Augustine Project: Weeks Thirty-Nine through Forty-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 19.12–28

19.12. This world desires peace. People want peace in their homes. Nations go to war to establish a peace more favorable to themselves. Even animals and nature tend toward peace.

Augustine mentions Cacus, the mythological beast-man, claiming that even monsters want peace. Hercules kills Cacus in book eight of Virgil’s Aeneid to keep him from terrorizing the people in the area.

19.13. Augustine lists different kinds of peace beginning with the peace of the body and ending with the peace of the whole universe. In each instance, he emphasizes harmony and order.

He moves from the enjoyment of peace to the related issue of goodness of natures. He claims that no one, not even the Devil, has an evil nature. Instead we should talk about the nature as having an exceedingly diminished good. If a nature has no goodness, then it couldn’t experience pain when it loses its peace. (For a refresher on Augustine’s idea of evil growing out of a good created nature, look back at the beginning chapters of book twelve.)

His talk about how wretched and blessed people experience peace foreshadows his future discussion on their eternal states.

19.14–16. Love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor promote peace in human society. This love of one another sometimes manifests itself in the need for order, and sometimes people must command others in their own household out of love. Ordering others in the house should not be done with a lust for dominion.

This idea of ordering the household brings Augustine to the issue of slavery. Augustine does not explicitly condemn the institution of slavery, nor does he condone it. Instead he notes that slavery is a consequence of human sinfulness. Since slavery is a manifestation of the Fall, one should take this as implicit condemnation, but Augustine doesn’t suggest doing away with the institution. He seems to consider slavery as one of the realities of this fallen world that will not exist in the new heavens and new earth. Instead of abolishing slavery, Augustine suggests that slaves be treated as members of the household. The father of the household should be concerned with his slaves’ physical and spiritual welfare.

The household is a microcosm of the city, and the city’s welfare rests on the harmony of the households within the city.

19.17. Households who are part of the earthly city and households who are part of the heavenly city both use temporal goods and both strive for peace. Households of the earthly city, however, cannot see past the temporal, whereas households of the heavenly city focus on eternal peace. Members of God’s city are merely sojourners.

Augustine suggests that Christians will be excellent citizens of the earthly city because they strive for peace and follow the laws. Even if the laws of the earthly city ask Christians to deny God, Christians will opt to suffer persecution rather than rebel.

19.18. Augustine moves back to Varro, attacking the uncertainty of the New Academics.

19.19. Thinking back to Varro’s 288 kinds of philosophers, Augustine decides that many of the differences are of little consequence. Some cultural things, like what to wear or what to eat, are irrelevant to Christianity. Even the difference between the life of leisure and the active life is inconsequential because one can serve God in either. The issue is one of vocation. Do you love God? Are you seeking the betterment of your fellow humans?

Leisure and activity must be held in tension. Love of truth drives one towards leisure, and a desire to serve others should motivate activity. There’s no one-way to navigate this tension.

Augustine uses his own job of bishop as an example, emphasizing the service aspect. He’s not saying that only clergy deal with these issues.

19.20–22. Augustine begins discussing Cicero’s The Commonwealth (De re publica, sometimes translated The Republic). Cicero wrote this book during the politically tense years of the 50s BC, and not long after this Julius Caesar would start his civil war with Pompey.

In the book, Cicero defines what good government would look like, applauds Rome’s ancestors for their success, and suggests ways in which Rome’s dangerous political situation could be defused. He does these things obliquely so as not to leave himself open to attacks from his political enemies.

Cicero says that the res publica, the commonwealth, must be founded upon justice. Augustine counters that a true commonwealth of the people is impossible, since a just people has never existed. Cicero’s perfect form of government is a chimera.

Augustine argues that the ancestors of the Roman people were unjust because they served demons instead of the true God. Once again he has called into question the golden age of the Roman state. Rome is great, but it was never good.

19.23. Augustine records some of Porphyry’s complaints about Christianity. Some of the complaints make Christ out to be malicious, and some make him out to be a wise teacher. The Pagans needed him to be just a man.

In some ways these criticisms of Christianity are very similar to the criticisms offered today. How convincing is Augustine’s rebuttal in this section? Is his line of argument still relevant in addressing criticisms?

19.24–28. Augustine provides an alternate definition of a “commonwealth.” Cicero had said that a commonwealth was impossible without justice. Augustine suggests that that Cicero is too idealistic because if his definition is true then there has never been a commonwealth.

Augustine thinks that a commonwealth is a group of people who can be identified by their common love. This definition sets the bar much lower. The heavenly city is a commonwealth marked by its love of God, while earthly cities love much more mundane things.

Augustine then recaps his argument as he closes book 19. True peace in this life is impossible, but it will be the possession of God’s people after the Judgment.

City of God 20.1–19

20.1–2. Book twenty focuses on God’s final judgment in which the good and the wicked will be separated. Augustine wants to demonstrate for his reader why Christians believe in a last judgment and what the Scriptures teach about it.

He says that God judges people throughout this life, but this continuous judgment is of a different character than his final judgment. In this life the good sometimes suffer and the bad sometimes prosper. Sometimes it’s the other way round. Nothing happens outside God’s sovereignty, so the prosperity of the good and the wicked both must be in the hands of divine judgment.

Augustine argues that its impossible to know why good and bad things happen, but Christians should be confident that everything is in the hands of God and that his judgment is always just. Though God’s just judgments in this life are hidden from us, we will see them clearly on the Last Day.

20.3. Augustine continues his thoughts about the good and the wicked both experiencing good and bad in this life, and he mentions Ecclesiastes, in which Solomon says that everything in this life is useless. If Solomon is right, then both the good and the bad circumstances of this life are of little consequence. The vanity or uselessness of this life should cause Christians to desire the life to come, which is good and eternal.

20.4. Augustine lays out his methodology for discussing the Last Judgment. He will begin with the New Testament evidence and then move to the Old Testament. The New Testament reveals doctrine more clearly, and the Old Testament should be used to confirm the teachings of the New.

As we’ve seen in City of God, Augustine taught that the entire Old Testament is about Christ; therefore, he must read the Old Testament in light of New-Testament revelation.

20.5–6. What did Jesus say about the Final Judgment? Augustine begins his proof that judgment is coming by looking at Jesus’ words. Most of the passages that he discusses come from the Gospel of Matthew, and Augustine tries to limit himself to passages which are unambiguously about judgment.

Augustine engages in a bit of numerological interpretation, a trick we’ve seen before.

On the Last Day, all the dead will experience a resurrection before the judgment. Some resurrected for life, some resurrected for condemnation.

For the believer, this is a second resurrection. Christians experience the first resurrection here and now at their conversion. This first resurrection is of the soul. The second resurrection is of the body, and Christians are still waiting for it. Here we see the manifestation of partial-fulfillment/fulfillment theology or what some call an already/not-yet theology. We are already alive in Christ, but we have not yet experienced the fulfillment of that life in the resurrection of the body.

20.7. Augustine begins a section in which he tries to make sense of the description of the end times presented in the book of Revelation. A first resurrection will occur and Satan will be bound for 1000 years. What does that mean?

Augustine dismisses premillennialism, the idea Christ will reign on earth for 1000 years before the last judgment. Premillennialism has inspired some ridiculous fables. Some things never change.

Instead of interpreting these events in a quasi-literal fashion, Augustine makes the case that John speaks figuratively in Revelation. For Augustine, the binding of Satan limits his ability to deceive God’s people. The church will persevere in truth.

As far as I can tell, Augustine is the first to promote the stance which will become known as amillennialism, the idea that the 1000 years must be interpreted in a more figurative manner.

20.8. After God binds Satan for 1000 years he will loose him for a short time. The period of this binding is not a literal 1000 years, but represents the period between the first and second comings of Christ.

Since Satan was bound, the church was able to add to its numbers. Augustine seems to believe that after Satan is loosed conversions will slow down and apostasy will increase. However, those that apostatize were never really part of the City of God, they just appeared to be. Even so, by those last days the church will have become so strong that conversion will not cease completely.

Notice Augustine’s understanding of the church. It has always been present on the earth since the creation, and it will always be present until the end. Augustine sees no dichotomy between Old Testament Jews and New Testament Christians. He understands there to be one chosen people who God never abandons and continually works through.

20.9. Augustine continues his explanation of the 1000 years in John’s Revelation. This thousand years, which occurs between Christ’s first and second comings, is different from God’s eternal kingdom because during the thousand years good and evil individuals are still mixed, both in the world and in the church. In the eternal kingdom, there will only be the good.

The church rules with Christ during this millennium, but it’s wrong to think that the church comprises merely those pious individuals who are alive now. Both the dead in Christ and those who still live rule with Christ in this millennium. Augustine believes that Christ conquered death at his resurrection though we wait for the fulfillment of that victory on the Last Day. More already/not yet thinking. Since the boundary between life and death has been so weakened Augustine believes that it’s appropriate to think of the dead as being current members of the congregation. It’s also appropriate to remember them in our prayers and to ask them to remember us in their prayers, just like we might do with any living Christian.

Augustine’s explanation of the mark of the beast is fairly straightforward. People who have the mark of the beast are people who give evidence of belonging to the earthly city.

20.10–12. The first resurrection refers to the soul, in spite of some critics saying that resurrection only refers to the body. The soul has fallen; therefore, Augustine has no problem saying that the soul is resurrected at conversion. These critiques and answers are still current debating points regarding the end times.

Who are Gog and Magog? Augustine says there’s no need to look beyond the borders of the Roman Empire to find which tribe they might be. These peoples represent the earthly city itself, who in the last days will be in a more open conflict with the heavenly city.

20.13. Are the three and a half years of persecution by the Anti-Christ to be added to the thousand years or should they be considered to be part of the thousand years? Augustine doesn’t seem to care too much, as long as one affirms that the church continues to rule with Christ even during persecution.

20.14. Augustine maintains the idea of a judgment in which all people will be judged, but he doesn’t think it charges need to be read from a literal book. Instead, divine power will force each individual to recall all their deeds and show them that they are worthy of condemnation.

20.15–17. At the Last Judgment, Christ will judge those who have died previously as well as those who are still alive at his second coming. Augustine believes that the “sea giving up its dead” signifies those people still living.

After the Judgment, the entire world will be burned up in a fiery version of Noah’s Flood. At this point all old things will be made new, although Augustine doesn’t seem sure whether there will be a sea or not. If you’ve read Confessions, you’ll remember that he never really liked the sea anyway.

It’s at this point that everything will be made right and Christians will no longer die.

20.18. Augustine continues working through the New Testament to explain what the Final Judgment will be like. He moves from John’s Revelation to 2 Peter to discuss further this idea of the world burning. In Augustine’s explanation, one can see some of his geocentric cosmography.

20.19. Augustine then moves on to discuss 2 Thessalonians 2, in which Paul talks about the Anti-Christ. In what way will the Anti-Christ be revealed? How will he sit down in the Temple? Somewhat uncharacteristically, Augustine writes, “I admit that the meaning of this completely escapes me.”

He says that some people think the Anti-Christ refers to imperial power. Others, however, think that it refers specifically to Nero, and that Nero will return in the last days. Nero was an especially bad emperor. He was responsible for the first systematic persecution of Christians, in which tradition says that both Peter and Paul died. But it wasn’t just the Christians who thought of him, in this way. Some Pagans told stories about how Nero would return and have his revenge on the world.

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