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Augustine of Hippo, Foundational Thinker, Part III Augustine, The City of God

By Rebecca Morecraft
November 09, 2010

My dear young reader, I want to take a moment to explain why I think reading Augustine of Hippo can be so important to your spiritual and intellectual development. This article is going to stretch your mind a little, so keep a notebook and dictionary close at hand. Most likely, you would not be reading the articles presented here if you were not already somewhat "epistemologically self-conscious."1 In other words, you already know that ideas have consequences,2 and that an even greater truth than "You are what you eat" is "You are what you read." Therefore, you should fill your mind with great thoughts that will undergird your developing philosophy of life and enable you to process words and ideas that seem difficult or even outdated to our largely illiterate culture.3 As you read and digest the writings of such men as Augustine, your thought processes will expand and you will find yourself, by God's grace, not only able to grasp the beauty of words and phrases, but you may be brought to deeper spiritual comprehension. My prayer for you as I write is that from an early age you may know and love the God of Augustine as deeply as he did.

In our final look at the great foundational thinker, Augustine of Hippo, we will take a cursory look at his very complex book The City of God, written A.D. 413-426. It is exhaustive and sometimes exhausting! In it Augustine presents the world with a Biblical philosophy of history. Dr. Joe Morecraft4 believes it is important to think about history as stories of God's mighty acts in the lives of men and nations in the past. In other words, "history" is really "His story." Augustine understood this as well.

We are told that the great ruler Charlemagne delighted in hearing The City of God read to him at dinner, probably because this book has the "fascination of being a book about everything."5 Augustine saw "mankind as occupying a battleground between two loyalties, heavenly and earthly, the self-denying love of God and the God-denying love of self."6 He saw every area of life as a battlefield with mortal enemies at war in men's hearts: will I live for the glory of God or for my selfish motives?

Augustine's worldview (how we think about all of life) and epistemology (the study of knowledge) rested on this basic presupposition: I believe so that I may know. His actual words are these: "If thou art not able to understand, believe, that thou mayest understand."7 He meant by that what Solomon meant in Proverbs 1:7: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge." Augustine believed that knowledge of God and life does not come by reason, observation, or experience, but by divine revelation in the Bible and divine enlightenment by the Holy Spirit. For a person to possess true knowledge of God, life, and himself, and be able to tell right from wrong, he must subject himself and his mind to the Bible, believing that it is without mistakes and that it tells us what God wants us to know about everything. The psalmist knew this: "For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light" (Ps. 36:9).

Augustine was well-versed in the classical worldview of ancient and pagan Greece and Rome, which taught just the opposite: "I know that I may believe." The classical method follows this path: reason, observation, and rational argument as the foundation of faith. Pagan Greece and Rome taught that all of life must be understood in terms of that reason, except those "religious" areas, which require faith. Augustine's response to this man-centered quest for knowledge was this:

Will you be able to lift up your heart unto God? Must it not first be healed, in order that you may see? Do you not show your pride, when you say, First let me see, and then I will be healed.8

Augustine wrote the monumental book, The City of God, among other reasons, to refute that idea. His higher reason for writing this book was to give pastoral guidance and help to suffering, confused, and fearful Christians. Many Christians in the Roman Empire were being deceived by the pagan apologists. They felt helpless in their new situation-a world without Rome. They wondered why God had allowed Rome to fall. They could not answer the logic of the pagans because they did not have any real understanding of their own faith, the revealed truth of the written Word of God. Here's what happened:

On August 28, 410, Alaric's troops had stormed and sacked Rome. This event had a shattering effect, far beyond its direct political importance. How had it come about that the capital of the ancient empire, the ruler of the world, the eternal city, had experienced such an overthrow? The world seemed to shake at its foundations, and the pagans knew the answer! In their eyes, the catastrophe was the recompense for abandoning the old guardian divinities and the traditional religion; the new Christian God of the empire had obviously proved impotent, and had failed.9

Many people who were suffering during and after the fall of Rome blamed the God of the Christians for the catastrophes that befell them. They said to the Christians: "Your God is powerless-we will return to our ‘gods' to protect and help us." And, indeed, this would be a tempting reaction when disaster is all around and you seem to be losing everything you once held as dear. Only a strong faith will see you through such a time. Do you have a bedrock understanding of your faith, dear reader? Can you say with the psalmist:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early. The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: He uttered His voice, the earth melted. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. -Psalm 46:1-7

If this is your testimony in the midst of a falling-down world, then you understand and agree with Augustine's attitude: the city of man will someday become the city of God because God will never leave His people. He is always "in the midst of her," as a Refuge and mighty Warrior, strong to save.

Augustine began The City of God in A.D. 412 and completed it over the next thirteen years. It changed "the way a whole society viewed its existence," from being man-centered toward being God-centered.10

In reality, one does not truly believe in God so long as one conceives of Him only as a means to provide the good things and happiness in this world, so that they may be enjoyed peacefully, and despairs of Him the moment external disaster occurs ... He only can participate in the meaning of life who is sincerely humble before God, who accepts all that God sends, and who gladly and willingly continues on his pilgrimage because he believes in an all-perfecting eternity which will be just as much God's as are all the troubles of this present time ... [Augustine] explains in detail that suffering is not mere suffering, but, depending on how one bears it, can be a curse or a blessing already in this life, in that it does indeed harden the ungodly, but it purifies and liberates the believer from his remaining inward burden.11

As Augustine studied the Scriptures, he began to understand history in a new way. He had been trained as a rhetorician, in the classical methodology that glorified the mind of man. But as Augustine read Genesis, he realized that from the beginning of the human race two communities have existed in the world in fierce opposition to each other. Genesis 3:15 refers to them as "the seed of the serpent" and "the seed of Eve." Genesis 4 and 5 describe them as "the ungodly line of Cain" and "the godly line of Seth." They have also been described as the church versus the world, the unregenerate versus the regenerate. Augustine refers to them as two cities-the city of God and the city of Man. These two communities are formed and characterized by two loves: love of God and contempt for self, and love of self and contempt for God. These two streams of humanity will continue in conflict to the end of history and Judgment Day "in the eternal ‘city of God,' where victory is truth, where dignity is holiness, where peace is happiness, where life is eternity."12

This view of history is directly contradictory to the classical and cyclical view of history. History that merely repeats itself is aimless and completely comfortless. Augustine argued that history is linear. It is moving toward a God-appointed goal and, therefore, it has God-given meaning and purpose. In The City of God Augustine traces these two cities throughout the entire course of history. He gives a detailed description of the origin, development, and progress on earth in the history of these cities, concluding with the consummation at the second coming of Christ and Judgment Day.

Dr. R. J. Rushdoony, in Foundations of Social Order, makes this astute comment:

After St. Augustine, we can therefore say that two cities, empires, or orders are seeking realization in history, are attempting to become the visible order of history. These two are the City of God and the City of Man. The strategy of the City of Man is to deny the antithesis between the two orders in order to neutralize and destroy the City of God.13

The City of God comprises twenty-two books or chapters in two main sections, Books 1-10 and Books 11-22. Its theme, according to Augustine, is "two loves gave birth to two cities" (14.28). Books 1-10 answer three related questions: "(1) Was Christianity responsible for the fall of Rome, paganism for its rise? (2) If not paganism, what spiritual power had presided over the rise of Rome? (3) Has any pagan system a serious claim against Christianity as the true spiritual religion?"14 And Books 11-22 set forth the "origin, history, and end" of the City of God and the City of Man.

George Grant offers this helpful commentary on the value of The City of God:

According to Augustine, cultures are not reflections of a people's race, ethnicity, folklore, politics, language, or heritage. Rather they are outworkings of creeds and confessions ... If a culture begins to change, it is not because of fads, fashions, or the passing of time, it is because of a shift in worldview-it is because of a change of faith. Thus, race, ethnicity, folklore, politics, language, or heritage are simply expressions of a deeper paradigm rooted in the covenantal and spiritual matrix of a community's religion and the integrity of its witness-or the lack thereof ...
Augustine recognized that a people's dominant worldview inevitably shapes the world they have in view. And he also recognized that the Household of Faith is the genesis point for the development of that worldview as it faithfully fulfills its calling to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Almighty God ... It is only when the church fails to fulfill its calling in this poor fallen world that we have to really worry. It is only when the church fails to uphold the standards of justice, mercy, and humble faith that the onslaughts of the enemies of truth can possibly have their intended ill-effects. It is only when the church creates a vacuum by its own inactivity and impiety that the minions of this world have the opportunity to exploit the innocent, the foolish, or the inattentive.
That is the real focus of Augustine's work. He points out that the only reason the sundry enemies of the Gospel have been able to make headway with their vile plans is that the church has not been all that God has called us to be or done all that God has called us to do ... The reality is that whatever the Church does-or doesn't do-directly affects the course of civilization. It determines the flow of historical events, Revelation 5-6. The Church has the keys to the Kingdom, Matthew 16:19. It has the power to bind and loose, Matthew 18:18. It has the authority to prevail over the very gates of hell, Matthew 16:18. It is, thus, the Church-not governments or movements or causes or organizations-that will determine our destiny and the destiny of our world ... Without the context of the Church, even the most dynamic Christian character is exposed to atrophy and entropy. But, within that context, our alertness, steadfastness, courage, strength, and love become powerful weapons in our ordained spiritual warfare.
The whole thrust of The City of God is to posit this remarkable perspective. It is to portray the Church and its members-and the eternal Kingdom which they manifest-in stark contrast to the world and its worldly-wisdom. Augustine's aim is to offer a practical exposition of the Gospel hope. Thus the book is a vital resource for substantive encouragement in the midst of a roiling sea of trouble ... After all, the future of our culture ... does not depend upon the machinations of political messiahs or the manipulations of institutional solutions. Neither does it depend on the emergence of some new brilliant spokesman or inspiriting leader who has the strength or ability to overcome the forces of darkness. Instead, the future of our culture depends upon ordinary men and women in the Church who are willing to live lives of justice, mercy, and humility before God. It depends on people like you and me who determine to live balanced lives in accord with the good providence of God before a watching world. It depends upon the magnificent emergence of the City of God.15

The City of God, then, is not only "a book on history, theology, and ethics ... It is also the reflection of a great man's mind and practically a world in itself. And I think we can understand why Charlemagne enjoyed it."16 Later in history, men such as Martin Luther said, "[T]his one book ... set the very course of Western civilization."17 And a contemporary of the last century, Cornelius Van Til, remarked: "I can hardly think of a more relevant book than The City of God."18

With such high recommendations, my friend, I leave you with a suggestion: Tolle Lege! "Take and read!"

part one

part two


1. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know.

2. This is the title of an important book by historian Richard Weaver.

3. "[O]ur national literacy has been declining since 1965, not only among disadvantaged children but also among our top students ... [T]he decline has occurred at a time when truly functional literacy is becoming ever more important to our economic well-being ... [P]roviding everyone with a high level of literacy is important in holding together the social fabric of the nation." E. D. Hirsch, Jr., The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), xi.

4. I am once again greatly indebted to my dear husband, Joe Morecraft, for the research and information comprising much of this article.

5. Edward R. Hardy, Jr., "The City of God," in A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine, ed. Roy W. Battenhouse (1955; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 259.

6. Ibid., 258.

7. Augustine, Sermons on Selected Lessons of the Gospel; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 6, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. by Rev. R. G. MacMullen (1888; reprint Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004), 465.

8. Augustine, quoted by Robert E. Cushman, Companion, 299.

9. Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Church, combined edition of The Fathers of the Greek Church and The Fathers of the Latin Church (United States: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 241.

10. Colin Wright, "St. Augustine: His Life and Thought, Part V: Augustine's Philosophy," Christianity and Society, Vol. 7, No. 1, ed. Stephen C. Perks (Somerset, England, 1997), 6.

11. Von Campenhausen, 242-243.

12. Augustine, The City of God, II, 29, quoted by von Campenhausen, 247.

13.R. J. Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1968), 152.

14. Hardy, 260.

15. George Grant, www.kingsmeadow.com

16. Hardy, 281.

17. www.augnet.org

18. Grant, www.kingsmeadow.com


Topics: Biography, Church History, Church, The, Theology

Rebecca Morecraft

Becky Morecraft is thankful to be married to Dr. Joe Morecraft, pastor of Chalcedon Presbyterian Church in Cumming,GA. They have been married for 39 years and have four children and seven grandchildren. Becky loves to sing with her sister, Judy Rogers, to read and write. She is grateful to her parents and grandparents for teaching her to love the Lord at an early age and to appreciate her heritage.

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