The year was 410. King Alaric had just led his ruthless band of Visigoths into Rome, sacking the city. For the Romans this devastating event demanded interpretation. What had weakened mighty Rome and brought her to her knees? Why was she now being dominated after centuries of being the dominator?
The growing answer in many Roman minds was that Christianity was at fault. The Roman emperor Constantine had adopted Christianity just a century before, acting as both a confirmation of this growing faith and as an enormous catalyst for it. With Constantine’s official endorsement Christianity experienced explosive growth, leading to the eventual outlawing of the pagan gods. But many of the intellectual elites in Rome saw this as a dangerous betrayal of Rome’s roots, the cause of their present distress. Rome had been beaten to her knees, they argued, because the Romans had forsaken their gods and their founding political narrative.
Roman Christians, concerned for their weakened empire, sought to counter this alarmist pagan narrative. But they found themselves largely insufficient for the task. Such was the case for a prominent Roman official in North Africa. Marcellinus was a Christian who found himself in the corridors of cultural power and who asked Augustine to help him and other Christians refute the pagan narrative.
Augustine was a bishop in the region of Hippo in North Africa and would soon emerge as the most influential theological voice of the next millennium. For Augustine, as for the other Christians throughout the Roman Empire, Alaric’s attack demanded explanation. So Augustine reached for his pen and offered up an answer—City of God.
Written to defend Christianity during a time when society had begun to decry the faith, City of God is particularly timely for Christians living in the twenty-first century United States. Augustine gives us a towering example of what it means to live as Christians for the sake of our beleaguered city, even when—perhaps especially when—that city views us with suspicion. We close by noting four ways Augustine’s City of God can guide us today.
Exposing False Narratives
In the first third of City of God, Augustine devotes himself to exposing the deep incoherence of the pagan narrative. In relation to the pagan gods, he shows that the Romans never could decide which deities were actually in control and that the preeminent Roman historian of religion, Marcus Varro, didn’t really believe in the gods anyway. He surveys the Roman gods, exposing their immorality, injustice, and inability to save the Romans from disaster.
The Roman political narrative comes under similar fire. Augustine admires Virgil but notes that the mythical story of Romulus, Remus, and Rome’s founding (as told by Virgil) is actually a verdict against Rome. The pagan intellectuals viewed justice as the key to their history, but Augustine points to Virgil to say: “From the very beginning, Rome has been founded on a lust for power. Your pretention to justice was always simply a moral smokescreen.”
Augustine’s decision to attack the Roman system of religion, philosophy, and politics must not be interpreted as a petty lashing out. It was a fierce rejoinder but a calculated one. He sensed the inherent weaknesses of the Roman worldview and sought to “take the roof off” of it, allowing the realities of the external world to beat in upon the Romans as they stood naked and exposed before reality. Thus Augustine spent hundreds of pages revealing the inner inconsistencies and logical problems of the prevailing Roman view so they might be forced to seek ideological shelter elsewhere. They had to perceive the deep inadequacies of the Roman religious, philosophical, and political narrative so they would be existentially prepared to comprehend the adequacy of the biblical narrative. The Romans knew something was wrong when Alaric was at the city gates; Augustine wanted to show them that something had gone wrong—fatally wrong—far earlier.
From Augustine we learn the value of deep cultural exegesis. Augustine was only able to counter the Roman pagan narrative because he knew it intimately—better than most of his opponents. We must do the same, learning to read our cultural and political context if we wish to speak the gospel with prescience and contribute to the common good. And when we recognize that the reigning narrative of our culture leads not toward human flourishing but over a cliff of destruction, we must act in love by exposing the narrative for the lie that it is. The results of a faulty narrative are slow but certain. We dare not wait until Rome is burning to raise the alarm.
Proclaiming the True Story of the World
In the latter portion of City of God, Augustine traces the biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, arguing that this narrative explains the world better than the pagan Roman narrative. The biblical narrative, he says, simply has more explanatory power: it alone makes sense of the world. After systematically answering every challenge from within the Roman worldview, Augustine turns to the Bible to provide new questions, new categories, an entirely new framework. He has finished cross-examining his opponent’s witnesses and now clears his throat to make his own defense.
At the center of Augustine’s strategy is his “Two City” argument. For Augustine all of human society can be divided into two cities—the City of Man and the City of God. The two cities take center stage early on in the biblical narrative when Cain murders Abel. They provide the dramatic tension throughout the rest of Scripture. And they persist, Augustine argues, to the present day. On one side are the citizens of the City of Man, defined by the love of temporal things, ruled by idolatrous passions, and headed for ultimate destruction. On the other side are citizens of the City of God, defined by the love of an eternal kingdom, ruled by Christ, and headed toward eternal life.
Augustine wants to make abundantly clear that Christ and his church are not “part of” any other larger narrative. They are not actors on the stage of a grand Roman drama—not even the chief actors. The truth of the matter is exactly the opposite: Rome herself is only a minor character in the grand sweep of the history of Christ and his people. All of history centers on Christ and his people, rather than on Rome and her people. Despite all her grand conceptions of her worth, Rome was never as mighty as she believed. Her rise to power, her centuries of dominance, her precipitous downfall—all these were but peripheral scenes in a much greater story. Augustine invites his readers to believe in Christ, to follow the one who actually stands at the center of the greatest story ever told.
Augustine teaches us the significance of the Bible’s master narrative for our public-square interactions. The biblical narrative frames reality, which as we have argued throughout this book, puts all other stories in proper perspective. As Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen write,
If we really want to recover the authority of Scripture in our lives, then we urgently need to recover the Bible as a grand story that tells us of God’s ways with the world from creation to re-creation, from the garden of Eden to the new Jerusalem. Only thus will we see our way clear to indwell God’s story and relate it to all of life today.
Recognizing the Public Nature of Christianity
At the age of eighteen, Augustine discovered the writings of Cicero, which awakened in him the desire to become a philosopher. It was a winding road, spanning fourteen years and taking him from Manichaean dualism to skepticism, from skepticism to Neoplatonism, and ultimately, from Neoplatonism to Christianity. By the end of it, Augustine had read widely in Greco-Roman philosophy, theology, and history, and was more prepared than most to understand his cultural context and speak to it. In his writings Augustine drew upon Plato and Varro, Cicero and Virgil—easily and with authenticity, whenever he pleased. He employed Roman theological and philosophical vocabulary whenever it served his primary strategy of promoting Christ’s kingship and the common good. Having been a sincere pagan philosopher for years, he was fair-minded to his pagan opponents; he did not, for the most part, create straw men.
But Augustine was also a tireless proponent of the gospel, laboring as a pastor, theologian, apologist, and philosopher. He knew the biblical writings well, having saturated his thought in Scripture so thoroughly that he could show the internal coherence and superior beauty of the biblical story line from a variety of angles. He was always able to answer Rome’s most pressing questions within linguistic and conceptual categories familiar to them, but he never stopped there. He also introduced his Roman opponents to special revelation and, in so doing, bequeathed to them a different set of questions, a fuller set of categories to help them understand themselves and the world.
Augustine exemplified a coveted combination that was as rare in his day as it is in ours: he became a master student of both Scripture and his culture.
From Augustine, therefore, we learn the value of being prepared, when the time arises, to speak a timely word for the common good. Such a timely word must be informed not only by serious cultural exegesis but also by religiously informed argumentation. Cultural parlance can carry us only so far; and on certain issues, as we have seen, it can carry us quite a ways. But eventually we must publicly speak and argue as Christians. As we have shown throughout this book, the real question is not whether to bring our religious beliefs into politics but how to do so in a helpful rather than a harmful manner. This remains an indispensable question, no matter how difficult it is to answer.
Contrary to the views of its twenty-first-century cultured despisers, Christianity is not a liability to society. Of course, there are those persons who, like the Roman intellectuals of Augustine’s day, maintain that Christianity is pernicious. However, we take comfort in the fact that we are not the first generation to receive such scorn for the sake of Christ, and we respond with clarity and grace: Christianity is not a hindrance to public life but a great blessing. When Christians are true to their Lord, they are the salt of the earth, seasoning and preserving their society. We Christians should be, without qualification, the heart and strength of every good social effort. As an anonymous second-century apologist aptly said, “In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.”
Choosing Between Thick and Thin Discourse
Throughout our case studies we have seen Christians choose between thick and thin types of discourse. Should we speak with the thick discourse of Christian particularity, relying on Scripture to make our arguments, at the risk of being dismissed or misunderstood? Or should we speak the thin discourse of translation, using language that is less specifically Christian, at the risk of losing some of the distinctiveness of the particular point we are trying to make? Here, once again, Augustine tutors us as we bring Christianity to bear on the public square.
Augustine adapted his strategy depending on where, to whom, and on what he was discoursing. On the one hand, he was not averse to thin discourse as he sometimes made powerful, refined, and nuanced arguments that did not explicitly make use of special revelation. On the other hand, in City of God and other writings, he employed powerfully thick discourse as he spoke directly from the Scriptures. In the communication of his arguments, Augustine relied on wisdom to determine when to deploy thick or thin language. At times his readers could easily recognize the Christian moorings; at other times those foundations were subtler. We should practice a similar flexibility.
But make no mistake: Augustine’s construction and conceptualization of his views never sidelined special revelation and thick reasoning. He always wrote, thought, and argued as a Christian. As James K. A. Smith has argued, Augustine refused to circumscribe God’s grace to a “sacred” realm or reduce himself to hoping for a good natural ordering of society. Indeed, Augustine’s public theology rested on the bedrock theological framework in which grace restores nature. He recognized that there is only one realm, a realm that includes both nature and grace, both human reason and divine revelation.
Augustine understood Christ’s lordship to be as wide as creation and, therefore, as wide as public life. There was no truly secular realm for Augustine, no piece of life unaffected by the lordship of Christ. Every square inch of it belongs to Christ, and every square inch ought to be made to honor him. So whether the question at hand concerns invading Visigoths or suicide-assisting physicians, the death of an empire or the death of an unborn child, the political narrative of Virgil or the political narrative of the United States, the answer must always start at the same place: there is one Creator, one Savior, and one Lord.
There is still one God. And the United States, despite its flaws, is still “one nation under God.” That tiny phrase has proven contentious in recent years. For many it signals an arrogant and dangerous patriotism. But as Richard John Neuhaus writes, it should indicate the exact opposite:
To say that ours is a nation under God is both a statement of theological fact and of moral aspiration. As a theological fact, it is true of all nations. As a moral aspiration, it is markedly—although perhaps not singularly—true of the United States of America. To say that we are a nation under God means, first of all, that we are under Divine judgment. It is also a prayer that we may be under Providential care. It is not a statement of patriotic pride, although many may think it is, but of patriotic humility.
As we seek the good of our nation by faithfully applying Christianity to the public square, we must never forget that we stand under the watchful eye of God. Ours in not a specially chosen and beloved nation, but it is a nation under God. So we pray that the Lord would give us the grace and wisdom necessary to speak faithfully in our era. We pray that our witness may act as a preview of God’s kingdom, however temporary and imperfect. And we pray that God would give us the divine combination of humility and boldness only he can provide, so we would never tire in our efforts for our nation.
Modern political prophets will continue to debate whether our nation, in coming years, will experience global ascendance or imminent decline. They will, at times, point their accusing finger toward Christianity, calling it the scourge of American society. They will wonder aloud if the biblical narrative really has the power to explain the world around us. And as they do, we must, with Augustine, calmly and confidently proclaim the true story of the world. We have seen the final act, and it is good. It is very, very good.
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