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.

How did St. Augustine arrive at this sweeping view of history, and especially, this very linear interpretation of history? It is important to mention that while the linear view can be gleaned from Scripture (and St. Augustine certainly teases out this aspect of the Scriptural view of history), nonetheless there are certain cyclical patterns in some Old Testament stories. This cyclical approach is common in ancient near eastern cultures, which always give priority to the pristine order of the past. Thus, history is viewed, from this perspective, as a series of cycles of order, chaos, and back to order. This pattern is especially evident in the Book of Judges, where the children of Israel are continually falling into disobedience, and God intervenes in order to restore the covenant, and things remain peaceful until they again fall, and God steps in to again restore the covenant, and on and on… Order, chaos, back to order-this is the essence of the cyclical view.

The linear view, on the other hand, involves a linear progression, where history has a beginning, and is progressing to its ultimate end. This view is especially evident in the Exodus story, where the children of Israel are freed from the bondage of their Egyptian masters and led to the Promised Land. There is a clear beginning (Egypt) and a clear culmination (the Promised Land). In this view, God intervenes in human affairs in order to move it along to its proper end. In the Old Testament, both views coincide, albeit implicitly, with the linear view ultimately gaining more currency after the Babylonian exile. We may speak of this linear history as a part of a larger divine cycle, where God moves human events along to an end, and that end is a restoration of the proper order of the cosmos, but the practical effects are that of a movement forward, towards a culmination.

Such a view of history is not explicitly drawn out, and it takes a long time to fully develop it into a grand philosophy of history. Indeed, we can say that St. Augustine is the father (or maybe the grandfather) of a thorough-going philosophy of history. How does St. Augustine do that?

For Augustine, Holy Writ provided the clues to a proper interpretation of history. The divine purpose for humanity could not be ascertained in any other way, since the sacred text itself tells us how, and in what circumstances, God steps in to affect it so that the outcome would work out in accordance to his purposes. Human history is a variable experience, wrought with change, decay, sin and tragedy-a veritable veil of tears. Thus, human history begins, not with the creation of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, but at the fall. The fall initiates this cycle of birth, decay and death, and this is what characterizes the “city of Man.” Biblical history is a history of human salvation, beginning with the fall and ending with the second coming of Christ, where God will gather his faithful from the four corners of the earth, and inaugurate the new heavens and the new earth. Initially, Augustine schematized salvation history into six periods: Adam to Noah, Abraham, David, the Babylonian Captivity, Jesus and the age of grace, and the parousia (second coming), paralleling the six days of creation. By 400, he had largely abandoned this six-fold scheme for a more simplified three-fold one: the age preceding the Law (Adam to Abraham), the age under the Law, and the age under Grace. The incarnation marked, on both models, the defining turning point in the progression of human history.

Contrasting Augustine with Eusebius, we see that Augustine has a much more biblical view of the human events. Salvation history for him is not garnered through any other source than divine revelation as encoded in Holy Writ, and therefore it is impossible to predict with any certainty when the second coming will occur. Unlike Eusebius, who saw the hand of Providence intimately involved in the advent of Constantine, and with it the end of the persecutions, Augustine had a more realistic and sober view of the new Christian empire. As wonderful as it is for Caesar to finally embrace Christianity, the empire of Caesar is still part of the City of Man, and therefore subject to the same laws of decay to which other empires and kingdoms are subject. The Visigothic sack of Rome should therefore not surprise us, nor should it surprise pagans, since invasions and sackings occurred under the “protection” of their pantheon of gods. Eusebius seems to think that the persecutions had ended with the inauguration of the Christian empire under Constantine. For Augustine, there is no reason at all to suspect that persecutions will never occur again. The Christian statesman, while loving his country and serving it, and influencing it like leaven, nonetheless knows that he is still working within the territory of a transitory order, made better certainly by his influence, but subject to the same laws of decay as other institutions. A Christian commonwealth is possible, certainly, but it will still participate in the ordo saeculorum, the order of this age, which will pass.

Thus we have the nature of the two cities. In this world, their lives and careers are intertwined, like the wheat and the chaff in the gospel parable of the sower. These two cities, like the wheat and the tares, will be separated at the end of time, when their true nature will be revealed. The earthly city, represented by Babylon, engaged in the worst excesses of pagan corruption and impiety, while the heavenly city, represented by Jerusalem, is exemplified by the Church, characterized by the loving reconciliation of humanity in the love of Christ. But even here he exercises a cautious sobriety, since like the wheat and the tares, so the Church has members of the earthly city in it, those who profess with their lips, but whose hearts are far from God. For Augustine, the judgment of God begins in the very house of God, and the separation of the wheat and the tares will take place at that time. In the meantime, even in the Church, that emblem of the heavenly Jerusalem on earth, must mingle with members of the secular city within its own precincts.

The way this works out in the political realm is through a clearly defined distinction between the two realms-secular and spiritual. The spiritual and the temporal realms may coexist in the same person, i.e. the Christian ruler, and the two may cooperate as well as possible, but in the end, they never merge into one entity, always remaining distinct. Ernest L. Fortin, Professor of Theology at Boston College, further explains the nature of this distinction of the two spheres and how St. Augustine differs from some of his contemporaries on this front: “Augustine’s remarks on this subject are directed less against his pagan critics than against his own coreligionists, among them Eusebius, Lactantius,  Ambrose, and his own pupil, the Spanish priest Orosius (who wrote the Seven Books of Histories Against the Pagans, a standard textbook in the Middle Ages) who had interpreted in a temporal sense the Old Testament prophesies relating to the blessings of the messianic age and predicted an era of unprecedented prosperity under the auspices of Christianity and as a consequence of its emergence as a world religion capable of uniting all human beings in the cult of the one true God.” (Routledge, p. 201) Christianity offered the Christian the “best of both worlds”: eternal bliss in heaven, and a solution to their most pressing problems here on earth (Fortin, 201).

St. Augustine would have none of this. The evils that exist here on earth, in this time when the city of Man still holds sway, visit both the just and the unjust, just as God sheds his common grace upon the just and the unjust. The evils that afflict humanity are things that God can use to fulfill a larger providential purpose, and God certainly uses them to move history forward to the fulfillment of his ultimate plan for redeemed humanity. There is no guarantee of temporal salvation, only spiritual, and the best one could do in this life is to live life in a manner that is consistent with that of a citizen of the city of God. The city of God and the city of Man run side by side, each with its successes and failures, until they run the course of their lives on earth.

The City of God would influence the way that many in the West would understand the relationship between church and state, empire and papacy, the relationship between the believer and the body politic. It would influence a whole way of viewing history from a providentialist paradigm, one which sees history as the work of God uniting the human family into one great fellowship in the Church, but which nonetheless still participates in the city of Man until the end of time. The city of Man, to be sure, has much that is good: proper government which promotes the common good, philosophy, which Cicero called the “art of life,” and those virtues which human reason and capability can secure: wisdom, justice, temperance and fortitude. But as good as these things are, they are, to use a term St. Thomas Aquinas uses in the Summa, only “proximate goods,” helpful and necessary for making this temporal life better, and we know that this life will pass away, since it participates in decay and death. Even with Christian influence, Augustine will have us be cautious about being too enthusiastic about having achieved anything that will not outlive this present world. The transcendent nature of God will provide for him the corrective to any enthusiastic celebration of having achieved a lasting Christian commonwealth. He is too much of an astute student of history to think otherwise, and he is an even more astute student of salvation history to believe anything other than that the ultimate triumph of the City of God involves nothing less than a total transformation of the cosmos by God himself, and therefore, the world’s salvation lies completely outside of its power. Perfect peace and justice will reign when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21) This is the heart of St. Augustine’s theology of history.


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