Friday, January 31, 2014

"City of God" II.27-29

Chapter 27:
Even Cicero, the statesman and (sort-of) philosopher was not immune to the delusions and temptations offered by false gods.

Chapter 28:
By contrast to the pagan depravity, we see in Christian worship the highest virtue held up on display. This is not because of the goodness per se of the people worshiping (though compared to pagan behavior they are quite restrained), but because of the God who is being worshiped. For when pagans enter a church service they see that "either the precepts of the true God are recommended, His miracles narrated, His gifts praised, or His benefits implored." When we declare the Gospel through preaching, praying, and singing we hold out to the world a picture of the God who in Holiness stands opposed to our sinful rebellion. And while visitors today may not be quite the same as their pagan counterparts in the 5th century, I think it's interesting that we do often see that when the Gospel is preached properly "their petulance is either quenched by a sudden change, or is restrained through fear or shame." Some of this no doubt is because of group mentality (when we enter a room full of silent people we're more likely to be silent ourselves, whether Christian, pagan, or other), but some of it is also the overwhelming weight of the Glory of God displayed in the broken Christ on the cross held out to us.

Chapter 29:
Augustine appeals to the Romans to embrace Christianity and to reject the deceitful wickedness of paganism. In Christ alone is found the solution to the desires of the human heart, and only in the heavenly city do we see the eternal glory that we long for on earth but can never acquire because of our own sinful hearts.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"City of God" II.25-26

Chapter 25:
In fact, the demonic powers will go to any lengths to increase our rebellion against the one true God, even to the point of faking divinity and creating a great sham battle so that the Romans will think the pagan gods are at war and be inspired to write bad poetry (or even good poetry) about it. That the Romans then copy the 'gods' in their own civil wars can hardly be surprising.
This in contrast to the law of Christ, which restrains vice and promotes virtue...

Chapter 26:
Again, Augustine rejects the idea that there are secret moral teachings passed on to the select few. While all of us retain a sense of right and wrong (however much we may voluntarily pursue wrong in the end), none of us can claim to have picked that up from the mysteries of the 'gods.' All we get from them is public lewdness and encouragement to pursue our depravity on a mass scale.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"City of God" II.23-24

Chapter 23:
If we go by the standard of worldly success, the pagan gods are clearly useless. On the one hand, their greatest follower (Regulus) was tortured to death by Rome's hated enemy, while the wicked Marius achieved the heights of worldly power despite his clear disdain for all that is good. But on the other hand, we also have clear examples of the opposite--devout and pious men like Metellus prosper while the wicked Catiline was overthrown and died in poverty and disgrace.
What we really see at work in the world is not the power of pagan gods, but the movement of the hand of Providence, wherein the Lord directs the affairs of the world as He wills. If Marius came to power it was only at the Divine command, and if he (or the demons posing as pagan gods) could not exercise that power to the full extent his wicked heart desired, that was because of Divine restraint on his sinful will.

Chapter 24:
Lest we think that because he was opposed to Marius Sulla must have been a Godly man, Augustine points out that he too was on the side of demons in rebellion against God.
We really have a remarkable picture of the nature of sin in this chapter. Whether talking about demons or our own sin, the goal of both is that we all might be involved "in one common wickedness and judgment of God." The sole nature of sin is to set ourselves up against the God who created us and who alone has the right to be worshiped.
Augustine is equally clear about the result of sin: "for by it [Sulla's victory] he became so insatiable in his desires, and was rendered so arrogant and reckless by prosperity, that he may be said rather to have inflicted a moral destruction on himself than corporal destruction on his enemies."
What happens when we pursue some kind of worldly good as our chief end? For Sulla it was power and influence in the Republic (both against its enemies and against other Romans), but for us it could be anything--financial success, marriage, family, national glory, etc. The result of this sort of a pursuit is that even if we get the object our desires, our desires themselves only become more corrupted because they were misdirected in the first place.
By contrast, the Christian (imperfectly to be sure) attempts to reflect the Catechism's declaration of man's chief end: "To glorify God and enjoy Him forever." By grace, rather than descending ever more into sin and rebellion we have increasingly refined affections that are ever more in conformity with God's will and display the fruits of the Spirit that signify a life touched by the saving grace of God.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"City of God" II.21-22

Chapter 21:
When we read Cicero, we find that even the Romans themselves (or at least their most famous orator and politician) think that the Roman state ceased to exist in any meaningful sense long before the time of Christ (Cicero himself died before Christ was even born).
Augustine ends this chapter by promising to discuss more the fact that "Rome was never a republic, because true justice never had a place in it."
To be fair, "I grant there was a republic of a certain kind, and certainly much better administered by the more ancient Romans than by their modern representatives." That is, we can look at Rome and recognize the form of government that is generally called a 'republic' by the world, and we can admit that the Romans of the 3rd century BC and earlier did a better job of managing the state than the Romans of the 1st century BC. "But the fact is, true justice has no existence save in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ, if at least any choose to call this a republic; and indeed we cannot deny that it is the people's weal."
If the definition of a republic is that it is governed by justice exercised for the common good (as Cicero would rightly argue), then we can say that Rome was never a republic in anything more than semantics (nor, for that matter, has America ever been one), and that only the city of God can make the exalted claim to being a state run justly and for the common good.

Chapter 22:
Again, even before the coming of Christ the pagan 'gods' repeatedly failed to save the city of Rome either from its immorality or from invasion and destruction. Placing the blame on Christians for something that was an established pattern long before Jesus was even born simply demonstrates how deceived the Romans are about even the simplest matters of theology and history.

Monday, January 27, 2014

"City of God" II.19-20

Chapter 19:
The damage was done to Rome long before the coming of Christ, as even the pagan writers admit. The Republic was sunk in a wash of luxury and wickedness before Christianity arrived on the scene. The Romans have failed to follow even the good laws they had, to say nothing of the wicked ones given to them by their 'gods.' They would do better to look to the Scriptures, which not only condemn greed and avarice, but encourage a virtuous lifestyle across the board and point out the way that the believer can live by faith in a world full of sin.

Chapter 20:
This chapter is one of my favorites that I use in class when teaching Augustine. Here, we are told what the world really wants from life. For all its claims to love virtue, in reality the city of man loves personal peace and affluence (to quote Schaeffer). At the end of the day, the world rejoices in the idea of being able to do what you want whenever you want to do it. Augustine is relentless is his analysis of the desires of the human heart:
But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquility; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependents, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden ....
Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for everyone who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. [A demand now filled by Internet pornography.] Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where everyone who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate. Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. [24 hour cable entertainment?] If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to.
This passage is certainly a condemnation of the decadent Roman culture of the 5th century AD. But if that's all it is, then it becomes little better than a cranky caricature. Instead, I think we have to see this not only as a picture of society but also as a picture of the political desires of the human heart in its natural state. What do you and I care for civic virtue or the morality of the state so long as we are secure and surrounded by pleasures? For that matter, what more does any modern American want other than to be entertained 24/7?
This of course by contrast to the city of God discussed in the previous chapter, who endures this "earthly republic" with its eyes on the heavenly city to come. Where the world cares only for its own prosperous decadence, we have to keep our eyes on Him who has provided salvation and peace through Jesus Christ.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

"City of God" II.17-18

Chapter 17:

The Romans are complaining now about the awful things that have happened to them when the barbarians sacked the city, but they seem to have forgotten that their own state was founded upon exactly the same atrocities. Nor can we say "that was just the times of the monarchy, under the republic things were better", since the history of the Roman Republic was just as unjust and awful. So much so that "I cannot now mention all the shameful and iniquitous acts with which Rome was agitated," and this is a 1200 page book. Augustine has time to mention everything!

Chapter 18:

Even the pagans themselves (in the person of the historian Sallust) admit that the best moments of the Republic weren't so much driven by virtue as they were by fear. That is, the times it appeared that the Romans were living a virtuous existence were not actually virtuous, since they were driven by fear of destruction rather than the proper motives (though at this point Augustine has not yet told us what those proper motives are). The point is, even when the Romans were good they were bad, and now they're not even good. So it makes no sense to blame Christians or Christ for the current dreadful state of Rome; it has really always been dreadful. On the other hand, the most that Christ has done is be the one "who teaches life-giving truth, and forbids us to worship false and deceitful gods, and who, abominating and condemning with his divine authority those wicked and hurtful lusts of men, gradually withdraws His own people from a world that is corrupted by these vices, and is falling into ruins, to make of them an eternal city, whose glory rests not on the acclamations of vanity, but on the judgment of truth."

Friday, January 24, 2014

"City of God" II.14-16

Chapter 14:

Leaving aside (for now) the difficult question of endorsing Plato's censorship and state-controlled media, Augustine argues that Plato was right to expel the poets from the city. I think this gives us a foretaste of how Augustine is going to ultimately view Plato: Plato (along with a number of other wise pagans) is right about something outside of himself, while remaining an unrepentant sinner internally. Having agreed with Plato's statement about the arts, Augustine goes on to say "We for our part, indeed, reckon Plato neither a god nor a demigod; we would not even compare him to any of God's holy angels; nor to the truth-speaking prophets, nor to any of the apostles or martyrs of Christ, nay, not to any faithful Christian man."
In other words, Plato's speaking the truth notwithstanding, he himself has no part of the truth that we as Christians share. This will come up again in City of God.

Chapter 15:

The way we set up and worship our gods is ultimately a reflection of our own sin. Even the elevation of Plato to the status of 'demigod' shows the true nature of the pagan religion: self-worship. This is shown by the fact that Romulus (a Roman) is preferred to Plato, all the Greek divinities, and even the Roman versions of the Olympian gods themselves. There's probably a parallel that could be made here to George Washington and the American treatment of the Founding Fathers, but I don't know that I'm the person or this is the place to make it.

Chapter 16:

Morality is the one thing which everyone agrees upholds the state, and it is the one thing which the Romans do not get from their gods. In fact, they've had to outsource their lawmaking to the Greeks (for whatever that's worth). When we take into account everything Augustine has been saying about the gods and their love of the theater, it would even seem that the gods are at odds with morality and so are working for the downfall of the state.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"City of God" II.11-13

Chapter 11:
If nothing else, the Greek plays show us that the pagans make no distinctions among their gods, honoring good and evil alike--even as some of their thinkers seem to be somewhat uncomfortable with this practice and try to walk a fine line between actually worshiping evil and simply placating it.

Chapter 12:
Unlike the Greeks, the Romans seem to understand that some things should not be said on stage--they just kept such restrictions to themselves and did nothing for the honor of the gods.

Chapter 13:
The fact that the gods allow (and even encourage) themselves to be treated in a way that no Roman would ever tolerate for himself or the state proves that something is terribly askew in pagan theology. And at this point, Augustine applies a bit of the pagan logical method to their own system of divinities:

"And the whole of this discussion may be summed up in the following syllogism.
The Greeks give us the major premise:
if such gods are to be worshiped, then certainly such men may be honored.
The Romans add the minor:
But such men must by no means be honored.
The Christians draw the conclusion:
Therefore such gods must by no means be worshiped."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"City of God" II.8-10

Chapter 8:
Some people say "this is just fiction, not revelation!" And yet, the tradition says that these bawdy plays were established at the command of the gods. If nothing else, the lack of recrimination from the gods would seem to imply their consent. And while it's true that some plays are not so lewd as others, it doesn't change the fact that they're all teaching immorality.
Not to encourage anyone to morality, but if you want my favorite example of one of these plays, check out Aristophanes' Lysistrata.

Chapter 9:
Even the ancient Romans understood this to some extent, since they forbade what was said about the gods to be said about living Roman citizens. (Unlike the Greeks, for whom everyone was fair game.) This shows that they knew the true moral worth of the plays and were just inconsistent in their application of that knowledge.

Chapter 10:
The spirits behind the plays (Augustine says "demons", but I don't know that it is any different if only human sin is in question) don't care that they are being defamed, so long as human sin increases: "But the devils... are content that even iniquities they are guiltless of should be ascribed to them, so long as they may entangle men's minds in the meshes of these opinions, and draw them on along with themselves to their predesitnated punishment." Such is the nature of sin that at the end of the day it doesn't even care about truth, it just care about rebellion against God.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"City of God" II.5-7

Chapter 5:

What we see is that even the best of the city of man cannot hope to cling to virtue, and is ultimately deceived. Scipio Nasica, already admitted by Augustine to be the best of the ancient Romans and the defender of public morals, was instrumental in introducing the worship of the Magna Mater (Cybele, or the "Great Mother") into Rome. [If you're reading the Dodds translation, he cites Cicero's De Natura Deorum. I believe this is an editorial error, and that Livy's History is the correct source.] The fact that the worship of this goddess has descended into such horrendous abuses simply proves that there can be no moral growth in the city of man. Scipio Nasica was deceived, for "her intent was to puff up this high-souled man by an apparently divine testimony to his excellence, in order that he might rely upon his own eminence in virtue, and make no further efforts after true piety and religion, without which natural genius, however brilliant, vapors into pride and comes to nothing."
In other words, all false religion does is reminds us of our own inherent excellences, rather than turning us to "true piety and religion." And so we eventually lose even those gifts of common grace because we never come to the truly saving grace that alone can preserve the fruits of "natural genius."

Chapter 6:
I think this is an interesting passage. It seems to be structured something like this:

1) Show me where you pagans learn about holiness from your gods.
2) You claim that the elite initiates into your mysteries are given true moral instruction, but
3) we all know how you really live--and it's not moral at all.
4) Where, then, do you learn how to live the way your writers (in this case Persius) tell you to live?

The obvious immediate answer is that the pagans do have good moral instruction, since they have writers like Persius telling them how to live. But I think the argument is more subtle than that. The point is not so much that the pagans have never been taught morality--they know quite well the difference between right and wrong. The point is that the pagans can nowhere demonstrate either 1) that such teaching comes from the gods at all, rather than just from men, and 2) that the followers of the gods actually follow said teachings.
Christians, on the other hand, despite all our failures can hold up both the teachings of Scripture and the lives of Christians as evidences of instruction unlike anything else in the world.

Chapter 7:
But what about those philosophers, who aren't gods but perhaps have good things to teach us? It is certainly true that, by God's grace, they have come to some true conclusions about ethics, physics, and logic (the three traditional categories of Hellenistic philosophy). But, it is also true that human nature is so depraved that we'd rather engage in the evil rites of the false gods than hear even the smidgens of truth available in the philosophers. We see this even in how we choose our gods--were we better we would at least choose to worship Plato, who had a tiny bit of the truth. Since we are not, we choose to worship those 'deities' which reflect the base aspects of our nature that we love most.

Monday, January 20, 2014

"City of God" II.1-4

Chapter 1:
Augustine here argues for a realistic view of apologetics. We certainly need to be able to respond to the challenges of the world, but we also need to realize that the world will not hear us apart from Divine grace. And so we need to be thoughtful and balanced in how we try to defend the faith before a blind and obstinate world. In the 20th and 21st centuries, there has been a strain of apologetics which seems to believe that if only one piles up fact after fact and argument after argument, then the hearer will have no choice but to bow under the mountain of evidence and turn to the faith. (Obviously, there is some place for the work that goes into this approach!) Augustine, however, would have us remember that no one is argued into being a Christian, and that our responsibility is to be faithful in sharing and living the Gospel, not to exhaust ourselves in responding to every rebellious claim of a stony heart.

Chapter 2:
In the summary of Book I, we are reminded that in the moral ruin of the world, the only true shelter of any kind comes through Christ. And because of that, Christians should take comfort, even when great wrongs are done to them.

Chapter 3:
Some have argued that Christianity is the cause of the evils of the world. This just shows either 1) their ignorance of history (as with the masses) or 2) their dishonesty (as with the elites, who do know their history but keep it quite out of prejudice). In reality, bad things happen at all times and all places--including in Rome before Christianity came along.
We of course see the same sorts of arguments made today: "If only those backwards Christians would get out of our way, our scientific progress/moral development/public policy would shoot ahead and we would live in an opulent paradise!" (We Christians of course are not innocent of this kind of thought.) What we have to remember is that Providence governs all, and that even in a society completely without Christians disaster and calamity occur.

Chapter 4:
"By their fruits you shall know them" What moral standard does your god reveal? What kind of behavior does He delight in? If his followers revel in awfulness and say that it is pleasing to their gods, then we can be suspect about whether or not the 'god' in question is one or not. And we can certainly be suspect concerning the charges leveled by the follower of that God against Christians.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"City of God" I.32-36

Chapter 32:
At the command of demons, you Romans have established games and public entertainments to the destruction of your own souls with some idea that doing so you will save your bodies. While Augustine does say that if we must choose between the two we ought to choose our soul over our body, he is more concerned to point out that the whole thing is a false dichotomy.

Chapter 33:
In this chapter, we see the basic nature of the unregenerate heart. Those outside the grace of God learn nothing from adversity, and only drive ever further in to their rebellion against God. Trial after trial comes, and they continually refuse to repent: "Depraved by good fortune, and not chastened by adversity, what you desire in the restoration of a peaceful and secure state, is not the tranquility of the commonwealth, but impunity of your own vicious luxury."

Chapter 34:
Even the mercy that protected the unbelievers through the calamity does not bring around the "ungrateful": "That you are yet alive is due to God, who spares you that you may be admonished to repent and reform your lives. It is He who has permitted you, ungrateful as you are, to escape the sword of the enemy..."

Whether being shown judgment as in chapter 33, or mercy as in chapter 34, we see that outside of the grace of God there is no repentance or faith. Even the example of Romulus and Remus, "a remarkable foreshadowing of what has recently occurred in honor of Christ," brings the Romans no credit, for they refuse to turn and embrace the forgiveness offered in the Gospel.

Chapter 35:
Through all of these reflections, we should not get discouraged. In fact, as Christians we should remember that among those who are currently railing against us are "those who are destined to be fellow-citizens," while among our own numbers there are "some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints."

I think this is an important point In an age that values niceness and getting along and not making people feel bad about themselves, we easily forget (or just don't want to admit) that there are a number of people in the congregations of the church who are not believers. (That there are people who have not yet been reached is perhaps less controversial--any church which does missions or evangelism believes that!) One can verbally confess the faith, partake in the sacraments, and worship weekly with the church and still not be part of the City of God.*

Rather than getting hung up on either of these truths, instead we need to remember that "these two cities [the city of man and the City of God] are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation." When we are tempted to be frustrated by the church or the world or both, we need to remember to raise our eyes to the coming heavenly city and the time when Christ shall return and set all things to rights. Until then, we can patiently endure all things as we wait with our eyes firmly upon Christ.

Chapter 36:
The shape of things to come! Augustine explains the difficult task he has set out for himself in City of God, including the sovereignty of the true God and the emptiness of false deities; the hope of heaven found through the Gospel; and the careful distinctions which must be drawn between Christianity and the greatest philosophical thought the world has to offer--thought which we often might agree with on some points but which at heart will be found to be of a different spirit from that of God.

*If this is something you want to know more about or something you struggle with yourself, the greatest work of theology published in the Western Hemisphere (so far) deals with this very topic: The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards is an indispensable must-read for every Christian's bookshelf. Assurance by John Owen is also quite good, if quite a bit more difficult in its prose.


Friday, January 17, 2014

"City of God" I.28-31

Chapter 28:
This is no doubt not only a difficult chapter for us to read but also, I suspect, was a difficult one for Augustine to write.
It would be tempting to read his words sarcastically: "As to those whose hearts... reply that they have never been proud of the virtue of virginity... but condescending to those of low estate, rejoiced with trembling these gifts of God... even such faithful women, I say, must not complain that permission was given to the barbarians so grossly to outrage them." It would be all to easy to read this as Augustine functionally saying "really? You're saying you didn't deserve this, not even a little bit? You, alone among all women of the world are innocent?"
And yet, I don't think that's his intention when we consider the overall arguments he is making, especially in his charge: "faithfully interrogate your own souls." Rome has been sacked, Christian women have been violated, refugees are streaming across the Mediterranean, and Augustine takes the opportunity to remind us that as Christians, there is no situation of Providence in which we find ourselves exempt from self-examination and repentance for our own sin in the sight of a Holy God. The point is not whether or not the women are guilty in this particular instance (he is clear that "I, for my part, do not know your hearts, and therefore I make no accusation; I do not even hear what your hearts answer when you question them"), it is that in every instance we are responsible for continually searching out and putting to death sin in our own lives.

And, when we do so examine ourselves in the direst of circumstances, what we will find is that all Christian virtue flows immediately from the grace of God. "If you did not consent to sin, it was because God added His aid to His grace that it might not be lost."
Our natural temptation is to champion ourselves as bastions of strength and virtue in the face of adversity. Yet the honest Christian, as he matures in the faith and persists in self-examination, is increasingly able to trace the hand of God in his life as that alone which supports and empowers and enables us to live in a difficult world, rather than any reserve of goodness or virtue in us.

Even more, Augustine wants us to see that God is utterly sovereign over all that happens and to be praised by us for it. "For some most flagrant and wicked desires are allowed free play at present by the secret judgment of God, and are reserved to the public and final judgment... As, therefore, some men were removed by death, that no wickedness might change their disposition, so these women were outraged lest prosperity should corrupt their modesty." Even these evils are used by God for the good of His people.
We see here yet another contrast between Christianity and the world--how many other religions can endure war and disease and crime and suffering and still find delight in the presence of God, even the very same God who permits such evils in the first place?

Augustine's conclusion to this chapter is that such things happen for our good, and for God's glory. Whatever does happen to us teaches us to rely ever more upon God and to live in a way pleasing to Him. "...when they settle gain to the firm persuasion that He can in nowise desert those who so serve Him... they are shut up to the conclusion that He could never have permitted these disasters to befall His saints, if by them that saintliness could be destroyed which He Himself had bestowed upon them, and delights to see in them."

God creates "saintliness"; God grows saintliness, often through persecution; and God delights in the finished work of saintliness. As Augustine says at the beginning of the next chapter, "the whole family of God, most high and most true, has therefore a consolation of its own--a consolation which cannot deceive, and which has in it a surer hope than the tottering and falling affairs of earth can afford. They will not refuse the discipline of this temporal life, in which they are schooled for life eternal; nor will they lament their experience of it, for the good things of earth they use as pilgrims who are not detained by them, and its ills either prove or improve them."

Chapter 29:
Give the truths of the previous chapter, we can clearly see that our God is not answerable to man, and certainly not to men who worship creation. Instead, God is omnipresent, and so not absent when disasters fall and certainly not incapable of stopping them. Rather He sends trials to grow us and, as the Christmas carol says, "fit us for heaven."

Chapter 30-31:
When we pare it down to its base elements, we see that the heart of the complaint against Christianity is the desire for luxurious prosperity and self-indulgence. "For why in your calamities do you complain of Christianity, unless because you desire to enjoy your luxurious license unrestrained, and to lead an abandoned and profligate life without the interruption of any uneasiness or disaster?... for your purpose rather is to run riot in an endless variety of sottish pleasures."
Even the pagans know on some level that this is unwise and recognize the tendency in man to incline to idleness and vice when times are prosperous. When conditions are difficult, a state like Rome might be roused in pride to endure hardships and set aside selfishness and pursue a kind of patriotic virtue for the glory of the state. (Leave out for a minute the fact that it's a state which worships demons and idols.) The best pagan minds understood that once those difficult conditions are removed, it's right back to the abject decline of human nature into opulent squalor.
Which circumstance is exactly what we've got today. Christians are attacked because we are seen as standing in the way of the world's happiness, pleasure, and prosperity. How often do we hear those who are openly hostile to the faith decrying those awful Christians who are constantly calling everyone "sinners"; perpetually standing in the way of the social progress that will bless human existence; and always holding on to outdated myths while the rest of civilization has ascended to a higher and more enlightened plane? Those religious nuts are clearly the only ballast holding back a world that would otherwise soar off into the majestic heights of pleasure, wealth, and glory!

Responding to these types is Augustine's main goal, and he does it by pointing out that even the Romans of the past would have agreed with the Christians about the moral decline of the Roman people. (We should note of course that he does not argue for a kind of return to the civil principles of the Roman Founders. Neither should we.) When the Romans were somewhat wiser, they could at least recognize certain forms of sin that should be resisted in the name of the common good, even if they didn't yet know the actual solution to all sin that would be offered in Christ.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"City of God" I.24-27

Chapter 24:
Once again, we see that the pagans themselves by their example stand against suicide. If the very best example of a virtuous pagan (Regulus) understood that suicide was a sin, how much more should we as Christians who are not bound by pagan beliefs and customs, but who instead worship the true God and have a heavenly citizenship?

Chapter 25:
But shouldn't we commit suicide if we're about to be raped (or beaten, or anything) to resist the possibility that in the course of the assault we find ourselves liking it and so sinning? Heaven forbid, replies Augustine, that we use one sin to counter another. Instead, we should have our hearts and minds "confiding in God, and resting in the hope of His aid."

Chapter 26:
Again, we see Augustine's pastoral delicacy on display--this time in disagreeing with the church. After all, if suicide is wrong, and the church celebrates the suicides of certain virgins who sought to escape their pursuers, are we suggesting that the church is wrong? In our day of course we would immediately jump to say "yes, of course the church was wrong; and my view is right, and that's all there is to it." We would not stop to think that perhaps disagreeing with our church shouldn't be our default setting, but should instead be done only slowly, carefully, quietly, and after much thought, reflection, and prayer.
Augustine clearly handles this issue with all of those things. He begins by admitting the possibility that there is some way the church is right in its judgment of those who have died--perhaps the suicides had the "special dispensation" that God occasionally gives that allows someone to take a life (mentioned in the previous passage), as if they were a modern Samson.

We, however, must be very careful in our considerations of such things, since we have no way of knowing whether the persons in question did or did not have such a Divine dispensation. What we do have is a solid statement of truth: "that no man ought to inflict on himself voluntary death, for this is to escape the ills of time by plunging into those of eternity; that no man ought to do so on account of another man's sins, for this were to escape a guilt which could not pollute him, by incurring great guilt of his own." As the reader, we are left to connect the dots ourselves that the particular teaching of the church about the virgin suicides is at odds with the revealed truth about the nature of suicide in general. And so instead of the violent rendering we would expect to see today, Augustine leads us gently in a different direction, correcting error along the way.

Chapter 27:
But again, isn't it better to avoid the real horrors of sinning against God? Isn't suicide a better alternative that sin? In order to respond to these questions, Augustine draws on a false view of baptism that had crept into the church sometime in the 3rd and 4th centuries-- the idea of "baptismal regeneration" (i.e. that the act of being dipped in the water itself is what washes away sin). If suicide is an appropriate response to the potential of falling into sin, then those who have been baptized should immediately kill themselves and so enter immediately into heaven in the purest attainable state. We all immediately see that "it is wicked to say this; it is therefore wicked to kill oneself. For if there could be any just cause of suicide, this were so. And since not even this is so, there is none."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"City of God" I.21-23

In these chapters, Augustine touches on two broad questions that no doubt his readers would be raising. (For a good historical background check out Collin Garbarino's notes on these chapters.)

Chapter 21:

The first is the question of whether Augustine's views on suicide mean that no one should ever kill under any circumstance whatsoever. Augustine's reply is clear: there are two circumstances in which one human being may take the life of another (the "human being" part is critical; God of course may--and does--kill any time he wishes with total justice). Augustine writes "However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual."
In other words, the power to execute is delegated both under the general revelation (and here he means to the state in the form of war and the death penalty) and by special dispensation (to those individuals who took up the sword in God's name in the Old Testament.
Which is to say, according to Augustine unless you or I work for the state as a soldier or executioner, we have no right to take the life of another human being.

Chapter 22-23:

The second question is: what about the examples of suicides from history that seem to be clear examples of the right response by a great soul to a desperate situation?
In fact, Augustine argues that suicide is never a sign of greatness, but in fact is a sign of weakness and of the human lust for glory. We see this in the example of Cato the Younger, who was himself quite inconsistent on the value of suicide in the face of unstoppable evil. He himself took the "noble" path of suicide rather than live under Caesar, but at the same time advised his son to make his peace with the Dictator.
When we take our own lives, we are really making a last-ditch effort to seize whatever glory we can for ourselves. (And I don't know that Cato would necessarily have disagreed.) It is a final shout of a sinful will in rebellion against God, and as such no Christian should indulge in it. Of course, no Christian should indulge in any sin, but suicide is a fairly final one and so should especially be avoided.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

"City of God" I.19-20

Chapter 19 and 20:

The story of the suicide of Lucretia is well known (and if you don't know it, Collin Garbarino has a great summary here). Augustine uses this popular story to set up a problem for the reader: either Lucretia was innocent in the sexual assault and so murdered an innocent; or she was guilty of adultery and deserved to die, and therefore doesn't merit the hero-status the Romans have attributed her.

Obviously, Augustine says, we don't think that she was complicit in her own rape, and consequently we do believe that she was innocent of adultery but guilty of murder. We can understand that she felt shame because of what happened to her, but as Christians we also hold that the problem of shame cannot be solved by sinful means. We see this in the example of the Christian women who have been raped: "They declined to avenge upon themselves the guilt of others, and so add crimes of their own to those crimes in which they had no share. For this they would have done had their shame driven them to homicide, as the lust of their enemies had driven them to adultery. Within their own souls, in the witness of their own conscience, they enjoy the glory of chastity."

The problem is, the world says that sin must have some recompense. The woman who has been raped (or the man in the same circumstance, I suppose) feels soiled, though we all see that she is not. And of course a great evil has been committed, so there is an actual sin out there that in Augustine's day was certainly going to go unpunished by the Roman Courts (it's not as if they could drag the barbarians in before them!). So much we can all agree upon, Christian and non-Christian alike. And I think that we can go one more step and say that both Christian and non-Christian will agree that in these cases two wrongs do not make a right. Adding yet another sin to the mix will not solve either the soiled feelings or the reality of the wrong that has been done. And while we might disagree over whether or not suicide is a sin (as Augustine argues so forcefully in Chapter 20, the Christian is against killing any rational being), we can all admit that 1) something should be done; 2) that something should not be another evil.

So where does that leave us? With the split between the Christian and the non-Christian. The non-Christian is going to search for justice in the city of man. The courts, the laws, the methods and processes of the time will be turned to in an attempt to remove the soiled feeling from the victim and to punish the guilty party. The Christian, on the other hand, while fully supporting the attempts of the city of man to pursue justice and healing, realizes that such things will never fully be found in this world and instead turns his eyes to Christ, in whom alone justice and mercy can be found that are completely sufficient.

Monday, January 13, 2014

"City of God" I.16-18

Chapters 16-18:

If nothing else, these chapters should help us appreciate Augustine's pastoral concerns. With issues as delicate as rape and suicide, Augustine reminds us that "in discussing it we shall not be so careful to reply to our accusers as to comfort our friends." (Chapter 16) I know my tendency is to dive into the problem of evil with a head-on attack (the shallowness of modern atheists only increases that tendency), while forgetting the people who are actually suffering in the world. We have to love how gentle Augustine is with this, since we know (either from previous exposure to Augustine or just from knowing that he's an orthodox Christian) that he will eventually take the point that all the evil which stains our soul comes from within us. Augustine's delicacy does not come from a wish to soft-peddle evil, but rather from a desire to care for those who have been hurt.

In this instance, Augustine is clear that virgins who have been raped during the sack of Rome are not guilty because of the rape, and that we should at least sympathize with those who are driven to suicide in defense of their virtue. These topics require a tenderness that I frankly lack in my day-to-day life, and that we rarely see even from the most famous of Christian leaders and thinkers. (Imagine, for instance, what a Tertullian or a Luther would say in such an instance!)

So I think if we lay out the brief versions of Augustine's arguments, we can see what he's getting at.
-Being raped is not a sin.
-Wanting to commit suicide to preserve moral purity is a circumstance that merits sympathy and care.
-Committing suicide is a sin.
-Sin itself is found in our desires, not in our bodies. 
The overall point is that we can be honest about the nature of sin, sympathize with a sinner pursuing virtue in a sinful way, and condemn the sin itself, all at the same time. (And that convoluted run-on sentence is why Augustine is Augustine and I am not.)

In being honest about the nature of sin, we need to remember that it is found in the inclination of our souls as expressed through our will. "Suppose a virgin violates the oath she has sworn to God, and goes to meet her seducer with the intention of yielding to him, shall we say that as she goes she is possessed even of bodily sanctity, when already she has lost and destroyed the sanctity of soul which sanctifies the body?" Or, in a more abstract example, imagine Eve was struck by lightening just as she was reaching for the forbidden fruit--wouldn't we all agree that the fall had occurred even though no fruit had been eaten?
This is not to say that the body is irrelevant (again, Augustine is no Gnostic); but it is to say that what happens to the body is not ultimate. Instead, we must look at how we use our bodies and trace those actions back to our souls. It is not a sin to be hit by a car--a traffic accident is no indication that we have become more depraved. But it is a sin to step into traffic with the intention of ending our own lives. Both are actions we do with our bodies, but the virtue or vice of each action is determined by the intent with which we take it.

Again, I think that Augustine's application of these points is pastoral rather than apologetic. He's equipping Christians to think carefully about the nature of sin, even as we care for those who are suffering from it (whether their own or someone else's). In light of his previous charge not to be negligent in condemning sin, this passage is critical in tempering our thoughts and words and in keeping us from a rigid fundamentalism that would ignore the necessary subtleties that come from living in a complex world.

With that said, he's opening the door to something much more offensive to the world than the condemnations of things we can all agree on. Presumably everyone (Christian, pagan, atheist, etc) can agree that women who have been raped are not guilty of evil, and that evil has been done to them. The rapist is guilty, the victim is not. That's the easy and unoffensive bit. But when Augustine says that purity "belongs to the soul" and that "not even when the body is violated is it lost," he's setting up the Christian doctrine of indwelling sin. We are not guilty when something awful happens to us, but we are darn sure guilty when we do something awful. Again, pastorally this is not the place to have that discussion, but we can see it being set up for the future.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

"City of God" I.14-15

Chapters 14 and 15:

These chapters deal with the difficult question of the relationship between Divine power and human virtue. Does God reward the good and punish the evil? If He does not, is that proof that He is a false god and that we should find some other, better, gods? Certainly Christians believe that God does have the power to supernaturally save His followers, as we see from the stories of Jonah and Daniel (Chapter 14). But, in the late sack of Rome, we also see Christians being brutalized as much as the pagans. Maybe then we ought to turn back to pagan gods, who have more to offer us in the way of worldly protection?

The problem with this line of reasoning, argues Augustine, is that it ignores reality. The pagan gods do not protect their own, as we see in the example of Marcus Regulus, who all agree acted virtuously, and who died a most horrendous death at the hands of Rome's enemies. (For other versions of the story, see Tertullian's "To the Martyrs" and Aulus Gellius' Attic Nights). The point of Regulus' example is not that the Christian God would necessarily have saved him, but that even pagans admit that there are reasons beyond worldly health, wealth, and prosperity to worship the gods and live virtuously. And once we've raised our eyes above this world and begun a conversation about higher affairs, the tenor of the our debate changes and we're no longer concerned nearly as much with "who caused the sack of Rome?" as we are with "who is the true God and what is the right way to live virtuously in obedience to Him?" We see then that it is no rebuke to the Christian religion that people suffer--even when those people are the Christians themselves.

Almost in passing, Augustine mentions that we likewise see in the story of Regulus something about the nature of a virtuous city: "But if they say that M. Regulus, even while a prisoner and enduring these bodily torments, might yet enjoy the blessedness of a virtuous soul, then let them recognize that true virtue by which a city may also be blessed. For the blessedness of a community and of an individual flow from the same source; for a community is nothing else than a harmonious collection of individuals."
Since Augustine will have more to say about the nature of a community later in City of God, I won't comment on this now other than to note the parallels with Plato's Republic where the virtue of the individual and virtue of a city are declared to be the same. Not, of course, to argue that salvation comes to a city rather than an individual, Augustine is a Christian after all, but it's still worth noting given how radically individualistic we tend to be in a post-Enlightenment world.

Friday, January 10, 2014

"City of God" I.11-13

For those of you who are interested in the discussion of City of God but not on Facebook, there's a non-Facebook based discussion forum here.

Chapter 11:
I might quibble with Augustine's language here--death is an evil, however much it is not to be feared by Christians. It is an enemy to be destroyed. (I Corinthians 15:26) Consequently, I think his statement "that death is not to be judged an evil which is the end of a good life; for death becomes evil only by the retribution which follows it" goes a step too far. Death even for a believer is a sign of a fallen world, and to be mourned for its existence as with every other evil.

But, his overall point is of course still a good one. At the end of the day, to put a Christian to death is no victory for the enemies of God at all. How contrary is this to the world's thinking? We have a natural tendency to think of individual death as the end, of wars as being won or lost based on casualty rates, and of the death penalty as the highest form of punishment that can be inflicted. Death in our natural line of thought is final and absolute. We overcome this natural tendency when as Christians we join Augustine (and Scripture) in holding to a higher truth--that death is no defeat if we have confidence in the certainty of a heavenly life after death. The eternal judgment of a righteous God for our rebellion against Him is infinitely more to be feared than the question of when we depart this life. "They, then, who are destined to die, need not be careful to inquire what death they are to die, but into what place death will usher them." But if the rebel has been reconciled, then the Christian can face death with confidence knowing that he will be ushered into heaven rather than hell. Because Christ has gone to hell in our place for our rebellion and opened the way to heaven through His death, our own deaths then become but a springboard into the victory He earned for us.

Chapter 12 and 13:
In these two chapters we are given a practical application of the proper Christian view of the body. As Christians, we are neither naturalists nor Gnostics. We believe that what happens to the body has no ultimate effect on the state of the soul before God and that there is a supernatural element to human nature that cannot be destroyed with the death of the body (and so are not naturalists); but we also believe that the soul and the body are bound up together and will eventually be reunited in the resurrection (and so are not Gnostics).

We see this in how Augustine discusses burial. Augustine was living at the end of the (pagan) era when it was believed that a failure to apply the proper funerary rites would keep the spirit from the afterlife. (The play Anitgone is based on this concept.) Christianity rejects this idea, understanding that the performance or non-performance of religious rituals over a person has no bearing on whether that person ends up in heaven or hell. To that end, desecrating the body of a believer, failing to bury it properly, and so on does us no harm. As Augustine says, it is not "an infliction to the dead, for they cannot feel the loss."

At the same time, we ourselves do not disdain the bodies of the dead but treat them with appropriate respect, "for the body is not an extraneous ornament or aid, but a part of man's very nature." And so whenever possible we respect the bodies of the dead as a part of the person temporarily in hiatus.

I suppose I should include a closing note about Augustine's use of the Apocrypha as an authoritative source, but I don't know that I'm the person to write such a note. Instead, I'll leave that to Jerome, who says that these books may be read "for the edification of the people, not to give authority to doctrines of the Church."


Side note:
This is a sermon from last Fall that touches on a number of the same issues as I.9-13 of COG. As one example, "Personal Christian faith must exist to be real... but merely private religion is fake religion."

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"City of God" I.9-10

Chapter 9:

None of us can claim innocence in the face of suffering--nothing, according to Augustine, happens in this world that we do not deserve. Of course, in the technical or judicial sense Christians don't deserve punishment--Christ took all of that on the cross in our place. Yet, we also admit our guilt and that we deserve so much worse than we ever get because of our rebellion against a gracious and good God. To that end, Christians alone can claim simultaneous guilt and innocence, and so accept whatever comes our way with steadfast faith.

What I found particularly interesting in this chapter was the discussion of communal punishment along with individual suffering. "Accordingly this seems to me to be one principal reason why the good are chastised along with the wicked, when God is pleased to visit with temporal punishments the profligate manners of a community. They are punished together, not because they have spent an equally corrupt life but because the good as well as the wicked, though not equally with them, love this present life..."

What could be more anathema to the modern sensibility than this? Americans are so individualistic that we don't like to think of some people in a community (whether a majority or a minority) suffering because of the actions of others. If we aren't all equally guilty, we shouldn't all equally suffer. (Which on some level is silly and thoughtless on our part--among other things the Gospel is proof that an innocent can suffer because of the actions of the guilty.) Yet Augustine does not share that same individualistic view. Along with the explicit condemnation of sins of omission is the implicit assumption that individuals are united in a community that acts as an organic whole. Just as when I stub my toe my whole body hurts, so when one person in the city sins we all suffer the consequences to some degree. And lest we think of this as some kind of silly "We are the World" sentimentalism, we need to remember that pillage, murder, rape, and all the brutalities of war are under consideration.
As Collin Garbarino points out (sorry, I can't link to the Facebook post-you'll just have to join the group to see it!), Augustine is not a systematic thinker. He does not give us a detailed view of what makes up a community or a point-by-point explanation of why we all suffer for the sins of one in the style of an Aquinas or a Turretin. He just assumes and then makes his broader points about the nature of evil and suffering. Which I find frustrating when trying to teach this book, but I think it is ultimately much more satisfying when reading it devotionally.

Chapter 10:

We understand that as Christians we have a treasure greater than anything the world can offer. Whatever calamity befalls us or our community, the treasure we have in Christ cannot be lost. "They lost all they had." We can almost hear the scorn in Augustine's voice: "Their faith? Their godliness? The possessions of the hidden man of the heart, which in the sight of God are of great price? Did they lose these? For these are the wealth of Christians" Earthquake, famine, war, plague, imprisonment, persecution, suffering, and death, Christians can face all of these things with confidence because they cannot touch the true treasure that comes from being reconciled to God in Christ. (A good parallel from Augustine's own life can be found in this discussion of Augustine's Confessions.) Augustine here is simply echoing Paul, "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39)
In fact, through suffering we only draw nearer to Him who is sovereign over all the good and evil of the world and works all things for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28) "For," as Augustine says, "under these tortures no one lost Christ by confessing Him." Thus we hear the echos of 1 Peter 1:6-7: "In this [forgiveness through Christ] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than god, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"City of God" I.6-8

Chapter 6:
The Romans have seen something truly unique in the world--mercy shown in the name of religion. However much they may have liked to have seen it in their own history, in reality the true nature of war is that none are spared. By contrast, the shelter offered from the barbarians in the Christian meeting places shows that there is something radically different going on.

Chapter 7:
Again, we are encouraged to remember that every good thing in this world comes from God through the name of Christ for the benefit of Christians. That blessings fall on pagans as well is simply the overflow of God's kindness and mercy for His people. As Augustine says, "whoever does not see that this is to be attributed to the name of Christ, and to the Christian temper, is blind; whoever sees this and gives no praise, is ungrateful; whoever hinders any one from praising it, is mad." This is one component of the great Christian doctrine of "common grace."

Chapter 8:
In this common grace mercy, the opportunity to repent is extended to the whole world. This, however, is only one function of good and evil in the world--the larger function is the revelation of human nature. Good and evil alike act upon those who have believed the Gospel in such a way as to improve their character and show their faith, while those who reject the Gospel are made worse by both and confirmed in their sin.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"City of God" Day 2

Chapters 3-5: (with a dash of 1 and 2 thrown in)

The central theme here seems to be that the gods protect no one. How silly and empty then is the claim that Rome has been sacked because of unfaithfulness to the gods! In fact, what we see when we look at the relationship between the gods and the city that worships them is that it is the city who protects the gods, not the other way around. "Would it not be wiser to believe, not that Rome would never have fallen into so great a calamity had not they first perished, but rather that they would have perished long since had not Rome preserved them as long as she could?"

More specifically, Augustine reminds us of the worthlessness of idols, those gods which "with trembling hands/ He bears... The gods of her domestic shrines/ your country to your care consigns." These statues offer no safety to those who bow before them.

I was at a large-ish Wednesday night Bible study once (200+ people) going over a verse in the New Testament condemning idolatry. While I've forgotten which verse exactly it was, I have not forgotten that the study leader asked who in the room had been converted out of idol-worship. More than 20 people raised their hands, which I found surprising since in the modern world we tend to think of idols as those things ignorant savages bowed down to in the murky past. The study leader then went around the room and asked everyone very briefly to give an overview of how their view of idols had changed. Many of the people from non-Western nations talked about rejecting family worship and on occasion even throwing out family heirlooms. Those from Western nations (especially America) tended to talk about cheap trinkets and statues given by older relatives on important occasions. But all of them talked about the change from viewing the statues as reverential objects of religious power which offered protection and safety from a dangerous world to aspects of their former enmity with God that had been resolved on the cross.

The point of this seemingly-tangential story is that I think our immediate temptation on reading a passage like this in Augustine (or in the Bible, for that matter) is to allegorize it. Whether talking about idols specifically or pagan gods in general, we immediately want to jump to the question of "what are the modern 'idols/gods' that we worship?" And then talk about food or television or jobs or family or whatever. And while I think that is a legitimate application, I also think we've got to remember it's only ever a secondary application. The primary application is that idolatry and worship of the pagan gods are sins and to be repented of and rejected. Only once we've cleared that hurdle can we move on to the broader interpretation. (And in case you're wondering, yes, there are still pagans around even in America--to say nothing of the broad number of religions that still worship idols.)

Monday, January 6, 2014

"City of God" Day 1

While I do not plan to blog every day through the next year as the group reads City of God (I may not even do another one, we'll just have to see how the Spirit moves!), the first day's reading did give me a few thoughts that might be worth jotting down.

I promise nothing systematic, structured, or even necessarily coherent.

Preface:

A few notes from the Preface:

1) The city of God "lives by faith in this fleeting course of time." This of course points us to Hebrews 11, where we see that the source of Christian life is not ourselves or our works, but is our faith in Jesus Christ. As Americans we're used to thinking of this "faith" as an individual thing--and this is not necessarily completely wrong, since salvation is an affair for the individual alone. Augustine, however, reminds us that faith is also that which undergirds the city of God's people. I am saved by my own faith and not that one someone else, but the whole city of God into which I am drawn is a faith-based community (and I don't mean that in the empty way it's thrown around these days). Where the city of man is built upon lust and arrogance, the city of God exists by faith.
2) The city of God is founded upon grace, rather than upon human works. We see this when Augustine says that the distinctive mark of the city of God is humility, "which raises us, not by a quite human arrogance, but by a divine grace, above all earthly dignities that totter on this shifting scene." One visible characteristic of the city of God is humility, but this humility is founded not on human ability or righteousness (which would then be a matter of pride), but upon grace.
When we look for the city of God, we should spot it by its humility, but our glance should never stop at humility but should instead pass through that humility to the foundation of Divine grace upon which it is constructed. In other words, looking at a Christian or at a gathering of Christians should force the eyes of the observer to shift upwards to Christ.
3) The city of God is a pilgrim city, passing through this world as a "stranger in the midst of the ungodly." This carries with it two sub-points:
a) The city of God has a destination that is not a part of this world. We must never look for our ultimate fulfillment on earth, but must keep our eyes focused on our destination "in the fixed stability of the eternal seat," where we shall have "final victory and peace."
b) Lest this cause us to declare the world a "lost cause" and withdraw into splendid Christian isolation (a horrible thought for anyone who believes in indwelling sin!), we also see here that for now the city sojourns in the world. It exists "in the midst of the ungodly", so much so that when we speak of the city of God, we "must speak also of the earthly city." Reflecting on the salvation that comes by grace through Christ requires us to remember our sin from which we have been saved, and thinking about the city of God requires us to think about the city of man where it temporarily dwells. At no point does Augustine give us permission to wash our hands of worldly affairs and withdraw into Christian seclusion. 
Chapter 1:

1) The goodness of God to His people spills over onto the world, so that the whole world benefits from it. The city of man exists in the shelter of the city of God, just as the pagans who fled to Christian temples were spared because of the peace and security found there.
2) Such is the nature of sin that even when this mercy is clear and unobscured, when all can directly see the kindness of God to all mankind, the city of man persists in its rebellion. Augustine tells us that those who "ought... to give God thanks, and with sincere confession flee for refuge to his name" instead "in ungrateful pride and most impious madness... perversely oppose that name under which they fraudulently protected themselves for the sake of enjoying the light of this brief life."

Chapter 2:
The fact that so many were saved by fleeing to even the mere church buildings (and I've read enough Augustine to know that he doesn't confuse the building with the city of God) shows that there is something unique about the city of God. The normal order of the world is that the powerful crush the weak while their stand by impotently. This was true before the rise of Rome and is the way of the world now. There can be no salvation or safety under the pagan gods.

Just for Fun:

An Augustinian hymn:

By Faith
Words and Music by Stuart Townend, Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty

By faith we see the hand of God
In the light of creation's grand design
In the lives of those who prove His faithfulness
Who walk by faith and not by sight.

By faith our fathers roamed the earth
With the power of His promise in their hearts
Of a holy city built by God's own hand,
A place where peace and justice reign.

Chorus:
We will stand as children of the promise,
We will fix our eyes on Him, our soul's reward;
Till the race is finished and the work is done,
We'll walk by faith and not by sight.

By faith the prophets saw a day
When the longed-for Messiah would appeal,
With the power to break the chains of sin and death
And rise triumphant from the grave.

By faith the church was called to go
In the power of the Spirit to the lost,
To deliver captives and to preach good news,
In every corner of the earth.

Chorus

By faith this mountain shall be moved
And the power of the Gospel shall prevail,
For we know in Christ all things are possible,
For all who call upon His name.

Chorus.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Background Reading Suggestions for Augustine's "City of God"

Colin Garbarino has started a Facebook group for the purpose of reading through Augustine's monumental City of God over the next year. I do intend to try to keep up, but what with a very, very busy year ahead of me and all, I may not quite make it.

That said, I'm still excited about this (not least because there are something like 1,000 people involved in the Facebook group at this point!). I was an Ancient History/Classics minor in undergrad, and I am always delighted to be able to get back to that era whether in scholarship or in devotional reading. This project, of course, combines both.



To that end, I thought one of the small ways I might be able to draw on my background and contribute to the discussion (even before it's really begun) is by pointing out some resources that I have found helpful in thinking about the Augustine and the Early church in its Greek and Roman setting.

Not all of these books are for everyone, some require more background knowledge than others, and some are just difficult. So I've broken these books up into levels of difficulty (not length--some of the "beginner" books are quite long, while some of the "advanced" ones are fairly short). And I've kept these mostly historical, rather than theological or philosophical, because that's what I'm more familiar with.

Beginner:

The Christians as the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken (reviewed here). This is one of the best books about the ancient world I have ever read. Wilken is a clear and concise writer who knows his sources well and explains the complex ideas and events of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries with a delightful and engaging style. While Wilken does not carry the narrative through to Augsutine's time, this is essential reading for understanding the pagan views of Christianity that Augustine is arguing against in City of God.

The Early Church by Henry Chadwick. This is the standard introduction to church history and covers the major events in the history of the church from the time of the Apostles through the early 6th century.

How Rome Fell: The Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy gives the bare-bones narrative of the collapse of Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Goldsworthy is a skilled writer and historian and breaks down the complex and obscure events of the collapsing Roman state in a way that even a layman can understand and appreciate.

The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation by Arthur Ferrill. If you don't have time to read the lengthy Goldsworthy volume, Arthur Ferrill's The Fall of the Roman Empire is a shorter (and consequently less detailed) overview of the same events. Ferrill just gives the military details of Rome's collapse, and so this book lacks the subtlety and nuance of How Rome Fell, but all the necessary details are there to fill in the background to City of God.

Augustine of Hippo by Henry Chadwick. This is the standard short and simple biography of Augustine that touches on the major issues and details of Augustine's life. Chadwick is a fantastic writer, and this book is the biography to use as an intro to Augustine.

Augustine: A Very Short Introduction by Henry Chadwick. Exactly as the title says, this is a very short introduction to the life and thought of Augustine. Here, Chadwick further distills his biography of Augustine into the bare essentials. And yet for all its brevity, it is not shallow--Chadwick manages in a few pages to give both a detailed view of a psychologically complex man and all the essential facts of his life.

Intermediate:

Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition by Henry Chadwick. Like the Wilken book above, this book provides a background to the philosophical problems Augustine engages in City of God, rather than an analysis of Augustine himself. Specifically, Chadwick gives a brief overview of the interactions of Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen with the Greek philosophical tradition--all topics raised by Augustine.

Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown. Where Chadwick's biography is a good introduction, Brown's classic gives a thorough exploration of Augustine's life and times in the social and political setting of the Ancient World. While not specifically theological, this book really is necessary reading for all serious Augustine students.

Augustine for Armchair Theologians by Stephen Cooper. This is one of the best books in a series of very uneven quality (with the Luther volume being the best, so far anyway). And yet, it's not quite the place to begin reading about Augustine. Cooper assumes a bit more knowledge on the part of the reader than is probably warranted in what is supposed to be an introductory work. For all that, Augustine for Armchair Theologians does provide a good refresher if you've already been exposed to Augustine (much the same could be said of Augustine and his World by Andrew Knowles).

The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown gives an alternative to the traditional fall-of-Rome narrative, arguing that instead of a Gibbon-esque "decline and fall" (see below), the Western world underwent a slow transition/evolution into the time we now call the Middle ages. This book is an easy read, but I put it in the "intermediate" category simply because in order to engage Brown's arguments it's useful to have some introductory material under your belt already. Augustine, of course, is a key transitional figure in this evolutionary process.

Advanced:

Pagans and Christians by Robin Lane Fox. If you read only one book by Lane Fox, read his biography of Alexander the Great. But if you read another one, Pagans and Christians is a fascinating exploration of religion in the late Roman Empire. Rather than accepting the standard explanation that paganism was functionally dead by the time Christianity arose, Lane Fox argues that it was vital and vibrant and gave Christianity a real run for its money in the 4th century. From this perspective, City of God is one of the final blows in a battle that had been waging for three hundred years.

The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins. This book gives the details of Rome's fall from an archaeological point of view, and so makes the "advanced" category largely because it is such a slog to read. Don't get me wrong, the information here is fascinating, but at the end of the day it's still a book about how the distribution of pottery shards changed between the 4th and 5th centuries. Frankly, that's a topic which you've got to be pretty dedicated to get through. Nevertheless, it makes this list because of the detail it fills in for Augustine's theological narrative.

The End of the Ancient World and the Beginning of the Middle Ages by Ferdinand Lot. This series of lectures is a exploration of the events of the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries that brought about the end of Rome and the beginning of the Medieval order. Lot deals primarily with economics and politics rather than religion, which makes this work (along with Ward-Perkins) a good supplement to City of God.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. In an ideal world, every Politics and History major would have to read this behemoth in college. But, in a post-fall world, the best we can hope for is that some people will occasionally skim an abridged edition of Gibbon's masterpiece. While there is much here to disagree with, Gibbon's narrative is elegant, elevated, and thorough as he analyzes the events and causes of the fall of Rome. This first three volumes culminate in the destruction of the Western Empire and give extended attention to Augustine from an Enlightenment Secularist perspective. Whether we agree or disagree with Gibbon, we cannot ignore him.

Christianity and Classical Culture by Charles Norris Cochrane. If Wilken, Chadwick, and Brown are the writers to use as a foundation to the study of Augustine (and they are!), then Cochrane is the writer to use as a capstone. Cochrane syenthisizes the history and philosophy of the first five centuries AD beginning with the political thought of Augustus Caesar that attempted to unify the Roman world in an eternal political system and ending with the theology of Augustine's City of God that would explore the collapse of that system in the light of the eternal heavenly city founded in the Gospel and existing in this world by faith. Cochrane is a good writer, but his ideas are dense enough to make this book a significant amount of work to get through. It is, however, work that is immensely rewarding.

Bonus:

And, because there may be one or two of you out there who 1) have lots of spare time on your hands and 2) are borderline clinically insane and want to read more than one ancient document simultaneously, there are at least two primary sources that are interesting to read alongside Augustine:

Jerome: The cranky old translator of the Vulgate saw the same events as Augustine, but came to different conclusions, for if Rome can fall, what can stand? Jerome lacked the theological subtlety of an Augustine, but he more than made up for it in personality, assertiveness, and linguistic brilliance.

Salvian: This obscure writer was a younger contemporary of Augustine who lived in the south of France with a front-row view of the barbarian invasions and the steady destruction of the Western Roman Empire. Salvian, perhaps because of his location, comes to some much less optimistic conclusions about the disaster currently overwhelming Rome than the cheerful-by-comparison Augustine.

Supplement:
There are also quite a few books that I've heard good things about, but haven't read myself. So without further comment:

Augustine: A New Biography by James O'Donnell
The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History by James O'Donnell
Saint Augustine: A Life by Gary Willis
The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather
Empires and Barbarians by Peter Heather
The Fall of the Roman Empire by Michael Grant
Studies in Tertullian and Augustine by B.B. Warfield (I know, I know, I said mostly history, but this really is a worthwhile study of Augustine at least--the Tertullian essays are pretty dull. It's in the supplement section because I've read it, but it's not fundamentally historical in nature.)

And just for fun:

AUGUSTINE'S PHILOSOPHY
by B.B. Warfield
(not included in the volume listed above, which is fine since it's not a great poem)

"There is a place for everything,
In earth or sky or sea,
Where it may find its proper use
And of advantage be,"
Quoth Augustine, the saint.  
The mocker quick with curling lip:
"Then there's a place for vice
Yea fitly 'neath our trampling feet
May lie the cockatrice,"
Quoth Augustine, the saint. 
"Our very vices great and foul,
When in the earth they're trod
May haply lofty ladders build
On which to climb to God,:
Quoth Augustine, the saint. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Year Harmonizing the Gospels

For better or worse, I've spent a part of my daily devotional time over the last year reading a harmony of the Gospels. If you don't know, to "harmonize" the Gospels is to attempt to bring the different narratives in the four stories of Christ's life into a coherent whole--a "harmony", if you will. This is intended both to show that there is no actual conflict between our four sources for Jesus' life, and to give us a beginning-to-end picture of our Savior's life, death, and resurrection. So, I decided to take last year and integrate into my daily Bible reading a year-long harmony of the Gospels. (This one, to be precise.)

The result? Irritation, mostly. What I found was that reading one verse out of Matthew and then flipping to the same exact thing in Mark, and then (sometimes) again to Luke or John got distracting and disruptive fairly fast. I suspect that this is not so much a problem with the "harmony" idea as it is with stretching out a harmony over 365 days. After all, the Gospels themselves aren't that long (just over a hundred pages in English, depending on the translation), and reading the equivalent of one sentence at a time every day gets a bit wearing. Add in having to flip from book to book to read a sentence in each every day, and the result of a devotional time where as much time is spent looking for the chapter and verse as actually doing the reading.

So, I think that the end of the day I'd like to give a harmony of the Gospels another go, just not in this format. Maybe that will make a good summer reading project?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

We need those metaphysical abstractions too!

From Geerhardous Vos's sermon on Isaiah 57:15
Are there not many in our day who would stigmatize all that I have enumerated as the product of philosophy, which the sooner it is eliminated from the religious consciousness the better? We are invited to conceive of God under those aspects exclusively in which he is like ourselves; that is, possessed of the communicable or so-called ethical attributes. There and there alone we can know or understand and profit by (it) in a religious sense. Now if one thing is plain from the testimony of Isaiah it is this–that these so-called metaphysical abstractions lie at the very root of all religion, that there can be no living worship worthy of that name where these are ignored or neglected. Religion is love of God or a sense of dependence upon God but not entirely after the same manner as we cherish love for our fellow creatures or feel dependent on them in certain relations. Religion begins when we realize our dependence on the absolute, infinite being, the eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient God. What men are urged to discard, therefore, is precisely that element which differentiates a religious experience from any other state of mind. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean to say that the bare recognition of the greatness of God and the littleness of man is sufficient to produce true religion. For this the third element observed in Isaiah is indispensable–the element of joyous self-surrender to the greatness and sovereignty of God, whereby the creature feels uplifted and glorified. And this cannot enter until after the coal of fire has touched the lips and the consciousness of sin forgiven been imparted. When thus the soul inwardly delights in the infinite perfections of Jehovah, then and not until then is fear changed into reverence; or, as the prophet calls it, humility of spirit. But such worship (the highest flower of religion) it is impossible to cultivate where the perception of God's transcendent glory has been obscured. Religion may not be metaphysics, but there is a theology of the heart, the banishment of which means blight and starvation for all vital piety.
The whole sermon is available here.

Things I am willing to negotiate

In the spirit of the New Year, I've decided to be more of a "reach-out-to-the-other-side" kind of guy. Granted, that may not mean much since I don't actually know what the "spirit of the New Year" is, but I read a lot of Lovecraft, so I think I've got the gist of it.

Make resolutions or else!

Specifically, I've decided to put down a list of political positions I hold, but which I am willing to negotiate on. After all, one of the cornerstones of the American political system is compromise (or so I tell my class every semester, and I don't think I'm lying about that). "Compromise," however, is one of those things that is easy to say in theory but hard to nail down in practice, especially in an era of radical rhetoric and campaigns based on sticking to one's guns in the face of opposition. When every Congressional and Presidential candidate runs on a campaign platform of "cleaning up Washington in the name of our beloved American ideals", the fact that no one ultimately gets what they want can get lost in the verbal shuffle and we are increasingly less willing to give up what we want for ourselves.

Even more, while there are some issues on which it really is worthwhile to stick to our guns no matter what, even if/when we've lost the argument and been shunted into a minority position, there are any number of issues that are not worth this level of devotion. The problem is, because of the nature of both the political campaign and the way American media works (among other causes), it's very easy to confuse the issues which deserve our lasting support with those which are perhaps not worth the time and effort we put into them. We've lost the ability to tell the truly important things from those that are only of lesser concern.

To that end, I've listed below four political positions I hold which I am willing to barter in exchange for something else. That is, these are things I believe, but which I am willing to compromise on in exchange for someone else's doing the same thing. There are probably more than four, but these are what came up off the top of my head (if additional ones occur to me I'll add them in the comments).

[Note: I'm leaving aside the question of whether these are local, state, or national issues for the purposes of this post. And I'm also leaving aside the question of degrees of compromise, as well as most other points of nuance, mostly because I don't want this to turn into a 20,000 word manifesto.]

So, the compromise issues are:
1) Legalized marijuana.
2) The death penalty.
3) Socialized Healthcare. [Note: this is a trickier one, since Obamacare as it exists now is a sprawling and complicated affair that raises a whole host of other issues, and while I am opposed to parts of it--you know which ones--I'm not unwilling to talk about the idea of socialized healthcare in general. But I'd want something really, really big in exchange.]
4) "Under God" in the pledge.
Again, this is not a complete list.

What does this mean practically? Well, I think an exercise like this has two kinds of value. First, it can be useful to start a conversation from a position of negotiation rather than bluster. When my opening stance is "I'll surrender this point if you give me something else," we can have a political dialogue in a way that is simply impossible if my opening stance is "I will die on this--and every other hill--no matter what."

More than that, however, it's always a useful exercise to ask ourselves "how will I not be getting my way?" Self-restraint is not a common virtue of American citizens, and voluntary self-restraint is functionally unheard of. Regularly asking ourselves what we can set aside in the political realm over the next year can only help to generate humility, and we certainly could use a good dose of that!