Augustine Project Week Twenty 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.

City of God 11.22–12.3.

11.22. A common error is to posit that evil actually has an existence that God is fighting against. This is the problem with the Manicheans, against whom Augustine wrote many tracts.

11.23. Origen, the Christian theologian of the early third century, also errs in thinking that the physical world is a prison for souls.

Bishops had always noted some problems with Origen’s speculations, but usually his work was esteemed. A few years before Augustine started writing this book, however, a controversy over Origen broke out. Accusations of being and “Origenist” were thrown around. Jerome, most notably, had to defend himself against these charges.

Origen would be condemned by a church council in the sixth century.

11.24–25. Augustine begins a section in which he thinks about God’s relationship to his creation as Trinity. Augustine first attempts to explain what he means by “Trinity.” Father, Son, and Spirit are co-eternal and omnipotent, but they are not three omnipotents. They are one.

The Son, as Word, is the agent of creation since God creates through speaking in Genesis. Augustine is careful to note that the Holy Spirit is not a force or power, but a person.

Augustine finds analogies to the triune nature of God throughout creation. The pursuit of knowledge itself is triune, according to Augustine. Philosophy had three branches—natural, rational, and moral.

11.26. Since humans are the closest beings to God on the earth, Augustine looks for a triune nature in our composition. He says that we exist, that we know we exist, and that we are glad that we exist and know it. Augustine uses a bit of logical deduction to prove this idea that we exist. In the seventeenth century, René Descartes popularized Augustine’s argument with the pithy statement, “Cogito ergo sum.” “I think; therefore I am.”

11.27–28. Part of Augustine’s tripartite system was humanity’s love of its own existence and knowledge. In this section Augustine supposes that no one would pass up immortality even if it meant being wretched and that no one would give up their rationality even if it meant being happy. He notes that self-preservation is a quality inherent in nature, not merely human nature.

Of course one could find individual exceptions to Augustine’s idea, but the curiousness of these exceptions tend to confirm the general principle that he has explained.

11.29. Augustine returns to talking about “the City of God which is not on pilgrimage,” meaning the angelic host. Christians are the City of God which is on pilgrimage in the City of Man.

Angels know what they know because they are in the presence of God. They learn about themselves and the rest of creation through the light of the Word, which is Christ. Even for angels, Christ is the source of all knowledge.

Angels have a more accurate knowledge of creation because they understand it through Christ, the Word—not through experiencing the creation itself. We see some of Plato’s form theory at work here. Augustine asks which is more true, the concept of a straight line or a line drawn in the dirt. The concept is true; the dirt line is an approximation. Augustine extends this analogy to the whole of creation. Knowledge of the creation through the wisdom of Christ is true; knowledge of the creation in itself is just an approximation.

11.30–31. Augustine thinks that numbers in the Bible hold symbolic spiritual significance. Here he says that creation occurred in six days because six is a perfect number. The perfection of the original creation is communicated through the perfection of six. Augustine equivocates a bit with his definition of perfection here.

A perfect number is not one that contains no flaws. A perfect number is the sum of its factors. Six can be divided by 3, 2, and 1. Also, 3+2+1=6. The next perfect number is 28. Greek and Roman thinkers often invested 6 with significance.

Seven also communicates completeness to Augustine, but it’s of a different sort. Seven is obviously a theologically significant number in the Bible, but the philosophers had never given it much attention. Augustine claims that seven stands for limitlessness because it is made of 3, the first odd number, and 4, the first even number. I’m sure some readers are wondering what happened to 1 and 2. Number theory has changed some over the centuries. Some ancient mathematicians didn’t think of 1 as a number at all. It was something different. They also don’t have a number line with 0 and negative integers either.

At other times Augustine can find different meanings for seven. Sometimes seven stands for incarnate life because heart, mind, and soul reside in earth, wind, fire, and water. Sometimes seven stands for the Holy Spirit because Isaiah 11 contains seven operations of the Holy Spirit.

11.32. Augustine ponders the question of whether the angels could have been created prior to the creation of everything else. This isn’t his view, but he allows that it might be correct. Some things in Scripture are less clear than others, so competing interpretations might be valid given the evidence provided.

One should keep in mind the highly personal nature of City of God. When Augustine provides interpretations of Scripture in these and future chapters, often he’s providing a traditional interpretation passed on to him. However, some of these interpretations, even ones that sound familiar to us, started with him. That’s why he mentions the Rule of Faith. He’s letting the reader know that he might be offering some novel interpretations. Readers should view these as valid as long as they’re within the scope of Scripture and the Church. He wrote a whole book on interpreting Scripture and this Rule of Faith called De Doctrina Christiana.

11.33–34. Augustine closes book eleven with a discussion of the creation of the angels. He admits that all ideas on this subject are somewhat speculative, but he thinks that some interpretations fit the biblical evidence a little better than others.

Augustine supports his idea that the angels were separated into their good and evil camps when God separated the light and the darkness on day one. He admits that some think that God separated the angels when he separated the waters on day two, but he gives his reasons why he finds this to be the less convincing interpretation.

Book eleven and twelve are closely related. In book twelve, Augustine begins with a discussion of angelic nature.

12.1–3. God created angels and demons with a good nature because he created all things good. The fault of the demons wasn’t in their nature, but in their will. The angels were good, but changeable. Angels who gloried in their own greatness instead of God’s became demons.

Augustine reiterates his point that evil is a perversion. It isn’t a thing in and of itself.

God is supremely good, and God is supreme existence. Evil cannot harm God because evil is a perversion and God cannot change. Evil can, however, affect creatures that are changeable. Essentially Augustine argues that evil choices rob us of some of our existence.

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