Augustine and “The City of God”
“AUGUSTINE has justly been called the greatest doctor of the Catholic world,” declared Stöckl.1 Born in the Roman province of Africa, he proved to be an energetic student. He mastered the Latin classics, studied Aristotle and was deeply influenced by Plato. Following his conversion, in 387 at the age of thirty-three he was baptized in the Catholic church, and he became a prolific writer. He became the bishop of Hippo, in ancient Numidia.
Of him The Catholic Encyclopedia says: “In the capital questions which constitute the faith of the Church in those matters the Doctor of Hippo is truly the authoritative witness of tradition . . . but the secondary problems, concerning the mode rather than the fact, are left by the Church to the prudent study of theologians.”2
Rome had fallen to the Goths A.D. 410. The opinion was being pushed to the fore that the calamity had come as a result of forsaking the gods of Rome and turning to Christianity. By the year 413 Augustine had begun to write an answer. Before it was finished in 426 his composition The City of God had developed to include a justification of the Christian philosophy in answer to the human philosophy of the pagan world.
The first five books of his extensive work attack the concept that human prosperity depends on maintaining the worship of many pagan gods and that the breaking off of such worship resulted in the fall of Rome. In the next five books of The City of God he takes to task the idea that calamity is always the companion of humanity and that worship of a great number of gods is advantageous. Up to this point his argument is directed specifically against the pagans. With the eleventh book he launches his treatise on the origin of the two cities, one of God and the other of this world. As we push on into the fifteenth book we find unfolding the progress of these two cities, and finally in the last four of his twenty-two-book work are set out the goals toward which these cities reach.
Interwoven with other material in The City of God are many comments on doctrinal matters. He being called the “authoritative witness of tradition,” his comments interest us. They set a pattern of the religious thinking of the church at that time. By comparison with Catholic teaching in this day, it is easy to see wherein Roman Catholicism has held to his lead and wherein it has deviated.
Augustine himself was a champion of the value of the Bible in Christian faith. He did not consider tradition as of equal authority, but declared that God’s Word is “of most eminent authority.”3 Although he quoted from the Apocryphal books, as he did from many pagan writers, yet he said: “Therefore let us omit the scriptures that are called Apocrypha, because the old fathers, of whom we had the scriptures, knew not the authors of those works, wherein, though there be some truths, yet their multitude of falsehoods makes them of no canonical authority.”4
He was not advocating the primacy of the apostle Peter in the Christian church when he said: “We that are Christians re et ore, in deed and in name, do not believe in Peter, but in Him that Peter believed in. We are edified by Peter’s sermons of Christ, but not bewitched by his charms nor deceived by his magic, but furthered by his religion. Christ, that taught Peter the doctrine of eternal life, teaches us also.”5
In his Retractationes, written toward the end of his life, Augustine restated his position on Matthew 16:18 in this way: “In my first book against Donatus I mentioned somewhere with reference to the Apostle Peter that ‘the Church is founded upon him as upon a rock.’ This meaning is also sung by many lips in the lines of blessed Ambrose, where, speaking of the domestic cock, he says: ‘When it crows, he, the rock of the Church, absolves from sin.’ But I realize that I have since frequently explained the words of our Lord: ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church,’ to the effect that they should be understood as referring to him whom Peter confessed when he said: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ and as meaning that Peter, having been named after this rock, figured this person of the Church which is built upon this (rock) and has received the keys of the kingdom of heaven. For what was said to him was not ‘Thou art the rock,’ but ‘Thou art Peter.’ But the rock was Christ, having confessed whom (even as the whole Church confesses) Simon was named Peter. Which of these two interpretations is the more likely to be correct, let the reader choose.”6 In view of the fact that Augustine shows it to be his later view that Christ, not Peter, is the Rock spoken of in Matthew 16:18, it is clear that this is the position he believed to be right.
In discussing the fall of the ancient city of Troy, he truthfully states why images cannot help their worshipers, saying: “The image kept not the men, but the men kept the image.” He did not support religious rites for the dead as an aid to such deceased ones when he states: “And therefore all these ceremonies concerning the dead . . . are rather solaces to the living, than furtherances to the dead.” He showed that Christians do not furnish “temples, altars, nor sacrifices to the martyrs, because not they [the martyrs], but their God, is our God.”7
There was no thought of distinguishing certain men by their priestly attire in his statement that “it is nothing to the city of God what attire the citizens wear, or what rules they observe, as long as they contradict not God’s holy precepts, but each one keep the faith, the true path to salvation.” And although Augustine himself used Latin at a time when it was spoken by the people, he argues that the church should use the language of the people to whom they preach. He said that Christ “gave that manifest and necessary sign of the knowledge of the languages of all nations, to signify that there was but one Catholic Church, which in all those nations should use all those tongues.”8
Did Augustine teach the doctrine of purgatory? It is a point that has been debated. The word “purgatory” does appear in his work. But however the matter is viewed, the picture he paints does not in any way suggest that suffering would be alleviated by the prayers of a priest, which might be offered on a money consideration.
He strongly opposed the idea held by many that all men are part of God. “Can there be a more damnable absurdity, than to believe that part of God’s essence is beaten, when an offending child is beaten? To make the component parts of almighty God as lascivious, unjust, wicked, and damnable, as divers men are—what man can endure to hear it but he that is absolutely mad? Lastly, how can God be justly angry with those that do not worship Him, when they are parts of His own self that are guilty?”9
Further, Augustine argued in support of the Scriptural teaching “that had not our first parents sinned, they had not died.” He said: “Why may not God then have so resolved of the earthly bodies, that being brought forth they should perish no more . . . but enjoy eternal happiness in this combination?” Our first parents lost it, however, when they failed in a test of “simple obedience.” Augustine did not regard the account as folklore, but as revealed truth. Moreover, he pointedly disagreed with men who put fantastic dates on the antiquity of human accomplishments, “seeing it is not yet six thousand years from the first man Adam.”10
Not all of Augustine’s teaching, however, was so firmly based on Bible truth. He was in some ways influenced by the ideas of the pagan mythologies and worldly philosophers with whom he was so well acquainted. The Catholic Encyclopedia reports: “Augustine gradually became acquainted with Christian doctrine, and in his mind the fusion of Platonic philosophy with revealed dogmas was taking place.”11 The fruitage of that fusion showed up in such doctrines as the trinity and immortality of the human soul. The Egyptian, Roman and Grecian mythologies, as well as the teachings of Plato, taught various trinities. Augustine followed this line of thinking, arguing that the Father, his Son and the holy spirit are all coequal and coeternal, instead of holding to the teaching of Jesus himself, who said: “The Father is greater than I am,” or the inspired statement of Paul, who pointed out that the Son had not always existed, but is the “firstborn of all creation.”—John 14:28; Col. 1:15.
In the fifth century before Christ Socrates had taught the immortality of the human soul. Plato, his foremost pupil, continued the doctrine and gave it greater popularity. Augustine, who was deeply influenced by Plato, did not break away from this “tradition of men” when he took up Christian writing, although the Bible says that “all have sinned” and “the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”—Col. 2:8; Rom. 3:23; Ezek. 18:4, AS.
Predestination was another doctrine that stumbled Augustine. He tried to merge his idea of predestination with “free will” by teaching in effect that God makes man of such a temperament and gives or withholds His blessing in such a way that man freely does what God foreknows he will do. But he left unanswered the questions that are raised as a result of such teaching. The answers to such questions lie, not in such idea of predestination, but in the Bible. “God is not partial.” “Time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.”—Acts 10:34; Eccl. 9:11.
THE TWO CITIES
But now turn attention briefly to the underlying theme of Augustine’s The City of God. Two cities, or two societies, are set before our view. Rome, or some other earthly government, is not held up as the kingdom of the Devil, but rather it is said by Augustine to include the unrighteous in both heaven and earth. Nor is the city of God said to be the Catholic Church, but it is described as a universal city that includes God, the obedient angels, the saints in heaven and the righteous on earth. Those on earth who pertain to that heavenly city are considered as pilgrims until God’s kingdom comes. So Augustine says: “These we mystically call two cities or societies, the one predestined to reign eternally with God, the other condemned to perpetual torment with the Devil.”12
In the latter part of his work the church emerges in a powerful, ruling position. Augustine said that ever since the spreading of the church beyond Judea the binding of Satan had taken place, restraining him from the full power of temptation. During this same time Christ is said to reign with his saints. “And so,” he contends, “the Church now on earth is both the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven,” while an eternal reign lies beyond.13
True Christians may admire the clear insight Augustine had into many basic Bible truths, but they cannot accept the teachings that result from his attempts to fuse the Bible with pagan mythology and Platonic philosophy. Bible Christians do not look to any religious system on earth as the “kingdom of heaven,” but continue to put their confidence in the “new heavens” that God creates as his means for bestowing endless blessings on obedient mankind.—Isa. 65:17, AS; 2 Pet. 3:13.
1 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 91.
2 Id., p. 103.
3 The City of God, by St. Augustine, translated by John Healey, Everyman’s Library, Vol. 1, pp. 313, 314.
4 The City of God, Vol. 2, p. 91.
5 Id., p. 230.
6 Retractationes, by St. Augustine, I, 21, 1. Quotation taken from The Church, An Introduction to the Theology of St. Augustine, by S. J. Grabowski, a priest of the archdiocese of Detroit, p. 124.
7 The City of God, Vol. 1, pp. 3, 16, 252.
8 The City of God, Vol. 2, pp. 256, 224.
9 The City of God, Vol. 1, p. 224.
10 The City of God, Vol. 2, pp. 2, 13, 17, 213, 214.
11 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 85.
12 The City of God, Vol. 2, p. 60.
13 Id., p. 283.