Augustine Project Week Seventeen

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.

City of God 9.16–10.10.

9.16–19. Augustine continues to argue that Jesus is a sufficient mediator and that demons are not. The Platonists had the idea that God was wholly other—incomprehensible and far removed from humans. God is also unchangeable and unmovable. These ideas made approaching God problematic for the Platonists. Their less personal concept of God influenced their ideas on mediation.

Augustine’s God, on the other hand, is a personal God. In fact, God is three persons who delight in communication with each other. This idea of relationality undergirds Augustine’s view of mediation.

9.20–23. Here at the end of book nine, Augustine thinks about word choice. He noted in chapter 19 that demon had come to have a negative connotation through Christian usage. He says the demons have knowledge, but they don’t have charity. Angels, on the other hand, might fit the description of the Platonists’ gods.

In this section, Augustine tries to draw points of commonality between Christianity and Platonism. He doesn’t want to quibble over words, even though he enjoys quibbling in many other passages. He wants to show Platonists that Christianity is a better explanation for some of their philosophical ideas, and he wants to show Christians that the Platonists hadn’t totally missed the truth.

He summarizes: the mediation offered by demons is of no help whatsoever. Angels can’t act as mediators, and even if they could they wouldn’t want to. Christ is the only mediator between the one true God and humans.

10.1. This book is the last of Augustine’s attacks on Roman religion. In the previous nine books, Augustine repeatedly called into question the worthiness of the Roman gods because of their immorality. He attacked civil, poetic, and philosophical justifications of polytheism. In this section, he’ll address one last question: Is it right to worship the good angels/gods who have not gone astray from the One True God?

He begins by discussing the Latin words for worship: cultus, religio, and pietas. These words don’t necessitate worshiping one God. He looks at their etymologies and their current usage and admits that they can be applied in a number of situations. Word choice won’t give him the answer to his question about worshiping angels.

This interest in etymology is characteristic of Augustine’s thinking. He often speaks about language and how it relates to the world. He even makes numerous references to etymology in his sermons, often drawing conclusions from the Greek or Hebrew, even though he wasn’t an expert in either.

10.2. Augustine claims that Christians and Platonists both believe that the soul’s wellbeing comes from the One True God. Augustine picks up on common usage. Both groups refer to God as the Light. How is it then that the Platonists have gone astray?

10.3. The Platonists ought only offer worship to the One True God, not his angels. Augustine says that true worship is both individual and corporate. God dwells in and with the individual Christian and in the body of believers. He is present and active in both. This is an important point that Augustine is making to his reader. Roman polytheism was an external, civil religion. Platonism was a private religious belief that lacked a communal aspect. Augustine argues that true religion will be true and consistent in both the private and public sphere. This desire for consistency in private and public is a legacy from Christianity that we still see as an ideal today.

Augustine also toys with the etymology of religio in this passage. He’ll change his mind about this one in the Retractions.

10.4–5. It is only appropriate to offer sacrifice to the One True God, but Augustine wants to make it clear that God doesn’t actually need our sacrifice. It’s not as though he were lacking in bulls.

Augustine has a highly developed theory of signs that he applies to the world and to Christianity. His book On Christian Doctrine has a nice passage on this. Here he argues that the sacrifice of cattle is merely a sign of what God wants to happen in the worshiper’s heart. Ultimately, both of these sacrifices find their fulfillment in Christ’s sacrifice, which he’ll talk about in tomorrow’s reading.

10.6. When Augustine talks about the individual’s need to offer sacrifice, he’s talking about right worship. The Pagans worshiped through sacrifice, and the Hebrews did too. Augustine is picking up on this language.

Augustine argues that worship is about the soul, not about giving up stuff. Showing compassion and mercy are acts of right worship, or sacrifice, and the Christian must have his or her soul re-formed into the image of Christ.

It’s worth noting that Augustine doesn’t see these sacrifices of compassion and mercy as atoning for the individual’s sins. He roots these sacrifices within the ultimate atoning sacrifice of Christ. He conceives of these sacrifices of mercy and compassion as sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise. This distinction is not explicit in this passage, but it will be in other places.

10.7. Augustine briefly mentions the theme of the two cities. The good angels are co-citizens with us in this city. This idea reinforces the cosmic, atemporal nature of the city of God.

10.8. Augustine spent a number of chapters telling us that demons and angels could not serve as mediators. The natural question is, “Then what are angels doing?” The angels are the agents through which God acts miraculously. Augustine carefully avoids the word “mediation” here. The angels are not mediating, but heralding. They bring a message from God.

The message often takes the form of a miraculous sign. We’ll see more of this later, but in Augustine’s thinking every miracle must point to some other reality. God doesn’t perform miracles just for the sake of the miracle. In these examples, Augustine says that the miracles are signs to promote right worship to the One True God.

10.9–10. In this section Augustine begins discussing some of the ideas of Porphyry. Augustine had been discussing Apuleius’s teachings on demons. Apuleius was a second-century Platonist. Now supplements Apuleius by discussing Porphyry’s teachings about theurgy. Porphyry popularized the writings of Plotinus in the third century. Many scholars mark them out as being the beginning of Neo-Platonism.

“Theurgy” means “working of the gods.” Its intention was to push the gods into action on the person’s behalf. It’s more or less a form of magic. It involved ritual and formula, and as with most magic it views the spiritual world in a mechanistic way. Input the right spells, and one will get the hoped for result. Magic constrains the gods. Augustine naturally thinks this kind people must avoid this behavior because it gives the demons the worship that they desire.

Theurgy is very different than miracles. Theurgy is magic initiated by a human in order to force the gods into a certain benevolent action. A miracle is a benevolent action from God that he initiates in his own good pleasure, and it is merely a sign to encourage proper worship of him.

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