Augustine Project: Week One

This post is part of an on-going series in which I and others systematically read through Augustine of Hippo’s City of God in 2014.

For 2014, I started an online reading group in which we’re reading and discussing Augustine’s City of God over the course of the year. I hoped to get couple of dozen readers interested in the project, but over a thousand people joined the Facebook group.

Discussion has been lively in the group so far, but some participants have asked if I could put my historical notes in one place that’s easier to access. I’ve decided to start posting them to the blog on a weekly basis.

City of God 1.1–15

Augustine opens his book by jumping straight into the question. Is it Christianity’s fault that the city of Rome was sacked in 410? Foreign armies had not successfully attacked the city itself in 800 years. What had changed?

About a hundred years before the sack, Emperor Constantine began favoring Christianity. Twenty years before the Visigoths’s sack of Rome, Emperor Theodosius passed a series of laws that repressed traditional-Roman polytheistic religion. Some people suggested that since Rome had abandoned its gods, the gods had abandoned Rome to these barbarians.

Augustine, a Christian bishop, doesn’t find this explanation satisfactory. He begins with an attack on Christianity’s critics, calling them hypocrites. He claims that these people were happy enough to pretend to be Christians and hide inside Rome’s churches during the attack, which were spared by the Visigoths.

Augustine doesn’t mention that the Visigoths who attacked Rome in 410 thought of themselves as Christians. They did, however, have different beliefs from the inhabitants of the city of Rome. The Roman church believed God to be a Trinity, while the Visigoths believed that Jesus wasn’t quite as divine as God the Father. The bishops had officially determined that this idea was a heresy, but it was still common, especially among the German groups.

1.3–4: Augustine refers repeatedly to Virgil. Virgil was the greatest of the Roman poets who wrote the Aeneid about 400 years before Augustine’s time.

In the Aeneid, Virgil creates a foundation myth for the Roman people, making them descendants of the citizens of Troy. The Greeks destroyed Troy during the Trojan War, and a remnant of the Trojans found a new home in Italy. Thus in Virgil’s imagination, Roman culture and religion are dependent on Trojan culture and religion.

Augustine’s point: Do not blame the Christian God for not saving Rome because your own gods didn’t save Troy. Rome adopted many gods from the people whom it conquered. Augustine will return to this theme later in the book.

1.5: Augustine claims that Virgil’s poetic depiction of war is close to the realities of war. Temples tend to get torn down. He gets his citation a bit mixed up, in this passage. I assume he’s working from memory.

1.6–7: Augustine further discusses the nature of war. He believes that the suffering that occurred in Rome was typical, but he claims that the clemency shown to those seeking refuge in the basilicas should surprise us.

He seems to realize that his reader might take away the wrong message. His reader might attribute this clemency to the barbarians rather than to God. He writes, “Let us hope that no one with any sense will ascribe the credit for this to the brutal nature of the barbarians.”

Some of Augustine’s rhetoric sticks with us to the present day. These barbarians weren’t really that barbaric. Alaric and his German troops were actually second-generation Romans living within the empire legally. Most of those “barbarians” who sacked Rome had previously served as official Roman soldiers. As we think about these barbarians, we should not think that they are trying to destroy the Roman Empire. They are actually fighting to make a place for themselves within it.

1.8–10: Augustine thinks about why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. This passage is a great example of Augustine’s method. He usually doesn’t systematically pose a problem and work through it logically. He tends to talk through a problem in a roundabout way. The passage contains many “perhapses” and “what-ifs.”

I find it especially interesting that when discussing people who fail to reprove sinners, he doesn’t even let off the hook the ascetics, “those who have a higher standard of life, who are not entangled in the bonds of marriage, who are content with little food and scanty clothing” (1.9). Ascetics too can fall prey to self-interest.

His main point in these passages, however, is that no evil in this world can rob Christians of the spiritual treasures that they possess in Christ.

1.11–13: Augustine reminds his reader that we’re all going to die at some point. People tend to forget that fact. I think one of my favorite Augustine quotations is, “I am certain of this, that no one has died who was not going to die at sometime.”

The doctrine of the resurrection informs his approach to burial. The end state of the Christian is not disembodied spirit in heaven. Christianity teaches that just as Christ bodily rose from the dead, so too all Christians will be restored to new bodies at the end of time.

Augustine says that Christian burial is not essential because God is powerful enough to resurrect the dead whether they were buried or not. But he also claims that Christian burial is important because it demonstrates faith in the resurrection through proper care for the dead body.

Christians buried through inhumation, laying the dead body in a grave or tomb. Typical pagan burial tended to be cremation. Cremation symbolized the dissolution of the body and the soul’s ascent. Burial practices reflected theological doctrine.

This doctrine of bodily resurrection is an integral part of Augustine’s theology. Modern Christianity often underemphasizes this doctrine or abandons it entirely, imagining an ethereal eternity in a spiritual heaven. It’s important to understand that this is not Augustine’s vision of eternity with God.

1.14–15: Augustine continues his theme as to whether true religion entails material blessing, and he focuses on the issue of captivity.

Augustine discusses the example of Marcus Regulus who led Roman soldiers during the First Punic War (264–241 BC). Rome fought three wars against Carthage, a city on the northern coast of Africa. Carthage was a Phoenician city, and the Latin word for “Phoenician” was “Punic,” thus Punic Wars.

Rome’s struggle with Carthage was long and fierce. The men of the Punic Wars came to be viewed as “the Greatest Generation” by later Romans. Augustine appeals to Regulus’s example in order to show inconsistency in Christianity’s critics. Augustine’s main point in this section is that even the heroes of ancient Rome did not expect the gods to save them from temporal disaster. Virtue is more important than prosperity.

One thought on “Augustine Project: Week One

  1. Brilliant idea for the City of God reading group. Best thing I’ve done in years to stretch and grow spiritually and intellectually. Thanks!

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