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God’s City: Augustine and His Great Work…

August 28, 2012

Tension marks the life of the believer.  This fact is as true today as it was in the time of Augustine.  The tension begins when one is ushered out of the realm darkness and into the light of salvation in Christ.  Once delivered a tension forms between the new creation in Christ (Christian), and the world he/she has both escaped and still occupies.  It is this ‘in the world but not of the world’ conundrum that draws Augustine’s intention in City of God.

Augustine, confronted by the harsh socio-political realities of life and death, freedom and conquest in the Roman empire, with realistic historical, theological and ecclesiastical focus.  In City of God (CG) he attempts to address three questions, each question is not treated in isolation rather, there is a constant interplay between them.  Historically he attempts to answer the question, ‘What is happening?’; Theologically he attempts to address the ‘why it is happening?’; in terms of ecclesiastical or pastoral focus he constantly asserts ‘how a Christian should respond?’ to their reality.

Within this collection of works slowly and systematically composed in the second decade of the fifth century after the sack of Rome; Augustine begins seeking answers by examining the ‘problem’.  Namely, mans’ fallen nature on display through; poor governance, idolatrous worship and misplaced affections.  One can detect the influence of neo-Platonism in his structure and thought; as this section (roughly chs. 1-7) represent the world we see displayed out against the wall before us.  But like any good Platonist, what we see is not enough, we must seek the source of our manifest troubles.

Augustine then, leaves the cave, so to speak, and examines the true reality behind our calamity.  In this section (chs. 8-14) he examines some of that other realm which has historically and theologically impacted man and his actions.  The source of the debauchery, idolatry, mis-governance, and ‘falleness’ is found in: the fall of Satan, His angels, and finally the fall of Adam, and all of mankind within him.  This alone would have represented a monumental work of history, philosophy and theology but Augustine exercises his discipline of rhetoric and constructs the argument further.  This section represents the root of the ‘city of man’ that realm in opposition to God, which we occupy in body if not in spirit.

Augustine then plays out the theory of fallen man in the course of human history.  In this section (chs. 15-20) Augustine examines history from pre-Adam to post-man, from Genesis to Revelation, he proceeds to trace his themes and their effects.  This is the civil history of God’s city and its inhabitants from Adam to Abraham; from Jeremiah to Jesus, and from Rome to Revelation.  In addition to his many specific admonitions concerning the Christian life, this section provides biographical examples of virtue and Godly character, which are just as informative as any specific pastoral encouragement.

He then looks beyond in the final section (chs. 21-22) to what amounts almost to an epilogue on the entire work, discussing Hell, Heaven, and hope.  So let us briefly examine Augustine’s structure and assertions as we have laid them out above.

The Problems with the City of Man chs. 1-7

For Augustine, misunderstanding and darkness cloud the minds of the pagans in and around the Roman empire.  These are the inhabitants of the city of man, denied the light of Christ they fumble around in darkness attempting to answer similar questions to Augustine’s   What is Happening? i.e. to the empire and Why do things occur? i.e. Rome being sacked by the Visigoths. Their answers are less than satisfying for Augustine, as they blame everyone but themselves; Christians, the Christian God and the pagan gods.  Their lack of understanding breeds confusion and that confusion inevitably led to conflict and persecution of Christians.  Augustine’s apologetic was to basically deconstruct their argument systematically and deductively reason that Christ, His followers and His God are not to blame for Rome’s recent calamities.  First he argues that pagans are wrong to even make the accusation. Second he asserts that Rome had experienced great suffering and events of defeat long before Christ.  In other words, while Christ is the pivot point of history, He is not the contributing factor to the degradation of their society, in fact quite the opposite.  God and His Son are the only true source of power and its exercise on earth.

Finally in this section, he examines the pagan’s clouded judgment on fate, freewill (versus pagan fatalism tied to idolatry), theology (worshipping the wrong gods), and civil life (the worship of things that do not lead to eternal life).  These are the underpinnings of the pagan experience in the city of man exemplified in Rome and its condition.  Chasing after a misunderstanding of power, its use and its source, ultimately leads society at war with itself and at enmity with is Creator God.  Now Augustine turns to the back-story, the ‘rest of the story’ if you will.

The Source of the Problem chs. 8-14

Augustine attempts to shed a light on the dark recesses of history far beyond human experience and revealed knowledge.  How did God’s good creation ‘devolve’ into what can only be described as unholy and odds with the creator.  This section addresses the privation; initially of Satan, then of his angels, and finally the privation of man through exercise of God’s gracious, if not misused, gift of free-will.  Book IX is especially helpful in discussing the origin of the cities.  Wrapped around this description is Satan’s fall found in his exercise of idolatrous pride; his angels too, lacking in the full measure of grace given to others, follow him precipitously down.  The chief gross domestic product of man’s city is death, and death saw its beginning in Adam’s sin.  Through his sin, death was exported to us as a punishment for our fallen natures.  This sad effect is most keenly seen in the role of reproduction.  Reproduction or man’s propagation, is muted in two ways by sin: one, in that its fruits ultimately spoil in death; and two, the effort becomes sinful and damning win corrupted by lust.  This is part of the penal judgment of man, in that the very means and ends of his God-prescribed role to pro-create are marred and subject to futility.  Having grappled with the source of man’s city, Augustine then traces the city’s development throughout history.

The Drama of History chs. 15-20.

As proof of the existence of these cities, Augustine offers parallel histories of each throughout the course of the human experience. From Adam on, the choices presented to the patriarchs, prophets, and finally to Christ, represent the grim effect of God’s bifurcated creation.  The murder of brothers, the devastation of flood, the proliferation of sacrifice, and the death of Christ and the coming of His church fill this section in an attempt to inform the miserable condition of man.  It also draws a subtle picture of God’s sovereignty and provision throughout history.  It is not a story of a passive creator and His unruly creation.  Rather a dynamic drama of fall, death, redemption and renewal.

Conclusion: Hell, Heaven and hope. Chs. 21-22

Much like the scripture that so richly informs Augustine’s thought his monumental work finishes with a description of two ends. The calamitous eternal judgment of the wicked and refreshing resurrection of the saints to eternal joy.  This above any single admonition throughout his work, serves to inform the Christian of how they should act and what awaits them in the future.  That which awaits is of preeminent importance to the Christian.  For it is in the hope of God’s heavenly city prevailing that the Christian should seek and rest in.  We pray that His kingdom come, over this earthly, fallen realm.  It is in this hope that we place our faith, that we shall one day ‘rest and see, see and love, love and praise’.

Augustine’s work for me, is both encouraging and informative.  As a perennial student I am often confronted with the drive to delve deeply into the things of God, but I also face the realities of life and pastoral care which pull at my greatest challenge of stewardship, my time.  Augustine displays a life and work lived out accomplishing both purposes, and he reconciles the apparent disparity of scholarship and pastoral ministry.  One informs the other, and serve to compliment each other.  The greatest end to ones endeavors in life is to lose that life in love and service to a brother; and the greatest means to that end is a life lost in study of the Word, and lived out in accordance with its example.  To that end, Augustine succeeds in a measure rarely seen among theologians and pastors.  May God grant me a mere taste of such delight and success.

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