Augustine’s The City of God, Part 3

It’s been a very busy last two weeks, such that while I finished Augustine’s The City of God on March 19, I’ve only had time now to reflect on my readings! But here we are. To recap, in our first post we went through the first ten chapters of CG, taking note of Augustine’s polemical strategies against Roman polytheism – a series of philosophical, historical, and societal critiques of their belief system and showing how it was inferior to Christianity. In the second post, we went through the next four books of CG, which dealt with issues in Christian theology, particularly the discussion of free will and original sin. We also saw how Augustine delineated the difference between the two cities, the heavenly city of God and the earthly city: the inhabitants of the former are dedicated to living out their lives to God and judging everything according to his standards, whereas those of the latter are concerned with their own purposes and problems. In this last post, we shall cover the remaining eight books of CG. 

Augustine and Biblical History

In books XVII-XVIII Augustine recounts the events told of in the Old Testament from the time of Cain and Abel all the way to the time of David and Solomon. He intersperses these recaps with commentary on possible difficulties in the details of the story (for example, whether people in ancient times really lived to hundreds of years of age) as well as his interpretations on what each of these stories mean in a larger theological context. Augustine traces the progress of the city of God throughout history, taking note of crucial times when a remnant of humanity still set themselves towards God, in contrast to the rest of the sinful world. By doing this he presents Old Testament Christian history as one continuous, purposeful narrative, filled with significant incidents that gradually build up towards the eventually arrival of the Messiah in the form of Jesus Christ. Thus, the city of God is shown to exist not only in the form of Christians in relatively recent times: it encompasses all the people that God appeared to (as told in the OT) throughout history as part of his plan, ever since the tragic fall of humanity into sin at the Garden of Eden. At times, the city of God is sparsely populated, such as in the time of Abraham, when he and his family were the only members, being appointed to the position after being given a covenant by God (Genesis 12). Later, Augustine’s approach weaves seamlessly into the natural narrative structure of the Bible, which already focuses on a group of people designated to point the way for the ultimate fulfillment of God’s salvation plans for humanity: Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites.

Naturally, the identification of prophecies and prefigurements of this eventual redemption in the OT is of central concern to Augustine. There are some common examples that are regularly cited in Sunday School classes – for example in Genesis 3:15, where God declares that despite being expelled from the Garden of Eden, one day the offspring of Eve would crush the head of the serpent, signifying that the serpent’s success in seducing humanity is ultimately only temporary. But Augustine’s examples are often fresh and unexpected, drawing meaning and significance from seemingly mundane passages in the Bible: in one instance, he comments on the significance of Seth, Adam’s third son. In Genesis 4:26 it is said that “To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.” Augustine presents this seemingly matter-of-fact account as a hopeful sign for humanity: the arrival of Seth, being born to “replace” the godly but murdered Abel, prefigures the resurrection of Christ and the means by which humanity is saved.

Here we have a loud testimony to the truth. Man, then, the son of the resurrection, lives in hope: he lives in hope as long as the city of God, which is begotten by faith in the resurrection, sojourns in this world. For in these two men, Abel, signifying “grief,” and his brother Seth, signifying “resurrection,” the death of Christ and His life from the dead are prefigured. And by faith in these is begotten in this world the city of God, that is to say, the man who has hoped to call on the name of the Lord.

(Book XV, Chapter 18)

One might consider such interpretation to be overblown and overloaded with too much artificial meaning, but I am constantly impressed by Augustine’s ability to draw insights from seemingly mundane genealogies and historical accounts. He also infers prophecies about Christ from other passages and psalms in the OT. In Book XVII, he divides prophecies in the Bible according to their relation with which city they are in: those dealing with the earthly city (such as Nathan prophesying the punishment to befall David’s family after his adultery with Bathsheba), the heavenly city (prophecies about heaven), or both (such as the prophecy in Hebrews 8 that God will make Israel his people, partially fulfilled through the construction of the temple in Solomon’s time but also to be fulfilled completely in heaven).

Other little but interesting comments include the fact that the entirety of Abraham’s household was circumcised after God renews his covenant with him signifies that God’s grace applies to all people. More strikingly, the command for all newborn male babies to be circumcised on the eighth day prefigures Christ’s resurrection on Sunday, the eighth day since the beginning of the days of creation in Genesis. Abraham’s act of pretending that Sarah was his sister instead of wife to prevent him from being killed by Pharaoh is praised as admirable, showing Abraham’s willingness to give up his wife to the Lord’s protection instead of his own efforts. Augustine also believes that before the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel, all of humanity spoke Hebrew. While Augustine has many things to say about the significance of various stories in the Bible, there are many points when he asserts that there can be difference of opinion on the more minor points of doctrine. He also admits many instances where he does not know for sure how things will be, for example the nature of our life in heaven.

Augustine’s Apologetics and the “God did it” Argument

Throughout this last section of CG, Augustine goes at length to explain possible objections or difficulties skeptics might launch against aspects of different aspects of Biblical stories, for example the worldwide Flood and philosophical issues regarding the afterlife. In these passages the work reads almost like a typical modern apologetics text, dealing with the problem of how the ark could have been big enough to fit all the animals, and how animals could be found in disconnected islands again later if they had all perished in the flood. In the last two books he deals with things such as objections from Platonists on whether a resurrected body as believed by Christians is possible, and whether it is possible for a body to eternally suffer in the punishing fire of hell without dying. As we will explore a little bit in this section, Augustine’s preferred style of argumentation is to first advance an actual argument based on the inherent possibility of the claimed event in question. But in the case of spiritual things, these are often impossible to do, as spirituality is not governed by hard and fast rules. So Augustine then turns to finding possible contradictions between the objection and some other belief of the objector (for example Platonism). Finally, he often closes off by reminding us that God is omnipotent and surely has the ability to realize what seems impossible.

This ultimate invocation of the power of God may seem like a cop-out to skeptics. And indeed, the force of Augustine’s argument does rest more on the second part of his strategy, namely pointing out weaknesses in the theological thought of his opponents, who all believed in polytheism, which as we have seen in Part 1 is much more difficult to defend in any case. This is not effective to apply to atheists who do not believe in any sort of spiritual world. Despite this, Augustine often does go to great lengths to show that what Christians believe to be true are at least plausible. In a memorable passage in Book XXI, he describes various wonders of nature known at that time, such as the salamander (believed to live in fire) and the magnet, showing that even seemingly implausible things exist in nature. He then also recounts a long series of miracles observed in the Christian community, featuring people being spontaneously healed from tumors and other sicknesses. With these wonders in mind, ]why is it difficult to believe that there can be a body that is able to suffer and burn eternally in fire without dying?

CG also engages in an amusing and spirited defense of the resurrection against alleged Platonic objections. According to these Platonists, physical bodies can never be raised to heaven because that would violate the natural order of the elements (earth, fire, water, and air). But Augustine astutely observes that violations of the natural order already regularly occur in nature – for example, birds in the air. Another Platonist, Porphyry, believed that physical bodies were fundamentally a corruption and punishment for the purer soul, and so Christian resurrection was not capable of reaching true blessedness because of this. But just as he did in part 2, Augustine points out that in a story that Platonists also believe, physical immortality is pleaded for and promised to the gods, as if it were a good thing. Thus the Platonists have been found to contradict themselves.

Eternal Punishment and the Supreme Good

Augustine defends the fairness of eternal punishment in hell despite the finite duration of the sins committed by pointing out that in the real world, people are heavily punished possibly for long times for a crime they committed in an instant, such as murder. Thus, it is not unfair nor anomalous that God punishes the damned eternally, because of their sin in rejecting Him. This seems to be a potentially relevant point even today, as there are some skeptics who think that the Christian God is evil and petty by punishing people who do not follow him for eternity. Indeed, it may seem difficult to reconcile God’s maximally loving nature with this action of his to punish some people without any hope of redemption. I remember reading William Lane Craig spelling out this conundrum in a more rigorous manner than Augustine (but still in the same vein), suggesting that perhaps the crime of rejecting God’s plan for salvation of mankind is a sin of infinite magnitude, requiring eternal punishment.

On the other hand, it is often the case that such objections ultimately stem from refusal to accept God’s authority in setting laws of conduct in this Universe. If you don’t accept that authority, then God does indeed sound arrogant and petty in demanding people to worship and obey him. But if you do accept his authority, then certainly he has a right to set the rules as he sees fit. It thus follows that if God exists, his authority is unquestionable. Thus the atheist objection to God’s authority doesn’t make sense, as they are saying that they would rebel against God even if he existed.

Even if you don’t accept Augustine’s explanation for the justness of eternal punishment, he does effectively shoot down some objections raised by Christians: for example, some believed that the damned would eventually be forgiven due to the cumulative effect of the prayers of the saints for him. But if this is the case, asks Augustine, then why don’t we pray for Satan and his army? We don’t because they are irredeemable, and so will people who are in a state of eternal punishment. To be able to receive mercy and compassion one has to be worthy of it.

In Book XIX, Augustine briefly does some pure philosophizing on the nature of the Supreme Good. Almost sarcastically he recounts the possible choices one can make when choosing what the supreme good is – for example whether we should desire worldly things because of virtue, desire virtue because of worldly things, or both. You can also choose what worldly things to desire – pleasure, repose, both, or the “primary objects of nature” (physical health and well-being). This multiplies to 12 possibilities, and so on. The conclusion is that pagans, as represented by Augustine’s favorite historian and writer, Marcus Varro, believe that the supreme good consists of desiring both virtue and pleasure each for their own sake.

In Augustine’s Christian vision of what the Supreme Good is, of course, this is inadequate:

“…life eternal is the supreme good, death eternal the supreme evil, and that to obtain the one and escape the other we must live rightly.”

(Book XIX, Chapter 4)

Without God, we are doomed to be locked in perpetual battle with our vices, endlessly tormented with temptations and desires to commit sin and vice. In fact, the process of battling temptations may itself be a source of sin as it can be filled with pride. This applies even to Christians who are still on this planet. In Christianity, the Supreme Good will not occur until we live in heaven some day. This should be the goal.

The Uniqueness of the City of God

From here, things keep coming together to present Christianity as a distinct and innovative belief system, a true step up from the philosophical practices of polytheism of the day. Polytheism involved propitiation of gods and spirits through supplication and sacrifice. In effect, humans did things in order to flourish in the earthly world. But Christians focus on the city of God, both in its current form as the Church in the present world as well as its highly anticipated perfect form in the future in heaven. Christians do not worship God in order to gain his favor. An effective contrast between the two is how Romulus, the founder of Rome, was deified because of his great acts of founding the major city. But in Christianity, martyrs are not deified despite their great acts, and Jesus Christ himself is divine not because he did something great for Christianity. Rather, Christianity exists because it believes in the divinity of Jesus:

“Christ is the founder of the heavenly and eternal city, yet it did not believe Him to be God because it was founded by Him, but rather it is founded by Him, in virtue of its belief”

(Book XXII, Chapter 6)

The City of God is thus built of faith, not ambition or greed or hopes and dreams in the fallen world. Because of this, its safety really does lie in having faith in the City, instead of by making war like in the case of earthly cities. Augustine concludes that this is why so many people have been willing to die for the cause of the divinity of Jesus, but not of Romulus.

Conclusion

In the third and final section of The City of God, we see the rest of the City of God fleshed out: its history, its ideas regarding the Supreme Good and evil, and the prediction for its ultimate final state in eternal blessedness in heaven. As we have seen before, Augustine often uses the argumentative technique of pointing out flaws or contradictions in pagan or Platonist belief in order to excuse controversial Christian ones. At other times, he simply appeals to the omnipotence and providence of God. While these arguments may not seem convincing to a total skeptic as commonly found in modern times, they engaged directly with common pagan beliefs and possibly destroyed their philosophical legitimacy forever.

An interesting final point from CG include its repeated emphasis on the usefulness of heretical objections raised against Christianity: they force Christians to be able to defend their own beliefs, thus making them learn in the process. Coming from the rhetorical teacher, this is unsurprising – Augustine clearly wants apologetics and critical reasoning to be foundational for Christians everywhere. This is reflected in the very act of writing the massive tome that is The City of God, which as we have seen, is clearly a monumental work in the history of Christian thought and especially apologetics. While its arguments may not be completely relevant to the present day, and some of them may seem forced, they are mad in the right spirit, and it is the job of Christians everywhere to continue this intellectual tradition.

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