Augustine Project Week Eighteen

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 10.11–10.26.

10.11–12. Chapter eleven records some of Porphyry’s questions about interactions with demons and gods through sacrifice and magic. Porphyry seems uncomfortable with the idea that certain herbs can force the gods into action. Also, practitioners of magic do not seem to be interested in divine happiness; they seem to only care about material goods. Perhaps magic is just fantasy after all.

Augustine was reluctant to credit magic as being mere fantasy. He had heard too many stories of the supernatural to dismiss it as pure fiction. He thought it wiser to leave open the possibility of demonic activity.

Just as he did in last week’s reading, Augustine contrasts demonic magic with miraculous signs. He says that it’s easy to believe in miracles when one realizes that the world itself is a miracle. G. K. Chesterton makes that same argument in Orthodoxy, another book worth reading.

At the end of chapter twelve, Augustine reminds his reader of God’s atemporality and foreknowledge. This preserves God from being subject to external forces. When Christians pray, the prayer itself is part of God’s unchanging counsel.

10.13–15. It’s helpful to remember that in these books Augustine is talking with the philosophers, so he talks like the philosophers. At the beginning of chapter thirteen he tells his reader not to worry about the idea that the invisible God at times has manifested himself visibly. The idea of God having a body through the incarnation had always bothered most philosophers. Augustine tries to allay this concern by saying that God can be visibly present, just like a thought can be present in a person’s voice. He’s obviously picking up on John the Evangelist’s rather philosophical statement, “The Word became flesh.”

The philosophers did not have much room for revelation. Augustine explains some of what Christian revelation means, using the vocabulary of the philosophers. God gave his Law to his people through angels and according to his own providence. Miraculous signs attended the Law’s giving to attest its importance. And importantly, the Law was given temporally. Augustine compares divine revelation to a child’s instruction. God progressively gave more understanding concerning right worship of himself through time, just as a teacher gives piecemeal instruction of a topic that builds toward understanding.

This example, along with the example of the unfolding of a sentence, is a sort of apology for the Old Testament.

10.16. Augustine says that the miracles of God ought to promote true worship and that we ought to be wary of the miracles of the demons. He credits the demons with miraculous power, but he also claims that some of their miracles are actually just sleight-of-hand tricks. He argues that we should trust the miracles of the good angels more because they point to the worship of someone else, God. The miracles of the demons are self-serving. This line of argument seems fairly weak. He believes that demonic miracles are real, but he doesn’t propose a convincing philosophical reason why God’s miracles are to be preferred.

10.17. Augustine lists a number of miracles from the Old Testament that concern the Ark of the Covenant. These miracles point to the need to worship only God.

Perhaps Augustine does not question the Pagan miracles because he expects his Pagan readers to give his own Hebrew miracles the same benefit of the doubt. Augustine expects that when his reader looks at both sets at face value, he will find the miracles surrounding the Law and the Ark of nobler quality.

10.19–20. Augustine continues to talk about sacrifice and the true sacrifice of Christ. Visible sacrifices are symbols of the real thing. In the Old Testament, the sacrifice of animals pointed forward to the sacrifice of Christ. In the new era, the Eucharist points back to the sacrifice of Christ. These symbols derive their power from the mediation of Christ, who is both priest and sacrifice.

I don’t detect the doctrine of transubstantiation in Augustine’s thinking on sacrifice, which isn’t to say that he didn’t believe that Christ was really present in the Eucharist. His thinking on symbols and things influences his thinking on the sacraments.

10.21. Augustine argues that the demons were allowed real power in order to persecute the church, but God actually turns this persecution to good through the testimony of the martyrs.

Don’t call the martyrs “heroes” because that’s a Pagan title. It’s funny that post-Enlightenment critics of the cult of the saints accuse the early church of continuing the Pagan cult of heroes and worshipping the martyrs. This chapter should put that first criticism to rest. Augustine is obviously afraid of offending fellow Christians by making the comparison. Augustine repudiated the latter charge in 8.27.

10.22. In the Greco-Roman culture, a sacrifice was meant to appease a god. Augustine points out that the sacrifice of the martyrs does not appease the demons who initiated the martyrdom. Rather it defeats these false mediators through the power of the true mediator, Christ.

10.22–24. Augustine talks of purification or purgation and tries to find some common ground with the Platonists. The Platonists sometimes spoke like Trinitarians. The Good is the ultimate God, but then this God also manifests himself as the creative Demiurge, sometimes referred to as the Mind of God. Sometimes they would also refer to the Soul of the World as another manifestation of God.

Augustine attempts to find points of commonality between these philosophical speculations about God’s nature and the nature of God revealed in the Scriptures. He says that both Christianity and Neo-Platonism locate purification in the person of God, not in the rites of religion. Porphyry, according to Augustine, could not understand that Christ was the purifying principle because Porphyry was a slave to his pride.

In this passage, Augustine explains that the Trinity must not be conceived of as the Sabellians did. Sabellianism taught that one God successively reveals himself to humanity in three different modes. God the Father of the Old Testament becomes God the Son of the Gospels, who then becomes God the Spirit after the resurrection. Trinitarianism claims that God exists eternally in three persons who are eternally in perfect fellowship with one another.

When Augustine talks of “purification” or “purgation” in these passages, he’s not making a distinction between purification and justification. Later in City of God, Augustine will begin to talk about the purifying benefits of temporal punishment, but in this section he doesn’t seem to have in mind temporal punishment for sin.

10.25. Augustine says that the ancient Hebrew people were saved through Christ’s mediation even though he had not yet come. They looked forward to his mediation by their faith and pious living.

Augustine speaks of “antiquity” in this passage. The temporal distance between Augustine and the Psalmist is about the same as between Augustine and us.

In this chapter Augustine gives his reader a glimpse of his pastoral side. He takes Psalm 73 and essentially preaches through its meaning, applying it to his reader.

10.26. In this chapter we have more attacks against Porphyry’s tolerance for polytheism. Augustine finds new ways to claim that he is being inconsistent.

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