via wikipedia commons: “The Arka Church” in Nowa Huta, Poland.
St. Augustine’s City of God is such a vast body of work that to write several thousand words on the document would be futile. Instead of writing a quasi-commentary on the text, the hope here to highlight the theme of salvation historiography that Augustine attempts to flesh out from the fall of the Roman empire. The decline and fall of the Roman empire is also the subject and title of a famous work on the subject written by Edward Gibbon. It is a work still trumpeted in History and Classics departments at many universities. What is strange about the study of that particular work, which blames the Catholic Church for the fall of the Roman empire, is that many academics seem to miss the fact that Gibbon wrote it as a diatribe against Catholicism—a common theme in 18thcentury England.
Interestingly enough, the work is often used today as a source to criticize all of Christianity as a whole. The trouble about Gibbon’s particular text is that St. Augustine had utterly refuted it 1300 years prior. After learning the contexts of Augustine’s City of Godin comparison to Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I’d be utterly embarrassed to assign that particular text in a classroom.
Rodney Stark, professor of Religious Studies at Baylor University, writes in his book Bearing False Witness at length about Edward Gibbon’s misrepresentation for the fall of the Roman empire. Stark explains, “Edward Gibbon (1737-94) would surely have been in deep trouble had the bitterly antireligious views he expressed in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire not been incorrectly seen as applying to Roman Catholicism … Gibbon’s readers assumed his attacks were specific to Catholicism and not aimed at religion in general.”
A student may spend their entire academic career at multiple colleges studying Roman civilization and culture and never read Augustine, one of the great Latin writers, but will almost definitely read Gibbon. A sad testimony to many history departments on college campuses.
Augustine’s work, The City of God, was written from the year 413 to 426 A.D. Matthew Levering examines that The City of God can be broken into either two parts or five depending on the topics in the work.Levering explains, “Divided into two parts, the work consists in ten books against the pagan gods, followed by twelve books on the origin, progress, and end of the City of God. Divided into five parts the work consists in five books against pagan worship as beneficial for this life; five books against pagan worship…as beneficial for the life to come; four books on the origin of the City of God; four books on its progress; and four books on its end.”
In the frameworks of St. Augustine’s City of God, Augustine employs a particular method of recording history, an approach called by the author as an Augustinian historiography. Levering explains that Augustine seeks to illustrate what “we can expect from historical existence, Augustine painstakingly transforms it into a biblical understanding of history according to which our lives can only be rightly appreciated in terms of ecclesial participation in the eternal God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.”A method commonly thought to have been concentrated in the 7thcentury by the Saint the Venerable Bede, but is Augustine’s use of it in a more expansive role is 300 years before Bede’s work on Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
In the opening paragraph, St. Augustine examines that the task he is about to undertake is one of great difficulty writing:
“I shall consider it both in its temporal stage here below (where it journeys as a pilgrim among sinners and lives by faith) and as solidly established in its eternal abode—that blessed goal for which we patiently hope ‘until justice be turned into judgment,’ but which, one day, is to be the reward of excellence in a final victory and a perfect peace. The task, I realize, is a high and hard one, but God will help me.”
Whereas Edward Gibbon argued that Catholicism ushered what modern history is realizing to be a mythical dark age, Augustine examines the account, as an eyewitness, that Christianity gave moral restraint to Christian soldiers where pagan soldiers did not exercise such virtue:
Have not even those very Romans whom the barbarians spared for the sake of Christ assailed His Name? To this both the shrines of the martyrs and the basilicas of the Apostles bear witness: amid the city’s devastation, these buildings gave refuge not only to the faithful but even to infidels.
St. Augustine examines that source for such barbarism was rooted in paganism. Levering explains, “The Romans constructed gods in their own worst image, and then they used those gods to justify their vicious behavior while at the same time openly mocking the behavior of the gods.” A common objection from skeptics of the faith will be, “People don’t believe in the pagan gods anymore, why should I believe in your God.” It’s important to point out what St. Thomas Aquinas understood that a plethora of beings which all shared the same nature but possessed different characteristics or powers wouldn’t be a ‘god’ in the proper sense of the word. Therefore, one can know rationally there can be only one God. Augustine, in his rhetoric, plays against this idea of different attributed God’s when examining the worship of the Goddess of Victory. He observes that Victory in war must be related to some form of Injustice, and if Injustice is a moral good for the Roman empire when they expand it, perhaps, the Romans should worship Injustice.
In our modern age, studies have shown that people who have sworn off the old religions are still inherently religious (or spiritual is what they claim).The question then becomes, how do these people live out their quasi-spiritualism? Some folk feel as though there is a passive distant god, responsible for creation. The idea is similar to deism popular in the 17thand 18thcenturies with adherents like Thomas Jefferson. Others tend to focus on New Ageism, which is similar to pagan pantheism. Moreover, although there may be other variables, people recreate old religion or figures into their image that adherents for generations would fail to recognize.
Catholic Apologist Trent Horn writes, in his new book Counterfeit Christs, noticing his talk did not go over well with a group of Catholic school teachers:
Afterward, I asked one of the teachers, “What did you think of my presentation?”
“No offense,” she said, “but people like you get worked up about minor things like who can and can’t receive Communion, whereas I think we should just focus on being people of faith…
“I just don’t think Jesus would say that,” she continued. “He wouldn’t say , ‘No, you have this because of somebody’s rules.’ Jesus would be compassionate, not judgmental.”
What Trent is noticing is that people in our society, concerned with not rocking the boat, have made Jesus in the image of a smiling savior and have eliminated the judge. Some would argue that this is a result of a post-conciliar Church concerned with its public relations image in the face of the modern world. The theology and much of the liturgy after Vatican II seemed to move away from the High Christology of the Church (Savior and King) to only the Low Christology (Good Shepherd). The trouble with this perception is that it is an incomplete picture of who is Jesus. A perfect image of Jesus Christ is from an Icon at St. Catherine monastery at Mount Sinai. In that particular icon, the face of Christ is not symmetrical, on one side, it carries the compassionate Jesus, but on the other side is the face of judgment. There’s one aspect of mercy that people tend to forget is that for mercy to be needed, there must be something to be healed from which is sin—and to talk about sin is offensive to our society and many in the Church.
Pagan Gods or Demons?
Interestingly, Augustine makes a connection that because the pagan gods of Rome lead to lack of justice and virtue that they must be demons. Many contemporary Christians would scoff at such an idea of evil and the supernatural with modern psychology. However, not all examples within the Scripture, especially the Gospels, can be explained away as mental illness. For example, the particular witness of Jesus’ healing of the Gerasene demoniac and the death of the herd of pigs is something that modern psychology would lack with any answers.
8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 And he begged him eagerly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now a great herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; 12 and they begged him, “Send us to the swine, let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them leave. And the unclean spirits came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. 
Augustine understood that there is a spiritual war going on for your soul. It would be in all of our best interest to remember it.
Augustine Distinguishes between fate, predestination, and free will.
What is interesting is that Levering in the book, The Theology of Augustine, explains the position of Cicero as understanding that if God had foreknowledge (middle knowledge) that it would destroy any sense of human freedom.Ironically, Cicero’s position is more or less the same understanding of reformed Calvinist theology of Divine Sovereignty and with it Double Predestination. If the Reformation was put into motion by the idea, “What did Augustine really mean?” then naturally it follows since Augustine contradicts by understanding that the creator can operate within our natures without circumventing our wills ontologically. Levering explains, “Augustine argues that we do not need to choose between divine foreknowledge and human freedom…The transcendent God creates the order of finite causes, in which he includes the creation of free, rational agents.”
In college, I had a professor who was devoutly Russian Orthodox and had a very skewed view of Augustine’s understanding of Free Will due to the debates of the Reformation. Naturally, the Reformation, which so dominated the culture of Western society is more or less driven by hearsay in other Christian circles. What Augustine understands is that God being the creator in the order of beings is that creatures can still participate in the will of God with their free will intact as the nature of God is existence. The professor didn’t understand the nuance of Augustine’s understanding that St. Thomas Aquinas would further develop when it came to the will. Augustine’s thoughts on Free Will are sometimes isolated and taken out of context from On the Predestination of the Saints; however, whether it is from the Confessions, City of God, or his Retractions he makes very clear that man does have a capacity to decide his own outcome in salvation history. Augustine writes:
We would certainly not make a choice if we did not choose to make it. On the other hand, if we take necessity to mean that in virtue of which something must be so and so or must happen in such and such a way, I do not see that we should be afraid of such necessity taking away our freedom of will. We do not put the life of God and the foreknowledge of God under any necessity when we say that God must live an eternal life and must know all things. Neither do we lessen His power when we say He cannot die or be deceived. This is the kind of inability which, if removed, would make God less powerful than He is. God is rightly called omnipotent, even though He is unable to die and be deceived. We call Him omnipotent because He does whatever He wills to do and suffers nothing that He does not will to suffer. He would not, of course, be omnipotent, if He had to suffer anything against His will. It is precisely because He is omnipotent that for Him some things are impossible.
So with us, when we say we must choose freely when we choose at all, what we say is true; yet, we do not subject free choice to any necessity which destroys our liberty. Our choices, therefore, are our own, and they effect, whenever we choose to act, something that would not happen if we had not chosen. Even when a person suffers against his will from the will of others, there is a voluntary act—not, indeed, of the person who suffers. However, a human will prevails—although the power which permits this is God’s
At the end of book 10, Augustine begins to formulate his theology on the City of God. Part of the foundation of his understanding of the City of God is formulated from his synthesis of Porphyry. What Augustine recognizes is that Neo-Platonists could only move so far in their understanding of the metaphysical (spiritual) world, “The Neo-Platonist attempted to combine the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, believed in a dualism of soul and matter, and God is ultimate transcendence… Although he preferred Neo-Platonist thought, Augustine corrected them, and these corrections found a home with Catholic philosophy” as Augustine synthesizes them within the understanding of the grace of God’s revelation in history.Levering explains, “Scripture records a history in which God acts to reveal himself and to establish a community of holy worship—the City of God.”
Understanding History through Christian lenses.
Augustine begins his treatment of his theology on the City God with a guide, much like On Christian Doctrine, on how to understand Scripture. Levering writes, “For Augustine, Scripture, while written by humans, “is manifestly due to the guiding power of God’s supreme providence, and exercises sovereign authority over the literature of all mankind.”Naturally, this is the understanding and teaching of the Catholic Church:
CCC 105God is the author of Sacred Scripture. “The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”
“For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.”
106God inspired the human authors of the sacred books. “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.
107The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”
Augustine has this understanding of what is the purpose and intent for Scripture. He explains in reference to Genesis that there are only four people mentioned, but that doesn’t mean that there are only four people in the entire world. Levering explains, “Augustine reasons that the sacred author mentions only those humans who directly pertain to the narrative’s goal of tracing the heavenly city from Adam to Abraham to the people of God.”Naturally, this is why the narrative mentions Cain going to Nod and knowing his wife.
Levering reminds us that “the path to the City of God is the humility that comes from the mediator who is the Word incarnate…without renewal and elevation by grace, humans cannot know how God intends for us to be united to him.”
There’s another city than the City of God?
Augustine explains that the city of man has its beginning in the fall of some of the angels. Naturally, because God is timeless and eternal as Augustine explains in Book 11 of the City God as well as in the Confession. God was aware that humanity would divide into the two separate camps created by the angels.Levering instructs his readers that “In short, Augustine’s analysis of creation and falls shows that the earthly city, which was created ‘by love of self, even to the contempt of God.’ Turns away from participation in God and seeks happiness strictly in the linear or horizontal dimension of history.”
It appears that Levering, or Augustine, may have contradicted himself when he asserts that Cain and Abel inaugurated the two cities, as he already stated such with the fall of some of the angels. However, perhaps, Levering is discussing how humanity begins to participate in the two cities is launched by Cain and Abel. Augustine writes:
Now, the first man born of the two parents of the human race was Cain. He belonged to the city of man. The next born was Abel, and he was of the City of God. Notice here a parallel between the individual man and the whole race. We all experience as individuals what the Apostle says: ‘It is not the spiritual that comes first, but the physical, and then the spiritual.’ The fact is that every individual springs from a condemned stock and, because of Adam, must be first cankered and carnal,2only later to become sound and spiritual by the process of rebirth in Christ. So, too, with the human race as a whole, as soon as human birth and death began the historical course of the two cities, the first to be born was a citizen of this world and only later came the one who was an alien in the city of men but at home in the City of God, a man predestined by grace and elected by grace. By grace an alien on earth, by grace he was a citizen of heaven.
So, if the two cities were made possible by the fall of the Angels and founded by the act of Cain against his brother, what is the role of the City of God that appears surrounded by the city of man?
One of the significant motifs of the City of God is Noah’s Ark. Of course, many of our great Eastern churches, as well as Western, were designed to imitate the hull of a great ark with the Churches’ naves. Augustine explains that all interpreters of the flood narrative must convey “the mind of the writer who described the flood must realize the connections of this story with the City of God which, in this wicked world, is ever tossed like the ark in the waters of a deluge. 
This ark a symbolism of the City of God—the Body of Christ—“Undoubtedly, the ark is a symbol of the City of God on its pilgrimage in history, a figure of the Church which was saved by the wood on which there hung the ‘Mediator between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus.”
So, how does the mediator, Christ Jesus, mediate on our behalf within the ark on our pilgrimage toward the City of God? Jesus refreshes us on our journey with the sacrament of his Sacred Body and Blood. Augustine stressed two particular themes of Catholic theology. Whereas many Protestant theologies focus on a personal relationship with the savior, Catholic theology stresses a communal relationship of the Body of Christ—the faithful—with Christ as the head:
Augustine stresses this point here:
#1 “There is, then, a true sacrifice in every work which unites us in a holy communion with God, that is, in every work that is aimed at that final Good in which alone we can be truly blessed. That is why even mercy shown to our fellow men is not a sacrifice unless it is done for God. A sacrifice, even though it is done or offered by man, is something divine—which is what the ancient Latins meant by the word sacrificium.
The second point illustrates how the mediator Christ Jesus—the High Priest—offers the sacrifices of our bodies, the faithful, within the whole of his own mystical body to the Father.
#2 “true sacrifices are works of mercy done to ourselves or our neighbor and directed to God, and since works of mercy are performed that we may be freed from misery and, thereby, be happy, and since happiness is only to be found in that Good of which it is said: ‘But it is good for me to adhere to my God,’ it follows that the whole of that redeemed city, that is, the congregation or communion of saints, is offered as a universal sacrifice to God through the High Priest who, ‘taking the form of a servant, offered Himself in His passion for us that we might be the body of so glorious a Head. For it was this ‘form of a servant’ which He offered, it was in this form that He was the victim, since it is in ‘the form of a servant’ that He is Mediator, Priest and Sacrifice.
What Augustine understands here is the foundational theology of early Christianity that works of mercy having an inherently sacramental nature as stated in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 25; the Judgment of All Nations:
31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We can see by this particular text that what we do for the least among us, while the ark is being battered by the waves of the city of man, is an act of worship and faith toward our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In this aspect, Christianity cannot be a personal faith, whether that faith is personal in prayer or when those in the secular society, the city of man, call the faithful to have the freedom of worship instead of the freedom to express their religion openly.
If there is no God; there is only politics.
There are a great many different schools of thought when it comes to writing history — a discipline known as historiography. There is the view of “big man” history where people are inspired by leaders and thus moves history. Another viewpoint is that our cultural attachments motivate us, whether they’re ethnic, religious, or forms of beauty. However, the most predominated view of history is that we’re shaped strictly by political factors. The political viewpoint of history has four predominate schools: marxist, New Left, Modernist, and Post-Modernist. Those particular schools breakdown into roughly two categories: class conflict vs. nation-state. How is this important to Augustine and the City of God? Augustine’s text is inherently a historical treatise on the fall of the Roman empire being the result of a transcendent history of the City of God.
Nevertheless, the individual in this community is driven by his passions to pursue his private purposes. Unfortunately, the objects of these purposes are such that no one person (let alone, the world community) can ever be wholly satisfied.
Levering understands this as “History on this view, is largely the record of empire and oppression, as it is in the modern study of history.”The irony is that if the world is only material and secular; what is considered to be moral is only built on borrowed capital from Christian ethics. It’s undoubtedly true that atheist can be moral people, but they do not do so from an atheistic viewpoint. If we are all material accidents, then what happens between us is a mere accident. The only moral law becomes Nietzsche’s ‘state of nature,’ where the strongest are free to oppress the weak.
The idea that the political sphere is the key factor in moving history was challenged on June 2, 1979. A son of Poland returned home to Warsaw, as Pope John Paul II, he “walked vigorously down the stairway from the…[airplane]…, and kissed the ground of Poland. Church bells began tolling throughout a country electric with anticipation.”A nation, starved for faith by materialist oppression of the Soviet Union, started to drown out their native son with chants, “We want God…We Want God…”
Of course, this gets into Augustine’s view on how the Church, ark, is to operate being battered by the waves of the city of man. It’s essential to note Augustine’s exegesis here because Jesus taught the kingdom of God is at hand, and this something that even a consensus of secular scholars acknowledge as a teaching from a historical Jesus who professed this message in 1stcentury Judea. So, how are we to view the ark and its pilgrimage? Augustine says:
“We conclude, therefore, that even now, in time, the Church reigns with Christ both in her living and departed members. ‘For to this end Christ died,’ says St. Paul, ‘and rose again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.’ If St. John mentions only the souls of the martyrs, that is because they who have battled for the truth unto death reign in death with a special splendor. But, as the part is here used for the whole, we know that the words apply to the remaining faithful who belong to the same Church which is Christ’s Kingdom”
Naturally, this plays into the idea that the Kingdom of God in the Gospels was coming, has come, and will come with the second coming of Christ. Professor of History and Classics Peter Burnell writes in his book The Augustinian Personhow the those who are living in the ark of the City of God should civilly participate in the city of man: “The perfectly just civil society, he says, is so by being a perfect sacrifice to God.”So, it’s certainly not overstated that the duty of the faithful within the Body of Christ is to live a life of sacrifice.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII, ed. Hermigild Dressler, trans. Demetrius B. Zema and Gerald G. Walsh, vol. 8, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1950), 17–18.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII, ed. Hermigild Dressler, trans. Demetrius B. Zema and Gerald G. Walsh, vol. 8, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1950), 19.
Michael Lipka, and Claire Gecewicz. “More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual but Not Religious.” Pew Research Center. September 06, 2017. Accessed June 18, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books VIII–XVI, ed. Hermigild Dressler, trans. Gerald G. Walsh and Grace Monahan, vol. 14, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1952), 414.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books XVII–XXII, ed. Hermigild Dressler, trans. Gerald G. Walsh and Daniel J. Honan, vol. 24, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954), 278.