Augustine Project Week Twenty-Two

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 12.4–12.20

12.4–5. Augustine argues that everything in creation has its place and fulfills a divine aesthetic. Because we look at the world from our own perspective, we often cannot see how things work together. We merely think about whether things promote our own comfort. The Egyptians didn’t see the beauty in the plagues of frogs.

Augustine mentions that some creatures like living in fire. He’s talking about salamanders, which don’t really like living in fire.

12.6. God did not create the fallen angels with an evil nature or an evil will. Where does evil come from?

Augustine comes to the conclusion that evil occurs when a will values a lesser good higher than a greater good. Therefore, evil could begin even though everything was created good. When a good angel started to value something more than God, the ultimate good, that angel became perverted, introducing evil.

12.7–8. What caused the angels’ first evil act of the will? What caused angels to value their own existence more than God’s? Augustine gets clever and answers “nothing.” One should not speak of an efficient cause because sin is an act of deficiency. The will is not effective, but defective. Augustine says that it’s impossible to know something that is the absence of something else. Evil is an absence of good, so we cannot properly speak of its cause.

He reiterates his point. Evil is a perversion of inherently good things. Greed perverts the use of gold. Lust perverts the appreciation of bodily beauty.

12.9. How is it that some angels clung to God while others turned away? God gave grace to some to stay faithful.

Augustine’s ideas that evil is the deprivation of good becomes a standard Christian explanation. These are difficult questions, and Augustine’s answers will not fully satisfy everyone. But he realized that some questions are too difficult. That’s why he includes the section about knowing what darkness is, but only knowing it in the sense of not-knowing.

12.10–13. Augustine turns to the creation of humans and discusses some of the objections to the biblical account. He rejects the notion that the human race always existed, and he discounts evidence that humans have been around for many thousands of years. He believes this evidence to be flawed because it does not accord with the biblical narrative.

He talks of the philosophers’ theory of multiple universes and theory of the universe’s cycle of death and rebirth. Physicists still throw around these theories because many physicists are trying to address the same issue that the materials philosophers were. How do you account for a changing universe without acknowledging a creating God?

The question of why not earlier, however, gets framed very differently post-Darwin.

12.14. Augustine returns to this idea of the dying and renewing of the earth. Greeks tended to view time as cyclical. Some philosophers even believed the exact same world would spring up and die. I like Augustine’s theological answer to this material question. It is inconceivable that Christ could die again since he has conquered death.

12.15. Even though the world and humans are not eternal, Augustine roots creation in the eternal plan of God. He admits that a bit of a mystery exists in this notion.

12.16–17. Augustine explores the connection between God’s eternal sovereign plan and a temporal creation and admits that his understanding of this topic is limited.

Augustine’s argumentation in this chapter might confuse. He believes that God created at a particular point in time, except you can’t say it like that. He believes that time itself is a created aspect of the creation. There was no “time” before the creation, but there’s an eternity before the creation because the creation is not co-eternal with God.

Even so, creation and God’s plan for it are aspects of God’s eternal sovereignty.

12.18–19. Augustine continues to argue against the philosophical idea of an eternity of cycles. He says that Christians can reject some ideas through faith instead of reason. Not everyone has to be a trained apologist. Then he uses reason to attack the philosophers. He says the philosophers fail to understand the nature of God. God’s rest and activity cannot be judged according to human standards.

He then launches into what seems like a digression on whether God’s mind can comprehend the infinite. Augustine argues that God’s mind embraces infinite knowledge, but we cannot understand this because of our finitude. It’s not a digression, however, because the inability to comprehend infinity was one of the arguments philosophers made for cyclical history. They thought that since even God cannot conceive of infinity then he must bind history into this series of repeated events.

12.20. Augustine admits that perhaps one can talk about “ages of ages.” Augustine looked forward to a new heavens and new earth after the final judgment, so it makes sense to speak of a succession of ages. What he argued against was cycles of the same age over and over again.

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