A Season to Consider (again) The City of God

In March 2016, Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore wrote an article titled “Reading Augustine in an Election Year.”  Drawing on the principal theme of The City of God, a book some recognize, fewer have read, and even fewer have finished, the motif of “two cities” is no less important today as it was four year ago, for in Moore’s words, “it can remind us who we are are, and where we’re going.”

Augustine’s distinctly Christian understanding of faith and politics is an invaluable gift to the church to the extent that its obsolescence is hard to imagine.   As a “theology of history,” the book is the first of its kind. Augustine’s task is to explain the nature and distinction between the “city of God” and the “city of Man.” In the following passage, he writes,

Two cities, then, have been created by two loves; That is, the earthly by love of self extending even to contempt of God, and the heavenly by the love of God extending to contempt of self. The one, therefore, glories in itself, the other in the Lord; the one seeks glory from men, the other finds its highest glory in God, the Witness of our conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, ‘Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.’ bk. 14, chp. 28. 

Because ancient Rome’s history is seventeen centuries removed from us, the magnanimity of the empire and its complex relationship to Christianity can be overlooked. In places where Rome is mentioned—in the Old Testament book of Daniel, or Revelation in the New Testament—the authors’ judgments are markedly negative. With characteristic cryptic allusion, John likens Rome to ancient Babylon, the civic embodiment of idolatry, greed, and sensuality. “The mother of all prostitutes,” “the great whore,” “the beast.” The Apostle is unconcerned with the subtleties or nuance of the state. Rome is the archetypal enemy of the church of Jesus Christ. 

Of course, the Apostolic message—the gospel—provided no sanction for revolution, but rather firm confidence in divine justice. The nonviolent dimension of early Christianity alone is a testimony to profound faith. As the church grew numerically over time, Christians could be found in higher echelons of society. By the early third century A.D., apologists in the empire defended the good conduct of Christians, even citing their loyalty as soldiers in Rome’s imperial army. Evidently, some Christians believed their faith was compatible with fealty to the state. Around the year 295, the emperor Diocletian expelled Christians from the Roman legions. Some were killed by order of generals who insisted that they deny the faith in order that they not lose valuable fighters. 

In 312 AD, Constantine the Great famously confessed his belief in God and Christ after seeing a vision in which he was told to “conquer in this name,” namely, two Greek letters—ki and rho—an abbreviation for “Christos.” Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge was confirmation that the encounter was of divine origin. Whether Constantine was truly converted and/or whether his theology was even orthodox is debated by historians.

What did change is the Roman government’s relationship to Christianity. Formally, church and state were no longer enemies. Christ had conquered the beast. Over the succeeding decades, the faith permeated the civic realm. State-sponsored persecution ended in 313. Christians received back property previously confiscated by the authorities. The gladiatorial contests were outlawed in 325. A seven-day work week with one day of rest was established. All such developments were indisputably good . Concurrently, the number of confessing Christians grew. Larger numbers of priests who entered the ministry now received their salary from the government that once persecuted pastors. 

At this point, we can perceive that Constantine’s conversion was a mixed blessing. Persecution is effective for purging most nominal confessors. Seemingly overnight, Christianity was not simply legal, it was socially and even economically advantageous. Augustine was himself born in the year 354, raised during the second generation of legalized Roman Christianity in what is modern-day Algeria. 

By the beginning of the fifth century, European tribal groups—“barbarians—were chipping away at the frontiers. The year 410 brought utter shock to the empire. The barbarians invaded and successfully sacked the eternal city. It is difficult to grasp the psychological effect of Rome being overtaken and plundered. Understandably, people were searching for answers. Citizens who had not embraced Christianity blamed the new faith on Rome’s demise. It was a weighty accusation, and only a mind as great as Augustine’s could provide an intellectually adequate response.

Though Augustine deals with various theological, biblical and historical matters—thereby making the book imposingly long—his chief concern is to explain what made Rome great and second, why the empire declined after it embraced the Christian faith. 

As to the first question, Augustine takes issue with Roman character. Resisting the temptation to judge Rome’s merit by its effects, Augustine weighs the intrinsic motivations of its citizens. Criticism of imperial wars, greed, bloodthirstiness, sexual immorality, idolatry is easy. A far greater challenge is finding fault with virtues such as courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice—traits that made Roman soldiers legendary. Further complicating an assessment of Rome’s values and their relationship to the Christian faith is the common ground they shared. A pagan and Christian alike could exhibit courage in the face of danger even if their reasons for doing so were dissimilar. Viewed from outside, “Christian” Rome resembled pagan Rome in many respects.    

As to the question of why Rome fell after adopting Christianity, Augustine doesn’t deal with considerations that modern historians would explore such as economic, administrative and social developments. Rather, he distinguishes pagan Rome from Christianity and assesses them as such, so in one sense, the question is left unanswered.    

For pagan contemporaries calling to “make Rome great again,” Augustine astutely observes that greatness in the civic realm often conflicts with the teachings of Christ. Augustine deconstructs the kind of legendary stories of valor in which a person chooses death over dishonor. In book 1, chp. 19, he questions why Lucretia would choose suicide after being raped by Sextus Tarquinius (6th century B.C.), since she suffered against her will and therefore, did nothing wrong. He asks if in fact, it was pride for a reputation of chastity that led Lucretia to take her own life. This is just one example where, upon close examination, pagan heroism conflicts with Christian teaching. Pride, as an ingrained principle of Roman supremacy, should lead a Christian reader to seriously reconsider what was praiseworthy about Rome—and any state for that matter. 

The conversion of Constantine opened a new horizon of opportunities for church influence on the government.  With shared values and mutual support, God’s kingdom could in theory advance in ways the early Christians could only dream. To some extent, this arrangement described western Europe for 1,000 years. The disappointing result, however, was a compromised church often exploited by the state.  Augustine’s two-cities doctrine does work both ways, that non-Christians often lead governments that in fact, embody pagan principles, despite claims to the contrary.  For believers throughout the centuries who’ve longed for Constantinian arrangement from Calvin’s Geneva, to Plymouth Plantation, to the Moral Majority, things have never worked out quite the way everyone hoped. 

Because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), there are no easy answers for how Christianity should inform and influence the state. This “age” (e.g. period in redemptive history) requires that citizens of two distinct kingdoms with radically different spiritual destinations coexist. For Augustine, there is no question that the civic realm is morally better when the Christian faith informs laws and customs. The state, however, will never be the true kingdom of God because only some—citizens of the city of God—are predestined for salvation. Every government is spiritually “mixed,” no matter how formally Christian it claims to be. Even churches are microcosms of the dichotomy. Augustine explains,

… while she is a pilgrim in this world, the City of God has with her, bound to her by the communion of the sacraments, some who will not be with her to share eternally in the bliss of the saints. Some of these are concealed. Some of them, however, join openly with our enemies, and do not hesitate to murmur against the God whose sacraments they bear. Sometimes they crowd into theaters with our enemies, and sometimes into the churches with us.  (bk. I, chp. 35)

Whether it comes to voting, to paying taxes, to explaining how and why a church’s sexual ethics conflict with civic ones, there is tension. There always will be tension, and as Augustine affirmed there should be tension. 

Applying the Christian faith consistently makes a citizen, if not politically indifferent, then, in the words one cultural commentator, “politically homeless.” Understanding this dynamic makes for better citizens and Christians alike, those who exercise civic responsibility, but above all else, desire “…a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4).