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The City of God

  • Ben House,
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The famous beginning of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities says that it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Centuries before that novel, Augustine wrote a tale of two cities that grew out of the worst of times.

The year AD 410 and the time following saw two terrible events occur. And these events occurred during a stage of the decline of the Roman Empire where bad news was common. For several centuries, the factors that would ultimately topple the empire were competing for future historical notice. Political instability was rampant; the violent death of an emperor was no longer newsworthy. Economic problems abounded. Roman currency was so debased that the Roman government would not accept it as tax revenues. Barbarian invasions had both destabilized the frontiers and had furnished the only new blood in the empire willing to man the armies. Paul had written of human depravity most graphically in his epistle to the Romans, chapter 1, in the 1st century. Confirming evidence of such depravity was to be found in the pre-conversion lives of the recipients of that letter. And apart from the Christian community, such behaviors still abounded.

Able emperors, such as Diocletian and Constantine, had found innovative ways to divide and rule the now unmanageable Roman world. Yet, as William Butler Yeats would write of a later era, the center could not hold. Officially Christian, but practically multicultural and pluralistic, Rome tottered and stumbled every step of the way to dissolution.

Then Alaric, a barbarian chieftain and leader of the Visigoths, showed up. Alaric and company represented the forces for cultural breakdown that plagued the empire. The Visigoths had broken through the eastern frontier over a century before. Romans found them inconvenient as invaders, but useful as purchasers of Roman commodities. When tensions developed in the Visigoth-held regions, Rome responded with its characteristic solution to political problems — it sent in its feared legions. Under the Emperor Valens, this Roman army stepped in, and bystanders witnessed a military shellacking. Only this time, it was the Romans who were shellacked.

In 410 Alaric led his horde to the Italian peninsula down to the very gates of Rome. What Hannibal had failed to do after 15 years of trying, Alaric accomplished quite handily. Roman city officials met with Alaric and warned him in effect that their big brother could beat him up; meaning, there were armies en route to protect Rome. Alaric yawned. Then they asked him what it would take to buy him a one-way ticket away from Rome. Alaric presented a list of demands that included immense amounts of gold, silver, silk cloth, and almost every other kind of valuable. “But what will we have left?” the city officials asked. “Your lives,” Alaric answered.

The city officials refused Alaric’s demands, and so he and his Visigoth army enjoyed three days of good old-fashioned barbarian pillaging, plundering, and raping. All the things the city fathers had refused him, he now took, with interest. Buildings were destroyed, people were killed, and chaos reigned. (Amazingly, the Visigoths did respect church buildings, and those hiding there for the Visigoths were, like the empire itself, nominally Christian.)

The sack of Rome in 410 was earthshaking news. Rome had not been sacked or invaded in 800 years. Despite the fact that the political and economic center of the empire had long since been relocated, Rome was still centrally and symbolically the heart of the empire. People of all walks of life were shaken by the events. We can identify in part because of the shock we felt on September 11, 2001. The theologian Jerome said, “Who could have believed that Rome, built by conquest of the world, would fall? Who would have believed that the mother of many nations has turned to her grave?”

As devastating as was the news of the sack of Rome, there was something even worse. As people asked why and how this happened, a certain interpretation arose concerning the attack on Rome. It was what we now call the analysis or spin on the event. And as is common today, the spin on the story was worse than the story itself.

In our own time, our country has conquered and occupied two enemy regimes across the world from us in record time and with a record low casualty count. Whether or not we should have done that is another matter, but the fact is that the conquest and occupation has been quite astounding—unless you follow the spin and the interpretation given so often in the major media.

Likewise, in 1968 during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, the ground fighting changed from being a guerrilla-type war based on raiding parties and it became a full-fledged war with full armies engaged against full armies, and the result was an overwhelming American victory in the fields, but that was followed by an interpretation or spin that destroyed the American cause.

The liberal media have often proved to be better theological thinkers than Christians, for they have recognized the truthfulness of Cornelius Van Til’s oft-repeated saying that there are no brute facts. All facts are interpreted facts.

What was this interpretation of the sack of Rome that was so devastating? After the events of 410, pagans attributed the sack of Rome to its failure to adhere to its historic gods and myths. Although the empire had been tolerant of Christianity for almost a century and Christianity had been the official religion for a little over 30 years, paganism remained a strong force. “Why did this happen?” everyone asked. “Simple,” answered the pagans, “Rome abandoned her former gods and goddesses who had protected her. It is the fault of the Christian God and the Christian people.”

From our perspective, the Roman idolaters look pretty silly. But all defunct idolatries look silly. To imagine that Jupiter and Juno were miffed at being snubbed may not give us an apologetic challenge, but we have to repent of our own fear of idols before we can truly understand. The empire was in the midst of its own culture war. There were not red states and blue states; there were no referendums on gay marriage; but there were cultural battles being waged all around the Mediterranean Sea.

Christians were stunned by the charges. Family gatherings were tense where pagan mothers-in-law berated Christian sons-in-law for abandoning the old ways. Nominal and weak believers woke up on Sunday mornings and questioned whether to go to the house church down the street or the temple to Diana across town. “See, I told you so” became the rebuke of pagans to Christian converts. The gates of hell may not have been on the offensive, but they seemed strong and secure.

By 413, a North African Christian political leader, Marcellinus, recognized that something had to be done. Christian refugees were arriving on the shores of North Africa daily. This was a genuine Christian retreat. The church militant was becoming the church defeatist. All that was needed to ice the pietistic, retreatist cake was some clever team writing the Left Behind series.

Marcellinus appealed to the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa to refute the charges of heresy. That bishop, Aurelius Augustinus, or as we know him, St. Augustine, got up from his sickbed, went to his study, and began dashing off a tract to answer the pagans.

Thirteen years later, the completed massive tome hit the shelves of the local Scrolls-a-Millions. Titled De Civitate Dei or The City of God, this book laid the vital foundations for subsequent centuries of Christian scholarship, philosophy, apologetics, and theology. It established clearly a Christian view of history, and like all historical paradigms, it provided a vision for future Christian civilization.

More than any other book of its time or since, The City of God signaled the end of the ancient world and the beginning of that new frontier era now known as the medieval period. More than any other book, it made clear that the central meaning of history was to be found in the kingdom of God and not the kingdom of man, whether that man was in Rome or Paris or London or Washington. More than any other book, this book defined the difference in the only two ways that life exists here in this world: life is either in covenant with the true and the living Triune God or it is in rebellion against that same God. More than any other book, this book showed the utter bankruptcy of the pagan worldview, which offered no happiness or blessings to people either in this world or the world to come. More than any other book, this book showed the blessings of being the covenant people of God.

Augustine devoted the first 10 books or portions of The City of God to a devastating and informed critique of pagan mythology and philosophy. Combing through the histories, the beliefs, and the fruits of paganism, Augustine traced the corruptions to their very sources. He studied and quoted extensively from the best historian on paganism, a man named Varro. He also went to the philosopher he considered the best of the lot, Plato. Like a young seminarian right out of a Van Tilian apologetic class, he turned his intellectual flamethrowers to the contradictions and incoherencies of the world of pagan thought.

Christians before and after Augustine have grappled with the question, “What hath Jerusalem to do with Athens?” However one answers that question, some like Paul in his day and Augustine in his, have to march right into the middle of Athens, right past the idols, and declare the idol-toppling truth. In his powerful critique of the enemy’s worldview, Augustine not only taught readers in his day to rest assured in the bankruptcy of Christianity’s opponents, he also taught future generations how to battle its own demons. G.K. Chesterton’s confidence in shrugging off Darwinism and other heresies echoes Augustine. C.S. Lewis’ certainty of the vindication of God in the dock reminds us of Augustine. Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism is a 20th century application of Augustine’s methods. The critiques of modern philosophies and theologies found in the works of Rushdoony, Schaeffer, Van Til, and Schlossberg are updated versions of Augustine. Christopher Dawson simply applied Augustine’s historiography to European history. Gregg Singer applied Augustine’s precepts to American history. The works of Phillip Johnson and Nancy Pearcey, as well as the older works of Henry Morris, in answer to the Darwinian scientific worldview, follow the model of Augustine.

After shredding the pagans for 10 books, Augustine turned his attention to constructing a Christian view of God, the world, man, history, and reality. Well trained in rhetoric and philosophy, Augustine did not found his worldview on the fruits of his well-trained reason. Instead, Augustine takes the reader step by step through the Bible. In the Bible is found the precepts, the examples, and the mandates for a Christian culture. In those pivotal doctrines of creation, the fall, and redemptive history, the patterns for building an earthly city with eternal foundations are found. Like the great theologians who would follow in his footsteps, Augustine did theology by mining the text of Scripture.

Of course, Augustine stumbled over the currents and influences of his time. He could not transcend Greek philosophy or Latin culture. His theology is tainted at points by the retreatist and ascetic aspects of much of the early church. Hence, Augustine is not the man to go to for directions for intimacy in marriage. Sometimes, he made poor applications or weird interpretations of Scripture. But mistakes and missteps in theology are readily correctable if Scripture is the foundation for theology. It is a self-renewing, self-correcting epistemology. So even when Augustine was wrong, he was right, for he kept pointing to the Bible as the source of truth.

The fall of the Roman Empire is now the stuff of history and occasionally movies. The Roman religions and myths are long since reduced to Trivial Pursuit questions. The Visigoth threat to Europe is long gone. North Africa has long since ceased to be a center of Christian thinking. The crisis of 410 is forgotten, but Augustine’s City of God lives on. It is more relevant to our own culture wars than are the latest best-sellers. It is both a model for us and instruction to us. A child saying, “Tolle lege” or Take it and read it prompted Augustine’s conversion. We can do no better than follow that advice with The City of God.

  • Ben House

Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.

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