Saturday, March 15, 2014

"City of God" V.26

Chapter 26:
As much as I hate to say it, at this point Augustine gives something of a whitewash of the life and reign of Theodosius. Don't get me wrong, Theodosius was by no means the worst emperor. For that matter, he wasn't even a bad one and should easily be ranked among Rome's greats. His reforms of the law were necessary, timely, and effective. His military victories and political consolidation of the Empire brought about the last moment of true unity that Rome would ever know. And by all accounts he was a genuinely devout Christian, even if he did some less-than-Christian things as Emperor. (But then again, haven't I done some less-than-Christian things as a professor?)

For example, Augustine praises Theodosius for showing kindness to Valentinian, even when he had him at his mercy and could have dispatched him. That to be certain is good! But then he praises Theodosius for consulting a hermit on the outcome of a battle. This is certainly not good, in fact it is the pagan practice of divination in all but name--that the hermit claimed the name of Christian in no way distinguishes this from the actions of Theodosius' pagan forebears as they consulted the Oracle or the Sybil. That as a consequence he melted down the statues of Jupiter is no proof of Divine favor, as Augustine has been highlighting so far in this book.

Augustine then praises Theodosius for sparing the children of the enemies he slew in battle--again, a worthy thing for a Christian ruler to do! "He did not permit private animosities to affect the treatment of any man after the war." All well and good, but also no different from the action of Julius Caesar as praised by Sallust. So far Theodosius has been a bit of a mixed bag.

Augustine points out that "the idols of the Gentiles he everywhere ordered to be overthrown, understanding well that not even terrestrial gifts are placed in the power of demons, but in that of the true God." The problem is, I'm not convinced that toppling the statues of false gods is a worthwhile pursuit for a Christian. It was suspect when the Christians did it to the Roman pagans in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, to the Scandinavian Pagans in the late Middle Ages, and to the Catholic pagans during the Reformation. Just as we do not really want people burning our Bibles (not that we worship the Good Book in the same way one might bow before a statue), the law of charity should govern even here. We ought to encourage folks to walk away from their statues and false religions, not drive them away by burning things down.

And of course there is the infamous incident of Thessalonika. In a fit of rage Theodosius had ordered this city destroyed and its inhabitants butchered after a riot killed the Roman governor. In response, Ambrose of Milan excommunicated the Emperor and ordered him to repent. Which, as Augustine points out, Theodosius did. So again, sort-of a mixed bag...

Theodosius believed, according to Augustine, that he had his position only because of Providence (which is true enough), and as a result strove to live a life worth of that particular calling. Whether or not this is actually reflective of Theodosius' beliefs and actions, the point is clear enough: if you find yourself as a Christian in a position of authority, you are to use it for the glory of God and not for yourself or for any worldly glory.

Augustine now believes that he has shown that all worldly goods and political power come from God alone, and are given to good and bad alike. "Of these works the reward is eternal happiness, of which God is the giver, though only to those who are sincerely pious.  But all other blessings and privileges of this life, as the world itself, light, air, earth, water, fruits, and the soul of man himself, his body, senses, mind, life, He lavishes on good and bad alike. And among these blessings is also to be reckoned the possession of an empire, whose extent He regulates according to the requirements of His providential government at various times. " Salvation alone comes to those who believe, everything else falls under the category of "common" grace. That is, grace which God gives indiscriminately to everyone regardless of the final state of their souls.

But what about the people who say that they don't care about heaven or hell, so long as they have the best this world has to offer? What we find is that such people are never truly happy, even when they get everything they say they want.
Wherefore, whoever he be who deems himself happy because of license to revile, he would be far happier if that were not allowed him at all; for he might all the while, laying aside empty boast, be contradicting those to whose views he is opposed by way of free consultation with them, and be listening, as it becomes him, honorably, gravely, candidly, to all that can be adduced by those whom he consults by friendly disputation.

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