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Augustine and ‘The City of God’

Category Articles
Date August 17, 2015

Augustine of Hippo is without doubt one of the most significant figures of the early Church, and perhaps the most important of all those to write in Latin. It has been said that, ‘Apart from the Scriptural authors, no other figure had a greater impact on Christian life and thought up to the time of the Reformation.’1 No less a figure than B. B. Warfield wrote that Augustine, ‘not merely created an epoch in the history of the Church, but has determined the course of its history in the West up to the present day.’2 Of all of his many writings, it is his book The City of God that is widely agreed to be his greatest.3

To understand The City of God, it is necessary to know something of the life and times of its author; thankfully Augustine himself has ensured that we know more about him than we do about any of his contemporaries, as he wrote his own spiritual autobiography, the Confessions, which has been read with great appreciation ever since its first publication. Of it ‘Rabbi’ Duncan said, ‘There are three biographies of which I never tire: Augustine’s, Bunyan’s and Halyburton’s.’4 Augustine was born in the town of Thagaste in the Roman province of Numidia on November 13th 354, into a lower middle class family. His father, Patricius, was a junior municipal civil servant and a small property owner; while he was a pagan, his wife Monica was a Christian. Her influence on her famous son has ensured that she is one of the most famous mothers in history.

Augustine was born into the last age of the Western Roman Empire, a bright, brittle age in which paganism and Christianity managed an often uneasy coexistence. Barbarians threatened the frontiers of the empire, yet as with Edwardian Britain, there was no sense of living at the end of the age. The Empire was, and as far as the man on the street was concerned, the Empire had always been, therefore the Empire would continue to exist, despite its troubles. There had been struggles and crises before, even decades in which rival emperors struggled for control of the throne, and the Empire had survived.

The Empire, like all such great empires, depended on a massive bureaucracy, and so an education was seen as a valuable possession, and nowhere was this perception greater than on Roman Africa. Augustine was an intelligent man and, though his father’s means were limited, sufficient funds were scraped together to send him to the local university, in Carthage. Once at university the young man acted as many students, past and present, have done – he determined to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. He enjoyed the coarse, bawdy theatre of the day, in which crudely sexual comedy and savage violence provided spectacle for the crowds; he joined a group of wild and rebellious young men who delighted in their nickname of the Eversores, the ‘Smashers’, and he took a concubine.

We must not fall into the trap of assuming that Augustine let his mental talents go to waste; like many a talented student, he contrived to combine a wild lifestyle with dedicated study and actual hard work, delighting his worldly father in both of these things, but in his lifestyle horrifying his mother. He took to the Latin philosophers whose works were studied at Carthage as a duck to water, and was in particular inspired by the philosopher Cicero to embark upon a quest for the truth. Like many intellectuals since his day, Augustine came to despise Christianity. The old Latin Bible, translated by men of relatively humble circumstances into the common speech of the people rather than the refined Latin of literary men, a couple of centuries before him, was in his eyes worthy only of contempt. He saw simple Christians like his own mother as sincerely deluded, idiots without the mental ability to see things as they really were.

Truth, then, he thought must be found elsewhere, and so the young Augustine gave no real consideration to the claims of Christ. Instead he was persuaded to join the sect of the Manicheans, a group of Gnostic dualists whose religion originated in Persia. Mani, the founder of the sect, taught that the universe could be explained by a conflict between eternal and equal principles of good and evil. Eventually, however, Manicheanism did not satisfy his mind, and after one of their most respected leaders, Faustus, was unable to answer the questions that perplexed Augustine, he moved into scepticism.

In 383, still outwardly a Manichean, Augustine moved to the city of Rome. There, in the ancient heart of the Empire (though by now forsaken by the Imperial court), he hoped to make money teaching rhetoric, the art of public speaking. In fact everything went wrong for him there, and he soon left, moving to Milan where he hoped to obtain a Chair at the university. It was there that he once again began to attend Church, not out of any change of opinion, but simply to hear the preaching of the brilliant and pious Bishop Ambrose. In God’s providence this former civil servant’s preaching led Augustine to reconsider his attitude towards Christianity, for Ambrose made it clear it was not the ignorant, inelegant thing he had supposed it to be. Where the Manichean Faustus had failed to answer his questions, Ambrose listened and pointed the young intellectual to Christ; Augustine, for his part, heard Ambrose gladly.

His journey towards faith was not an easy one; he came under deep conviction of sin as he considered the course of his past life, and struggled with the question of whether God would ever hear him. It was in August 386, while in the garden of his house, half-mad with conviction, that he heard, ‘the sound, as it might be, of a boy or a girl repeating in a sing-song voice a refrain unknown to me: “Pick it up and read it, pick it up and read it.’5 Taking the words as a divine command, he picked up a copy of Paul’s writings that he had to hand and opened on Romans 13:13-14, ‘Not in riotousness and drunkenness, not in lewdness and wantonness, not in strife and rivalry; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh and its lusts.’ It reached him, a great peace came into his heart, and he turned wholeheartedly to the God of Monica and of Ambrose.

Following his conversion Augustine was baptised by Ambrose in the Cathedral of Milan, and returned to Africa to found a community of Christian scholars and live in seclusion, but God had other plans for him. In 391 he was forcibly ordained elder in the Church at Hippo Regius. In 395 he became the Bishop of that same Church, where he remained until his death on August 28th 430. To the end he taught Christ, and was found often in the cathedral, teaching the people.

Although he wrote widely (we have more works from the pen of Augustine than we have from any other Church Father), on such important subjects as the Trinity and the Pelagian controversy, Augustine’s best-known works are his Confessions and The City of God. The Confessions is read for its vivid description of Augustine’s conversion and its deep understanding of the human mind; while The City of God is less well known, it is perhaps the most significant of all the books he ever wrote.

The City of God was occasioned by the sack of Rome in A.D. 410 by the Visigoths in a dispute over payment for Visigothic mercenaries. Though they were not pagans, the Visigoths were not Christian either – they were Arian heretics. The city of Rome had long since lost its political and economic significance for the Empire, but it still held a great symbolic and psychological importance; Rome was ‘the Eternal City’, ‘Coeval with the universe and secure while the laws of nature held.’6 Its sack sent shockwaves rippling throughout the Empire, and as often happens in times of crisis, people looked for someone to blame. The pagans fixed upon the Christians as their target; Rome had fallen, so they argued, because the worship of the old gods had been abandoned and the pagan religion had been disestablished. The gods had, they said, retaliated by withdrawing their protection from those who no longer worshipped them. Many Christians reacted with stunned despair, reasoning that if Rome had fallen, the end of the world was at hand.

Augustine’s reaction was different, the calm response of faith. He set to answering the objections of the pagans and calming the fears of the Christians. Instead of panicking, the Christian philosopher’s mind was stimulated to investigate the very nature of history itself. He cut Rome down to size; far from being the ideal, the final state, it was another empire like any other, and as earlier empires had fallen, so too Rome itself might pass away; it was neither unique nor irreplaceable. Others idealised Rome; he called for a healthy realism where all human institutions were concerned.

Though it was called forth by the sack of Rome, The City of God was in many ways merely a development of concepts that already existed in Augustine’s own thought and in the era in which he lived; the very title itself was probably derived from a writer called Tyconius, a Donatist theologian who also lived in north Africa. The thought of this man was dominated by the Church; the great theme of all history was, to Tyconius, the destinies of the City of God. Thus Augustine took a theme that his contemporaries were familiar with, and from it developed a complete philosophy of history, a thing never before attempted.

History was a neglected discipline in the later Roman Empire; the great historians of the past, Tacitus and Herodotus, were neglected, their writings used only as quarries for illustrations by the rhetoricians. The philosophy of the age was anti-historical, as if the end of history had arrived. But Augustine had a greater influence that overpowered the thought of the age around him, the Christian conviction that God works in history, ‘The incarnation of the Word in space and time makes Christianity an historical religion and, as such, a daily invitation to the study of history.7 Augustine took up the invitation with all the zeal with which he had previously taken up secular philosophy. While his book was to be an apologetic defending Christianity against the slanders of the pagans, it was to become far more than that; it was to be an exposition of a Christian philosophy of history – of the first philosophy of history ever formulated.

As a Christian, not a pagan, Augustine saw that history is not a random process, nor is it controlled by blind, uncaring fate. While the pagan gods and goddesses were a part of history, ruled by fate just as mortals were, the Bible reveals a God who is the almighty ruler of history. ‘If the beginning of history is seen to be the Creative Act of God, and its end the completion of man’s redemption, history becomes real, earnest and meaningful.8 Christianity redeemed history and made it meaningful, for it was in history that God had worked out the redemption of his people. While some pagan philosophers posited an eternal universe in which history was a never-ending cycle – all had happened before and would happen again – Augustine found in the Bible that history is a line, from God and to God, in which two strands would round reach other from a definite beginning to an equally definite end in which they would finally be separated.

History was, Augustine explained, ‘a tale of two cities’, the City of God and the Earthly City, which ‘Two states are intimately connected and promiscuously blended with one another in this life until they are separated by the final judgement.’9 Cain and Abel were the archetypes of the two cities, Cain the founder of the earthly city, Abel a citizen of the Eternal. ‘These two states have been created by two different sets of affections, the earthly by the love of self to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God to the contempt of self. That one glories in self; this one in God.’10 The City of God is a stranger in the world, it is not Rome, and it is to be identified with no human city, state or system; its founder is God himself.

Though he formulated this philosophy of history, Augustine did not attempt to write a ‘universal history’; the historical books of The City of God are incomplete, fragmentary suggestions rather than finished pieces, and made up mostly of accounts of biblical history rather than interpretations of history outside of Scripture. This is probably all for the best, for it would have swelled The City of God beyond its already extended limits. So Augustine left the Church with ‘His conception of the world’s history as a scene of divine permission and purpose.’11

Whilst his influence in the west has been considerable, Augustine had little if any influence on the thinking of the Eastern Churches. Constantinople, the ‘New Rome’ that had been the capital of the Eastern Empire, did not finally fall until 1453, and in Constantinople the City of God and the earthly city were not separated until the Turks, in the slaughter that followed their entry into the Imperial City, did so forcibly. In the West, on the other hand, Rome continued to decline and finally the Empire crumbled away completely. Augustine profoundly influenced the Western Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, though he was not always truly understood. In the Middle Ages The City of God became a part of the basis for the medieval doctrine of the papacy. After all, had not Augustine identified the Church with the Kingdom of God, and should not that Kingdom be over the kingdoms of the world? Whilst it is true that Augustine did not in The City of God observe the distinction between the Church as an organisation and the Church as the elect people of God, there are many indications in the book that Augustine did not regard the Church in terms of an organised hierarchical body. He writes, for example, of ‘The Church predestined and elected before the foundation of the world, the Church of which it is said, “The Lord knoweth them that are His.”‘12 There is no clear distinction made in Augustine between the visible and the invisible Church, as in later Reformed writers, but the germ of the idea is there, waiting to be developed. Certainly he himself did not regard the Bishop of Rome as the earthly head of the City of God, and it was pure abuse of his writings to use them to argue such a thing.

At the Reformation Protestants discarded this illegitimate use of Augustine’s philosophy of history and recovered Augustine’s true teaching. The Church was once again seen as more than simply the official clergy, and the vision of the City of God as a pilgrim city in a strange land once again was heard from pulpits and professorial desks. In England and in Germany state establishments once again fettered the Church to the state, and it was left to persecuted groups to protest that this ought not to be so. John Calvin and his circle saw a better way, a Church that was not a creature of the state, nor a tyrant over the state, but separate from the state; yet old habits die hard, and the two cities have often been confused in the centuries between the Reformation and today, both by those who believed in a state Church and those who repudiated such a belief.

So why is The City of God still important to us? It is not too much to say that a recovery of Augustine’s Christian philosophy of history is one of the greatest needs of the Church in our day and age. The British Empire has crumbled away, and ‘Christendom’ is rapidly decaying as mosques replace churches and chapels on the streets on British cities, sometimes literally.

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.13

As we look around, there is the temptation to despair, to equate either consciously or otherwise the United Kingdom with the City of God even as the Romans equated Rome with it. We see the decay of our culture and react as if ours of all cultures was the one that would not decay or fall until the end, and its decay necessarily means that the end of history is at hand. Augustine warns us that such thinking is erroneous; all man’s empires pass away, and ours is no different. We must again realise that the City of God is a pilgrim people, and no matter what may befall our land, our land is not God’s abiding kingdom. Nor should we fall into the trap of looking to some other land, whether it is the United States of America, Russia, or some other state, as though that were the City of God from which our salvation shall come and by allegiance to which we must be saved.

Not only must the Church realise that she is a band of pilgrims in the midst of a hostile world, but we must also realise more fully than we have the great fact that history is meaningful. History is a God-directed process, no matter what secularism, atheism, and postmodernism may say as they attempt once more to make the world view history as pointless and ultimately irrelevant. The Church must reclaim history, and that means that we must know it, own it, and celebrate it. When far too many congregations sing nothing that was not written within the last forty years, we have a Church that has followed the world in the side-lining of history, and that is a tragedy. The Church must rather reclaim history.

The teaching that history is the story of two cities co-existing until the end of time must also alert the Church in the West to the very real possibility of renewed persecution, even as it alerted Augustine in Christian North Africa to that same possibility. While there were men of his day who ridiculed the idea of further persecution in the Empire until the final persecution, even as some in the 20th century were sure there would be no more persecution of Christians in the United Kingdom or the United States, Augustine cautioned, ‘It does not seem to me that the number of persecutions through which the Church is to be tried can be definitely stated.’14

And though they take our life,
Goods, honour, children, wife,
Yet is their profit small;
These things shall vanish all;
The City of God remaineth.15


  1. Michael A.G. Haykin, Defence of the Truth (Darlington, 2004) p. 91.
  2. B. B. Warfield, Studies in Tertullian and Augustine (reprinted, Grand Rapids, 2000) p. 114.
  3. Eg., Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (Edinburgh, 1927) p. 184.
  4. J. M. Brentnall (ed.), ‘Just a Talker’: The Sayings of John (‘Rabbi’) Duncan (Edinburgh, 1997), p. 19.
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        Augustine of Hippo is without doubt one of the most significant figures of the early Church, and perhaps the most important of all those to write in Latin. It has been said that, ‘Apart from the Scriptural authors, no other figure had a greater impact on Christian life and thought up to the time of […]

  5. Augustine, The Confessions, 8.12.28.
  6. John H. S. Burleigh, The City of God (London, 1949) p. 16, summarizing the poet Claudian.
  7. Burleigh, p. 193.
  8. Burleigh, p. 206.
  9. Augustine, The City of God, I.12.
  10. The City of God, XIV.28.
  11. Robert Rainy, The Ancient Catholic Church (Edinburgh, 1902) p. 465.
  12. The City of God, XX.8.
  13. Rudyard Kipling, Recessional (1897).
  14. The City of God, XVIII.52.
  15. Martin Luther translated by Thomas Carlyle, A Safe Stronghold our God is Still.

Taken from Peace & Truth, issue 2015:3, with kind permission of the editor, Gervase Charmley.

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