How St. Augustine is guiding me through this election

I’ve been spending some significant time with St. Augustine lately. If you remember, he was the Bishop of Hippo during the fall of Rome, that great “Eternal City.” I like the bishop; he is profoundly relatable. He shares the inner dialogue of his heart and mind with astonishing transparency in Confessions, a sort of autobiographical retelling of his coming to Christ at age 34 (If you have not read Augustine yet, start here.)

But it is his political theory -and more so his theory of history and how we fit into history- in his dense work, The City of God, that has caught my attention during this insane election cycle. 

What is history?

It is obvious to absolutely everyone, despite partisan inclinations, that we are living through a conspicuously “historical” time. For Augustine, all of history pivoted on the incarnation of Christ and moves ever-increasing toward Christ’s final return. He held that it was Rome’s abandonment of her republican ideals that brought on the collapse of the empire, but even beyond his political theory (and more importantly) Augustine’s argument in COG centers on the central theme of God’s providence. 

It has been said that “for Augustine, the object of history is none other than the study of the mind and will of God.”[1] History itself, the marking of time by human events, is only a tool for our feeble understanding of something eternal that has always been in the heart and mind of God. God’s eternal purpose in Christ then, is revealed to the people and citizens of God’s kingdom through the inspired work of scripture. Augustine has full confidence in hanging all of our hope for the future and understanding of the past on God’s revelation to his church, writing,

“For could we rely on a better chronicler of the past than one who also foretold the future as we now see it happening before our eyes? …In contrast, we can place our reliance on the inspired history belonging to our religion and consequently have no hesitation in treating as utterly false anything which fails to conform to it…whether true or false, [they] offer nothing of value to help us to a life of righteousness and felicity.”[2]

Why do the wicked prosper?

In books I-V, Augustine argues for the sovereignty of God over all human history to fulfill the great divine goal (that of Christ’s revelation to mankind), which *and here’s the kicker* included the fall of Rome. For Augustine, God’s sovereignty fuels the movement of human history toward his eternal purpose, on both the macro and the micro-level.

On the large scale, we witness the rise and fall of kings and nations, along with the gains and losses even of figures who could never be called “moral” or “upright.” We publicly criticize presidents and parties alike for enjoying the fruits of success despite their life of blatant violence and sin. We privately ask ourselves, where is the justice? Augustine asserts that all is toward the glory of God’s good purpose, even the prosperity of the wicked –precisely because it reveals what devotion lies within a person’s heart.

The City of God vs. the City of Man

The division of loves, that of self and God, is what defines Augustine’s dichotomy of the two cities described in his book; for the city of man (civitas terrena, or earthly), the love of self motivates everything and her citizens receive their due reward (power, pleasure, and the things of this world). For citizens of the city of God, however, the love of God in and for Christ drives them toward the eternal Jerusalem.[3] On the micro, personal and individual scale, the sovereignty of God is such that it compels the Christian’s free will toward “a life of righteousness and felicity,” as Augustine beautifully qualifies it.[4] 

Augustine’s conception of a “free will” is a spiritually healthy one, unencumbered by sin, and fully submitted to the leading of God, as he describes to Hilarius,

“Now this free will [libera voluntas] will be the more free the more it is healthy; and it will be the more healthy the more it is subject to the divine mercy and grace.”[5]

Fundamentally, the sovereign will of God is that all would come to the revelation of Christ as Lord, but according to the restraints of human history, only God knows who will come into the glorious kingdom (and at what point in their journey) where He benevolently rules. It is the sovereignty of God that enables us to truly love and serve our neighbor without prejudice…and to rest our weary heads at night.

Pilgrimage and Blessing

Because we are bound to our bodies and therefore, to a time and place in history, there is an experience of the co-mingling of the two cities in every human heart. Only God’s wisdom and foreknowledge can sort through the wheat and tares (even within the church, as Augustine discusses in Book I.35), so our charge is to seek the peace (and make use) of Babylon while looking toward our final destination.[6] For those that find their heart’s allegiance to the kingdom of the God –from whom flows all of history– we are free to temporarily “enjoy [our] earthly blessings in the manner of pilgrims…while these earthly misfortunes serve for testing and correction.”[7]

After all, “in the end, only the city of God will remain.”[8]

[1] G.J.P. O’Daly, ‘Thinking Through History’ in Mark Vessey, Karla Pollmann, Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., History, Apocalypse, and the Secular Imagination: New Essays on Augustine’s City of God (Villanova, PA: Villanova University Press, 1999), 54.

[2] Saint Augustine, City of God, XVIII.40, ed. Bettenson and Evans (Penguin Group: London, ENG 2003), 815. 

[3] Peter Barnes, “Augustine’s View of History in his City of God,” The Reformed Theological Review, 71:2 (August, 2012): 93. 

[4] Augustine, City of God, XVIII.40.

[5] Documents of the Christian Church (4thEdition), Ed. Bettenson and Maunder (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2011) 61. 

[6] Augustine, City of God, XIX.26. 

[7] Augustine, City of God, I.29. 

[8] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Vol. 1, (HarperCollins: New York, 2010), 250.

Published by Sara Beth Longenecker

Sara Beth Longenecker is a writer and blogger based in Nashville, TN. She helps women sort through the noise of our culture by bringing them truth, beauty, and everyday theology.

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