Towards The Eternal City: St. Augustine’s Theology of History

It is quite common to hear from various Christian circles on how we must influence Washington with Christian values, and that bringing our nation to a more Christian footing morally, cultural and politically must be a top priority.  But even if we did succeed in creating this optimum Christian society, what are the chances of its permanence? St. Augustine’s answer is not to count on it. A look into his theology of history tells us why.

While this essay is about St. Augustine’s “theology” of history, I need first to say something about the handmaiden of this discipline, “philosophy of history.” Gordon Graham, professor of philosophy at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, defines “philosophy of history as “the application of philosophical conceptions and analysis to history in both senses, the study of the past and the past itself.” (Routledge Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy, p. 356) In other words, we can identify a philosophy of history by its conscious use of philosophical categories to describe, and identify, transcendent motive forces that drive the historical process itself. A Marxist philosophy of history can be defined as one that sees a definite economic determinism shaping the movement of history to the triumph of the Socialist Man. A Hegelian philosophy of history will tend to view the historical project in terms of an evolution of thought and consciousness, as a big dialectical struggle between a thesis, its antithesis, and its harmonization through a synthesis. That synthesis, then, becomes the basis for a new thesis, and the process goes on and on until humanity reaches the summit of knowledge and consciousness. August Comte in the 19th century identified history as the clash between faith, metaphysics, and the final triumph of “science.”

These are examples of different philosophies of history, and they all have in common this attempt to make sense of the past by the application of philosophical categories. They are concerned with transcendent forces that move and shape history itself.

The father of this approach is, of course, St. Augustine, and his City of God will cast a long shadow in this tradition of philosophizing about history. But what we find in St. Augustine is a quintessentially theological concern, born of a very concrete, historical situation: the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410 A.D. This event, as you well know by now, would have a formative effect on the way that St. Augustine would construct his grand theology of history.

I suppose I should now define “theology of history.” Much like a philosophy of history will apply philosophical categories to the study of the past, so a theology of history will attempt to think theologically about history, identifying spiritual forces that shape it. St. Augustine has an apologetic purpose in writing City of God. He wants to prove that Christianity did not contribute to the decline of the empire, making it ripe for conquest. From this starting point, he constructs what many call today a theological “meta-narrative,” identifying two forces that affect the course of human events: the “city of God,” characterized by unity of the human family in the bonds of divine love, and the “city of Man,” characterized by rebellion against God and his purposes for humanity. For St. Augustine, history is a record of what has been done, either through human or divine agency (cite). It includes both human and spiritual forces that bring human history to an omega point, to the last and final times when the city of God will triumph over the city of Man.

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