustine’s arguments go on.

The second point—-about Augustine wanting Rome to combine the Bible, Greek philosophy, and Roman tradition—-is somewhat present.  Obviously, Augustine favors the divine revelation that is in the Bible.  On philosophy, Augustine takes a rather dim view of it, seeing it as internally contradictory and often unreasonable.  He values Platonism because it comes close to Christianity in certain concepts (i.e., creation), and he even suggests that Plato may have encountered Judaism, but he maintains that Platonism falls short.  At times, he argues that Christianity is consistent with certain pagan philosophical ideas, against pagan arguments that Christianity makes no sense, on such doctrines as the physical resurrection of the dead.  Overall, though, while Augustine is quoted as saying that Christianity should plunder the wisdom of Greek philosophy, his view of philosophy in City of God seemed to be dim.  On Roman virtues, Augustine acknowledges them, but he also points out a lot of Roman vices, or he argues that the virtues fall short (e.g., he asks what makes suicide so virtuous, as some Romans argue, when one would think that endurance would be more virtuous).

That second point sounds like Augustine was promoting some sort of Christian theocracy.  Maybe he had that agenda, but it did not stand out to me in City of God.  Rather, Augustine presented the City of God as God’s righteous people, going back to the antediluvian times.  The City of God is also eschatological, in that it is the heavenly city where the saints will ultimately go.

B.  Augustine extensively picks apart Greco-Roman paganism, but does he offer a positive case for Christianity?  I do not recall that much of a positive apologetic being presented in City of God.  Augustine contends that the barbarians’ preservation of the Christian churches when they invaded attests to the truth of Christianity, on some level.  He tells anecdotes of Christian miracles he has seen and heard about, often revolving around Christian saints.  He says that it is a wonder that so many people have embraced the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, when that runs contrary to prominent pagan philosophical ideas.  Augustine goes out of his way to explain apparent oddities in Christianity, but, in some cases, he seems to rest on mystery.  Augustine says that murder and suicide are wrong, but then he has to deal with Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter, and Samson killing himself with the Philistines.  Augustine essentially says (as I understand them) that these actions must be right because God commanded them.  Augustine does not strike me as a Josh McDowell sort of apologist, one who attempts to show that Christianity has a solid evidential foundation.  He comes across as more of a fideist, yet he also tries to present Christianity as internally reasonable.

C.  Augustine is renowned for believing that the male sex drive is a result of original sin.  In City of God, he believes that God before the Fall intended Adam and Eve to have sex, in order to be fruitful and multiply.  But they would have sex without the male sex drive being part of the sexual activity.  Augustine appears to be pro-marriage, here.  At the same time, he seems to think that Christian singleness is preferable.  Augustine attempts to refute an interpretation of I Corinthians 3:10-15, which talks about building on good and substandard materials and the prospect of some people being saved through fire.  As is the case today, some people back then were saying that professing Christians can enter the Kingdom of God without living a holy life, for they would be saved through fire.  Augustine responds that I Corinthians 3:10-15 does not teach this, but rather is about holy people who marry, and will experience the loss of marriage when they enter the Kingdom of God.

D.  The Protestant Reformation is often considered to be a return to Augustine.  Augustine believed in original sin (i.e., a severe human propensity towards evil) and thus the necessity for divine regeneration, whereas Aquinas supposedly had a stronger view of human free will.  On justification, however, Augustine in City of God came across as Catholic: he did not stress God imputing righteousness onto the believer and considering the believer forensically righteous, but more the believer becoming practically holy and righteous through the power of God.  When Paul in Romans 10:3 states that the Jews wrongfully sought to establish their own righteousness rather than accepting the righteousness of God, Augustine does not appear to define the righteousness of God as God’s free gift of imputed righteousness, as a number of Protestants do.  Rather, he treats it as the practical righteousness that God enables believers to have, through the Holy Spirit.  He undoubtedly believed in divine forgiveness of sins, though.

E.  Augustine is sometimes presented as proto-Calvinist, or so he came across to me when I first learned about him years ago.  Augustine believed in predestination: that God chose those who would be saved.  At the same time, at least when it comes to Lucifer and the demons before their rebellion and pre-Fall Adam and Eve, Augustine appears to have a stronger (or more libertarian) view of free will than, say, Jonathan Edwards.  Jonathan Edwards argued that something needed to cause Adam and Eve’s sin, since choices cannot pop out of nowhere, and he maintained that what caused it was a withdrawal of divine grace.  Augustine, by contrast, seems to maintain that Lucifer and the demons and pre-Fall Adam and Eve could make a genuine choice for God or against God.  Still, when it comes to the eschaton, when saints will be unable to sin, Augustine affirms that their inability to sin at that time will be consistent with them having free will.  In this case, Augustine comes across as compatibilist: that the saints will act according to their choice (to be righteous), even if they will be unable to choose otherwise (to do evil), and thus they technically have free will.

F.  A number of progressive Christians have presented Augustine as a Christian thinker who did not take the creation account of Genesis 1 literally.  Maybe he did not, in another writing.  In City of God, however, he defends a young age of the earth against Greek views that the earth was much older.  Moreover, while Augustine does maintain that several events in the Book of Genesis have a deeper, allegorical meaning that concerns Christ and the church, he still believes in their historicity.  For example, Augustine attempts to answer a skeptical question about Old Testament figures having advanced ages when they had children.  Did they seriously refrain from sex until they were a hundred or so years old?  Augustine replies that, of course, they had sex and children long before that, but that Genesis is only mentioning the child they had when they were at an advanced age.  The goal of the genealogy, after all, is not to list all of the children that the people had, but only the children who led up to Noah, or Abraham.  The children listed in the genealogy are not necessarily the oldest, but they are the ones who lead up to Noah, or Abraham.  That made sense to me at first, but then I noticed that Genesis 5:32 appears to say that Noah was five-hundred years old when he had Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  As far as I am aware, those were his only children.  In light of that consideration, the question that Augustine was addressing still stands (unless one wants to say that Noah had children before them, and they died prior to the time of the Ark and the Flood).

G.  Augustine maintains that both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Septuagint are divinely-inspired, even though he is aware that there are clear differences between them.  Looking at Book 4, Chapters 13-14, Augustine seems to vacillate between saying that we should go with the Hebrew when it contradicts the Septuagint on genealogical ages, and saying that the LXX is divinely-inspired.  Another thorny issue, for Augustine, is Genesis 6:2.  Augustine interprets the sons of God who have sex with the daughters of men in that verse as the sons of Seth, the righteous line, not as angels.  But the LXX and the Book of Enoch regards the sons of God as angels.  Augustine argues that the sons of God were human yet had some sort of angelic status, due to their righteousness.  Regarding I Enoch, Augustine expresses doubts about its authenticity, though he does believe that Jude 1:14 (which is in I Enoch) is an authentic saying of Enoch.

H.  Regarding Augustine’s interpretation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Augustine believes that it points to Christ.  In some cases, Augustine believes that the text’s Christological meaning is in addition to its historical meaning.  Augustine appears to believe that Hannah’s song in I Samuel 2 is about the birth of Samuel, on some level, but that, even more, it is about Christ.  Augustine argues that some aspects of Hannah’s song do not fit her or Samuel: Hannah says in v 5, for example, that the barren bore seven sons, whereas she bore Samuel and five other children, not seven (see v 21).  For Augustine, Hannah’s song is ultimately about Christ overturning evil.  Augustine also regards Samuel as a type of Christ, in that Samuel, technically, was not legally qualified for the Aaronic priesthood; similarly, Christ would be a non-Aaronic priest.  While Augustine believes that some texts in the Hebrew Bible have a double application, there are many cases in which he argues that the Christological meaning is the only meaning.  When Malachi 1:11 affirms that God’s name will be glorified among the Gentiles, Augustine sees that as a prediction of the Gentiles coming to Christ, nothing else.  Other points: Augustine regarded the temporal blessings for the righteous in the Old Testament as symbolic of eschatological, spiritual blessings for believers in the afterlife.  Augustine also had an interesting interpretation of Malachi 4:6, which states that Elijah will turn the heart of the father to the son and the son to the father.  Augustine notices that the nouns are singular in the Greek and thus interprets the Father as God the Father and the son as Jesus Christ.  For Augustine, the passage is about God’s exaltation of Jesus.  Augustine believed that the Jews would eventually embrace Christ, in response to that.

I.  Augustine was an amillennialist, in that he believed that the millennium of Revelation 20:2-7 is a current reality rather than a paradisaical earthly kingdom that Jesus will rule after his second coming.  According to Revelation 20:2-7, Satan is bound during the millennium, and Augustine leans heavily on Matthew 12:29/Mark 3:27, in which Jesus implies that he is binding the strong man (Satan) in his earthly ministry, at his first coming.  This view can inspire a question: What about the New Testament passages that indicate that Satan is active during the church age (II Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2; I Peter 5:8; etc.)?  How is this consistent with the amillennialist belief that Satan is currently bound?  Augustine attempts to offer explanations.  Whether or not they are convincing is another question.  Looking at these sections (Book 20, Chapters 7-8) a second time, I see his argument that Satan is bound in the hearts of the impious, and that Satan is limited in his ability to tempt.

J.  Some Christians nowadays assert that we should not love ourselves but should love God and neighbor; or, more accurately, they say that God does not command us to love ourselves but assumes that we do so and exhorts us to love others as ourselves.  Self-love plays a significant role in City of God, however, for Augustine affirms that Christianity leads to personal happiness.  For example, Augustine argues against the view that people can live unholy lives while atoning for their sins through forgiveness of others and giving alms, and he does so through an appeal to I Corinthians 13, which states that giving to the poor without love is nothing.  Essentially, Augustine argues that those who who give to the poor while living an unholy life are not loving themselves, for they are not pursuing what is good for themselves.  In this case, Augustine interprets a chapter that is about love for others in reference to enlightened egoism.

I’ll stop here.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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