Augustine Project: Weeks Forty-Five through Forty-Six

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 21.23–27.

21.23. From this point to the end of Book 21, Augustine refutes these bad ideas about punishment, beginning with the idea that perhaps the demons can be saved. Augustine says that the Scriptures clearly teach the eternal damnation of the Devil and his demons. If one tries to limit this eternality, then one is in danger of limiting the eternal life of the saints.

21.24. Augustine refutes the idea that the wicked will get eternal life because the saints will be praying for them. The idea is that the saints in their holiness will be praying for their enemies, and God will honor the prayers of his saints.

Augustine claims that after death, the saints will no longer be praying for their enemies. God has predestined who will be saved, but in this life we cannot tell the difference between the elect and the damned; therefore, we pray for everyone indiscriminately. After death, the saints will see God’s plan more clearly and pray in accordance with it, praying only for mercy to be extended to Christ’s church. Augustine also says that our prayers on behalf of the dead have no efficacy unless the person repented of his sins before he died.

In much of this chapter, Augustine exhorts his reader to repentance in this life, and he explains that repentance gives a person God’s own righteousness.

21.25. Even if heretics and schismatics partake in the sacraments, they will not avoid the fires of hell. Christians must live in Christ and have him live in them if they wish to escape punishment. The outward sacrament of bread and wine must be attended by the inward sacrament of experiencing Christ’s grace. Augustine doesn’t believe that one could live in Christ apart from living within the Catholic Church.

He forms his views on this matter in a context of schism. North Africa, where he lived, had divided itself into two rival Christian communions—the Catholics and the Donatists. Augustine spends a large part of his ministry trying to convince the Donatists to come back to the true church. Salvation can only be found in the body of Christ, and that body is not divided. Heresy is, of course, worse than schism, but Augustine supposes that persistent schism can become a form of heresy.

Augustine feels the need to address this point because the Donatists performed the sacraments in almost exactly the same way as the Catholics. Some laypeople probably couldn’t even explain what the difference between the two groups was since their theology and practice was so similar.

21.26. Catholics should not rely on their unity with the church to save them. Partaking in the sacraments of the true church does not make one a Christian. If your deeds are evil, then you shouldn’t expect to be accepted on Judgment Day.

Augustine isn’t saying that the Christian must live a life of sinless perfection, but he’s saying that one must have a life founded upon Jesus. If someone loves anything more dearly than Jesus, then that person is in danger of hellfire. Augustine argues that those who give themselves over to gross immorality cannot possibly love Jesus more than their sin. The presence of sin will drive the Christian to further repentance and reliance on grace, whereas the false Catholic will use the offer of grace as an opportunity to indulge in the sins that he loves more than anything else.

Having Jesus for a foundation saves the Christian, but Augustine advises the Christian to build faithfully upon that foundation because everyone’s life will be tested by fire. Augustine expects some kind of purgatorial experience, but he remains agnostic as to how it might work. What he does know is that it will take place before the Final Judgment.

21.27. Augustine argues that acts of mercy cannot offset sinful deeds and that they cannot help someone avoid eternal punishment. He has in mind people who live lives of gross immorality, behavior unbecoming of a Christian. He doesn’t expect a Christian to be sinless.

He sets up a distinction between venial and mortal sins, but he admits that he has no idea where the line lies. He admits that this lack of clarity is probably a good thing. Christians ought to strive for holiness in living rather than attempting to live a life that’s “good enough.” Augustine seems to be dancing around the idea that the sins that are committed do not matter as much as one’s overall position towards Christ. Am I looking for which sins I can get away with, or am I looking for Christ?

Augustine’s overarching concern here, and in some of the previous chapters, is to caution his readers about presuming on God’s mercy.

City of God 22.1–10.

22.1–3. In this last book of City of God, Augustine considers the final state of believers. Before he gets started though, he reviews a number of ideas from much earlier in the book, such as creation and the relationship between God’s will and men’s wills.

22.4–5. Augustine addresses the objections of some of the learned Romans who refuse to believe in the resurrection.

How can earthly bodies live eternally in a heavenly realm? Augustine argues that doubters neglect the wondrous nature of this present life. The fact that souls give life to bodies in this life is just as amazing, but we’ve become familiar with it.

And if everyone believes in Christ’s resurrection, can everyone be wrong? Augustine argues that it is more incredible that everyone could be mistaken about Christ’s resurrection than it is incredible that Christ was resurrected.

Of course Augustine is not arguing for a democratic religion in which if the majority believe it, then it must be true. He is merely shifting the burden of proof to the doubter. So many people became convinced of the truth of the resurrection for good reasons, i.e., eyewitness accounts or miraculous proofs; therefore, doubting the resurrection means doubting the sanity and intelligence of an entire population. It seems incredible that everyone could be insane.

22.6–7. Augustine contrasts the belief in the divinity and resurrection of Christ with the Roman belief that Romulus, the founder of their city, became a god. Augustine says that the Romans believed in Romulus’s divinity out of misdirected love for him. He sets up a nice contrast saying that the Romans believed Romulus was a god because he was their founder, while Christians believe that Christ is able to found the heavenly city because he is God.

Augustine also notes that the age in which the church grew was not a particularly credulous age. Too many modern-day people assume that all previous generations were trapped in superstitions. Augustine notes that most people didn’t actually believe in the divinity of Romulus, but they didn’t want to offend the Romans, so they went along with it.

The martyrs, however, believed in Christ’s divinity and were willing to die for it. Augustine repeats the oft quoted line from Tertullian that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. Tertullian was another North African Christian who lived a couple of hundred years before Augustine. Augustine will now shift gears and discuss miracles and martyrs for a bit.

22.8. Augustine addresses the question, “Why have miracles ceased?” He says that they haven’t. They’re just less publicized.

This chapter on miracles is the longest chapter in City of God. Many of the miracles that he lists he witnessed himself. If he didn’t witness it himself then he tells how he heard about it. His purpose is twofold. He wants to demonstrate that miracles still happen, and he wants to publicize the miracles so that they can encourage the faithful. Miracles should not remain secret because their true purpose is to build up the church.

Many of the miracles that Augustine discusses happened at martyr shrines, and the shrine of Stephen is prominent in this chapter. Though Stephen was considered the first martyr, his cult was fairly new. Stephen’s relics were found outside Jerusalem in 415. A year later some of his relics had made their way to North Africa, but it probably wasn’t until around 425 that a shrine for Stephen was established near Hippo. Augustine probably wrote this list of miracles within a couple of years of the shrine’s establishment.

22.9. The message of the martyrs is that Christ has been raised from the dead and has ascended bodily into heaven. They perform miracles, but those miracles testify to the truth of the gospel, which is why they are called “martyrs.” The Greek word “martys” simply meant “witness” or “one who gives testimony.” Augustine’s theology of martyrdom hinges on this etymology.

22.10. Augustine gives a brief apology for the cult of the martyrs. He explains how the martyr cult differs from the Pagan cults. At Pagan shrines, the priests offer sacrifice to demons who pretend to be gods. At the martyrs’ shrines the priest offers a sacrifice to God, in the form of the Eucharist. The demons work miracles in order to deceive, while the martyrs work miracles in order to tell the truth about Christ’s resurrection.

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