Augustine for the 21st Century (2): What is Augustine’s Argument in The City of God?

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Augustine used theology, philosophy, and history to hoist the cultured despisers of Christianity by their own petard.

These cultured despisers were Roman. On August 24, 410, Alaric and the Goths had sacked Rome. For the Romans this event was devastating and needed interpretation. What had weakened Rome and brought her to her knees? Why was she now being dominated after centuries of being the dominator?

Volusianus and other pagan intellectuals speculated that Christianity caused the downfall of Rome. The Roman emperor Constantine had adopted Christianity, after which time Christianity experienced explosive growth culminating in the eventual outlawing of the pagan gods and enshrinement of the Christian faith. For this reason, Volusianus and other pagans waged a public intellectual war against Christianity. Rome had been beaten to her knees, they argued, because the Romans had forsaken their gods, their founding narrative, and their philosophers.

Rome had forsaken her gods, they argued-her patron deities had been abandoned and their verdict was that Rome should fall. Further, she had forsaken her founding narrative-rather than locating her identity in the mythical narrative given by Virgil and others she now had replaced that narrative by an alien Hebrew narrative. Finally, Rome had forgotten her philosophers-she had departed from Plato and the Neo-Platonists by claiming the need for a Christ in order to obtain Eternal Truth.

Roman Christians, including one Marcellinus (Augustine’s friend, Roman proconsul to Africa, and an opinion leader among Rome’s cultural elite) sought to counter this pagan narrative. Marcellinus himself sought to convert Volusianus and toward that end penned a letter to Augustine of Hippo (modern-day Algeria), asking for his help in answering Volusianus and the pagans. City of God is Augustine’s 1,000 page letter in response.

Augustine’s letter is divided into five parts. The first two parts consist of his treatment of the pagan narrative, including Rome’s history, her gods, and her philosophers. He provides a survey of the history of philosophy, beginning with Thales, and concludes that the philosophers discovered many truths but in the end failed to discover Truth. Further, he provides a survey of the Roman gods, essentially mocking their character and actions. These “gods,” Augustine argued, had proven themselves to be immoral, unable to save the Romans from disaster, and in fact demonic in nature.

His refutation of Rome’s founding narrative finds its main treatment in the last three parts of Augustine’s letter in which he propounds his “Two City” argument. This argument can be distilled into six points. First, Augustine argued, all of human society can be divided into two cities-the City of Man and the City of God. Second, these twin cities are divided by two basic loves-the love of God and the love of idols. Third, the first man, Adam, embodied the dispositions of both of these cities which soon became implicit in Cain and Abel (which story is paralleled by that of Romulus’ murder of Remus). Fourth, man is drawn toward what he truly loves-either God or goods-and his chosen love locates him in either the City of Man or the City of God. Fifth, each of the two cities has a final destination, either eternal life or eternal death. Those persons in the City of Man seek their happiness in temporal things while those in the City of God seek theirs in an eternal Kingdom. Sixth, Jesus Christ will destroy the Beast and bring an end to history as we know it, at which time citizens of the City of God receive eternal life and citizens of the City of Man receive eternal torment.

Augustine’s argument is, of course, much deeper and broader than what can be communicated in the space of the previous few paragraphs. He was a theologian of enormous erudition whose arguments (and digressions) hold forth many ideas worthy of extended reflection. For those of our readership who like to be challenged theologically and devotionally, you should refuse to be content with the mini-distillation I have provided, and instead purchase and read City of God for yourself. (I recommend the Image Books edition, abridged for modern readers, with a foreword by Vernon J. Bourke.)